Extreme Heat & Dehydration: Getting it wrong!
Riding To Survive
The MALI Ride
Riding and surviving a ride through any landscape with severe heat is no joke. We've learnt the heard way that the simplest miscaculation of fuel, terrain and water can be fatal. Yeah, and that's not said just to be dramatic. I sat down a little while to write up our travels through some of west Africa's most challenging regions...in truth my mind had done a spectacular job of hiding what I now remeber was oen of the toughest part of our early years. Looking back now, all I can think is "how could we get it so wrong?". The answer is simple. We didn't have a clue, adn the only thing that matched our ignorance of what we were about to tackle was out optimism. Enjoy the read.
Skip ahead to the How To Survive Section
Getting It Wrong - The Story
It’s 55 °C (131 f). We’re riding our loaded GS bikes at walking pace and the heat that’s washing over me from my engine which is running at 170° C (338° F) is horrendous. I feel like a boil-in-the bag-chicken. Christ, just breathing feels like I’m sipping air from a furnace.
In Senegal’s southeast corner we’ve been riding a stony cattle track through bush scrub for two days. Our crawling pace has gained us just 69 miles. We left Kedougdu with 40 litres of water; we have 4 litres remaining. We’re exhausted and my mouth feels like a bag of ass covered in dust.
Up ahead Lisa (my wife) is struggling as the front wheel of her F650GS is snatched hard to the right, bouncing off the coarse red rock of our laterite track. Both our bikes are fully fuelled, which is more than can be said for their riders.
Bikes used BMW 1999 R1100GS and BMW 2001 F650GS.
||R1100GS - Special
- Touratech 42-litre Desert Fuel tank.
- Aftermarket suspension front and rear.
- 2 x 10 litre pannier mounted water sacks.
- Touratech Zega Panniers.
- Dual air filter system
- Touratech hard part frame protectors.
- 30mm handlebar risers.
- Touratech 39-litre long-range fuel tank system.
- Touratech Zega pannier system.
- Aftermarket suspension front and rear.
- 30mm handle bar risers.
Getting It Wrong - The Story...Coninued
...Yesterday had been tough and we’d hoped that today wasn’t going to be worse.
Satadougou village sits just inside Mali and only 5 Km from where we’d camped last night. We’d pick up water there.
Was it the heat, dehydration, our inexperience, stupidity or had we just miss-read the map? Squeezing the brakes we pull to a stop, past a thicket of sandy scrub. My jaw’s on the tank and a knot of panic launches from my gut into my mouth. Neither Lisa nor I had interpreted the meandering Senegal/Mali border as a river
Walking the banks of the Falémé River it’s obvious there’s nowhere shallow enough for us to ford it. “Well there’s no sodding way I’m riding back the way we came” Lisa states adamantly.
At the bottom of the steep riverbank two ancient pirogues (dug out canoes) rests at the waters edge.
“Well there’s no way our bikes will fit in those” I blurt, as I look hopefully to Lisa for reassurance. “There’s got be another way across…right?”
“I have a boat, it’s OK for 1 ton!” exclaims the pirogue owner triumphantly in heavily accented African French. “That’s not a boat”! I murmur flatly. “It’s a hollowed out tree trunk”. Thirty minutes later and with no miracle solution in sight it’s decision time. Either ride back or grow a set and load the bikes and trust that this guy can get us across.
With the help of 4 local men from Satadougou, we load the bikes into the protesting pirogue and precariously paddle them across. On the far side we pay $2 USD, 3 crumpled cigarettes and a BMW key fob. I take a long slow hot breath of relief, my first in the 2 ½ hours the process has taken. The 10 litres of river water we’ve siphoned into our water bags will get us to the small village of Kenieba just 50 km’s farther north.
As we enter Satadougou Lisa F650GS exhaust note cracks the air like a machine gun; as if on cue Satadougou erupts in a rehearsed siege of collective excitement and euphoria as entire families launch themselves from the dark shelter of their twig and mud homes and charge us with hands outstretched. I’m awkwardly aware of the glaring contrast between our loud and high tech appearance, versus the National Geographic centre fold we’ve just ridden into. Like conquering heroes we’re chased to the village centre to frenzied cries of ‘cadeux, cadeux’ (present -gift). Everyone here thinks we’re part of the Dakar rally. My shallow little man ego can’t find reason enough to tell them otherwise and we exit the village a little taller then when we’d entered.
By early afternoon, the warm smiles of Satadougou seem a million miles away. The track has narrowed, the rocks are breeding, the heat is debilitating and I’m learning to hate my GPS, which is now just a reminder of exactly how little distance we’ve covered. We’ve crossed half a dozen dry riverbeds and negotiated countless very steep gullies. My concentration is waning and my balance is faltering.
Stopped to stretch our now cramping calves, Lisa, her head bowed, whispers her question “why didn’t we soak ourselves and our riding kit in the river to cool down?”
“ I didn’t even think about that” I confess, shaking my head, suddenly ashamed not to have recognised this now obvious cooling opportunity.
