Friday, June 4, 2010

It's Hot Out There!

It's hot out there - miserable, stinking, Midwestern hot. These are the type of days that send all but the most die hard outdoor enthusiasts scurrying for a cool spot. But what about those who want to continue to enjoy their outdoor pursuits even on the hottest days? A great answer to the dilemma of tolerating, functioning in, and staying outdoors in high temperature conditions lies in a cooling vest or personal cooling system.

I've been using cooling vests for years as person with MS. MS and heat do not mix. When my core temp goes up, I fall down. I not only fall down, heat exacerbates the neuropathic pain, and magnifies every symptom. I end up having the appearance of a very sweaty, messy, stumbling, bumbling, speech slurring, drunk. It is not a pretty sight in the woods or on the water. Wearing a personal cooling system alleviates those problems. Over the years, many of my outdoor companions who are healthy have also come to realize the benefits of a personal cooling system when afield.

A quick internet search will reveal there are a variety of personal cooling systems that are available for purchase, and each system has its own pros and cons for the outdoor enthusiast.

Evaporative Cooling Vests:

My personal favorites! These vests are lightweight, easily packable, and have tiny pockets of highly absorbable beads that can take in water and expand to 6 times their dry size.  The vest is soaked in cool water and gently wrung out to remove excess.  The vest is placed over a t-shirt and cools by evaporation; the air moves faster next to the water-logged beads, which creates a layer of cool air between the vest and the skin. 

Evaporative cooling vests are generally the most  inexpensive type,  The vest can be simply slid into the ice water in a cooler or dunked in river, lake or stream to be rewet when necessary, making them immediately reusable.   Evaporative cooling apparel is not limited to vests; seat cushions, ankle bands, hats, beanies, headbands, wristbands, floor mats, and even dog vests and cooling mats are available for our hard working four footed furry friends.

If an evaporative vest is damaged, it can be re-sewn by hand.  The function of the vest isn’t seriously compromised if a few beads escape. The downfall of an evaporative type of personal cooling system is that they are not always terribly effective in humid conditions. My experience though has been good with the evaporative types, even in humid conditions such as those encountered in the river bottoms and sloughs. The ability to simply rewet frequently makes up for the lower rate of evaporative cooling. When the boat, motorcycle, 4 wheeler, etc is moving they are especially effective, however those activities sometimes will require frequent rewetting/soaking.

Polar Products makes a camouflage line of evaporative cooling products that are reasonably priced, and includes beanies, and boonie hats.

Phase Change Cooling Systems:

This type of vest contains inserts that are activated by placing them in the freezer or ice water slush, and then the inserts maintain a consistent temperature (usually 53-56 degrees F.) for up to three hours.  If you are packing along a cooler with melting slushy ice water in it, extra inserts can be stored in it. The inserts can also be re-activated (10 to 20 minutes for activation) and reused. 

If the investment is made in this type a vest an additional set of inserts is a wise purchase as well. The second set of inserts can be stashed in your cooler and kept at the ready when they need changed.This type of insert is not exactly an ice pack; they do not reach freezing temperatures. The upside of this is that they are unlikely to cause damage if the come into contact with bare skin and are safe for children or those who have difficulty discerning heat and cold. The inserts are activated when exposed to a temperature above freezing, and require much less time to "recharge" than an actual frozen ice pack would take. No need for a freezer when using this type, making them usable when pursuing outdoor activities where one has access to cooler, and ice water, but no access to a full fledged freezer.  Additionally, the inserts do not “sweat”, so clothing stays dry.

Phase change vests can be made to fit wearers of all ages and sizes, custom vests can be made for individuals weighing more or less than the displayed vests are recommended for.

There are several  downsides to the use of  the phase change vests  The inserts add weight to the vest, from 1 ½ to 2 lbs for children’s vests to 4 lbs or more for 3X or 4X adult sizes.  However, the weight is evenly distributed on the body and is close to the individual’s center of gravity, so the balance issues associated with backpacks or weights shouldn’t be a problem.  Secondly, the cost associated with a cooling vest system is much more expensive than an evaporative vest; you can expect to pay up to $200 for a vest and two sets of inserts.  The phase change inserts are filled with a viscous fluid and are durable but not indestructible.  If an insert is damaged it must be discarded and replaced.

Cold Pack Cooling Vests:

These vests look just like phase change cooling vests, are similar in many ways, but use actual ice packs that are frozen. This type can be problematic for an outdoor enthusiast, as a freezer can be hard to come by when enjoying outdoor pursuits. Also, the ice packs require a longer time to freeze; increasing the time a wearer might be unable to use the vest. On the upside though, these cold packs give the highest level of cooling because the cold packs are the lowest temperature, and work the best in extreme temperatures and extreme humidity levels. Extra packs can be added or changed out over time.

A cooling vest can be costly, but they can dramatically improve the quality of life for a sportsman who is disabled or has a health condition that has forced them to abandon outdoor pursuits in the hot summer months. For the disabled sportsman, or a sportsman with a health condition that results in heat intolerance, there may be certain options to cover the cost of a personal cooling system.

Most cooling vest distributors will offer a 10%-25% discount on their products if they receive documentation that the vest or other products are purchased on a doctor’s recommendation.  Alternately you can save your receipt to submit the cost of cooling products towards your federal taxes.  Some insurances may accept cooling vests as medical devices and while vendors are unable to submit insurance claims, you may be able to submit a claim yourself and request a refund.  

Resource websites for cooling vests and products:
Silver Eagle Outfitters - also offers canine products 
Stay Warm - Stay Cool - offers heating and cooling systems as well as cooling and warming equipment for the equine crowd. 
HelpingUdders - cooling products for our hard working canine friends


Anonymous said...

The most effective personal cooling systems use cold water circulated from a reservoir. This is what our US Armed Forces use as well as NASA astronauts. This type of system is available to the public from I have one and it works fantastic - better than anything else I have tried.

Deb said...

Oh thanks for the link to the evaporative hats, I need to get one of those for my hubby. Poor man finds it hard to work in the heat...and there is so much that needs done outside. I find it hard to, but unless I'm helping him most of my work is inside so I'm not as important. Think I may have to rearange our budget and come up with some money for at least a hat though. Thanks! :)

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