Hiking in Hot Weather by Kevin Ortcutt

The Needles Canyonlands

The Needles Canyonlands

Like many others, my backpacking plans are dictated more by available time than by the weather outside! Getting on the trail means carefully orchestrating time away from all my “big kid” responsibilities. Once I request time off from work, get someone to pick up the kid, and sweet talk my wife into letting me go, I’m committed to that time no matter what mother-nature has in store. So when an oppressive 7 day heat wave scorched New England during my carefully orchestrated time away, I had to take extra care in preparing to handle the heat.

Last year, I spent some time backpacking out West during a heat wave. During that time, I learned many painful lessons about strenuous hiking and backpacking in oppressive heat. I thought it would be worthwhile to share some of those harsh lessons and detail what I did to prepare for a very hot few days on the Appalachian Trail in Massachusetts.

Wait Out the Mid-day Heat

The biggest piece of advice I failed to follow on a trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, was to wait out the mid-day heat! On relentlessly hot days, the middle of the day (Roughly between 11AM and 3PM) is exactly when you don’t want to be hiking.

My father, Uncle, brother and I got caught in an area known as “The Devils Corkscrew” during the heat of the day. The sun was unyielding and you could feel it ripping the energy from your body with every agonizing step!

The Devils Corkscrew” Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon National Park

The Devils Corkscrew, Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon National Park

When we finally reached the Phantom Ranch Campground (at the bottom of the Canyon), we quickly developed a new strategy for hiking out! We woke up at 4AM and were on the trail by 5. We hiked to Indian Garden campground before the sun could have its way with us and waited out the mid-day heat. Around 5PM when the sun was no longer directly facing The Bright Angel Trail we hiked the rest of the way out.

Backpack Weight

This probably seems obvious, but I have to admit I fell victim to carrying way to much weight in the desert. Purge your gear of any items that don’t make sense for hot weather. Do you really need a 35 degree sleeping bag or spare jacket when it’s going to be 70 at night? Do you really need a hot meal after being in scorching heat all day? Or is the cookset / stove just extra weight?

When I hiked down the Grand Canyon I had nearly 40lbs on my back. The following week, when I went into Canyonlands for a 40 mile solo trek, I purged over 12lbs from my pack just in gear that was suitable for New England but not for Utah.

I applied many of these packing principals to my section hike on the AT this week. I left home my Sierra Designs 35 degree sleeping bag (2lbs 10 ounces) and brought a 9 ounce fleece bag liner. I did not bring any type of cooking equipment (although I generally don’t).

Hiking in New England also offers the advantage of being able to carry considerable less water, bringing my pack weight down to 22.7lbs for 3 days and two nights.

Cotton Doesn’t always Kill

A cool trick a park ranger in Zion National Park showed me was to take a cotton shirt, soak it in a river, then put it in a zip lock bag and keep it in your pack. If you ever felt dangerously close to heat exhaustion, put the shirt on and let it cool you off.

Despite every instinct I had to stay away from cotton, I wore a cotton shirt on most days and took every opportunity to soak the shirt in streams. It did exactly what everyone back East warns you it’s going to do. It failed to wick moisture away from my body and therefore helped to cool me down.

It’s important to understand your environment. I don’t encourage anyone to throw on Jeans and your Red Sox T-Shirt to hike Mount Washington, but in the right climate, Cotton can be an asset.

On my AT section Hike I stuck with my normal moisture wicking cloths, however I did pack a light cotton T-Shirt. During the course of the hike I soaked it in streams and used it as a bandana.

Camel Up

Hydration is everything on hot days. When you start to get dehydrated your energy gets zapped, your judgment becomes cloud,y and worse yet you could be setting yourself up for a dangerous and even life threatening situation.

For last week’s section hike, I started hydrating 4 days in advance. I tracked how much water I drank by refilling 1 L bottles. My goal was to drink 6 liters per day on the days leading up to my hike. The morning of my hike started with a 3 hour car ride to Western Mass, where I drank 2 liters of water. During the hike I carried 3 liters of water in a platypus bladder and drank almost continuously. When I stopped to fill the water bladder, I drank another full liter at the water source before setting out to hike again.