Amidst a sea of sun blonde tall grass there is no shade and we guzzle the water, not for a second thinking about keeping a reserve and assured that we’ll reach Kenieba a mere 30 KM farther north by afternoon.
My lips are parched, the waters gone and my mouth is drier than a dead dingo’s donger, to quote an aussie mate. My brains having a hard time processing the best route around the deep channels cut into the red ground during rainy season. Lisa’s already picked herself up after 3 heavy but slow spills. She’s not saying much.
Exhaustion is setting in and my hamstrings threaten to cramp each time I need to stand on the pegs. We’ve thought about stopping to camp but small bush fires are popping up and the thought of burning to death in our tent whilst we sleep isn’t really working for us!
Looking like a pair of beaten desert donkey’s we roll into Kenieba in late afternoon and for 5,000 CFA (£6) find a room with a dirty mattress on a concrete floor. In a small courtyard I sip a warm coke. Without warning my legs tighten and I’m gripped in a vice like pain as every sinew in both my legs spasm and contract so violently I’m panicked. Only with the help of two men who’ve rushed to help get me walking, do the cramps finally subside. These are the worst cramps I’ve ever experienced! Lisa and I have drunk two full glasses of water mixed with tablespoons of salt. In the corner of the dusty room our once black riding jackets are powder white and standing rigid upright on the floor, we’ve both lost so much salt through sweat that we’ve crystallized our riding gear. I didn’t know that was possible?
Today we started late; it took half the day just to rehydrate (Mistake 5). We’re north of Kenieba. The horizon’s been nothing more than a melted blur all day. The heat’s unrelenting, my thermometer reads 56.6 °C (134 f). It’s 6pm and we’re wobbling along a narrow track, squeezing our bikes between thickets of barbed thorny bushes. The 45 litres of water we’re carrying mean we’ve got an extra 45 kilos to deal with. We’ve downed 15 litres each today, neither of us need to piss, our throats are parched and we’ve stopped sweating. We’ve got to camp now and sleep.
I can’t remember what it’s like to be cool! It’s taken hours to make a just a few kilometres and the waters getting low, gain! At the bottom of a steep escarpment we find dappled shade under a lone acacia bush, it’s decision time. To our east, we can see the quickly rising narrow track that we’ll need to take, to reach Kassama. As exhausted and dehydrated as we are it looks like a cluster fuck waiting to happen and we’ve already got a ton of ‘shit-creek ‘action going on. I’ve got the energy of a wind-caught plastic bag and I don’t want to do this anymore! Our once dreamy bike adventure is backing us into a corner and snarling.
“We can’t risk getting stuck in those mountains” Lisa finally babbles. I grunt in agreement. We’ll head north to Bafaoulabe, for Christ sake it’s only 56 miles as the crow flies. By the side of the track I watch helpless, as Lisa, unable to think coherently sits on her bike, kills the ignition, drops her head and cries. We’ve got to keep going!
We made the decision to head north two days ago. On the outskirts of Bafoulabe, the smooth tar under our wheels feels strange, like the quiet before a storm. Without a village or a well in sight we’d ran out of water and resorted to drinking the brine from the cans of vegetables we were carrying. Cramps, nausea and hallucinations weren’t included in our dreams of adventure. Yesterday I’d stared blankly as I watched Santa Claus complete with his team of reindeer pull right past me on the track. Real enough to touch? Sure. Lisa, last night had mentioned she’d watched the odometer of her 650 run backwards whilst she sat stationary on her bike. Our kidneys ache like they’ve been hammered by Mike Tyson.
We’re lucky to have reached here and we know it. It’s taken us 4-days to ride 189 kilometers. Sat in a small café in town, never has a rusting ceiling fan and cold coke looked so good.
Mali’s Great Mosque of Djenne is the largest mud brick building in the world.
Desert Guide - The List of deserts we have ridden through:
1. Kalahari (ZA)
2. Namib (ZA)
3. Sahara (Africa)
4. Gobi (Mongolia)
5. Karakum (Turkmenistan)
6. Kyzyl Kum (Uzbek and Kasakh)
7. The Great Thar (India/Pakistan)
8. Atacama (Chile/Peru)
9. La Guajira (northern Colombia/Venezuela)
10. Monte (ARG)
11. Patagonian (ARG/Chile)
12. Sechura (Nazca) Peru
13. Chichuahuan (north Mexico)
14. Colorado (part of Sonoran desert)
15. Great Basin (US largest)
16. Mojave (US)
17. Sonoran (US)
18. The Great Victoria (Oz)
19. The Great Sandy (Oz)
20. The Simpson (Oz)
21. Nullarbor Desert (Oz)
23. Savador Dali (Bolivia)
24. Salar de Uyuni (Bolivian salt desert)
25. Great Karoo Desert (South Africa)
26. Little Karoo deserts (South Africa)
How To Survive
The rules when riding in high heat boil down to:
It’s a normal reaction when it’s hot to want to strip off and wear as little as possible. However, exposing your skin to air that’s hotter than you are will only increase your body temperature and make you feel worse.
