Sand dunes in the Gran Desierto de Altar in Mexico, which is part of the Sonoran Desert. This desert extends into Southern California and also across parts of Arizona and Northern Mexico.
Strategies for dealing with temperatures over 100 degrees (38 degrees Celsius)
Having lived in the Mojave Desert for six months, including during the majority of one summer, plus having visited California's deserts many other times, in addition to living most of the time since 1988 where it has topped 110 degrees (43 C) a few times, has given me a lot of practice with living in and dealing with very hot temperatures.
In the past I didn't do well in heat, although certain strategies have helped me to do much better. I wrote this article for those who may shudder at the thought of temperatures so high, especially those who aren't accustomed to it but may need to know what to do to prepare for it – such as for an upcoming move, business trip, or vacation.
The highest temperature I've experienced is 117 degrees (47 C) in Palm Desert, California during the summer of 2012. I've also experienced 116 degrees at the Colorado River (border of California and Arizona) during a week in which I camped with a scout troop when I was a teenager. And once it reached 115 degrees in my home town of Corona, California. It was humid that day, and was therefore the worst heat I've ever been in.
I have the rather dubious distinction of also having lived where it gets below zero (below minus 18 C) in Michigan, so I've been forced to learn to deal with both extremes.
The goal of this article is to help you to do well, not just to survive.
Humid heat versus dry heat
Be aware of the heat index rather than just what the thermometer says
It’s not true that deserts are always dry. However, they are usually dry. Heat mixed with humidity feels and affects us a lot worse than the same temperature without moisture in the air. This is because our body’s mechanism for cooling, sweating, is greatly diminished in effectiveness.
When I lived in Michigan in summer 1999, I experienced temperatures near 100 degrees (38 C) with high levels of humidity also (around 70%). I know it’s even worse further south, such as in Texas or Florida.
The norm in Southern California is relative dryness, especially further inland where the deserts are located. Humid days do occur though, even in the desert, and the air can feel disgustingly thick and heavy.
This difference in how it feels, with dryness or humidity, is somewhat like wind chill with cold temperatures, where wind makes it feel even colder. When humidity is affecting heat, it is called the “heat index.” The heat index for the days in Lansing, Michigan that I described above were about 130 degrees (55 C).
A temperature of 100 degrees (38 C) and nearly 100% humidity (the air is nearly saturated with water) will feel nearly twice as hot compared with a temperature of 100 degrees (38 C) and near zero humidity.
There were days when I was in the Mojave Desert during summer 2012 in which the humidity was around 7% or even less, and it felt considerably worse on the occasional humid days when moist air came over the mountains and acted like a greenhouse for the Palm Springs and Yucca Valley areas.
Suggestions for dealing with heat
Drinking plenty of water is #1, although there's a lot more to know
Drinking water is so important that it is discussed separately below. Besides this, here are other things I do when I need to be out in the heat:
(1) Wear the color white. White exists when all color spectra are reflected away. Black exists when all colors are absorbed. The reflective nature of the color white means heat is also deflected, and you’ll feel a lot cooler with a white shirt versus a black shirt.
(2) Wear a hat. I wear baseball caps, my dad wears these Australian hats that make him look like Crocodile Dundee or Indiana Jones. Whatever you prefer, it will benefit you the most if it’s lighter in color, with white being the best for staying cool.
(3) Wear shorts, not pants. This should be obvious – you’ll feel worse if you unnecessarily wear more clothing.
(4) Wear sandals, not shoes. This might not be a good idea walking through the desert (thorns, rattlesnakes). However, making your feet cooler can help. You can also consider socks with a lower cut.
(5) Wear sunblock if you’ll be in the sun. These are designed to block the more harmful part of the ultra-violet radiation coming from the sun. They’re not a license to be in the sun as long as you feel like. They should be put everywhere skin is or could be exposed, and should be reapplied periodically. Don’t get it in your eyes. Sweat can cause it to get in your eyes, and it can sting and burn horribly (I’ve done it). Buy the highest SPF number you can find/afford. I try to find natural sunblocks to avoid potentially harmful artificial chemicals. One brand we’ve bought repeatedly is Thinksport.
(6) Get your head wet. If you’re able to, periodically get your head – or even more of you – wet to feel cooler. One method I use is filling my cap with water and then putting it on my head. I've done this since I was a little kid.
(7) Stay in the shade as much as possible. This should also be obvious – that you shouldn’t unnecessarily stay in the sun. If shade is available, take advantage of it.
(8) If you need to do things outdoors, try to plan it for morning or evening. When the sun is lower the temperature will be lower and all the problems with heat will be lower.
(9) Wear sunglasses. Your eyes can literally be damaged from too much bright sun. I find that too much brightness makes me feel physically worse, so sunglasses are a big help.
(10) Avoid strenuous activities as much as possible. The more you do physically, the more your internal temperature will rise, and the worse you’ll feel when it’s super hot outside.
(11) Wear clothes that fit loosely. In addition to wearing the color white (or other very light colors), looser clothing greatly helps with staying cool.
(12) Don’t ignore danger signs such as headache, nausea, dizziness, or fatigue. Illnesses from heat are real and they are serious. They kill people every year and are important to learn about. Take this seriously or you could have a very serious problem.
The health benefits of drinking plenty of water
Eradicating even mild dehydration will make you far healthier
Staying hydrated by drinking plenty of water is always critical, and even more so when you’re losing water due to heat and/or physical activity. And what you need is not sports drinks, energy drinks, sodas, tea, coffee, juices, or anything else except for plain, pure water.
Water needs to be properly balanced with salt and potassium for achieving optimum physical hydration. Chronic dehydration is a serious problem that is not taken seriously by the medical industry, who prefer to give out drugs for problems that often have underlying causes that can be figured out. One potential underlying cause of quite a few medical issues is chronic dehydration due to not drinking enough water each day.
Other things to know about water:
- Caffeinated drinks cause you to lose more water than how much is contained in the drinks.
- Our bodies are 60% water (at least), and it is potentially disastrous to ignore the importance of water and to instead focus on the other 40% of what we are composed of.
- Tap water is usually fine unless it’s known to have heavy metals such as lead or mercury in it. It tastes lousy due to chlorine, which is necessary to kill germs. Leave it in an open container for a half hour and the chlorine will evaporate away, and the water will taste a lot better.
I always have a water bottle with me, and you should too. I will often buy a bottle of water to drink when shopping at various stores.
I don’t drink anything but water now and it’s greatly helped me in many ways, including being able to handle heat better than ever. I would recommend to everyone to not drink anything except water.
Sand dunes in California's Death Valley National Park.
Death Valley, California
Death Valley National Park in California is the hottest place on Earth, with the record temperature being 134.6 degrees (57 C). I went there once, but it was in November and not super hot. This national park has a lot of really fantastic stuff. My favorite is Ubehebe Crater, which is part of an active volcanic field.
Every year people try to visit during the summer to see what such high temperatures feel like. Some literally don't survive. Some car companies drive their vehicles through in the summer to test the cooling systems of their vehicles.
You have your freedom of choice of course, but I’d recommend avoiding Death Valley between May and September, although temperatures over 100 degrees (37 C) can occur in March and April as well.