Cameling up at water sources not only helped me to stay hydrated, but it forced me to take longer breaks then I normally like to take. As eager as I was to keep moving, in temperatures exceeding 90 and humidity above 60%, breaks are critical.

Walking through marshland on the AT in Massachusetts on a hot and humid day

Walking through marshland on the AT in Massachusetts on a hot and humid day

Chafing Prevention

Perhaps the most unexpected consequence of the heat I encountered out West was chafing. This started after doing the Narrows in Zion (in and out of water) and became much worse going up and down The Grand Canyon. On my way out of the Canyon the reality that my chafing problem may derail the remainder of my trip was setting in.

I won’t go into the details of how heat caused my chafing or the horrendous shape my inner thighs were in, but I will pass along the two tips that allowed me to continue my Western adventure.

  1. Synthetic moisture wicking underwear! What can I say? I got cotton happy in the desert and one area where cotton may not kill, but can certainly be destructive is your underwear. Out West I bought rather expensive Under Armor underwear. Since coming home I have stuck with the “Starter” underoos I picked up at Walmart for $7 and they seem to work just as well.
  2. Body Glide – This stuff worked miracles and it’s now a permanent stay in my backpacking medical kit. I apply it before every hike no matter the temperature because that is one area I never want to encounter a problem again!

Other odds and ends

  • Make sure to eat frequently. Your body is working extremely hard to keep you cool which means your burning through energy very quickly. Keep refueling your body with salty carbohydrate loaded snacks.
  • Take breaks. I mentioned before that “Cameling up” forced me to take longer breaks then I normally like to. In hot temperatures,taking frequent breaks is extremely important in order to keep your body temperature down.
  • Learn the symptoms of heat exhaustion and dehydration.
  • Never miss a chance to go swimming! There is nothing more exhilarating then finding a cool mountain stream to jump into on a hot summer day!

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30 Responses to Hiking in Hot Weather by Kevin Ortcutt

  1. John G. July 25, 2013 at 6:44 am #

    Very good article with some nice tips. Something else I learned from observing Bedouin nomads during my travels in the Sinai is to cover yourself head to toe in light colored, loose fitting clothing. At first, wearing long sleeves and full length pants in hot desert climates seems counter intuitive but keeping the direct heat of the sun from the skin actually keeps me cooler and more comfortable. I wear RailRiders Eco Mesh pants and shirts which have the added benefit of an SPF rating.

  2. Kevin O July 25, 2013 at 6:56 am #

    Hi John, i’m glad you enjoyed the article and your 100% correct on the clothing! When i was in the dryer environments, i wore a long sleeve SPF 50 shirt, and convertible pants. Another thing i wish i included in the article was a Hat. I started my trip with a fancy OR SPF 50 hat, but eventually changed to a cheap cotton hat with a rim that i could soak in streams.

  3. Marc July 25, 2013 at 9:23 am #

    Very true. Being from a mediterrnean country with hot and potentially wet summers i can tell you this is some great advice. Avoiding midday heat is key for comfortable hikes.

  4. Steve M July 25, 2013 at 9:33 am #

    As seen below, hot weather preparation is no joke.

    SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The brutal summer heat proved too much on Tuesday for another hiker visiting The Wave, a flowing sandstone rock formation near the Utah-Arizona border that claimed the lives of a California couple earlier this month.

    Elisabeth Ann Bervel, 27, of Mesa, Ariz., died of cardiac arrest when a medical helicopter arrived too late to save her, authorities said.

    Bervel was celebrating her fifth wedding anniversary with her husband Anthony when they lost their way on a 3-mile, unmarked route back to a trailhead, forcing them to spend extra hours under blazing sun in 90-degree temperatures and humidity.

    Officials said her legs gave out hiking in soft sand, and her husband kept going to find a cell phone signal to call for help. He appeared to be in no danger from the heat or exertion, authorities said.

