Written by Aga Macura and Yan Giovannoni. Posted in Tech-n-Tips
It is early in the morning when I open the visor of my helmet. The feeling of warm air coming in is like opening an oven door. We are in the remote outback of Australia; the nearest town is 200 miles away. Today we want to reach the fascinating Bungle Bungle Range in the middle of the desert, and we need to start right away, before the temperature goes over 100°F. Suddenly, I feel a sharp pain in my abdomen. The pain is getting worse. I can’t ride any further and have to lie down. We don’t know it yet, but in a few hours I’ll be on a plane to the hospital. The guilty? Dehydration.
Before leaving on a trip to Australia on our two Suzuki DR650, we knew that meant riding in blistering heat. We bought well-ventilated gear and planned our route carefully to avoid extremes, including flooding and torrential downpours during the rainy season when many northern roads are impassable.
Carrying enough water for the Outback is essential due to the region’s remoteness and scorching temperatures. We were carrying three 1.6 gallon hydration packs and each had 0.8 gallon hydration packs, making a total of 6.4 gallons between us. That’s a lot of extra weight, but better safe than sorry; the Outback is unforgiving and we had no intention of being irresponsible, unprepared travelers in need of rescue.
A few months into the trip, we were on schedule to avoid the worst of the rainy season in the north. But, nothing ever goes exactly as planned on long motorcycle trips. One day, while riding on one of the countless dirt roads, Aga lost control of his bike in the deep sand and broke his big toe. Ignoring the pain, she managed to walk another 60 miles to the nearest town. By the time we pulled up, her foot was so swollen she couldn’t put her motocross boots back on. At that point, there was little choice but to put our trip on hold for a month, even though that wasn’t enough time for a broken bone to fully heal. The warmer months were fast approaching and we still had the whole of northern Australia to traverse, some 2,500 miles through one of the most remote and unforgiving parts of the continent.
Fifteen hundred miles later we reached Darwin only to be delayed again – this time a broken carburettor cost another 10 days of waiting for parts. The pressure of time was beginning to weigh heavily on us; we were now six weeks behind. It was September (the start of the summer season in Australia) and the heat was already intense. We had many miles to cover before heading south cooler.
Somehow we had to make up for lost time. This meant riding long hours, often during the hottest hours of the day. And this meant we didn’t make enough stops to hydrate and eat well.
Riding in the sweltering heat for days drains energy quickly, and in the midst of our exhaustion we started to make mistakes. To make matters worse, we were now dropping the bikes more often; picking them up, especially at full speed with all the luggage, drained even more energy, adding to the vicious cycle of making even more mistakes!
Looking back, the warning signs of dehydration were already evident: fatigue, irritation, decreased urination. The situation got even worse when Aga suffered a brief bout of heat exhaustion. She suffered from fatigue, violent headaches and nausea. But we brought him some electrolytes, gave him some rest in the shade, and everything seemed to be back to normal, so we carried on as before.
If you push hard for long enough, something is bound to go wrong at some point, and it did a few days later. The end of the dry season was approaching. We were in the middle of nowhere en route to the Bungle Bungle Range, one of World Heritage Sites, and super excited to be almost there. That’s when Yan’s dehydration hit and he ended up in the hospital.
We have just arrived at a small clinic in an Aboriginal community, receiving a few injections of morphine and a saline bag for an IV, waiting five hours before being evacuated to a hospital 800 kilometers away. Diagnosis: kidney stones due to extreme dehydration. Fortunately, after all the necessary tests, a night in the hospital, a few more injections of morphine and more bags of saline solution, he made a full recovery. We were lucky and the story ended well. So, with no more problems, we continued. From then on, we were much more careful.
Aga’s heat exhaustion, followed by Yan’s visit to the hospital, reminded us that no matter how well prepared you are, things will go wrong if you ignore the dangers of extreme heat.
Checklist for riding in extreme heat
Here are some rules to keep in mind when riding in extreme heat (above 100°F) for long periods of time. If you ignore them, you could end up having the same problems as us…or worse.
