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Hiking in Hot Weather Can Be Dangerous

Stay Safe and Comfortable with These 6 Tips

There aren’t any good databases we can find that specifically track when people hike during the course of the year. And that makes sense: How would you even track this kind of thing?

Nobody is waiting at your local trailhead with a clipboard and tally counter.

But we do know that most people visit parks in the summer. That strongly suggests that summer is likely the season during which most people hike.

Intuitively, this makes sense. If nothing else, school is out, and vacations are in full swing during the summer. From a societal (and logistical) standpoint, summer is undoubtedly the best time to hit the trail.

But summer poses a few unique problems – most notably the high temperatures.

At best, hiking in high temperatures is uncomfortable; at worst, it’s flat-out dangerous. Every year, people die in the great outdoors from heat-related illness.

You can help reduce your chances of becoming a warm-weather casualty (not to mention, enjoying yourself more) by following some of the summer hiking tips provided below.

1. Get Out Early

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Whether you’re heading out on a standard-issue hot day or trying to sneak in a few miles during a day that promises to be a scorcher, you’ll want to hit the trail early.

Well, as we’re fond of saying, “If you’re not up before the sun, you may as well stay in bed.”

That’s a bit of an exaggeration, and we don’t mean you need to be on the trail before sunrise, but you’ll definitely stay cooler and safer if you’re out before the sun is high overhead.   

As a bonus, you’ll often enjoy better scenery and see more wildlife if you hit the trail early.

There is one important caveat about early morning hikes: The relative humidity is often highest in the morning. This means that you can still feel miserable and have trouble effectively cooling off (thanks to the fact that sweat won’t evaporate very well) while the temperatures are still fairly mild.

You can try to take the opposite approach to beat the heat – go out late in the afternoon. Late afternoon hikes are certainly cooler than mid-day hikes, but they still lose to early morning hikes in the comfort department.

People often have a slightly skewed idea of the daily fluctuation in temperatures.

The hottest part of the day is usually not noon. The sun’s rays are the strongest between about 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM. But that doesn’t mean temperatures are highest at the same time – peak temperatures usually occur during the hours between about 12:00 PM and 4:00 PM.

So, to enjoy a relatively comfortable afternoon hike, you’d want to hit the trail around 6:00 or so at the earliest (depending on your latitude).

2. Bring More Than Enough Water

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The often-cited rule of thumb advises hikers to bring one liter of water for every two hours of hiking (or ½ liter for every hour, if you prefer).

That’s certainly a good starting point, but we encourage hikers – particularly novice hikers – to bring about 50% more than this. In other words, bring along ¾ liters for every hour of hiking.

This will provide several key benefits.

For starters, it’ll give you a bit of “cushion,” which can be helpful for those times you end up losing the trail for a while or you just end up thirstier than you’d predicted. It’ll also ensure that you have a little water on hand for some of the other tips we’ll share in a bit.

But wait, doesn’t this extra water contribute extra weight to your pack?

Yup. Every liter of water you haul adds about 2.2 pounds to your pack.

Don’t sweat it (heh). Unless you’re an experienced hiker enjoying a strenuous or excessively long hike, worry-free hydration and increased safety easily outweigh the problems caused by a slightly heavier bag.

The only exception to this would be during backpacking trips, when you will be filtering water as you go. And even then, you should only drop below the ¾ liter per hour guideline if we’re going to be moving right alongside a permanent body of water.

In these cases, we may as well try to shave off a little weight.

3. Choose Your Clothes Carefully

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Clothing selection may not be as critical for your safety in the summer as it is in the winter, but it’s still important to choose your clothes carefully for high-temperature hikes. There’s not really any room for debate here – sensible summer clothing will keep you both safer and more comfortable.

However, that does mean there is less consensus regarding best practices.

For example, some hikers swear by long sleeves in hot weather; others wouldn’t think of covering any more skin than is necessary. Similarly, some hikers avoid cotton in all cases while others will wear it in the summer.

With those controversies noted, we recommend thinking about the following things:

  • Stick to lightweight, breathable fabrics. This is just common sense, but we’re saying it anyway. Ditch the parka and grab a pair of shorts.   
  • At least experiment with wearing more arm and leg coverage than you normally would. It’s not hard to take off a long-sleeve shirt if you end up not liking it.
  • Wear cotton with caution. But while you may find that cotton shorts or shirts are the right fit for you in hot weather, you’ll still want to avoid cotton socks in lieu of wool or synthetic fibers. Cotton socks won’t dry, and they’ll likely bunch up – both of which may lead to blisters.
  • Pick clothes in light colors that’ll reflect more light. The more light (and therefore heat) your clothes reflect, the less they’ll absorb.
  • Garments that dry quickly are especially nice in hot weather. You can not only wring them out if they get soaked from sweat, but most will promote the rapid evaporation of sweat, which is the primary way by which it cools you.
  • Pay attention to skin friction. You’ll always be somewhat mindful of places that your clothes rub or bind up, but because you’ll likely be sweaty for a significant portion of hot-weather hikes, you’re more likely to suffer blisters or irritation from ill-fitting clothing in the summer.

4. Gradually Ramp Up Your Hikes

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Thankfully, your body does adapt to temperature extremes over the course of a season.

Your first 90-degree hike of the season will suck, but the second, third and fourth will each be a little better. They still won’t be awesome, but your body will have adapted to the high temperatures a bit.

And this is all actually borne out by some of the data we do have about heat-related injuries: They almost always spike immediately after the first heat wave, before people have acclimated to the high temperatures for the year.

All of this is to say that you should settle in for a few relatively easy hikes at the beginning of the summer. Maybe shave off a mile or two from your normal distance or opt for trails with lower grades than you normally would.

