Sunny days are perfect for lacing up your boots and heading out in search of an alpine lake, a mountain summit, or a dramatic slot canyon. But, along with the sun can come intense heat, and if you don’t manage the combination of the two properly, your fun day can turn into a painful and potentially dangerous one.
To learn how to have a good time and stay healthy in hot weather, check out the following:
- Planning tips: Choose where and when to hike
- Clothing and gear tips: The right clothes can keep you comfortable
- Health tips: Protect yourself against sunburn, dehydration, overhydration, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke
Planning Tips for Hot-Weather Hiking
Thinking about when and where you’ll be hiking is an important step in planning a successful hike in hot weather. Keep in mind that it can take 10 days to two weeks to acclimatize to high heat, so be cautious and take it slow on your first few hikes when the weather warms.
When to Hike
Avoid the hottest time of day: The hottest time of day is usually around noon to 3 p.m. On scorching days, it can be best to avoid this time altogether by getting an early start and ending your hike by early afternoon, or heading out sometime after 3 p.m. If you can’t avoid hiking during the warmest hours, try to plan your trip so you’ll be in the shade or near a body of water during that time.
Go for a night hike: If you live in, or are visiting, a hot locale, scorching temperatures can be uncomfortable (or even unbearable) during the day, and hiking at night can bring relief.
Clothing and Gear Tips for Hot-Weather Hiking
Dressing appropriately for a hike can go a long way toward keeping you comfortable.
Choose light colors: Wearing light colors that reflect the sun’s rays rather than absorb them (as dark colors can) helps keep you cool. Look for shirts, shorts and pants in white, tan or khaki.
Wear loose, breathable clothing: Lightweight, loose-fitting clothing that breathes well will help your body regulate temperature. Nylon and polyester are good choices.
Cotton can be OK: You’ve heard it before: cotton kills. Cotton has a bad reputation in the outdoors because it absorbs lots of moisture and dries very slowly, which can create an uncomfortable and dangerous situation on wet and/or cold days. But in hot and dry conditions, the moisture can feel good against your skin, and as it evaporates it will leave you feeling cool.
You must be careful when wearing cotton though. Make sure you’re OK with the feel of wet cotton next to your skin (some people just don’t like it) and that it won’t cause chafing if it rubs against your skin. More importantly, if there’s any chance you’ll be out when the temperatures dip in the evening, carry a change of clothes or choose to wear synthetics instead of cotton.
Open vents: Some shirts, shorts, and pants designed for hiking incorporate vents. Opening these up on a hot day helps improve airflow.
Choose UPF-rated clothing: All clothing blocks the sun’s rays to a certain extent, but clothing that has a UPF rating is guaranteed to provide protection. Common ratings include UPF 15, UPF 30 and UPF 50+. Learn more in our Sun Protection Clothing Basics article.
Cover up: It may seem counterintuitive to put extra clothes on in hot weather, but the added coverage can provide necessary protection from UV rays, especially for people with sensitive skin. A lightweight long-sleeve shirt, sun sleeves, and a neck gaiter can provide effective protection.
Put a hat on A hat provides essential protection from the sun for your face and neck. A baseball cap provides OK shade, but a sun hat with a brim that goes all the way around is even better.
Cool your neck: A bandana, sun-protective neck gaiter, or other lightweight cloth can be dunked in water and worn over your head or around your neck to keep the back of your neck cool and covered while the water evaporates. Special polymer-crystal-filled neck scarves maintain moisture for even longer periods of time.
Wear the right socks: Never wear cotton socks (choose wool or synthetic instead) and make sure they fit well. Socks that are too big can have wrinkles that rub and socks that are too small can create pressure points and sock slippage.
Carry a hydration pack: It might seem like a small difference, but having a sip tube always at the ready will make you more likely to hydrate frequently than if you have to reach for a water bottle.
Bring a squirt bottle: When the going gets rough, plan a sneak water attack on your hiking buddies, or use the mist setting to create a cooling cloud whenever you need it.
Health Concerns for Hot-Weather Hiking
Sunburn, dehydration, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke are some of the most common health concerns related to hot-weather hiking.
Sun-protection clothing is one good line of defense against the sun, but don’t forget to put sunscreen on exposed skin to help prevent sunburns. Sunscreen is absolutely essential on hikes in the sun. Always read the directions on your bottle of sunscreen, but here are the basics:
- For hikes lasting longer than 2 hours, choose a sunscreen that is SPF 30 or higher.
- Apply sunscreen liberally 15 minutes before sun exposure
- Reapply after 40 or 80 minutes of swimming or sweating, immediately after towel drying, or at least every 2 hours.
