Hiking and Backpacking in the Heat

There are few things less forgiving than the relentless summer heat. It’s uncomfortable, it’s challenging, and it can certainly be dangerous. Thankfully, I have some tips to make your summer adventures not only more enjoyable, but also much safer.

Considering that heat is one of the most prolific dangers of summer sports, and heat stroke affects hundreds per year, it’s important to consider the dangers and effects it can have. If you start to overheat, by overexertion, lack of water, exposure to the sun, or just poor nutrition, recovering can become a struggle. It can happen to anyone, at any time, so it’s important to concentrate on avoiding overheating in the first place. I’ll be targeting tips that emphasize prevention. These apply to hiking, backpacking, camping, and can be applied to other activities as well. If you have anything you would like to add, feel free to comment below.

Hydrate early: This is where most people go wrong. Most begin to drink only when they get thirsty. This is a huge mistake. In reality, by the time you’re thirsty, dehydration has already begun to set in. Hydration for a trip should start the day before the event. Make it a point to drink several liters the evening before, and drink several more before you hit the trail. If you’re already dehydrated before you step on the trail, you don’t stand much chance of recovering while in you are in motion. So, drink up. Your urine should be running clear long before you head out.

Platypus Water Bottle

Hydrate often: While hiking, keep the water flowing. You should be drinking water several times per hour, and not just sips. Full on chugs is appropriate any time the temperatures are above the 70’s. You need the water to not only hydrate your mouth, but it needs to get to your organs as well. If you’re sweating, you should increase your drinking even more. Many people like to conserve their water, but I consider this a mistake. You cannot use water that isn’t in your body. If you feel like you need to conserve water, you’ve probably already miss planned and should either start seeking water or heading back to safety. If you are halfway through your water supply, you should be at least halfway through with your hike. You do not want to spend any time without quick access to hydration. Never plan on hydrating once you get back to a water stash at the car either (which you should also have). Consider the very real chance that you could get lost or injured. Injury paired with the heat can spell real trouble. Plan accordingly, and realize that your plans will occasionally go sideways. Sources dry up, injuries happen, and bottles leak. It will happen eventually.

Product (Img 2)

Hydrate properly: Avoid sugary drinks and energy drinks. Anything that can elevate your heartbeat will work against you on the trail. This includes sugar, caffeine, ginseng, and even teas. Your best bet? Pure water, or water with a dash of propel fitness water (or similar). You’ll lose lots of salts as you exert yourself, vital to bodily process like moving and heart beats, so having a few packets of this with you will not only help replenish them, but can also cover up that plastic or chemical taste if you have to treat water.

Plan routes that have access to water: Planning a route that has access to lots of water will not only provide a nice safety buffer, but it will also incentive you to drink more. Knowing you have water coming up will keep you from hoarding it inside a bottle, where it is doing your body no benefits other than extra weight to carry. It’s also nice to have a place to get wet, providing instant relief from the heat. Even consider camp spots that are located near water sources, and check ahead of time to see if they dry up certain times of the year. Just be careful if you plan to swim or drink. Always filter or treat your water, and consider keeping any bodily openings out of the water. You don’t want to trust even the cleanest looking of waters, as bacteria, viruses and such are invisible. So, keep it out of the eyes, nose and ears.

L.L.Bean Maine Warden Day Pack (IMG2)

Break out the cotton: Yes, cotton is rotten, most of the time. However, when it’s crazy hot outside, the same problems with cotton that can cause hypothermia and blisters, can actually be used to your advantage in the heat, if you’re careful. A light cotton shirt, headband, neck band, or bandanna can be soaked in water, providing a nice evaporation cooling layer. If you sweat, it will soak into the cotton and provide a long lasting cooling layer, removing more heat from your body as you walk. Stay away from cotton for areas of friction, such as pants, undies and socks, but the upper body and head are great spots for it. Just pack a quick drying layer also, just in case.

Start early: The heat rises with the sun. The easiest way to avoid the heat of the sun, is to simply avoid the sun as much as you can. Even in the middle of the summer, high temperatures can be avoided by simply getting up earlier. You can start a hike at 7:00am, with cool 70 degree temperatures, or you can drag yourself out of bed by 8 and deal with temperatures that could have already soared to the 80’s, or worse. Want even more relief? Get up before the sunrise. Hiking in the dark is not only much cooler, you’ll avoid the crowds, and likely get to catch some epic sunrises. I like to try to plan my summer activities so that I’m back in time for an early lunch. You can check your local hourly forecast and look at the temperatures. Find a range that you can comfortably hike in, and target those hours. You’ll find that it’s always coolest in the morning, whereas the temperatures only take a slight dip in the evening. If you’re a night owl, you can also head out after the sun goes down too. Just pack extra batteries for your headlamp.