The best way to keep from getting cooked is to keep your kit on. Your clothing will insulate your body from the hot air surrounding it. It’s important to keep your perspiring skin in the shade. Riding in a t-shirt will mean that with the combination of the sun and the hot air whipping over you, the cooling layer of perspiration on your skin will evaporate faster than your body can produce it.
Sounds crazy right? When you wearing a T-shirt or riding with exposed skin in hot temps, you going to reach a point of sever dehydration far sooner, as you body battles to effectively perspire enough to keep up with what being whipped off your skin. Keeping your riding gear on is more about making the best of a shitty scenario and dealing with the compromise of trying to maintain a manageable body temperature in relation to staving off chronic dehydration where you'll loose your faculties and end up in shit creek. We're not saying you'll be cooler keeping you kit on but your able to more effectively manage your bodies limited resources.
So, sure dependent on the air temp in a T-shirt, you might be cooler for a while but it's kind of like running your engine in the RPM red zone for prolonged periods, the engine will cope but it'll burn out that much faster. Riding in high temps is about maintaining a balance over the long haul not just staying cool in the short term.
Buy a light coloured riding suit, it will reflect the heat. Dark colours absorb heat and become hot.
Keep your boots on! Yeah, cowboy jokes aside, the sun, the ground and your engine all heat up your feet! Hot swollen feet make riding miserable.
Keep your helmet on. Apart from the obvious safety benefits of this piece of advice, helmets also provide more insulation against hot air and protect your head from the sun’s rays.
If you have it to spare, pour water on yourself and soak a bandana or scarf with water and tie it around your neck. As the water evaporates it will cool down the skin. More importantly the cooling bandana/scarf also micro chills the blood passing through the carotid artery in your neck on it’s way to your brain. In super hot temps keeping your brain tissue cool is key.
Note: If you are riding in an area with both high temperatures and high humidity, wetting your clothing is less effective as the high moisture levels in the air mean that evaporation takes longer. Between that and the fact that you’re sweating your ass off, it’s unlikely that the evaporation technique is going to be an efficient way to control your body temperature.
Check out the new cooling vest’s that are on the market. They all work using the same evaporative principles as the wetted neck scarf technique above. Hot air causes the water in the vest to evaporate and in turn draws heat away from the body. Remember for this to work you need to have good ventilation so mesh jackets are a good bet or a jacket with plenty of venting.
Don’t ride in cotton T-shirts. Base layers aren’t just for wannabe’ mountaineers. Grab yourself a synthetic base layer, which will wick moisture easily and will increase the cooling effect. A cotton T-shirt acts like a sponge, holding dampness. The heavy wet cotton can also cause sore points on your skin. If that’s not reason enough to ditch the cotton, think on this; at the end of a long hot day, wearing a t-shirt drenched in your funky man sweat, you’re probably going to stink. Hey, just saying!
H2o – Stay Hydrated.
Mild dehydrations starts when a person has lost just 2% of their total fluid. The signs are easy to recognize, thirst, loss of appetite, dry mouth and headaches. If you loose more than 5%, riding your motorcycle is going to get challenging.
Before you set off for a long ride in the heat, drink a lot of water. Hydration should start 24 hours before.
Drink your water whilst you ride. Use a wearable hydration system, which allows you to drink whilst on the go.
Carry on drinking water when you get off your bike: it can take up to 2 hours to fully rehydrate. Try to avoid water cold water and ice, which can shock your system, making it harder for your body to absorb. Room temperature water is your best option.
If you’re suffering from signs of severe dehydration, (cramps, nausea, loss of balance, etc) mix 1/2 teaspoon of table salt to a half glass of water and drink one every 15 minutes. Sure, it taste foul but works fast. Trust us this one works.
Time To Ride
The hours from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. are the days coolest. Try to cover as many miles as possible during these hours.
Make the days ride shorter than normal as riding in extreme heat reduces your overall ability. The more fluid you loose the higher your chance of issues.
In higher temperatures a ride or route that would normally be ‘easy’ can become challenging.
Adjust Your Route
Try to take a route into higher elevations where it’s cooler.
Only venture into a desert in the early hours and avoid the heat of the day but if it’s unavoidable take something to make your own shade. The other option is to ride at night. We always try to avoid night riding but sometimes it’s the only practical solution.
Get To Know Your Bike.
Air-Cooled Vs Water-Cooled
There’s pro’s and cons to both and no ‘one-bike fits all’ solution. Air-cooled bikes have been known to seize in extreme temperatures. They typically run much hotter at very slow speeds or stuck at a standstill in traffic.
On the upside, air cooled machines are much simpler as there’s no need for cooling water channels, a radiator, water pump, hoses etc. As long as you can get moving modern air-cooled motors cool pretty quickly.
Water-cooled bikes can regulate their engine temps more rapidly and have an advantage when your forced to ride slowly in hot weather, but certain bike models can have the rider roasting as their fan blasts hot air across the riders legs.
Water-cooled motors also require more maintenance. Before heading out into any high temperature area, especially if it’s remote, check water levels and antifreeze and inspect your radiator for any damage. One stick or flying rock through the radiator can leave you stranded. There are more parts that can break or fail i.e. water pump, hoses, radiator, thermostat and fan.