Then, as your body becomes accustomed to the high temperatures, increase the difficulty level and duration gradually.  

5. Pick a Good Trail

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Pick a trail well-suited for high-temperature hikes and you will probably have a pretty good time; pick a poor trail for summer hikes and you’ll regret it.

The trick is learning to distinguish between trails that are somewhat comfortable during hot weather and those that’ll leave you feeling miserable. Here are a few of the key factors to consider:

  • Canopy Cover: While forested trails rarely offer the gorgeous vistas that ridgeline or meadow-crossing trails do, they certainly are more comfortable to trek when temperatures are high.
  • Proximity to Water: Typically, trails that follow rivers, creeks or shorelines will be cooler than trails farther from water. And in some cases, you can enjoy a cool breeze while walking on waterfront trails.
  • Pick the Shaded Side of the Mountain: One of the easiest (and oddly, most often overlooked) things to think about when picking a trail is its location vis-à-vis the surrounding mountains (when present). If you can, hike on western slopes during the morning and eastern slopes in the afternoon. If that’s not possible, select trails on the same side of the mountain as the hemisphere you’re in. In other words, because the sun takes a somewhat southern arc through the sky in the northern hemisphere, trails on the northern side of the mountain will enjoy more shade.
  • Elevation Is Your Friend: Simply put, the higher your elevation, the cooler things will be. So, while you may not want to tackle trails with really steep grades during high temperatures, you may want to opt for trails that are located at higher elevations.
  • Look for Windy Trails: It’s not always possible to determine if a trail is likely to be windy while looking at a topo map or hiking trail app. But you can take note of your experiences (as well as the experiences of others) for future reference. You can also look for things like large fields bordering forests – chances are, one edge of this field will enjoy a decent breeze. You can also look for long valleys, which sometimes channel temperature-lowering winds.

6. Know the Signs of Heatstroke

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You may do everything right and still end up in trouble while hiking in hot weather – everyone makes mistakes. The important thing is that you learn to recognize when things get sideways and know what to do to right the ship.

And in the context of high-temperature hikes, that means learning the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion and – more importantly – heat stroke.

According to the CDC, signs of heat exhaustion include things like sweating excessively, having a fast or weak pulse, headache, dizziness, and nausea. If you notice any of these symptoms, stop hiking, hydrate, and do what you can to lower your body temperature immediately.

But while heat exhaustion is a serious matter that indicates the body is already overheating, it is often the precursor to heat stroke, which is a life-threatening emergency.

Symptoms of heat stroke include a body temperature reaching or exceeding 103 degrees Fahrenheit; a strong, rapid pulse; hot, dry skin; and confusion.  

In addition to immediately taking steps to cool your body, you should contact 911 whenever you notice the signs of heat stroke.

Additional Tips for Summer Hikes

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There are a few other things you may want to do while hiking in the summer to make the best of the opportunity. These don’t all relate to temperatures; some help you address some of the other challenges summer presents.

  • Wear sunscreen. Most of the tips presented above relate to the high temperatures the sun causes, but don’t forget, its rays present a threat to your skin too. Just be smart and apply a high-SPF sunscreen anytime you’re hiking in exposed conditions. It’ll help prevent sunburn and long-term issues, such as skin cancer.
  • Wear insect repellent. Biting bugs aren’t only annoying – some transmit serious diseases too. Just trust us and apply an EPA-registered insect repellent.
  • Where a wet bandana (or some other garment). One excellent way to keep yourself cooler in high temperatures is to wet a bandana or T-shirt and then wear it or rub it gently on your skin. There are also garments and accessories explicitly designed for such purposes that often work even better.
  • Learn about the sounds of summer. The forest is often full of delightful sounds during the summer, as this is the most active part of the year for many wild animals. Birds, bats, frogs and bugs all chirp or sing during this time of year, which is not only interesting and enjoyable in itself, but it can also help give you something to think about during boring stretches of the trail.
  • Summer is often the easiest time of year to follow poorly marked trails. There are exceptions, but because the forest is at its lushest during the summer, trails tend to stick out better. By contrast, it can sometimes be tricky to discern poorly marked trails from the surrounding forest in the winter, when the trees are bare.

There’s one more thing you may want to do during the summer: Consider hiking at night.

Though not legal or safe to do so in all locations, hiking in the dark is often much more comfortable than daytime hikes. That doesn’t mean you won’t still work up a sweat while trekking down the trail, because you will. But it’ll still feel better.

How Many Hikers Die from Heat-Related Illness?

For a variety of reasons, we don’t know how many hikers die from heat-related causes each year.

Part of the problem is that there isn’t a centralized database for deaths that occur during outdoor recreational activities, let alone one that specifically focuses on hiking and similar pursuits. Most databases that do track heat-related deaths lump all of those that happen outdoors – including those that happen on the job site – in one bucket.

Another part of the problem is that doctors performing autopsies rarely find strong enough evidence to state conclusively that heat stroke was the cause of death.

As explained by a case study published in Journal of Insurance Medicine:

“The autopsy findings of heat stroke may be minimal and are non-specific

A hiker’s body may be found on a trail during a heatwave, but that’s rarely enough circumstantial evidence for a medical examiner to say that high temperatures were to blame.

All of this aside, we know that hikers occasionally die from high temperatures.

Given that hiking is an optional (though awesome) activity, and the majority of those who hit the trail are aware that high temperatures can threaten one’s safety, it’s a shame that it ever happens.

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High-temperature hikes aren’t ideal, but what are you going to do? Sit out the summer and a quarter-of-a-year’s worth of hiking opportunities?

Certainly not. Instead, you just have to try to make the best of hot weather hikes and do the things necessary to stay safe.

What summer hiking tips did we forget? What are some of the things you like to do when the mercury soars?

Let us know in the comments below!

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