Image: Hot weather
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Tourists cool themselves off in a fountain on the grounds of the Washington Monument.
By contributor
updated 8/16/2007 7:09:14 PM ET 2007-08-16T23:09:14

The weather  outside is frightful.

No, this isn’t just a line from “Let It Snow.” It applies to summer, too.

Whether it’s the result of global warming, or dry air, or moist air mixed with a high-pressure system, or hot air from Capitol Hill, baby, it’s not cold outside. It’s toasty.

While it’s an American tradition to take summer vacations, it’s also a universal challenge to cope with the heat. It’s not getting any cooler, folks, which means all of us need to become smarter and more vigilant about protecting ourselves on trips.

Summer vacations can be a blast, but they’re no fun if some family members are stricken with sunburn or other heat-related problems. So here are some tips for handling life in the human roasting pan that is summer in much of the U.S.

Many of these suggestions come under the heading of “Duh!” But even ideas rooted in common sense need to be repeated often. After all, you have a lot on your “To Do” list before a big family trip. You can’t think of everything:

Hydrate: It may seem like a no-brainer to bring water on a trip through a hot climate, but frankly most people don’t bring enough. To be safe, figure on one gallon per person per day. You may only sip on it and not go through that much, but if there are any car-related problems or delays you’ll be happy you brought it, and it will help prevent dehydration and other heat-related illnesses. Sports drinks are OK also, but use them as a supplement to water, not a replacement for it. Also, cool it on the coffee, tea and other caffeinated drinks, and alcohol. They tend to contribute to dehydration. You will wind up needing to drink two cups of non-caffeinated or non-alcoholic drinks (again, water) to compensate for every cup of caffeinated or alcoholic drinks.

One red flag: If you notice that you’re not going to the bathroom as often as you usually do, then you’re probably not getting enough water. Also, force (gently) the kids to drink. If they only take a sip or two when you ask them to drink water, drag them over (gently) to a cool, shady area and encourage them (gently) to consume a little more.

Shade the sun: This is especially important when traveling with kids. Kids who are under six months old should never be in direct sunlight. And don’t rub sunscreen on them, either, because it may not be safe (many sunscreens suggest on their labels to consult a doctor before doing so).

Instead, cover them up with light clothing, a hat, and some sort of protective covering like an umbrella, parasol, car shade, etc. (That may seem like common sense, but sometimes parents get so distracted on a trip that they fail to notice a breach in the system.) Even with toddlers and preschoolers, use a sunscreen of at least SPF 15 and cover them with light clothing, hats with a brim and even sunglasses. When rubbing sunscreen on a child, make sure to cover every exposed area, including feet, hands, lips, noses and ears. And repeat the process every two hours; one coat of sunscreen won’t last an entire day.

After you smear the kids with sunscreen, do yourself a favor and do the same. Always use at least SPF 15, apply liberally to all exposed areas about 20 minutes before going out in the sun, and reapply after swimming or toweling off. Remember, too, that just because it’s overcast doesn’t mean you’re safe; the sun’s rays are still burning through.

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Dress for less excess: Synthetic fibers won’t allow your skin to breathe. They trap heat between clothing and skin. You’ll do better with cotton or linen. They’re more natural and they let air through. Also, wear light colors instead of dark, which tend to absorb heat.

As for footwear, you want to try and plan on two pairs of shoes per day. One pair will inevitably become wet with perspiration and cause discomfort and perhaps even blisters; this way, you can switch off to a dry pair. Try not to wear sandals for daily use, because you’re opening up your feet to more exposure to the sun (assuming you forgot to apply regular coats of sunscreen) as well as insect bites.

Top everything off with a hat or scarf, preferably made of a light-colored material that protects from the sun but also breathes, to protect the head and neck.

Eat to beat the heat: If you’re all right with salt, then eat salty snacks like chips and pretzels. The salt will help you retain fluids. For that matter, anything with a high salt content like olives or pickles will help. Again, only do so if you don’t have a salt issue and your doctor won’t flip out when you tell him how much salt you consumed on your family vacation.