    “This event once again demonstrates the inherent risks associated with hiking in southern Utah’s desert country,” the Kane County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement. “Even though the Bervels had tried to make sure they were prepared for this hike, the elements proved to be stronger.”

    The Wave is a richly colored geological upheaval, its fiery swirls emblazoned on postcards, posters, maps and computer screensavers. It is said to be one of the most photographed spots in North America.

    The latest death led to further questions about the lottery system that makes it hard to win one of only 20 permits issued a day for the hike that starts in Utah before reaching The Wave in Arizona. More than 48,000 people applied last year for 7,300 available hiking permits, officials said.

    Half of the 20 daily permits are doled out on a walk-in basis at a visitor’s center in Kanab, with up to 100 people showing up for each one. For many, it’s a lifetime opportunity that can encourage risk-taking during the hottest time of the year.

    Anthony and Elisabeth Ann Bervel won their permits in an online drawing seven months ago. Their two sons, 4 and 5, were staying with relatives.

    On July 3, Ulrich and Patricia Wahli of Campbell, Calif., were found dead in 106-degree heat along the barely discernible trail to The Wave.

    Officials at the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument had said they planned to review their policies and procedures for visitors after those deaths. Manager Kevin Wright didn’t immediately return a phone message Tuesday from The Associated Press.

    Kane County officials say the Bervels lost their way a few times on the way back to a remote trailhead during the hottest part of the day, without any shade for relief.

  5. Kevin O July 25, 2013 at 10:08 am #

    By far the biggest mistake we made on our hike into the Grand Canyon was hiking through the middle of the day. The black rock in the inner canyon absorbs the sun’s heat and radiates it back out. So it was 90 degrees at the rim and 115 degrees in the Canyon (115 in the shade. It was 129 in direct sun according to one of the Rangers). We passed a group of Marathon runners who thought it would be fun to go to the Canyon. One of them was feeling really sick from the heat and they made the decision to end thier hike 2 days early.

    It really took its toll on all of us. When we finally reached the Colorado River, we spent a good hour soaking in a side stream before we hiked the last 1.5 miles to the Campground. The experience was eye opening to say the least.

  6. Kevin O July 25, 2013 at 10:14 am #

    Thanks for sharing Steve. Handling the Heat and being properly prepared is something you have to take seriously, especially in such extreme environments. It’s scary to think these poor people went for a 3 mile hike and never made it back.

  7. Dominick P July 25, 2013 at 10:27 am #

    Excellent work Kevin! These tips will come in handy on my next adventure. Can’t wait to read your next article.

  8. Kevin O July 25, 2013 at 10:34 am #

    Thank you Dominick, i’m glad you enjoyed the post

  9. John G. July 25, 2013 at 10:47 am #

    As experienced by the people caught up in that tragic 3 mile hike on the Utah-Arizona border, a big problem with desert travel is that folks too often fail to take into account the heat reflected from the desert sand. A 90 degree air temp doesn’t sound too intimidating to most people but reflected heat can easily add 15 to 30 degrees to the actual temp felt by the human body under such conditions. In addition, inexperienced people can sometimes be misled by so called “dry heat” conditions. Because they’re not sweating profusely, they sometimes wait too long to take effective cooling measures.

  10. Grandpa July 25, 2013 at 11:12 am #

    I learned a few years ago on a November Grand Canyon hike how fast dehydration can drain a person. We were doing a 13 mile day hike in 85ºF temperatures and my friend and I each had a 3L bladder in our packs. On the way back, we dropped our packs and took a 3 mile out and back detour to check on a spring and small waterfall. Once we returned to the main trail and started our 1500′ climb in the sun back to the top, we drank the water bladders dry. Soon, I started to wilt. It was amazing (and scary) to feel all the strength quickly melting out of my body, even after I had trained for months for this hike. My friend runs half marathons and often does rim to rim Grand Canyon hikes, so he shot up the trail to the top to get more water and met me back down the trail. Although I was very weak, I’d made considerable progress. If we’d have checked our water bladders before we went to see the spring and waterfall, we’d have refilled there.

