Tips for Hiking in the Heat and Preventing Heatstroke
Summer is such a great time to hike and most of the trails are snow-free. But if temperatures are too hot outside it could also lead to heat exhaustion, then heatstroke and then possibly death if you’re not careful.
Before setting out, always check the weather. If there is a heatwave or it’s just too hot for comfort outside, it might be best to rethink the hike.
Acclimating to Heat
If you decide to go for it, give yourself time to acclimate to the hot weather. It can take 10-14 days to acclimate to high heat, so be cautious and take it slow and easy on your first few hikes in the summer heat.
When To Hike
Consider starting in the early morning hours so you can be done early and avoiding the hottest time of day which is usually around 12pm to 3pm. Try to plan your trip so you’ll be in the shade or by a body of water so you can cool down during that time of the day.
Or get started with your hike in the evening when the weather starts to cool down. You can also decide to hike at night!
Hiking at night and getting started in the early morning hours is a personal favorite! I do this even if the summer temperatures aren’t too hot. If I know the trail is going to be exposed, especially on longer hikes, I typically start at 3am so that I can cover ground before the afternoon sun starts beating down on my head and tires me out.
Here are some tips for hiking at night:
- Hike under a full moon. The moon lights up the trail so you might not even need a headlamp!
- Focus on your mindset. Hiking at night can be scary, especially when your mind starts thinking that every tree stub and bush is a bear or other animal. You are your own worst enemy, especially if you’re going solo. Focus on the hike, and realign your mindset when you start to freak out. If you’re new, go with a group of friends or hike on a more popular trail
- Be prepared that you might see wildlife. Wildlife typically comes out at dawn, dusk and at night. Do your research about what wildlife to expect in your area and be aware of your surroundings.
Clothing and Gear Tips for Hot-Weather Hiking
Wear light colored clothing
Light colors reflect the sun’s rays rather than absorbing them (as dark colors can) which helps keep you cool.
Wear loose and breathable clothing
Light weight and loose-fitting clothing that breathes well will help your body regular temperature. Pick moisture-wicking fabrics too.
Choose UPF-rated clothing
All clothing blacks the sun’s rays to some extent, but clothing that has a UPF rating is guaranteed to provide protection.
Covering up can provide necessary protection from UV rays, especially if you have sensitive skin. Wear things like a lightweight long sleeve shirt, pants, a neck gaiter/buff, and a hat.
Wear the right socks
Never wear cotton socks, instead pick socks made from wool or synthetic fabrics. For more on preventing blisters and caring for your feet, read through this blog post.
Carry a hydration bladder
Having a the hose handy will make you more likely to hydrate more frequently than if you have to reach for a water bottle.
Bring a squirt bottle
Mist yourself with water when you need it. If you’re hiking near water, you can also dip your hat or shirt in the river or lake to cool against your skin.
Health Concerns for Hot-Weather Hiking
Sunburn, dehydration, heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke are some of the most common health concerns related to hot-weather hiking. In this section we’re going to cover how to protect yourself from each.
Sunscreen is always an essential, even on cloudy days and on snowy days. But when the sun’s out, be extra cautious and reapply often to protect yourself from sunburns. Some general guidelines to follow:
- For hikes lasting longer than 2 hours, choose sunscreen that is SPF 30 of higher.
- Apply sunscreen 15-30 minutes before sun exposure.
- Reapply after 40 or 90 minutes of swimming or sweating and immediately after towel drying or at least every 2 hours.
It’s important to keep yourself hydrated when hiking in hot weather to prevent dehydration. Dehydration can possibly contribute to other heat-related illnesses, such as cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
How much you need to drink while hiking depends on a number of factors, such as temperature and humidity, your intensity level, your age, your body type and sweat rate, as well as the duration of your hike.
A good general recommendation is about a half liter of water per hour of moderate activity in moderate temperatures. From there, you may need to increase how much you drink as the temperature and intensity of the activity rise. For example, strenuous hiking in high heat may require that you drink one liter of water or more per hour. As you gain experience, you’ll be able to fine-tune how much you drink.
