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Vanlife Safety Tips for Extreme Heat

“Hot enough for you?” When summer weather starts to heat up, there’s always someone who will ask this question. Recently, extreme weather events have taken that question to unprecedented levels. Just how hot is hot enough? Well, weather deemed as extreme heat goes well beyond “hot enough” into the realm of actual “fry an egg on the sidewalk” heat.

extreme heat events are defined as high heat and humidity lasting for at least 2 to 3 days. These events have become a regular part of weather patterns throughout the US and Canada, with heat-related deaths steadily increasing. In 2023 alone, 1,300 people in the US died from heat-related causes.

Awareness is key to surviving an extreme heat event. In this article, I’ll give you everything you need to know to stay cool and survive this summer’s predicted weather.

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Who’s Most At Risk?

While heat-related illness (and even death) can affect anyone, certain groups are more vulnerable than others. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people over 65, young children, those with chronic conditions, athletes, pregnant women, and outdoor workers all share a higher-than-average risk of dying from extreme heat-related illnesses. If you fall into one of these categories, it’s crucial to take extra precautions and be aware of the signs of heat-related illnesses.

For older adults and young children, their bodies don’t regulate temperature as efficiently. People with chronic conditions may have compromised systems that make it harder to handle heat. Athletes and outdoor workers often face prolonged exposure and physical exertion, increasing their risk. Pregnant women need to be cautious as extreme heat can affect both them and their unborn child.

If you’re in one of these high-risk groups, it’s essential to stay hydrated, avoid the sun during peak hours, wear light clothing, and take regular breaks in cool environments. Recognizing the signs of heat-related illnesses, like dizziness, nausea, and rapid heartbeat, can be lifesaving.

Vanlife Cooling Tips – How To Keep Your Cool When It’s Hot

Vanlife usually takes us off-grid for extended periods, and there are some things we need to consider that others don’t.

1. Access to Weather Forecasts and Alerts

Having a home on wheels can sometimes allow you to avoid extreme weather events. If you know there is an extreme heat event predicted for your region or somewhere you plan to go, you might have the option of going elsewhere or at least planning for it. However, the key is being able to get a heads-up that extreme weather is headed your way. The NWS has a website designed to give you timely warnings about extreme heat events in all regions of the country. Click here to have a look at the Heat Risk website. However, if you’ve been living the vanlife for any amount of time, you’ll know that you can’t always depend on wifi or cell signals when you need them.

That’s where it’s good to have a backup. A NOAA wireless weather alert radio allows you to get government-issued alerts for extreme heat (and other weather-related events) wherever you are, even when you’re out of cell/wifi range. These little radios are inexpensive, don’t take up much space, and are well worth having on any trip.

2. Wear Cool, Loose-Fitting Clothing

Wearing cool, loose-fitting clothing helps your body stay cooler. Light-colored fabrics reflect heat and sunlight, while loose clothing allows better airflow. Avoid dark colors, which can absorb heat and make you feel hotter.

3. Avoid Dehydration: Bring Plenty of Potable Water for Each Person and Pet

Dehydration is a major factor in heat-related illness and death. It’s important to have access to plenty of drinkable water if you’re caught in an extreme weather event. That’s a minimum of 1 gallon per day for each person. If you camp with a pet, bring 1 ounce of water per pound of body weight for them, too.

An antimicrobial water filter is great to have on hand. These water filters are designed to filter impurities and bacteria from any water source. Another option is water purification tablets, which are easy to use and effective. For emergency situations, there are chlorine-based water purification drops specifically designed for making water safe to drink; follow the instructions carefully.

4. Have Electrolyte Balancing Drinks on Hand

Sweat causes fluid loss as well as the loss of electrolytes, such as sodium. This can result in headaches, stomach aches, and muscle cramps. It’s important to stay hydrated when the weather heats up by drinking plenty of water throughout the day. Drinking electrolyte-balancing drinks such as fruit juice, coconut water, or Gatorade every few hours through the day is a good idea. Drinking alcoholic beverages when it’s hot out is a bad idea, as alcohol causes dehydration.

5. Stay in the Shade

Shade can help cool the ambient temperature by several degrees. Pick a shady spot to camp, cover windows with reflective material, and use reflective shade cloth such as Aluminet to create shade where possible.

Extend your awning, open shade side windows, and turn on the overhead fan to circulate air and draw warm air out of the van.

