Some of the most tantalizing hikes are set in dry, sunny regions, and can offer exquisite views of alpine lakes, dramatic canyons and mountain peaks. However, intense heat can build up rapidly on these trails and it is essential to be properly prepared for sunny hikes. Many a fun day out has been ruined by heat sores, heat exhaustion or even more serious effects of exposure.
So, what are the best ways to stay cool while hiking? There are several things you can do to ensure a safe and enjoyable trip ahead. Here are our top tips and tricks encompassing everything from clothing choices, trip planning and health considerations.
17 tips to help you stay cool while hiking:
1. Start early
The midday sun is the least desirable time to be on the trail. Get a good night’s sleep the night before and set off at the crack of dawn (or in the dark, if you’re feeling prepared and ready to go) to minimize your amount of exposure to the sun. It is also important to check the sun’s path depending on your location and season.
In general, trails closer to the equator will receive more intense sun, although for fewer hours in the day. Familiarize yourself with this before setting out so you know exactly what to expect.
2. Choose the most shaded route
The best way to get from A to B is not always the quickest option. On sunny days, consider trails which are more shaded, even if they take a longer route. Trees, canyon walls and cliffs can all provide excellent and well-needed cover during those intense, sunny days. It is also wise to plan your route past water sources, if you can. Running out of water on a hot day in the wilderness is a potentially disastrous event.
3. Drink plenty – but not too much
Dehydration can catch you by surprise, and leaves you feeling awful. It can also be very dangerous if not dealt with immediately. In general, adults are recommended half a liter of water per hour for moderate activity in moderate temperatures. This will need to be adjusted if planning a more strenuous hike and/or hiking in hot weather.
Conversely, it is possible to drink too much and suffer the symptoms of overhydration. Nausea, fatigue and cramps are tell-tale signs, as your blood cells become so saturated that their functionality is impaired. Monitor the amount of water you are drinking, and stick to a few gulps every 20 minutes or so, rather than a constant inflow of water.
Also read: Too much of a good thing? (The danger of water intoxication in endurance sports)
4. Freeze water bottle
The night before a hot weather hike, fill your water bottle half-full and put it in the freezer. In the morning, fill it the rest of the way and you will have a steady stream of ice cold water to keep you refreshed as you hike. Do not fill it more than half-way to freeze. As water freezes, the overall mass expands and could crack the sides or seal of your water bottle if filled too full. (Yes, I learned this the hard way.)
5. Salty snacks
The more you sweat, the more water and electrolytes your body loses. It is imperative to re-balance your body’s salts — specifically Sodium and Potassium — alongside water as you hike. Complex foods are generally better than simple sugars such as fruits – so make sure you pack a good stash of trail mix or trail bars to refuel along the trail.
Electrolyte drinks can also be a good option, but they tend to add more weight to your backpack than snacks.
6. Take regular breaks
This is good advice for any hike; but becomes even more important when hiking in hot weather. Heat exhaustion can set in quickly if you over-exert yourself in hot weather, so it is best not to take any chances. Give your muscles a chance to relax and minimize your risk of exhaustion by finding a shady spot to rest.
It also allows your sweat to cool down, bringing a very welcome wave of cold to your skin before you set off again.
7. Acclimatize to hot weather
The human body is capable of adapting to a remarkable range of situations. For high-altitude, it is always recommended to acclimatize at elevation instead of jumping full-throttle into a hike or climb. Well, the same advice follows for hot weather hiking. If attempting a multi-day trail or something more strenuous in the heat, then begin acclimatizing 10 to 14 days before your chosen hike.
For best results, you want to hike in conditions as close to the ones you are preparing for as possible. You could choose a short route on a hot day (close to home for minimized risk); hiking with more layers on to build up a sweat; even a ten minute hot bath or sauna each day – which has been shown to bring about hot-weather adaptations that are useful for hiking.
8. Pack an extra t-shirt
This is especially important if planning an overnight hike somewhere with hot days and cold nights. As soon arrive at your camp, change out of your damp, sweaty shirt into a dry one. This will ensure that you don’t catch a chill if the temperatures do plummet. Even if only hiking for a day, or somewhere with milder temperatures at night, a spare shirt never goes amiss.
You want to be comfortable on a hike; damp, salty shirts can start to rub and get uncomfortable.
9. Wear sunscreen
Never, ever forget your sunscreen! A good SPF from a trusted brand is an absolutely essential item. Do a few test runs so you know how regularly you need to top it up, and don’t forget to consider your bare arms, legs, or tops of feet if hiking in sandals.