If you’re hiking somewhere where you know there is no water along the trail for you to filter, make sure you bring enough with you for the full duration of the hike. If you’re backpacking, make sure to bring enough to cook dinner and breakfast with too. You don’t want to be stuck without enough water to drink and cook with.
If you’re hiking with your dog, remember, they need water too. If there is no water on the trail, plan to carry enough water for them too and bring a small packable bowl.
The flip side to dehydration is overhydration or hyponatremia. This is a fairly rare condition that mainly affects endurance athletes such as marathon runners, ultrarunners and triathletes, but it’s something that hikers should be aware of.
In hyponatremia, sodium levels in the blood become so diluted that cell function becomes impaired. In very extreme cases, hyponatremia may cause coma and even death.
The symptoms of hyponatremia are similar to dehydration: fatigue, headache and nausea, causing some athletes to mistakenly drink more water and exacerbate the issue.
The key to preventing overhydration is to monitor how much you drink.
Stick to drinking a few gulps of water about every 15–20 minutes and try not to drink more than you sweat. Weight gain during exercise is a telltale sign that you’re drinking too much.
Add salt or electrolytes to your water to keep your salt levels balanced.
Heat cramps are painful muscle contractions that can happen suddenly during exercise in hot weather. View them as a warning that you’re pushing your limits and need to slow down.
To avoid them, make sure you’re properly hydrated. If you do get them, do some gentle stretching.
Heat exhaustion is your body’s inability to cope with the stress of heat. It can occur after lengthy exposure to high temperatures and is often accompanied by dehydration.
Symptoms of heat exhaustion
- Heat Cramps
- Heavy Sweating
- Intense Thirst
- Rapid Pulse
- Weakness / Fairness
- Headache / Dizziness
- Nausea and Vomiting
- Cold Chills
Treatment for heat exhaustion
It’s important to treat heat exhaustion immediately if you or another hiker is showing symptoms.
- Get out of the heat: Look for a shady spot and lay down and rest. Remove any excess clothing. If there aren’t any trees to provide shade but you have a tarp, use it to block the sun.
- Rehydrate: Drink plenty of water and if you have electrolytes or salt tablets, use some of those.
- Cool off: It can feel good to splash cool water on your face and head. If you’re hiking near a lake or stream, dunk your head or dip a bandana or hat in the water and put it on your head.
How to prevent heat exhaustion
Take time to acclimate
You need to ease into hiking in hot weather. It can take 10 days to two weeks to acclimatize, so be cautious and take it slow on your first few hikes of the season.
Make sure you’re drinking enough fluids. A half-liter per hour is a good starting point, but you may need more depending on the intensity of the hike.
Wear appropriate clothing
Choose lightweight, loose-fitting clothing that allows your body to regulate temperature and a sun hat that will shade your face and neck.
Rest in the shade
If you need to take a break, take the time to find a shady spot rather than toughing it out under the hot sun.
Know what you’re capable of
Be honest about your level of fitness and choose hikes that complement that.
Monitor your urine
If you’re properly hydrated you should be peeing frequently and your urine should be clear. If your urine is a darker yellow, you need to drink more.
Heatstroke occurs when your body literally overheats. It is a serious medical condition that can strike fast and requires immediate medical attention. If you see a hiking partner displaying symptoms of heat exhaustion combined with a change in mental status, they may have heat stroke. Pay particular attention to these signs:
- Heat Exhaustion Symptoms
- High Body Temperature
- Dry or Moist / Flushed Skin
- Confusion / Dizziness / Disorientation
- Slurred Speech
- Severe Headache
- Fast Breathing and Pulse
Treatment for heatstroke
By the time symptoms of heat exhaustion turn into heatstroke, emergency action should be taken. Calling 911, activating SOS, contacting rescue crews, and getting the victim professional medical help as soon as possible is the number one priority. Heat stroke is a life-threatening condition and should be treated as such.