Surviving Extreme Heat & Power Outages

We’re to the part of the summer when the heat seems to be one of the big news stories. Conveniently, everyone seems to forget that it gets hot EVERY summer, so it makes good news.

Heat is not new.  Heat is not unique to the US.

Along with heat comes power outages, primarily from increased air conditioner use and it’s common to get local and regional brown-outs and black-outs…especially when wildfires start taking out power lines.

The media loves this time of year. They can interview hot people, talk about where power is out and when it will come back on, and talk about all the people dying and being hospitalized from the heat.  They use a hyperbolic focus on ordinary seasonal events to whip people into a frenzy and advance their agendas.

As our population and electrical infrastructure ages, this is going to be a bigger and bigger issue. Throw in a local or regional disaster, and it’s an issue that almost everyone needs to have a plan for.

I want to start with heat related deaths and say that for the most part, they are a creation of the media…but not totally.

It actually makes me mad when I hear talk about people dying from the heat. It’s not only inaccurate, but it plants the idea in people’s heads that they might die simply because it’s hot out–as if 100 degrees in NYC, Eugene, or Seattle, is that much worse than 120 degrees in Phoenix, Australia, or the Middle East.

In the majority of cases where people die from the heat in urban areas, the deaths are completely unnecessary and avoidable.  It’s much more accurate to say that these people died from a lack of knowledge, rather than from the heat and a power outage.

Do people die when it gets hot out? Yes, but ask anyone who has deployed to the sandbox, done manual labor throughout the summer, or the millions of people who live in Africa and the Middle East without air conditioning and they’ll tell you that hot weather alone won’t kill you.

Which begs the question,
why do more people die when it gets hot and air conditioning stops working?

In short, the problem isn’t with the heat as much as people’s inability to control their core body temperature.

One of the first signs of heat related issues is muscle cramping, although that is more of an issue for people who are exerting themselves and not for people who the media claims “died from the heatwave.”

As Alex Hutchinson points out in his book, “Endure,” People who were exerting themselves oftentimes have other things in play…they’re wearing clothes that don’t breathe and trap heat, they’ve got an illness making them hotter, and/or they’re taking amphetamine based drugs like adderall that suppress the body’s natural exertion governors.

The next stage is heat exhaustion, which is caused by low water and salt levels. It’s exactly what it sounds like…you feel exhausted because it’s hot. In addition, it’s normal to also have headaches, confusion, and cold, clammy skin.

If it’s not treated, the body can “stroke out and eventually die. At this stage, people don’t sweat anymore, their pulse is fast, they feel nauseous or vomit, they’re extremely confused and/or delirious, and may pass out.

It’s important to look for and recognize these signs, both in yourself and those around you. If you’re alone, you can take care of yourself if you’ve got cramps or early heat exhaustion, but if you let things go too far and get heat stroke, your survival depends on someone else finding you and helping you.

Here’s a few things you can do to influence how vulnerable you are to heat related illnesses and death during a temporary power outage:

First, we’ve got sweating. Our bodies rely, in large part, on sweat evaporating off of the skin to cool the body. You want to give the body the tools it needs to be able to sweat as it sees fit.

If you take medication that interferes with sweating or is a diuretic, then you’ll have a harder time sweating.  I took allergy medicines for several years that affected my ability to sweat and this is a fairly common issue.

If you don’t drink enough water, you won’t sweat as much as you need to.

The temperature of the water you drink is a hotly contested debate.  Sweating rates are influenced by the temperature of the brain AND the temperature of the stomach…so sipping hot tea may allow you to sweat more than sipping ice water.  It’s claimed that sipping ice water slows absorption, but there is very limited proof of this.  If we look at studies of extreme athletes (think Olympians, pro athletes, and tacletes) we see that sipping cold liquids…or even slushies…has a net positive impact.  If you’re concerned about drinking cold fluids causing you to sweat less, simply get some water on your head/body/clothes so you get the cooling benefits of sweat, regardless of whether or not you’re actually sweating.

If you consume sugar, caffeine, or alcohol, you will need to drink more water or you won’t sweat as much as you need to.

Your sweat contains salt and minerals. If you don’t replace them, your body will enter a low salt state called hyponatremia. When you’re in this state, you feel like you want to die because of something called hyponatremic encephalopathy, or swelling of the brain. I would gladly have the worst flu conditions that I’ve ever had for a week than hyponatremia for a day.  I’ve had it way too many times…two notable times being once on Mt. Elbert at 13,000-14,000 feet because I took caffeine pills earlier in the day and once on an “easy” solo backpacking trip on Wheeler Peak at 11,500 because I drank too much and ate too little.

All of these factors are more pronounced for the extremely young, extremely old, and people who are chronically ill.

Second, you can make yourself more resilient to heat by simply keeping your house warmer when you use AC. It may not seem like much, but your body will be able to handle 100+ degree temperatures much easier if it is used to 74, 76, or 78 degrees than if you keep it at 68 or even 72 degrees.