Acadia National Park
Acadia National Park Cliffs Near Camp

Dress appropriately: We touched upon using cotton earlier, but dressing as a whole is also important. Avoid waterproof boots if you can, as they will build up lots of heat, moisture, and likely cause blisters this time of year. Instead, lightweight, breathable trail runners are a good option where feasible. Also, choose lightweight, synthetic or wool socks to avoid trapping excess heat. Counter-intuitive to most, lightweight long sleeve shirts and pants can protect from direct sun contact, preventing sunburn and direct heat transfer. Sunburn (and cancer for that matter) are long-term issues that are easily avoided, and sunblock doesn’t really cut it for longer, sweatier adventures. Fabrics are a better option. Nylon and polyester do a great job of blocking UVs, but cotton and other fabrics can actually let sun, and heat, right through. There’s nothing like a sunburn after wearing a long sleeve all day, so choose carefully. Also, consider a hat that covers your entire face, and if you’re especially fair, some thin UV gloves could be in order.

Thule (6)

Go up: An easy way to beat the heat is to simply out climb it. Higher elevations will net you lower temperatures. For every 1000 feet you climb, you’ll lose about 3.5 degrees F. This can easily be the difference between a 95 degree fire walk and an 80 degree pleasure hike. So, pull out the map, find those peaks, and get moving. This also applies to camping. If you can carry the water, find a high peak with camping sites located on top. Just be mindful of the temperature drops at night, and the possibility of high winds and summer lightning storms.

Helly Hansen QD Cargo 11

Consider biking: If it’s too hot to hike or camp, maybe consider some light biking instead. Biking has the perk that, assuming you keep moving, you’ll have an ever-present breeze created from your own body movement. The faster you go, the faster the breeze. Biking is a great cross-trainer for hiking and backpacking as it works similar but different muscle groups, and opens up new trails for you to explore also. Just scout out a relatively flat, shady trail and you’ll be good to go. And remember, bikepacking is a thing now too.

Garneau Citizen Collection

Take it easy, and pack light: One thing most people don’t do, is take it easy when the heat rises. Plan easier, shorter hikes with the lightest pack weight you can, while still being prepared. If you can avoid overexertion, you can enjoy a safer, more comfortable experience. If you start to get tired, nauseous, thirsty, dizzy, confused, lack focus, or start getting a headache, seek shade, water, and hydrate before continuing. These are signs of hyperthermia and heat stroke, both of which are serious business. Don’t be afraid to tap out.

So, those are just some tips that I like to live by during the summer. Do you have something that I missed?

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12 thoughts on “Hiking and Backpacking in the Heat

    1. Hi! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Given the high temperatures in my local area, it seemed like an opportune time to share something.
      I’d love to checkout Greece! You have some amazing locations out there.

  1. Good comprehensive list of hot weather hiking advise. After one long day of hiking in 90-100 degree heat I was weak, nauseated, and dizzy. I finally realized that I had consumed 11 liters of water but eaten nearly nothing all day. After 2 nuun electrolyte replacement tablets I felt much better and was able to set up camp.

    1. Thanks. You make a great point. I didn’t talk much about eating when it’s hot, but it certainly an important part of it. Especially if you’re going through lots of water, as you’re going to be moving even more nutrients and salts, which food helps replenish!
      I checked out your blog, good work on your first solo!

      1. Thanks for checking it out. I’m sidelined from hiking for a bit so am taking advantage of the time to write about my prior PCT hiking.

  2. Excellent suggestions here and a good, comprehensive list! Depending on where you are travelling, a good insect repellent or insect-repelling clothing may be in order as well! Here in FL, there is a plethora marshes and during the summer they are the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes.

    1. This is great advice! I’m in TN, and while not as bad a FL for sure, we get our fair share of insects in some areas. Mosquitoes are certainly ones to watch out for. Thanks for mentioning that!

  3. Good suggestions- having just finished the GR20 in Corsica hydrate early and often is the going commandments of the trail. The only thing I would add is hydrate late– my hiking partner and I try to down at least 1-2 L after we’re done for the day, and often carry our camel backs around the campsite looking like loons. I’ll also stake my undying allegiance to merino wool as the perfect fabric for all occasions, but cotton as a top is a cheaper and decent alternative. I just find after a few days cotton can smell pretty bad, where wool is a lot less rank.

    1. That’s solid advice! Too many people stop hydrating once they stop or hit camp. In reality, you are preparing for the next day.
      I’m a big fan of wool myself. It dries quickly, can be rather tough, and it’s not at all itchy like it used to be.
      Thanks for reading, and thanks for adding some good tips!
      Congrats on the GR20!

  4. Awesome advice on staying hydrated! I have been educating my younger brother on the importance of drinking several liters of water before hiking. I am a big fan of the wool socks.

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