As a soldier you need to be ready to deploy to anywhere in the world, often with little or no warning. That means being ready to deal with the climate, and these days it’s quite likely that climate will be hot and dry. A desert, in other words.
Deserts are famously difficult places to survive in, and even if you’re not lost on your own among the dunes, the climate can be uncomfortable, debilitating and dangerous. Just to make it worse, for military or security personnel, a lot of the standard advice for desert travelers just doesn’t work. Staying in the shade and not doing hard work during the hottest part of the day makes perfect sense, and it’s a rule you should follow whenever you can, but you’re not a tourist. You have a job to do and it needs to be done when it needs to be done. Let’s look at some tips you can apply at any time.
1. Wear a hat
Most of the time you’re going to have to wear your helmet. This isn’t great, because they’re heavy and trap body heat, but at least it’s a piece of headgear that covers most of your head. That’s vital because it protects your head from the sun. Don’t wear it unless you have to, though. Commanders, be aware of the issues helmets can cause and consider authorizing soft headgear any time there’s no imminent threat.
When you can wear soft headgear, go for a wide-brimmed hat instead of a baseball cap. The wide brim will reflect more light away from your head and upper body, as well as protecting your neck against sunburn. The issue boonie hat works well for this.
2. Keep your sleeves down
It sounds counter-intuitive, but keeping your sleeves rolled down (or wearing a long sleeve, wicking shirt) will help you stay cool. The cloth will reflect sunlight away from you; your skin will absorb more of it, especially as you tan. You might feel cooler for a couple of minutes after you roll your sleeves up, but the sun will be hammering your skin, heating it up – and in hot weather your body opens up the blood vessels near the skin in an effort to shed heat. Instead, the sun will be heating the blood even more, and it’ll carry that energy into your body core. That’s the last place you want it.
Rolled-down sleeves also protect against scratches and insect bites, which easily get infected in the desert. Just another reason to cover up.
3. Stay hydrated
Your body has two ways to dump excess heat. One is to move more blood out to the skin, where heat might be able to radiate away. The other is by sweating; the moisture on your skin draws off heat as it evaporates, cooling you down. Staying properly hydrated is essential for both of these. If you’re running low on moisture, your blood volume will fall – forcing your body to keep more of it in the core – and you’ll sweat less. Water can’t be wasted in the desert, but make sure you have enough – you need at least a gallon in your equipment. This is where hydration systems come in handy, because they let you take constant small sips instead of draining a whole bottle at a rest stop.
4. Take breaks
Whenever possible, take breaks to let your body cool down a bit. Add extra rally points to patrols, and allow at least five minutes in every hour for rest. Even if you’re stuck in the open, you’ll generate less heat sitting still than marching or shifting cases of MREs, and that will help keep your core temperature at a safe level.
5. Seek shade
Get out of the sun at every opportunity. Take every chance to stay in the shade, and shade with wind blowing through it is even better – you’ll feel the wind sucking the heat out of your sweaty uniform. Carry a poncho, pegs and a couple of light poles, and whenever the situation allows it, set up a shelter. It’s also handy when temperatures fall at night.
Your body will fight to keep your core temperature as close to normal as possible, but if it rises to 105°F or higher you’ll suffer from heatstroke. That can be fatal and will certainly knock you out of the fight, so be disciplined about heat management. Ignoring these tips might seem tempting – perhaps you’d rather rest an extra few minutes than put up a shelter, or you want to work on your tan – but it can land you in trouble very quickly.
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