It takes a few days to a week for your circulatory system, breathing, and sweat glands to fully acclimate to high temperatures.  If you’re constantly telling your body that “normal” is 68 degrees, then it simply won’t be able to adapt to extreme temperatures very quickly. But even if your body IS used to 68 degree weather and you get an extended power outage, keep in mind that your body will quickly adapt to the higher temperatures over a few days…and the National Athletic Trainers’ Association recommends 2 weeks of acclimatization before full speed activity.

Personally, we keep our house between 74 and 76 during the summer so that we can run easier in 100+ degree weather and so that our kids can play in 100+ degree temperatures without thinking it’s too hot to play.

There’s also a benefit of lower utility costs, but the biggest benefit is the freedom that it gives us by not being “prisoners” to air conditioning.

Over the years, I’ve made it a point to try to run during the hottest times of the day. It isn’t all that bad, simply because my body is not used to 68 degree air and I give it the raw materials it needs (water, salts, minerals) to cool itself. In addition, I wear loose clothes and soak my clothes with a hose before starting my runs. I also carry a camelback with me that I fill with water to drink on my run.  (Just being used to sitting/existing in warmer conditions is good…exerting yourself lightly for a few minutes at a time in hot conditions causes the body to start major adaptations within 2-3 days.)

Heat and humidity can lower pace by half or more, and I want to squeeze as much performance out of every beat of my heart as possible.  By taking these extra steps to cool my body while running, I’m able to run at a faster pace while maintaining my target heartrate.

Third, influence your environment. It’s pretty obvious that if you’re stuck in a 100 degree house with the electricity off that you shouldn’t wear a winter coat.

Even so, many people don’t take the next logical step of wearing as few lightweight breathable clothes as possible.  In 2010, U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine identified this as one of the 3 main reasons why people were more likely to get heat stroke.

If you’ve got water and lightweight breathable clothes, the next thing that you want to do is get them damp so that your body doesn’t have to sweat to get the benefits of evaporative cooling.

Any time you feel uncomfortably hot and realize that your skin is dry, you should both drink water and get your skin damp.

If you’re moving around, that’s great because you will be creating airflow that will increase evaporation. If you have to sit, try to sit in a chair that exposes as much of you as possible to air. A good example of this is a wicker chair.

Unless it’s a lot hotter outside than inside, open windows so that you get a breeze.

If you have access to water that’s cooler than 98 degrees, take a bath or shower. Water conducts heat away from the body 27-30 times faster than air and can help you get your core temperature down quickly.

If you have access to ice, bag some up and put it inside of your shirt.

If you live in an area that gets to temperatures that you consider to be “dangerously” hot, invest in some batteries and DC fans.

You can get low power 12 volt fans from Amazon or Radio Shack for $10-$60. When combined with moist skin, they can cool you off very quickly.

Direct air from the fan is helpful…putting a thin, wet muslin sheet between you and the fan is even better.

Prescriptions.  One of the biggest factors in heat related deaths among youth athletes is that they were on prescription medications that impacted their ability to sense heat or sweat and they didn’t do anything extra to compensate.  What’s that mean?  It means that if someone needs certain classes of prescription medications like ADHD medication, some anti-depressants, and some allergy/decongestant medications, they need to do MORE to maintain a healthy body temperature than everyone else around them in order to keep their body at a healthy temperature.  Taking this one level deeper, they need to do more to maintain a healthy body temperature as a discipline rather than listening to internal cues that would help them if they weren’t taking the medications.

Powering items during power outages.

And what about powering stuff? Whether it’s power for medical equipment, for cash registers and credit card processing, for computers, or just to run fans, having power during a short term power outage can mean the difference between a minor interruption and a disaster.  I’ve written about this a few times in the past, and I go into detail on the subject in the Urban Survival Course (Which is included with Upgraded Shooter >HERE<, but here are a few quick-n-dirty tips.

One of the simplest things, although not necessarily the cheapest, that you can do is buy a few 6 volt golf cart batteries and a properly sized inverter. Golf cart batteries are about the same size as car batteries, but they’re made to run things for a long time where a car battery is only designed to start your car for a few seconds and then get immediately recharged. This will allow you to run or charge both 12 volt and 120 volt items, including refrigerators (in the summer), medical items, fans, computers, well pumps, and a fireplace blower (in the winter).  Look for a wholesale battery company in your area and you’re likely to be able to buy best-of-the-best batteries (Trojan) for about the same price as the “normal” deep cycle batteries you can get at Costco.  Lithium-x batteries are going to take the place of wet batteries, but I think they’re still a couple years out.

You can scale this up as your needs dictate and your finances allow, but I suggest buying batteries in sets of 2 and never mixing batteries of different ages.

You can also scale this up by adding solar, wind, or hand/foot crank generators to the mix to recharge the batteries.

What about gun training during the heat?

With training tools like >THIS< you can stay inside and make more improvement in less time with less effort than your buddies who are suffering through outdoor training in the heat.

