Summer Hiking: Beat the Heat and Stay Cool

I have enjoyed hiking trails across much of the eastern United States and endured all kinds of trail and weather conditions along the way. Every region and trail from Maine to Arkansas to the shores of Lake Superior has unique and wonderful challenges, but my hiking heart belongs in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina.

Hikers familiar with the region know how hot and humid summers can be in the Southern Appalachians. Temperatures routinely soar into the nineties with high humidity. That combination is not only uncomfortable; it can be dangerous to the unprepared hiker.

Follow these tips to beat the heat while hiking in the Smoky Mountains, or anywhere else, this summer.

Summer Hiking in the Smokies: Beat the Heat

Stay properly hydrated: This seems so simple obvious that it should not be necessary to mention it. But I cannot tell you how many hot, thirsty, unprepared day hikers I have encountered on trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. These are typically individuals who were driving through the park, drove past a trailhead and decided it would be fun to hike to a waterfall without understanding they were embarking on a rugged three-mile uphill grind.

Hiking in high heat and humidity rapidly depletes your body of fluids. On a hot day in the mountains, a hiker can easily lose a quart of water per hour. This fluid must be replaced to avoid dehydration. If you wait until you are thirsty before you take a drink, you are probably already dehydrated. The more dehydrated you become the less efficient your body is at cooling itself, putting you at risk for heat stroke.

On longer hikes or multi-day backpacking trips where you cannot carry sufficient water to finish the trip, remember that water from streams and other natural sources is not safe and you must be treated for pathogens before drinking it.

I usually filter water from natural sources with a 1 micron filter and/or chemically it with iodine. Quick tip: Put a couple small packages of Crystal Light or Gatorade mix in your backpack. You can use this to mask the iodine flavor of chemically treated water. Gatorade also helps replace electrolytes your body loses along with fluids.

Memo to novice hikers: I made many mistakes when I first started hiking. This is an opportunity for you to learn from my miscues. Hiking, even day hikes takes a bit of advanced thought and preparation. Don’t just set off down a trail on a whim. Wear proper footwear. Flip-flops and strappy sandals are not a good choice on a mountain trail. Most importantly, bring water and avoid dehydration promoting sodas and alcohol.

Eat Snacks When You Drink: Heat and humidity sap your energy and it is not just due to fluid loss. Fuel your body with easy to carry, lightweight, high-energy snacks like trail mix (GORP-“Good old Raisin Peanuts”), granola, and energy bars. Replace salts/electrolytes by eating salty snacks when whenever you take a water break. This will help mitigate the effects heat related fatigue.

Wear A Hat and use sunscreen: A baseball cap or a wide brimmed hat will protect your face and neck from the sun. Sunglasses will reduce eye fatigue on bright days. Sunscreen is important. You may, during the course of your hike, find yourself traversing exposed ridges or cliffs where sun exposure is particularly intense. Apply sunscreen to exposed skin and re-apply it regularly. Sunburned skin makes you feel hotter.

Avoid Cotton Clothing: I learned this one the hard way. Cotton shirts may feel great at the trailhead, but four hours later, you will wish you were wearing anything other than that heavy, wet, sweat-soaked cotton shirt. Wear a shirt made of moisture-wicking fabric that will keep you dry and cool along the trail. I favor light-colored shirts (dark colors absorb heat) designed for runners cross-training athletes and make sure they are loose fitting and comfortable.

Maintain a Moderate Pace: Hiking is not a competitive sport. It is not a race to the waterfall or top of the mountain. Take it easy and enjoy sights, sounds, and scents of the forest or wherever you are. Rest when you feel it is necessary. Don’t push beyond your limits. You are the backcountry, far from medical assistance. Rushing leads to over-exertion and consequently, over-heating.

Use Backcountry Water to Stay Cool: I always take advantage of backcountry streams and creeks when hiking, but not for drinking. Besides splashing the always cold refreshing water on my face and head, I will soak my arms and legs. If it is really hot I will even remove my boots and socks to soak my feet in the water. The cooling is remarkably effective and immediate. Hint: Throw a small towel in your pack to dry your feet afterwards.

On hot days, I also carry a couple of old bandanas in my backpack or day-hiking pack. I soak the bandanas in the cold mountain water and then tie them around my wrists and neck. The resulting evaporative cooling effect is surprising. Give it a try.

Get an Early Start: The obvious benefit of this strategy for the day-hiker is being on the trail during the coolest part of the day. Even on longer backpacking jaunts, I am often on the trail at first light, which allows me to put in a lot of miles before the day heats up.

Know the Potential Problems: As previously stated, you may be in an isolated area far from any emergency assistance. You should know the signs of dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke and know what to do if you or someone in your group exhibits any signs of heat-related health issues.

Following these simple guidelines for beating the heat on a hot day in the mountains will make your hike more comfortable, enjoyable, and safer. Happy hiking!


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