When summer rolls around, many outdoor enthusiasts jump at the opportunity to spend their time outside in the sun. When it comes to hiking, hot weather can be the perfect opportunity to hit the trails, but also can pose a threat to staying cool, or even safe.
To help you make the most of the summer sun, we've come up with a list of how to stay cool on the trails.
In general, when temperatures rise above 95oF (35oC), potential dangers such as sodium depletion or heat stroke can occur. Humidity levels (high=sodium depletion, low=heat stroke), wind, and cloud cover will all have an impact on the scenario.
Of course, there are also more extreme circumstances, especially in deserts, where a combination of high temperatures (+100oF/+37oC), strong wind, low humidity, and a lack of shade makes hiking during the day nearly impossible and should be avoided altogether.
The most well-known concern of hot weather is sweating, which causes the body to lose valuable liquids while not obtaining enough water to replace them. Because the blood thickens, restricting oxygen flow, the body becomes dehydrated and begins to shut down functions.
2. Overhydration (Hyponatremia)
Inexperienced hikers often overlook the risk of drinking too much water as a counter to not drinking enough. Although it is natural to believe that more water is better when it is hot and you are active, there is a vital ingredient that must be included in the water: sodium, or salt. When we sweat, we lose salt in our body. Hydrating the body with large amounts of plain water dilutes those minerals and molecules, resulting in hyponatremia (low sodium levels).
The grave mistake of many hikers is not putting on enough sunscreen, or hiking in a sleeveless top. Sunburns can progress to 2nd- or even 3rd-degree burns, which can be extremely painful, but will heal on their own over time. If you are on the trail and feel a sunburn coming on, pour cold water over the area to cool it down, then apply more sunscreen.
Heatstroke occurs when the body's capacity to control heat is compromised due to high internal heat. When we are active, we generate heat that must escape the body, which it normally does through sweat or by pushing us to slow down due to exhaustion. Heatstroke occurs when the body can no longer cope with the internal heat and is unable to cool itself. Finding external techniques to reduce internal heat and help the body "dump" heat is the best strategy to avoid a heat stroke.
When hiking in hot weather, a general rule of thumb is…
A headache is the most common sign of any of the various dangers in the heat; our brain is a fantastic indicator when something is wrong with our bodies, especially when it comes to heat. If your head hurts while hiking in hot weather, stop, find a shaded spot, drink some water, slow your heart rate, eat something sweet and salty, and drink more water. Wait until your headache fades to continue your hike.
Here are a few things you can do to stay cool when hiking in warmer weather:
1. Start early
The warmest part of the day is usually between 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. On hot days, having an early start and finishing your trip by early afternoon, or going out after 3 p.m., is the best way to avoid this period. If you can't avoid hiking during the hottest part of the day, try to schedule your hike such that you'll be in the shade or near a body of water. It's also important to consider the sun's course, which varies depending on your location and season. Closer to the equator, trails will receive more intense sun, but for fewer hours each day. Before you leave, familiarize yourself with your area so you know what to expect.
2. Stay hydrated – but not overhydrated
Dehydration can be extremely dangerous if not addressed quickly. For moderate activity in mild conditions, general guidance is to drink half a liter of water every hour, though this will vary depending on the person and the environment.
Drinking too much, on the other hand, can result in overhydration. Monitor your water consumption and stick to drinking small amounts frequently. By the time most of us feel thirst, we are already 2% dehydrated (2% of total body weight has been lost). Avoid drinks with caffeine or alcohol, as they can contribute to dehydration. Start increasing your water intake the night before and before you hit the trail. For more hydration on trail tips, visit our blog here.
3. Bring salty snacks
Aside from replacing lost fluids, you also need to replace lost electrolytes. Electrolytes are very important for your body to maintain proper functioning. Carry an electrolyte supplement, whether it be concentrated, powder, or tab form, with you at all times in your backpack. Sodium and potassium are the two major ones you'll need to stay energized - and always look for snacks with complex carbohydrates rather than simple ones – complex carbs are easier on your stomach and provide a longer, more consistent energy boost than simple sweets. Trail mixes are excellent for this, especially when combined with a starchy fruit like an apple. You can also pack electrolyte drink mixes or tabs with your regular drinking water.
4. Take regular breaks
Pace yourself to prevent overexertion. Heat exhaustion can develop very quickly if you overexert yourself in hot weather, so don't overdo it! Find a shady area to rest to allow your muscles to relax and your heart rate to slow.
5. Wear sunscreen
Never forget to bring sunscreen! Aside from protecting your skin from UV damage, it also keeps you hydrated. Burns cause fluid loss by damaging blood vessels. Apply sunscreen often and don't forget to consider your exposed arms, legs, and tops of your feet if you’re hiking in sandals. It’s also important to protect the lips with a lip balm that includes SPF.
6. Wear loose fitting clothing
Dress comfortably in light-colored, loose-fitting, and breathable clothing. Wear synthetic clothes that wick moisture away from the body, and avoid cotton. Dark hues should also be avoided because they absorb the sun's heat. Covering exposed skin helps to keep you cool and decreases fluid loss, which may seem counterintuitive.
7. Head and neck protection
In addition to sunscreen, proper UV protection for your head and neck is essential. Choose a hat with a wide brim that completely covers your face and provides some protection for the back of your neck. Bandanas are another fantastic option to shield your neck, and some of them have a built-in UPF rating for added sun protection. Another good option is to bring a buff. Sunglasses are also advised. Aside from the long-term benefits to your eyes, sunglasses can prevent headaches caused by glare.
8. Hike with a buddy
Hiking in pairs allows you to check each other for indicators of heat-related issues. Remember that as you dehydrate, your mental functions decline. Make sure you understand the symptoms of heat exhaustion and other health issues, as well as how to handle them if they occur.
There is nothing wrong with hiking in the heat if you are sufficiently prepared and equipped, and your hike is well planned. If the weather is too extreme, don't be hesitant to call it quits on a hike. You can always return another day to complete the hike - your health and safety should always come first!
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