Preventing Heat-Related Illnesses During Outdoor Education

Girl wearing a hat and sunglasses

The beautiful spring and summer weather make it easy to get outside and explore. If you live in a place where it is winter for a large part of the year, the warm weather and sunshine make it hard not to spend all of your time outside. However, as inviting as the sun is, it can be dangerous. Sunburn, heat exhaustion, and dehydration are all aspects of summer that we need to keep in the back of our minds when creating our risk management plan for outdoor exploration and adventures. Heat-related illnesses are preventable and don’t need to ruin your outdoor fun. Keep reading for tips on preventing heat-related illnesses, such as sunburns and heat exhaustion, during outdoor education. 

The Basics of Heat-Related Illnesses


Sunburns occur when we don’t protect our skin from the UV rays from the sun. Sunburn results in red, painful patches of skin and sometimes even blisters. Additionally, repeated exposure to UV light and sunburn can put people at greater risk of skin cancers. UV damage can also cause skin to become wrinkly, dry, and age more quickly. You can expect your UV exposure to increase as the altitude increases. Water also reflects UV rays and can increase exposure. People who have fair skin are more prone to getting sunburns as they have less melanin in their skin for protection. However, all skin types can potentially burn if exposed to the sun for long enough.

Preventing Sunburns

There are many ways you can protect your students and your own skin from sunburns. For more info you can also read: Choosing Clothing for Spring and Summer Outdoor Education.

  1.  Hats: Hats, especially hats with a brim that goes all the way around like a “Tilley” style hat or “fishing” or “bucket” hat can protect face and ears from sunburns. Baseball caps can also keep the sun off of your face, but they leave your ears exposed.
  2. Protective Clothing: Wearing lightweight, long-sleeved clothing can protect the skin from sunburn.
  3. Sunscreen: Sunscreen is important for people with fair skin. There are many different types of both natural (mineral) sunscreens as well as chemical sunscreen. Any exposed skin should have sunscreen applied. I try to leave it up to families as to which sunscreen they would like to send for their children, however I also have a “family friendly” sunscreen available at school just in case. (Check out my post on what  I carry in my teacher bag here.) 
  4. Seeking Shelter: When the UV index is high, finding a shady space to play and explore will also protect your students from the rays of the sun. If there aren’t any natural sources of shade, consider taking beach umbrellas or a picnic shelter to provide some shade. 
  5. Know your UV index: Check you weather app and know when the UV index is going to be the highest. Stay out of the sun when it is the highest, usually between the hours of 10am and 4pm.
Treating Sunburns​
  • Sunburns can be extremely painful. In treating a sunburn you want to cool the skin to relieve some of the pain and inflamation.
  • Running cold water on the sunburn or taking a cool shower or bath can help to relieve the pain. 
  • Using aloe vera gel or moisturizer will help to cool and bring moisture back to the damaged skin.
  • Anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen can help to bring down the swelling.
  • Drink lots of water to rehydrate the body. 
Seek medical attention if:
  • The sunburn covers a large part of the body.
  • The sunburn has extensive blistering.
  • The sunburnt person has a high fever.
  • The sunburnt person is confused, lethargic, or disoriented.
boy wearing a hat standing in the forest

Heat Cramps, Heat Exhaustion, and Heat Stroke (Heat Related Illnesses)​

Many people get these 3 conditions confused and rightfully so. All of these conditions are caused when the temperatures are high, especially when they are accompanied by high humidity. However, it is important to be able to decipher between these 3 conditions as some require medical attention.

Heat Cramps: These are muscle spasms that occur when you are doing strenuous activities in the heat. These muscle spasms are generally caused by a loss of electrolytes or fluid.

Heat Exhaustion: Heat exhaustion is when the body starts to overheat. Symptoms include sweating and a rapid pulse. You may feel weak, nauseous, or faint. Heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke if not treated. 

Heat Stroke: This is a serious medical condition that requires immediate medical attention. It is caused by prolonged exposure to heat and a high body temperature. Symptoms include weak rapid pulse, rapid breathing, the body stops sweating, and extreme headache. 

Preventing Heat Cramps, Heat Exhaustion, and Heat Stroke

Fortunately, these heat-related illnesses are preventable with a bit of planning and preparation. 

  1. Stay hydrated.
  2. Don’t overdress: Dress in loose-fitting layers.
  3. Avoid strenuous activity during the hottest parts of the day.
  4. Seek shade or shelter if it is getting too hot

Treating Heat-Related Illnesses​

Heat Cramps: 
  • Stop the physical activity and rest.
  • Drink plenty of fluids with electrolytes.
  • Rub or massage the spasming muscle.
Heat Exhaustion: 
  • Stop all activity and rest.
  • Drink fluids.
  • Find a cool shady place or head inside.
Heat Stroke: 
  • Contact emergency medical services immediately.
  • Moved person into the shade or inside as soon as possible.
  • Remove any excess clothing.
  • Cool the person down using cool water, ice packs, wet towels, fans, etc.
girl wearing a hat and sunglasses


Dehydration occurs when your body uses more fluid than it takes in. The heat or strenuous activity can cause the body to use up fluids faster than normal. Having students bring a water bottle and keep themselves hydrated while outside is the best way to prevent dehydration. If you will be away from indoor facilities ensure that your students bring a water bottle with them so that they can stay hydrated. Do regular check-ins with your students to ensure that they are hydrated and feeling good! Dehydration is not a specific heat-related illness and can occur at any time. However, proper hydration is important in preventing heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. 

Be Safe, Preventing Heat-Related Illness While Getting Outside…

Don’t let the heat stop you from getting outside and enjoying the many benefits of outdoor learning. Preventing heat-related illnesses during outdoor education just takes common sense and some preparation. A bit of careful planning can make for safe and healthy outdoor exploration, even when it’s hot. As part of your risk management strategy, know when the hottest times of the day are and ensure that there is some shade where you are exploring. If it is way too hot and your students won’t be having any fun, stay indoors and save your outdoor time for when it is cooler. Prepare your students by teaching them what to wear, how to prevent sunburn, and having them bring a water bottle. These simple steps can help to avoid sunburns and heat-related illnesses during outdoor education time. 

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