6. Retreat to Air-Conditioned Spaces During the Day

If all else fails, retreat to an air-conditioned space. Extreme heat events are a good time to hang out in air-conditioned spaces such as campground community centers, gyms, public libraries, shopping malls, cafés, etc. If you happen to have an air-conditioned campervan, be sure it’s working before the heat wave arrives.

7. Don’t Leave Anyone, Including Pets, Children, and Everyone Else Unattended in Your Van

Never leave pets, children, or anyone else unattended in your van during extreme heat. Temperatures can rise rapidly, creating a dangerous and potentially fatal environment.

8. Make Sure Your Campervan is Road Trip Ready

Vehicle problems are never fun to have. They’re always worse when they surprise us on the road. However, having a breakdown on the side of the road during a heatwave can spell disaster. Where possible, avoid traveling during extreme heat.

Maintain your van to get it ready for hot weather:

  • Change oil regularly
  • Maintain your wheels and get alignments when needed
  • Keep up with scheduled maintenance
  • Check and maintain all fluid levels
  • Check tires for wear
  • Ensure tires are inflated to recommended levels
  • Check that your air conditioner is functioning and well-maintained.

9. Avoid Cooking Indoors

Cooking when it’s hot out is miserable. Cooking indoors heats the inside of your van, so having a camping stove that you can set up outside is a great option. To avoid having to cook as often, it’s a good idea to cook as much food as can safely be stored ahead of time. The early hours of the morning are usually the coolest, so it makes sense to get up earlier than usual during a heatwave to cook staples that you can eat later in the day.

10. Avoid Exercise

Exercise in the coolest hours of the early morning, or forgo it entirely.


Heat Exhaustion

Symptoms

  • Heavy sweating
  • Cold, pale, clammy skin
  • Fast, weak pulse
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Muscle cramps
  • Tiredness/weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Fainting

What To Do

  • Move to a cool place
  • Loosen clothes
  • Put cool wet clothes on your body or get into cool water
  • Sip water
  • Note the time of onset

When To Seek Medical Help

  • Symptoms last for more than an hour
  • Symptoms worsen
  • If you’re vomiting

Heat Stroke

Symptoms

  • High body temperature
  • Hot, red, dry, or damp skin
  • Fast, strong pulse
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Confusion
  • Passing out/loss of consciousness

What to Do

  • Call 911/transport to a hospital right away—heat stroke is a medical emergency
  • Move the patient to a cooler place
  • Help lower the patient’s temperature with cool clothes or by getting them into cool water

Heat Cramps

Symptoms

  • Heavy sweating during intense exercise
  • Painful muscle spasms

What to Do

  • Move to a cooler place
  • Drink water or a sports drink
  • Wait for cramps to go away—don’t resume activity

When to Seek Medical Help

  • Cramps persist for more than 1 hour
  • You’re on a low-sodium diet
  • You have heart problems

Keeping Pets Cool In Extreme Heat

Dogs and cats are susceptible to heat stroke and heat exhaustion too. If your pet is panting on a hot day, he’s probably releasing body heat. Dogs with short muzzles (bulldogs, boxers, pugs, and some mastiff breeds) are far more susceptible to overheating than dogs with longer muzzles.

Panting more than usual, declining to engage in a favorite activity, moving slower than usual, searching for shade, or digging for a cool spot can all mean a dog is hot. If your dog is exhibiting any of these signs, it may mean he is already too hot and you should take immediate steps to help him cool off. If your dog has had any of these symptoms and collapses or has cool, pale gums, you’ll need to get him cooled down immediately and to a veterinarian as soon as possible.

Ways to keep your dog cool in extreme heat

  • Exercise only in the coolest hours of the early morning
  • Give constant access to plenty of cool water
  • Keep your dog in a shaded area
  • Have him wear a cooling vest in the hottest part of the day
  • Never leave your dog in the van for any length of time on hot days.
  • Be aware that when it’s hot out, asphalt, rock, and concrete become very hot and tend to hold heat for hours. Walking your dog on any of these surfaces at any time but the coolest hours of the morning can cause severely burned pads.

Conclusion

Heat-related illnesses affect thousands and kill 1300 Americans per year. But heat related illness is almost always avoidable. Knowing how to stay safe when there’s an extreme heat event could save your life or the life of someone around you.

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