Summer is peak-season for hiking and backpacking. But when the forecast calls for hot temps and sun soaked trails, it’s important that extra care is taken with regard to health and safety while on trail. By making smart choices with regard to hydration, nutrition, pace and schedule, heat and UV exposure can be managed safely and with relative ease. But always keep in mind that hiking during heat waves or in otherwise extreme conditions is unsafe. In those cases, it may be advisable to reconsider your plans altogether.
What follows is a list of on trail tips for backpacking in the full on heat of summer, with an emphasis on helping people to avoid making the same mistakes that I have. This list of tips is not a comprehensive or definitive guide to hiking in the heat and assumes you already have the basics down.
Lastly, be sure to check out this article’s partner which focuses on gear tips
Know your water sources. When water is scarce, it is extra important to know where your next two or more sources are at all times, and how much water you need to carry between them. I recommend memorizing the day’s water situation each morning, and rechecking at each fill up. Understand and estimate your personal rate of consumption, factoring in terrain and temperature, and carry as much as you need to comfortably get to the next source, with a buffer. If your next water source is unreliable, make sure to also carry any additional water that would be necessary to ensure you can make it to the second closest source by rationing, and the third closest in a survival scenario.
Consider how your food interacts with heat. Have you ever reached into a bag of chocolate covered pretzels only to find that the chocolate has liquified and it’s a complete sticky mess? Have you been grossed out by the dreaded cheese or meat sweats? Some foods just don’t fare as well in hot temps. Ultimately, you may have to avoid some types altogether. For the most part, this means no soft cheeses, chocolate, fresh food, etc. But consider also where and how you pack your food. Keep your primary food bag cool by stuffing extra gear on top of and around it, such that it is insulated from your back heat, as well as the outside and top of your pack where the sun hits it directly.
Salty snacks and electrolytes. Trail mix, energy bars, dried fruit, chocolate, and jerky. Only one of the five most common hiking snacks is typically salty and savory, the rest are sugary and sweet. One out of four is not a good ratio for hot weather. Make sure that for every sweet snack, you have at least one salty snack to pair it with. In hot weather you’re going to sweat a lot and replenishing electrolytes is a must. You might even consider supplemental drink tablets!
Siesta schedule. Try taking a big, mid-afternoon break somewhere shaded, rather than pushing through to camp in direct sunlight and heat. By doing so, you’ll save energy, feel better, and experience less discomfort than by hiking during the day’s hottest, sunniest hours. Plus, you won’t arrive at camp early with nothing to do but sit there and roast. During the summer’s hottest months, there is usually lots of daylight to spare, so most itineraries can accommodate resting and hanging out around lunchtime.
Actually make yourself hike slower. Truly, this is harder than it sounds. I know it’s especially tempting to push harder and move fast when you want to get out of the heat and sun, or if you’re hungry or thirsty. But maintaining a steady walking pace of 2 mph or less optimizes energy efficiency and will keep your engines running the smoothest.
Reapply sunscreen more often than you think. For me personally, the line between skin safety and sun burns falls in between two to three hits of sunscreen per day. If you’re hiking a full day in exposed terrain, I recommend applying sunscreen as you break camp in the morning, again just before lunch, and for a third time in the mid afternoon, with the contingency of compressing the schedule, and adding in a 4th application if things are really intense. If you’re wearing pants and a sun hoody/shirt, you should only need to cover your hands and face!
All hiking conditions come with their own unique set of challenges. But don’t discount the joys of heat either! Nothing is more relaxing than sprawling out and sunbathing next to a backcountry lake! So stay cool, stay safe, stay hydrated, have fun, and happy hiking!