It’s important to drink adequate water when you’re hiking in hot weather to prevent dehydration. Dehydration can leave you feeling crummy and possibly contribute to other heat-related illnesses, such as cramps, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke.
How much you need to drink while hiking depends on a number of factors, such as temperature and humidity, your intensity level, your age, your body type, and sweat rate, as well as the duration of your hike. A good general recommendation is about a half-liter of water per hour of moderate activity in moderate temperatures. From there, you may need to increase how much you drink as the temperature and intensity of the activity rise. For example, strenuous hiking in high heat may require that you drink one liter of water or more per hour. As you gain experience, you’ll be able to fine-tune how much you drink.
If you’re hiking with your dog, remember they need water, too. In a dry location, plan to carry enough water for your pet and bring along a small, packable bowl.
The flip side to dehydration is overhydration or hyponatremia. This is a fairly rare condition that mainly affects endurance athletes such as marathon runners, ultrarunners and triathletes, but it’s something that hikers should be aware of.
In hyponatremia, sodium levels in the blood become so diluted that cell function becomes impaired. In very extreme cases, hyponatremia may cause coma and even death.
The symptoms of hyponatremia are similar to dehydration: fatigue, headache, and nausea causing some athletes to mistakenly drink more water and exacerbate the issue.
Preventing overhydration: The key to preventing overhydration is to monitor how much you drink.
- Don’t overdrink—Stick to drinking a few gulps of water about every 15–20 minutes and try not to drink more than you sweat. Weight gain during exercise is a telltale sign that you’re drinking too much.
- Add salt—Keep your salt levels balanced by occasionally drinking a sports drink with electrolytes instead of plain water and/or eating a salty snack, such as pretzels. You can also take salt tablets.
Heat cramps are painful muscle contractions that can happen suddenly during exercise in hot weather. It can be helpful to view heat cramps as a warning that you’re pushing your limits and that you need to slow down. It’s not known exactly what causes heat cramps, but to help avoid them, make sure you’re properly hydrated. If you get heat cramps, do some gentle stretching to try to alleviate the pain.
Heat exhaustion is your body’s inability to cope with the stress of heat. It can occur after lengthy exposure to high temperatures and is often accompanied by dehydration.
Symptoms of heat exhaustion:
- Heavy sweating
- Rapid pulse
Treatment for heat exhaustion:
It’s important to treat heat exhaustion immediately if you or another hiker is showing symptoms.
- Get out of the heat: Look for a shady spot and lay down and rest. Remove any excess clothing. If there aren’t any trees to provide shade but you have a tarp, use it to block the sun.
- Rehydrate: Drink plenty of water and if you have electrolytes or salt tablets, use some of those.
- Cool off: It can feel good to splash cool water on your face and head. If you’re hiking near a lake or stream, dunk your head or dip a bandana or hat in the water and put it on your head.
How to prevent heat exhaustion:
- Take time to acclimate: You need to ease into hiking in hot weather. It can take 10 days to two weeks to acclimatize, so be cautious and take it slow on your first few hikes of the season.
- Stay hydrated: Make sure you’re drinking enough fluids. A half-liter per hour is a good starting point, but you may need more depending on the intensity of the hike.
- Wear appropriate clothing: Choose lightweight, loose-fitting clothing that allows your body to regulate temperature and a sun hat that will shade your face and neck.
- Rest in the shade: If you need to take a break, take the time to find a shady spot rather than toughing it out under the hot sun.
- Know what you’re capable of: Be honest about your level of fitness and choose hikes that complement that.
Heatstroke occurs when your body literally overheats. It is a serious medical condition that can strike fast and requires immediate medical attention. If you see a hiking partner displaying symptoms of heat exhaustion combined with a change in mental status, he or she may have heat stroke. Pay particular attention to these signs:
- Throbbing headache
- Nausea and vomiting
- Body temperature of 104-degrees-Fahrenheit or higher (if you have a way of measuring body temperature)
Treatment for heatstroke:
- Cooldown: It’s necessary to rapidly cool a person with heatstroke. Lay the hiker down in the shade, remove extra clothing and use cool water and fanning to lower their temperature. If you’re near a lake or stream, you can attempt to lay the hiker down in the water, taking care to keep their airway clear. Also, be aware that rapid cooling can cause hypothermia.
- Hydrate: If the hiker is alert enough to hold a water bottle, get them to drink water.
- Evacuate: Heatstroke can cause internal organ damage, so get the hiker out as soon as possible and head straight to the hospital for further evaluation.
How to prevent heat stroke: Follow the same tips for preventing heat exhaustion.
If you want to be better prepared to respond to medical emergencies in the outdoors, consider taking a wilderness medicine course.