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!
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.
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.
Hydration is everything on hot days. When you start to get dehydrated your energy gets zapped, your judgment becomes cloudy 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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!