If you’re in one of the areas being impacted by the summer heat and power outages, what have you done to minimize the inconvenience? What lessons have you learned that you could apply to a medium to long term power outage? Do you have any kind of power backups in place? If so, what kind? Share your thoughts and answers by commenting below.

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  • Robert Burkhalter

    Reply Reply August 17, 2023

    In one of Paul Bragg’s books he documents a test he did with some Stanford athletes in the desert. during the 12 hour test, all he consumed was distilled water. The athletes drank their energy drinks, ate food, consumed salt tablets. When it was all over, and some of the athletes had collapsed and had to be bussed out, Bragg had some blood tests run. From this he concluded that under normal conditions, the human body only loses EXCESS salt, so salt tablets are unnecessary.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply August 18, 2023

      That would be interesting to read about, but I’m not sure it tells us anything. Very generally, osmosis causes salts to move from cells with high concentration to cells with low concentrations. When we add distilled water to the system without adding salts at the same time, it lowers levels in the body…at an extreme causing hyponatremia. There is a range of acceptable levels in the body and the fact that he was OK only consuming distilled water tells me that his sodium levels were high enough initially that they never dropped to a level that the brain saw as a threat.

      As to the athletes…some world class athletes are not heat-adapted. Their experience could have been from drinking crap energy drinks that caused blood sugar spikes and insulin responses, their food could have been too complex for their body to digest because of heat + exertion, and they could have taken too many salt tablets or not enough magnesium/potassium/calcium. If the energy drinks were sugar-loaded, they would have probably caused excess urination. Artificial sweeteners irritate a lot of people’s bladders and cause excess urination. Energy drinks with caffeine cause urination.

      I do agree with him that in a lot of cases, clean water is the best thing to drink, but in most cases distilled and RO water will work better if it is re-fortified with minerals.

  • Bailey

    Reply Reply August 16, 2023

    Good advice, linesman have to take breaks when wearing rubber gloves and sleeves while working on high voltage powerlines. frequent breaks, plenty of water can make the difference in judgement as well to keep one safe in the heat.

  • oldseabee

    Reply Reply June 28, 2021

    One thing I have always relied on when working in very hot temps, was something I learned in the jungles of Panama. Take a towel, roll it up, put it around your neck, cross it over, and stick it down your shirt. In hot,humid weather,it will get plenty wet on its own from sweating. Getting it wet beforehand will hasten the process.At that point, any little breeze that hits you feels like a/c,and helps to cool the blood in the arteries going to the brain.

  • Tim Eby

    Reply Reply July 21, 2019

    Last year a friend sent me an Australian Chiller Hat. You soak it in water, or at least get it wet, and it keeps your head cool to a remarkable degree. I’m not advertising them, just advising that such an effective hat is available. If your head is cool, the rest of you stays more cool, too.
    It make you look like an Aussie, but Aussies are good people!

    • Ron

      Reply Reply July 22, 2019

      Just picked up a few of these for the family:
      Work great! We’re just ending a heat wave here and with only one 5K BTU A/C the house was getting too hot – I’d normally put a second one in but we are moving tomorrow and I was holding off. Anyways the cooling towel is working great for lawn mowing and a bit of car repair too 🙂 .

  • adam

    Reply Reply July 21, 2019

    I have a 1750 inverter that I use during power outages. I turn off the main breaker in the house and all 240 breakers. a jumper plugged into an outside outlet will power half my breaker box, including fridge, and about half the lights. Usually in winter, so I have gas heat. Outside outlet near power pole (pre house main) lets me know when the power comes back on with a light.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply July 22, 2019

      If you do that, you really need to make sure that you have a transfer switch for your main panel or sub-panel so that there’s no chance of back-feeding electricity and electrocuting a utility worker.

      • Julie

        Reply Reply July 23, 2019

        He clearly said he turns off the main breaker. As long as you do that, you do NOT need a transfer switch.

        • Ox

          Reply Reply July 24, 2019

          I understand why you might say that…and it makes perfect sense…but it’s not correct. What I would suggest is that you don’t believe what I say or what you’ve been told before and call your electric company and find out what they tell you you should do. In addition, there are 2 other calls that you may want to make…one to your homeowner’s insurance company and the other to a prosecutor in your local DA’s office. If all 3 of them agree with you that you would not have any additional danger or liability by using your main breaker instead of a transfer switch, then it may be OK where you live. If I had to put a number on it, I’d guess that in 99% of the country, all 3 are going to tell you that it’s more dangerous, may void or limit your insurance, and possibly illegal, to use your main breaker and back-feed your house with a generator.

  • MikeyW

    Reply Reply July 21, 2019

    Unless it is a wide-area outage, go to the movies or the mall and take advantage of their air-conditioning. Even driving around in an air-conditioned car for half an hour can be a great mood booster. For long-term outages, learn to adapt in the ways you pointed out in your article. That’s the way we did it when I was a kid and only rich people had air conditioners.

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