Sunday, September 1, 2013

Hiking in hot, humid weather

Self-portrait of a hiker
Resting in the shade
While autumn is my favorite season for hiking, I'm certainly not going to let the dog days of summer keep me indoors. Hiking in the heat does require some adjustments, however.

Last week I went for a hike that was longer than my usual daily saunter through the hollow, especially considering the heat. I was out hiking between the Harpeth River and the house for 4 hours in the heat of the day. When I left the house at half-past noon it was 92ºF on our back porch. When the temperature is combined with high humidity, the heat index was about 100º and the National Weather Service was urging caution. Because of the heat, I walked intentionally slow, drank lots of water, and took breaks. I also left my border collie, Sadie, at home, because I didn't want to worry about her. Dogs aren't very good at telling you when they're having problems with the heat. Despite the challenging heat, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the woods alone.

Walking in the heat takes a little more motivation and desire, but it's worth the effort. It will also magnify the glorious feeling of that first cool, crisp day of autumn when it finally does arrive.

I am by no means the final authority on hiking, but here are my tips for hiking in hot, humid weather. I've broken the tips down into three categories: Water, Clothing & Gear, and Knowledge & Behavior.
Harpeth River
Harpeth River

  • Carry water with you! This seems almost too obvious to mention, but my visits to public marks would indicate otherwise. If it’s hot, you’ll need at least a liter per hour. On a long hike, I like to start out with at least 2 liters.
  • Have a way to purify additional water collected along the way. Water is heavy, so you can only carry so much at a time. If you’re going to be out for several hours, you will obviously need to gather more water as you go. Plan for where you’re going to get it, and how you’re going to ensure it’s safe to drink.
  • Water treatment
    My normal water purifying system
  • If you’re on a long hike (all day or backpacking), carry a powdered sports drink mix. It will replace lost electrolytes, and the flavor will probably help you drink a little more.
Clothing and Gear
  • Wear cool, breathable, moisture-wicking clothing. Cotton is a bad idea unless your walk will be very short or in the super dry climate of the dessert.
  • Wear a hat. It will protect you from the sun, and partially shield you from spiders, insects, and sharp branches in heavy brush.
  • Carry a bandanna. You can use it to mop up the sweat dripping off your face so you feel a little more human. It’s also really nice to soak a bandanna in cool (or cold, if you can) water and then tie it around your neck cowboy-style. It’s almost like a portable air conditioner. Notice I said, “almost.”
  • Use a walking stick or trekking poles. Sure a staff helps you get up and down hills, cross streams, and keep a steady rhythm while walking, but in summer consider these additional uses: clearing spider webs that cross the trail; pushing aside blackberry canes and thorns so you can walk through with minimal blood loss; probing tall grass to warn snakes and other creepy crawlies of your approaching foot.
  • Hiking above the Harpeth River
    Hiking with trekking poles
  • Carry insect repellent & sun screen, if necessary. Depending on the situation, either one of these can be a life-saver.
Knowledge and Behavior
  • Slow down. Intentionally slow your pace compared to your normal hiking speed. Walking too fast will quickly overheat you and you’ll bonk.
  • Take frequent breaks. Again this just gives your body a chance to cool down. It also gives you a chance to drink more.
  • Stay in the shade, especially when you’re stopped for a break. You’d be surprised how few people think of this.
  • Camel up. Drink enough to make extra sure you’re fully hydrated before you start your walk. Drink a glass of water just before heading out. For longer backpacking trips, this process may take a couple of days.
  • Avoid the heat of the day. Walking the early morning or late evening will naturally be cooler.
  • Be prepared for a thunderstorm. Carry rain gear, and know when and how to take shelter on the trail.
  • Know the danger signs for heat-related illness. Heat exhaustion and heatstroke are serious business, but can be avoided if you’re doing the things we’ve been talking about. Signs of heat exhaustion include pale skin, nausea and extreme tiredness, dizziness, headache, muscle cramps. Heatstroke signs include hot, red skin, whether it’s dry or still damp with sweat, rapid pulse and quick, noisy breathing, confusion and unwillingness to cooperate with people offering help, unconsciousness. The treatment for both is to cool down and hydrate. Heatstroke requires more aggressive efforts to cool the victim and needs medical assistance as quickly as possible.
  • Get acclimated. A farmer might be able to thrive outdoors all day long in the same weather that would zap an office worker in an hour. If you’re not used to being out in the heat, don’t expect to be out for prolonged periods until you get used to it. When advising my Scouts to get ready for summer camp during the first week of July, I ask them to spend at least an hour per day outside during the two weeks before camp. The best way to prepare for hot weather hiking is to spend time outside in the heat being active.
  • Passiflora incarnata
    Passionflower - a summer wildflower
  • Enjoy each season as it comes and rejoice in the wonder of each day. There is always something marvelous to see.

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