The amount depends on the person, the type of driving, the region, if you plan to camp and cook, etc. Also consider whether you have enough water in case of a delay caused by an emergency such as a breakdown or injury. In northern Australia, signs recommended drinking at least a gallon of water a day. Some sources recommend that every cyclist carry at least one liter per hour of riding.
Divide the water into different containers:
It is also important to carry water in multiple bladders, packs or bottles, in case one breaks. The added benefit is that you can better balance the mass around your bike by packing the containers in different places.
Drink often in small sips:
Drink regularly throughout the day, even when you are not thirsty, as this means you have already started to become dehydrated. That’s why we advise you to use hydration packs or have an easily accessible bottle so you can drink often.
Before heading to a remote area, plan in advance where you will replenish your water supply. When there is water but you are not sure if it is safe to drink, use a water purification filter, gravity filter or purification tablets. Also, check the weather forecast in advance so you know when the heat is greatest as well as sunrise and sunset. This allows you to plan stops around the hottest point of the day. In extreme heat conditions, it is advisable to ride early in the day. Stop before noon and set up camp for the night or wait for the temperature to drop before hitting the road again.
Avoid alcohol and sugary drinks during and before the trip:
Of course, everyone likes to end their driving day with a cold beer or two. Unfortunately, alcohol makes your body dehydrate faster, and sugary drinks prevent your body from absorbing water. Not a good idea when undertaking heavy physical exertion (i.e. off-road) in hot conditions in the middle of nowhere and with limited water supplies.
When you sweat, your body loses valuable water and minerals. Electrolyte tablets or powder help fight dehydration and make you feel better after a particularly sweaty day. We usually had water with electrolytes at the end of the day.
Drink enough during the day to make your pee a pale yellow color. The darker the pee, the more dehydrated you are. If you don’t pee at least four times a day, you’re dehydrated, so drink more!
Use well-ventilated clothing and dress smart in the sun:
Equipment with mesh or ventilation will help keep you cool when riding and reduce sweating. However, when you’re off the bike, you probably won’t last long with this gear without a cool breeze blowing through the vents. That doesn’t mean stripping down in short-sleeved t-shirts and shorts. Yes, it might sound counterintuitive, but loose, long-sleeved clothes are actually a much better option. They keep your skin shaded and lock in moisture, and also protect against sunburn. Sunburn makes it harder for your body to cool down. Use sunscreen on any uncovered part of your body. And don’t forget a hat! Finally, it is preferable to have your equipment and your clothes in light colors. They reflect the sun’s rays better than darker colors (which can be up to 20°F warmer). Now you know why the famous Tuareg nomad, the icon of the Dakar Rally, wears a long light blue garment and a turban. It’s simply the best gear in the desert.
When you have to stop, try to find shade. It’s a good idea to pack a tarp or large piece of clothing for shade if needed. This type of assembly will also be useful if you need to repair a puncture in the middle of the desert under a blazing sun.
Know the signs of dehydration and first aid:
Symptoms of dehydration include less frequent urination, dark colored urine, extreme thirst, fatigue, dizziness, confusion, and irritability. If you beginning with these symptoms, you should stop in the shade and drink more water. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are more extreme; know their symptoms and the first aid procedure for each. Heatstroke can be life-threatening, and in the event of heatstroke, you should not hesitate to call for an emergency or use an emergency beacon (Spot, EPRB, and Garmin inReach).
Aga Macura and Yan Giovannoni are a Polish-Swiss couple currently traveling the world on their two Suzuki DR650. They have just completed the circumnavigation of Australia, a journey of almost 10 months and more than 20,000 miles. While it was Agafirst long motorcycle trip, Yan rode in 2012 from Europe to Japan via Russia, Mongolia and South Korea on a Honda Africa Twin 1993. You can follow their adventures on instagram, Facebook, Youtubeand on their website: FarWayout.com