Chomping on the occasional banana or downing a bottle of Gatorade will assist your body in replacing electrolytes, which can help reduce heat-related symptoms like headaches and nausea.

Avoid midday: When the sun is at its peak, so too are the dangers of heatstroke and other such maladies. That’s why it’s important that, if you’re planning a vacation in which the sun will be a major factor, you should schedule activities for early morning or late afternoon. Naturally, not all sightseeing venues comply with sun avoidance, but most of the time it shouldn’t be a problem. In the middle of the day, roughly between the hours of 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., try and seek refuge in air conditioning. Use that opportunity to take a long lunch in a cool indoor restaurant, or take in a midday matinee at the movie theaters. I once played 36 holes of golf in 115-degree heat. Believe me, the highlight of that day was the hour and a half lunch in the frigid coffee shop.

Seek refuge: You should do this anyway, but especially if you start to experience symptoms. If you and your family are at a national park, for instance, and the sun is especially strong, be cognizant of that and wander into the shade whenever possible. But if you experience dizziness or nausea, or feel faint or light-headed, dash over to a shady area and sit or lie down. It helps to cool yourself down by wiping your head, neck, face and arms and legs with a wet cloth.

Naturally, if this doesn’t help, seek medical assistance. But just use common sense: If you know enough to come in out of the rain, you should also know enough to duck out of direct, oppressive sunlight.

Get a cool car: No, I don’t mean a vintage Shelby Mustang. Dark colors absorb heat, light colors reflect it. If you’re renting a car, van or camper, it helps if you can get one that is white or light-colored, with white or light-colored interior. It will make several degrees difference in your vacation experience.

Also, you don’t want to overheat the engine. By all means use your air-conditioning. However, if you’re in situations that may tax the engine and the air-conditioning — driving up a long steep grade, for instance, or being stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for a period of time — then try and go without it for a while. If not, you may overheat the engine and become one of those glum vacation families on the side of the road waiting for a tow truck while fanning themselves.

Pet peeves: Here is one of my biggest ones: People who don’t understand that pets are more vulnerable to heat than humans. That goes for dogs especially, because they don’t perspire like humans and panting is not an effective way for them to cope with excessive heat. To protect them from heat, make sure they have plenty of cool water to drink at regular intervals during your trip. And make sure it’s bottled water that you bring, not local water from a tap, which may be strange to their systems and cause them problems. Don’t let them outside for more than a few minutes in weather above 90 degrees. And never, ever leave them in a car while you go somewhere; if it’s 70 or 80 degrees outside, it can get to be 100 degrees inside a car quickly.

There are lots of other rules about traveling with pets outside the area of heat, so do your homework before traveling. But as far as keeping your pet cool, these are the bare basics. And while this may seem like it goes without saying, don’t ever leave children in a hot car, either, not even for a few minutes. The heat can quickly soar inside a parked car beyond danger levels.

System maintenance: Going easy on your air-conditioning is one way to make sure the engine in your car doesn’t overheat. But it helps, too, that before you begin your trip you make sure to check the coolant level in your engine. Trust me, I know: I recently blew an engine because the coolant light on my dashboard kept coming on. Even though I responded by calling my mechanic right away and following his advice to replace the coolant, the light came on again before long. As it turns out, there was a leak in the coolant system. Before I knew it, the engine overheated and was ruined. Don’t let that happen to you. Have a mechanic check out the coolant levels and the system itself. It may be time to have your coolant system flushed and refilled. You want to make sure and do this before a long trip. For that matter, have all your fluids in your vehicle checked — transmission, brake, power steering, windshield wiper, oil. But coolant is key before a hot trip.

If you've screwd up ...: Yes, sometimes you think you’ve taken all the proper precautions and yet you falter, let your guard down one day and end up looking like a beet with legs. If that happens, don’t panic. Most sunburn is a first-degree burn and can be treated with aloe, or over-the-counter hydrocortisone creams, or a cool bath. Most important, stay out of the sun for a while. If you’ve really scorched yourself, you may have a second-degree burn, in which case you’ll need to see a medical professional. But try to take it easy in the heat in the first place and you won’t become a burn-ward patient.

Michael Ventre is a contributor to and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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