    The next day, we hiked to the bottom and camped and returned the following day. I cameled up until I sloshed before both days and made sure I had plenty of water with me. I also cut my pack weight to about 15 lb. Like you said, there’s no need for a warm sleeping bag or stove if the temperatures are only getting to 70 at night. We didn’t even take the tent to the bottom.

    At the Grand Canyon are many signs reading, “Getting to the bottom is optional. Getting back to the top is mandatory.” They also have posters with pictures of a very buff man reading, “Every year, 250 people are rescued from this canyon. Most of them look like him.”

    Three years ago, I did some summer hiking in the deserts Big Bend region of Texas. The first day, I wore a short sleeve shirt. After that, I wore long sleeves. I’ve since bought a GoLite Chrome Dome hiking umbrella for hot hikes. I got the idea from some Grand Canyon hikers who use umbrellas.

    I love the idea of soaking a cotton shirt in water and putting it in a Ziploc. I’ll use that one.

    Ever since that Grand Canyon hike and a day hike I took with the grandkids in 107ºF temperatures a few years ago when I accidently left half our water in the RV, I’ve been very cognizant of how much water we have. I always try to bring too much. Some friends I’ve hiked with who felt I overdid it became grateful later in the hike.

    Dehydration is a debilitator, then a killer.

  11. Kevin O July 25, 2013 at 11:35 am #

    It sounds like your experiences in the Grand Canyon were similar to mine. We were there on June 22nd so the temperature was just wicked!

    My 1st run in with Dehydration actually happened in the Whites. I know that probably sounds odd given the abundance of water in New England, but my Wife and I hiked the Franconia Ridge line on a very hot July day. When we got above tree line there was no hiding from the Sun and the wind was making any sweat we had evaporate. We ran out of water right as we reached the summit of Haystack and we had to hike 3 miles over Lincoln and Lafayette before descending down a mile to the Green Leaf Hut for water.

    After that experience I have always been very particular about how much water I carry. I’m happy to say, at least for us, having enough water in the Canyon wasn’t a problem. The bigger issue was getting out of the Sun. The inner Canyon had very few places to hide.

    I plan on doing that hike again some day when my son is old enough to go with me. The two things I would change would be to go during the spring or fall and I wouldn’t even attempt to hike during the middle of the day.

    • Grandpa July 25, 2013 at 5:37 pm #

      I hiked Franconia Ridge a couple weeks ago on a hot, muggy day. I checked with hikers coming down the Falling Waters trail as to how many more stream crossings I had ahead of me. At the last one, I finished all my water and loaded up all my water bottles (almost a gallon) and was very glad I had them along the top. I drank most of it before I refilled at Green Leaf on the way down.

      I met a trail patrol guy just before I filled at the last water crossing on Falling Waters. He asked me how much water I had and I told him I still had almost two liters. He said that should be enough to get all the way to the bottom but I wasn’t about to take any chances and drank that water and refilled at the creek and then again at the hut.

      I take an electrolyte mix with me on the trail and add it to my water after the treatment chemicals have had time to work.

      Water is heavy, but my entire body gets much heavier without it.

      • Kevin O July 25, 2013 at 9:32 pm #

        If you can hit that trail when it’s not to crowded it’s one of my favourite hikes in the world. I’ve done it in all four seasons and its a completely different experience each time.

        It’s funny, when you prepare for a hike in the whites above tree line you prepare for sudden and dramatic changes in weather. In the end it wasn’t a freak July snow storm that threatened to ruin my trip, it was not bringing enough water. It was a lesson I won’t soon forget!

        • Grandpa July 26, 2013 at 12:37 am #

          This was our first trip to that area. I’d planned a Presi Traverse but the weather didn’t allow it. I had all kinds of cold weather gear with me, including Yaktrax in case of ice, but was surprised at the heat. I thought we’d left Texas for New England to escape it. It was cooler in Dallas some of the days while we were up there!

