Active Outdoors: Take precautions in heat, thunderstorms; Hiking season on tap
Of course, it's possible to hike all year long in here in the Northeast. Lots of people do it. Common sense, observation and scientific research all agree that walking and hiking, along with their higher-aerobic cousins jogging and running are, by far, the most popular outdoor recreation activity for Americans.
I have to admit, as much as I love hiking, even in the best of years, I usually don't do as much of it in the spring and summer as I do in the fall and winter. And this definitely hasn't been the best of years for hiking. It seems that, for about four months, every time I wanted to go out for a hike it was raining -- usually enough to keep the turn the trails into running brooks and the running brooks into dangerous torrents.
Then, someone turned up the heat index setting to "Max." So paddling a kayak always seemed like a better choice -- except when there was thunder and lightning about, which was, it seemed for awhile, most of the time.
But now we are smack in the middle of the hottest two weeks of the hottest month of what appears to be a very hot year (are we seeing the future?). The good news is we know this weather will have to break sometime (won't it?) as the days get shorter and the sun angle lowers. We'll still have hot days, but maybe not as many and not quite as hot. And the really good news is that, once it does start to cool at all, the best of "hiking season" begins. Life isn't a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!
Hiking in heat
If you are going to go hiking on a hot day, consider these ideas to make it more fun and safer, too.
• Seek shade. If you are facing a hot, humid day with little or no breeze, consider a trail in the shaded woods rather than one along open ledges (which can turn into reflector ovens on hot summer days). Those open ledges also attract lightning strikes if there's thunder about.
• Dress for success. Think light -- light weight, light colors. When there's no breeze to help cool you, a light. long-sleeved shirt and pants of wicking material can actually keep you cooler in the direct sun. And don't forget that the good guys wear white hats.
• Just add water. I like summer hikes alongside brooks, or which pass by ponds. Hike some, get hot, splash in the water, cool off, hike more, repeat.
• Go early. If you can start your hike at dawn (or even before, by headlamp) you can enjoy the sunrise and the coolest part of the day. If it's a full-day hike, see if you can siesta by a pond or brook in mid-afternoon, then finish your hike as the evening cools.
• Just add water (part 2). Really, the best mechanism the human body has to stay healthy in the heat is to stay fully hydrated. If you are sweating, you need to be drinking. So, be sure you have enough water in your pack for a longer, hotter day than you plan. Then add another 32 ounces. I also carry a SteriPen (steripen.com) which turns almost any water you encounter into a safe source for drinking. Another tip: Make it a point to drink as much as you can hold before you start hiking on a hot day. There's a lot of hype around these days about electrolyte replacements. Personally, most of these are far too sweet for my tastes and often seem to speed, rather than alleviate, dehydration for me.
• Be sensible. Sure you are fit and tough and can hike 50 miles a day if you want to ... but common sense says keep your summer hikes a little shorter and a little less strenuous than that. The hotter it is, the more stress you are placing on your body by exercising. A heat wave is not the time to show you are a hero. The real heroes in that case are the rescue teams who have to come haul you out of the woods if you get yourself in major trouble.
Hot weather means lightning storms. The popular saying among weather pundits is "when thunder roars, go indoors." Good advice, I suppose -- though the only two people I know personally who have actually been hit by lightning were both in their houses when they were struck.
But what do you do if you are out on a trail and miles from any building? There's no magic you can do that will absolutely assure you won't get hit by lightning -- life doesn't offer that kind of certainty. But there are a couple of common-sense steps you can take.
• Keep an eye on the sky for building clouds and approaching lines of storms. At the same time, keep yourself oriented so you know where north, south, east and west are. Most thunderstorms move generally from west to east.
• The instant you see the first flash of lightning or, more likely, hear the first rumble of distant thunder, try to assess where it came from. If it's to your southwest, west or northwest, you are more likely to be in its path than if it's to the east of you. But not always ... so ...
• Try to assess which direction the storm is moving and how much time you've got. Remember sound takes about five seconds to travel a mile. When you hear thunder, start counting seconds ("One one thousand, two one thousand" is close enough.) Five seconds equals one mile.
• Storms usually announce themselves in advance so, if you've got time, move toward safety rather than into danger. That generally means moving downhill, off exposed ledges and away from tall trees.
• If the storm is right on top of you, crouch as low as you can get, standing on just the balls of your feet to minimize the surface area touching the ground. Toss away your aluminum or carbon-fiber hiking poles (both are great conductors of electricity), and get your pack off if it has metal or carbon frame components.
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