Make sure it actually works, too. I lost my sunscreen in Peru and bought a cheap one to hike through a desert canyon – within one hour it went pink and flaky all over my face, I can’t imagine it was giving me any protection at all!
10. Choose the right footwear
Your feet are the most likely body parts to become hot, sweaty and uncomfortable on a sunny hike. Whilst you do want to be prepared for the terrain, it is also a good idea to choose lighter, more breathable boots or shoes over heavy-duty fabrics.
Socks are also an essential consideration. Avoid cotton at all costs; opt for wool or synthetic and make sure they fit well so that they do not wrinkle and rub. I always carry a spare pair of socks on a hot hike, too – there is nothing more satisfying than a fresh pair of socks after a cool dip in a stream. (Conversely, there is nothing more ghastly than putting on damp, sweaty socks in your tent on day two!)
11. Head and neck protection
Alongside sunscreen, proper protection for your head and neck are imperative to guard you from the sun. Choose a wide-brimmed hat which totally shields your face, and offers some protection for the back of your neck, too. Bandanas are another great way to protect your neck, and some of them come with a built-in UPF rating as further protection from the sun.
Just make sure you choose a lightweight one and not an insulating merino one, unless you want a seriously sweaty neck.
12. Loose and light clothing
There is nothing worse than feeling constricted and clammy whilst you hike. Tight-fitting clothes will stick to the skin with sweat and could start to rub and become sore. Loose shirts, baggy pants or shorts and anything with vents is a good choice. It may seem counter-intuitive, but don’t be afraid to cover up in the sun – your bare skin will thank you for it in the evening.
Light colors such as tan, white or pastels will reflect the sun’s rays and keep you cooler. Dark colors like navy or black will absorb that energy, providing an unwanted extra layer of heat against your skin. I regretted my choice of long, dark hiking pants in the first hour of a 6-hour desert hike in Chile. Ah well, lesson learned!
13. Hydration pack
Extra water never goes amiss on hot days, but carrying lots of water bottles can get cumbersome. Instead, choose a hydration pack as an alternative source of water. Many backpacks have inbuilt reservoir storage; so that they lie flat on your back with a delivery tube pinned to your front.
They are an excellent way to transport water and balance the weight of your pack much more effectively than a water bottle. Remember to fill all of your water stores as you are determining your pack weight — a full 2 liter bottle can add 4.5lbs onto your total.
14. Recognize and treat heat exhaustion
Heat exhaustion occurs when the body is no longer able to deal with the stress of heat. It is often accompanied by dehydration and can induce dizziness, rapid pulse, fatigue and headaches – among other things. If you think you, or a hiking buddy, might suffering from heat exhaustion then get out of the sun immediately, hydrate and rest to cool down.
You can learn more about exertional heat-related illness in this study done at the Grand Canyon.
If you can, use a nearby water source to splash the head and neck to help the body recover. This is also a good time to refuel and re-balance your body’s salt content – so keep your snacks handy.
15. Slow down in the hottest part of the day
Try to plan your hike so that you are not at the steepest incline or rushing during the heat of the day. It is much better to wait or hike slowly in a shaded area in intense heat, than over-exert yourself and risk injury.
If you are attempting a multi-day or something more challenging, then make sure you plan ahead of time any out-routes or back-up camping spots, in case the heat does become too much and catches you unawares. A huge number of accidents can be avoided by recognizing when to change the plan, rather than pushing on. Don’t be a stubborn hiker!
16. Buddy up
Always make sure that you and your hiking buddy are both prepared for the hot trail ahead. Plenty of water, snacks and an even weight distribution if planning to camp. Uncomfortable heat can cause tempers to shorten – you don’t want to fall out mid-hike because one of you forgot your trail mix!
Make sure that you both know the signs of heat exhaustion and other health concerns, and know how to treat them if they do arise.
17. Extra considerations for solo hikers
If hiking solo, it is likely that your pack will weigh more as you have to carry all your gear and food yourself. Be extra diligent with your water and food rations, and take a spare set of clothes. If you do sustain an injury, try to get to a shady spot near a water source while you await help. As always, make sure you tell someone your planned route and estimated time of return, and consider using a satellite device or hiking somewhere with cell coverage.
You don’t wait to be left to boil in the sun for days if you do have an accident!
Hiking in hot weather can be hugely enjoyable and rewarding, so long as you are well-prepared. Choose the right clothing, sensible footwear and plan your hike to avoid the hottest part of the day. Make sure you know the signs and symptoms of heat-related issues and how to treat them – and that your buddy knows too.
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