  12. Tim July 25, 2013 at 1:01 pm #

    I think it helps to have a hydration plan and set goals for how much water you should be drinking. Having a watch that beeps every 15 minutes can be a reminder to take a sip. At a minimum drink on the top and bottom of the hour. Then at midday check everyone in the group to make sure they are not way behind on how much they should have consumed. 100 degrees in the west with 6% humidity can feel quite comfortable, a lot of people don’t realize how much water they lose because it evaporates and they don’t feel sweaty.

  13. Grandpa July 25, 2013 at 1:10 pm #

    After a couple bad experiences with hydration bladders leaking and also the Grand Canyon misadventure when I didn’t know how much I had left, I quit using hydration bladders and just clip several water bottles to my shoulder strap and a couple extras in my pack. I’m disciplined enough now to drink what I need.

    When hiking with the grandkids, they don’t generally drink enough when I clip drink bottles to their shoulder straps, however, they love the novelty of drinking out of a large straw. I prepare full hydration bladders for them and they will drink adequate amounts when out of the bladder. When I hit water on the trail, I’ll fill up some bottles that I’ve emptied and treat them for use when I finish off more water.

  14. Hikin' Jim July 25, 2013 at 1:50 pm #

    Good article.

    I too cover up a lot, and in areas where I know it won’t get cold even at night, I do wear cotton.

    An important thing for me, particularly on hot weather backpacking trips is fairly meticulous water planning. I hit hiking boards, looking for and asking for first hand, current observations regarding water sources.

    Not only do I research location and and reliability, I plan the trip such that I pass by water points frequently enough that I can be assured a decent supply — although in dry country, it may be 24 hours or more between refills. I’ve also learned, at least in my experience, that about 6L to 7L per person per day is about right in hot, dry conditions. Sucks to carry, but far better than running dry.

    Lastly, if it’s really exceptionally hot, I may have to substantially modify or even cancel a hike. I hate to do it because job and family obligations already limit my hiking, but doing a hike on a dangerously hot day simply because the day is free isn’t worth it to me.

    HJ

  15. Kevin O July 25, 2013 at 1:50 pm #

    A few years ago i bought a water bottle with a built in filter that attaches to the end of a straw. I generally dont carry a stove so i dont need water for cooking and i thought this would eliminate the need for me to carry a bladder.

    I found that i simply dont drink enough water if i carry a bottle. With the hydration bladder i’m sipping and drinking all day. With the bottle, i have to stop, get the bottle, drink, then put it away. I hate stopping! So i just didnt drink enough water!

  16. Steve July 25, 2013 at 2:46 pm #

    Nice article. I especially agree with the cotton cooling suggestion. I made an extra large bandana out of cotton fleece for this very purpose. It holds a lot of water when wet and I get significant evaporative cooling when I drape it in the the back half of my large sun hat–covers ears and back of neck for sun protection also.

    Another tip is to make a lightweight “sun tarp” out of a SOL “Heat Sheet”. These are not very strong but they hold up much better than mylar and last about one summer with careful use. My weighs in at 5 oz–after mods.

  17. Kevin O July 25, 2013 at 2:49 pm #

    HJ
    I agree 100% about researching the reliability of Water in dry country. On the 2 backpacking trips I took out west (Canyonlands and the Grand Canyon. I also went to Zion, but did 2 great day hikes) I spoke to Park Rangers the day before my hikes to ensure that Rivers and Streams on my maps didn’t dry up and I would actually be able to find water there.

    The Grand Canyon had a good # of streams and had established campgrounds w/ clean water sources so it really wasn’t a problem.

    Canyonlands on the other hand had only 1 water source for the entire 40 mile stretch. The Park rangers said it was in good standing. Had they not, I would have canceled the trip.

  18. Kevin O July 25, 2013 at 2:50 pm #

    I brought a 5×7 backpacking tarp for that purpose. I didn’t end up using it because I was able to find natural shade for the most part.

    The good part about living in New England is, unless your above tree line, you generally have plenty of shade.

