Hiking in the heat

Friday June 22, 2012


It’s 89 degrees in the shade outside my office as I write this, and, looking online, it seems my little piece of heaven is cooler than most places around New England today. It’s still officially spring, (summer arrives in just over two hours), but it sure feels like summer.

Two facts: First, hiking/walking is still by far the most popular outdoor pastime; second, summer is when most of our hiking trails and backcountry campsites see most of their traffic. So with a big holiday week ahead, you know a lot of people are going hit the trails.

Any time you leave the road behind and go exploring, it’s a good idea to have at least some clue about what could go wrong and how to avoid it. I’ve written before on the essentials to carry on any hike. If you need a refresher, drop me an email.

But the heat of high summer in many ways mimics the cold of deep winter: It’s easier to get yourself in trouble in extremes of heat or cold. One bad backcountry decision can make you awfully uncomfortable. Two can kill you.

Yeah, I know I sound alarmist sometimes, but hyperthermia (heat exhaustion/heat stroke) and thunderstorms in summer can be every bit as real and dangerous as hypothermia and snow are in winter. Why not pay attention and be safe and comfortable while you are having fun?

Here are my hints for safe, fun hiking in the summer:

n Get up early! Summer mornings are an absolutely magical time for a hike (or, for that matter, a bike ride or paddle outing.) The world is quieter and, most important, cooler early in the morning. Most people have a set distance they want to hike in a day. Summer days are so long that, if you start at first light (or even before with a headlamp) you can get in your three, five or even 10 miles before the heat really builds.

If you are climbing a hill, it’s a bonus to get going early and be on top to watch the sunrise.

Sunset hiking can be nice, too, but the day’s heat sometimes lingers into the dusk and you’d better be prepared for night hiking if your journey takes longer than you initially thought.

One note about hiking at dawn and dusk on hot summer days: Mosquitoes tend to be more active then, so be prepared with repellent or bug-proof clothing. This isn’t a bad idea even if you are hiking mid-day.

Deer flies can be annoying and a longer hike might take you into mosquito time.

n Choose your route with the sun and heat in mind. Trails that cross open rocky ledges can be ovens on a summer afternoon, while trails that follow flowing brooks in the shady forest can seem 20 degrees cooler than the ambient air temperature (and you can always splash in the water to cool off).

n Human beings are passive solar collectors, so if you want to stay comfortable, cover up when you’re in the sun with light-colored, lightweight clothing. And drink lots of plain water, not sugary drinks with caffeine. Even if you have a means of purifying it, water sources along trail are often unreliable in summer, so make sure you carry

n Don’t go out on open ledges if you hear thunder or see storm clouds. That’s just common sense. Summer hiking is meant to be fun, so do it safely!

Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy! Tim Jones is the executive editor of the online magazine Eastern Slopes.com and writes about outdoor sports and travel. Email: timjones@easternslopes.com.


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