By Sylvia Karcz, Contributing Blogger
If you’ve ever been on a hike in what feels like triple-digit temps, with waning water, clothing soaked in sweat, and spirits teetering on exhaustion, it’s possible that you’ve questioned: should I even be out here?!
The answer depends on many factors, but it must be known that hiking in hair-dryer-hot heat is no joke, and a situation can very quickly turn very, very ugly if you’re not prepared. I spoke to a Wilderness EMT (who does ultra-marathons in Death Valley for, like, fun) and a Search-and-Rescue agent (who has worked in extreme desert heat along the southern border for over a decade) and gathered their top safety tips for hot-weather hiking.
And so, here’s what you need to know if you’re planning to do some outdoor adventuring in the heat. Being prepared and minimizing risk are paramount, so heed the advice of the pros, friends, and recreate safely.
Plan Your Hike
Simply put: know your route! Will you be hiking in fully exposed terrain with little to no shade? Or, are there options to duck into the trees for some reprieve? It’s important to know the type of terrain you’ll be in so that you can properly prepare. For instance: if there’s zero shade cover for a ten-mile hike you’re organizing at the peak of summer in the California desert, bring your own emergency shade cover, like an ultralight tarp, just in case.
Generally speaking, however, plan your hike to avoid being super active during peak heat and peak sun if the temperatures are slated to be high. Try and get an early head start, too, before the sun comes out; catching a sunrise is pretty neat, after all!
Also check the weather forecast before you head out for the day (and for the following days if you’re on a longer trip.) If meteorologists are calling for a heat wave or the heat index is insanely high, consider rescheduling. If you have a plan that cannot be postponed –say, an elusive permit in a National Park– take as many extra safety precautions as possible.
Lastly, before you head out, make sure you have good GPS app downloaded and know how to use it. Recording your track can be a lifesaver if you drift off course for any reason. In excessive heat, time spend aimlessly lost can turn into a dire situation very quickly.
Communication is Key
Always tell someone your hiking plans, and make a plan to check in with them after your hike. I know what you’re thinking. But what if it’s a hike you’ve done before, and it’s just a few miles, and the heat doesn’t bother you? Look: It’s always better to play it safe than regret not having done something.
Excessive heat can really affect both your body and decision-making, and surprise mishaps lurk around every corner in the outdoors. Something as minor as a spider bite can leave you completely incapacitated, and if no one knows you’re out there, how is anyone supposed to help, especially if you’re in a remote area?
So, it’s simple: air on the side of caution. And if you’re planning a longer trip or multi-day backpacking adventure, try and find a hiking partner. If solo is the only option, be sure to bring a personal rescue beacon or satellite messenger device (like a Spot Tracker or Garmin InReach.)
Pack Smart & Pre-Hydrate
It goes without saying that water is a lifeline when you’re active outdoors. If you’re hiking in the heat, pack more than you think you need; and then, pack some more. Pre-hydrating also makes a huge difference. Start drinking that H20 the day before if possible, and at minimum, chug some extra water the morning before you set out.
It’s also critical to pack extra snacks, sun cover –like sunglasses, a hat, and loose, light-colored clothing– and layers for unexpected weather changes. While sunscreen won’t keep you cool by any means, it greatly protects against harmful UV light, so be sure to lather up and throw in a small container in your pack, too. Zinc oxide provides the most lasting coverage, compared to regular chemical sunscreen.
Packing a lightweight battery pack for your phone, a small first aid kid, and for longer trips or remote solo escapades, a personal rescue beacon or satellite messenger device, like mentioned above, is also recommended. An emergency shelter, like a lightweight tarp, that can be used as sun cover if need be, is equally a good idea. If you reach a dangerous level of heat, it’s important to create a space where shade and air movement is present.
When you’re in the hiking zone, it’s easy to just keep trudging forth mile after mile. When you’re being active in high heat, though, it’s more important than ever to take breaks, and take them often, to access how you’re feeling, how your pace is, and how much water you have.
Heat exhaustion and illness is a continuum, so it’s crucial to be very self-aware. Know your body, and take notice if you’re feeling off. Although something may seem minor, many slow-growing symptoms can build to a potentially life-threatening problem, so pay close attention to how your body is responding during your hike. If something doesn’t feel right, take the high road by turning around, and save the hike for another day.
Prepare for the Worst & Have a Backup Plan
No one anticipates things to fall apart when you’re on a casual hike, but at any given time, there are unlimited factors beyond our control in the outdoors; like weather, wildlife, and of course, that hot hot heat. And so, be a smart recreationalist. Prepare for the worst, know when to bail, and have a backup plan.
No one’s saying to bring a 50-liter pack on a two-mile hike, of course. But do bring a small daypack, even on a short jaunt, and pack the essentials like mentioned in Tip 3. If the heat becomes too much but you’re on a point-to-point hike, know what your turn-around is, and stick to it.
Know the Signs of Heat Injury
Heat exhaustion sets in fast. It starts off with minor, barely-noticeable symptoms, but can quickly escalate if you don’t heed the warning signs. It’s virtually impossible to reverse heat injury without getting out of the heat itself, so like stated above: know your body, and recognize when something feels off.
If you experience any lightheadedness, nausea, decreased urine output (even though you’re consuming plenty of water) or feel like you’re beginning to sweat less, even it’s still hot outside, these are tell-tale signs that your body is not happy. Listen to it, stop for rest and hydration, and very simply, turn around.
More advanced signs of heat illness include: cramping, tingling, abnormal body pain, loss of appetite, and disorientation arises. If it gets to this point, it’s imperative to seek help. These symptoms are the dangerous beginnings of serious heat injury or heat stroke. Ideally, you want to be smart and take precautions so you never reach this point.