  19. TimRules July 26, 2013 at 1:31 am #

    Bodyglide is also fantastic for preventing blisters – heels, between the toes, wherever – great stuff.

  20. OCDemon July 27, 2013 at 2:49 am #

    Sometimes the wet t-shirt is the only way to go, and if you’re just going to be soaking wet anyway, at least a water-soaked t-shirt is less dirty than a sweat-soaked one.

  21. Marc July 28, 2013 at 12:39 pm #

    I think the writer left something out: napping. I usually go for a multi day hike on August/july and my routine is waking up very early (5:30 at latest), hike until 12 or so, have lunch, set up my tarp or find a spot in the shade and take a good nap. After the hottest hours, I keep on until I decide to call it a day.

  22. Marc July 28, 2013 at 1:42 pm #

    Oh, and about the water, I was once doing a bike tour, and there’s around 40 km “wilderness”. We didn’t take enough water, and, what is more, we lost 1.5 L in the most stupid way. It was a very hot August and we really had a bad time until we found a stream that we dared to drink from! Ironically enough we were following a river and that valley had been turned into a dam so water was there, even if we didn’t dare to drink from it! So I’ve made it a point to carry a lot of water. Yesterday I climbed a mountain in the Pyrenees and at every water source I drank at least half a litre of water and filled my reserves (2.5L) to the top. I don’t risk dehydration again!

    • Kevin O July 28, 2013 at 2:38 pm #

      Both good points Marc. Rest and hydration are key. I didn’t take naps during my hikes out west, but I certainly rested and did as little as possible. Find some shade, write in your trail journal, read a book, but most importantly, stay out of the heat.

  23. John Coyle July 30, 2013 at 1:55 am #

    Interesting story about a friend of mine who is a retired concrete worker here in Sacramento where it got up to 110 this summer. He worked outside all summer in the heat and he said his company switched from cotton shirts to synthetic, but the concrete workers had too many cases of heat stroke, so they switched back to cotton. Cotton does not always kill, and in fact can help in a very hot climate.

  24. Francesd August 2, 2013 at 10:29 am #

    I learned some of the same strategies on a GC r2r hike several years ago, but it did not prepare me for what I experienced on an Ozark Highlands Trail thru-hike in the middle of June. Temps were upper 80′s and some 90′s with humidity out the roof. My wicking long sleeve became so saturated that it wouldn’t dry during the day or even overnight. Tucking in the shirt was a must due to ticks. The back area where my pack rest was 10 degrees hotter than the rest of my body (desperately needed a pack w/ back ventilation). I switched to a short sleeve after day 3, stopped wearing my UL hat to allow more heat to escape (the OHT is mostly wooded w/ shade), stopped using a UL mosquito net to increase air circulation around my face, and soaked a bandanna every chance I got. Stopping at mid day just didn’t work in the Ozark Mountains where most of the trail is along thick wooded slopes and lots of ticks and mosquitos. On at least two occasions I felt signs of heat exhaustion over the 12 day trek. I knew it was dehydration because I was drinking 3-5 liters a day. What I learned? Don’t hike the OHT during the summer. If anyone is interested in the trip report, here it is: http://www.trailjournals.com/entry.cfm?id=422993

    • Kevin O August 2, 2013 at 7:29 pm #

      Frances,
      I read and thoroughly enjoyed your trail journal on the OHT. I honestly know very little about the OHT and I really enjoyed your post.

      If I ever get out to the OHT I will take your advice on when to hike it seriously!

  25. Texas Dreamer August 2, 2013 at 10:15 pm #

    When I was on the AT for the first time in 2005, I found myself on the first day standing dumbfounded staring at a spring trickling out of rock right next to the trail. A fast hiker, as he was blowing by, asked,” Texas or Arizona?”. “Texas”, I answered. “You’ll get used to it!”, he said. I never did, even this year on a short section in the flooded Wautaga area, I carried too much water. My friend, who has escorted kids at Philmont 6 times, carried at least three liters every day , while wading through flooded trail! She just wasn’t used to taking water for granted.

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