When I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2022, my biggest fears were bears and injuries. I hadn’t even considered the summer heat as a potential problem; this was one of many mistakes I made along the way.. As it turned out, I only saw 5 bears (all in one day in New Jersey) and was lucky enough to avoid major injuries. But the heat was killer!
The first warm-ish day, the high was only around 70 degrees, but I quickly found myself dehydrated and dizzy. I started stumbling across the trail and nearly lost my balance. Thankfully, I was aware of signs of heat exhaustion and had enough sense to sit down in the shade, sip on some water, and wait for my body to cool down. By the time it was 90+ degrees outside in late July and August, I had become more accustomed to the heat, but it still made hiking extremely uncomfortable and sometimes even worrisome. My clothes were constantly soaked in sweat and rarely dried out because of the high humidity. I chafed in every crack and crevice from the constant sweat and friction. Water sources dried up and made it difficult to stay hydrated. And the loss of electrolytes from heavy sweating caused me to feel more fatigued than usual.
As I continued to hike through the summer, I developed some habits that helped me beat the heat and make backpacking safer and more comfortable. Here are some tips from my own experience to help you stay cool and enjoy the wilderness during those hot and humid summer months.
Hike Early and Late
Many people think the hottest part of the day is at noon, when the sun is at its highest point. But the hottest part of the day is actually in the afternoon, between 3-4:30 pm. When hiking or backpacking in the summer, try to plan your hikes earlier or later in the day when temperatures are cooler. During the summer months of my thru-hike, I found it helped to try and get most of my miles in before 1 or 2 pm when I would stop for a long lunch break. I would also hike later into the evening, getting to camp around 8 pm. The sun doesn’t set until around 8:30 in the summer, so I still had enough time to set up camp and enjoy a late dinner before crawling into bed. By planning your hikes early and late in the day, you can enjoy cooler temperatures and avoid the hottest hours of the day. And if you plan it right, you might be able to catch an awesome sunrise or sunset!
Take Frequent Breaks
When it’s hot outside, don’t push yourself too hard. Take frequent breaks to rest, cool off, and hydrate. During the hottest part of the day, plan for a long break, find a shady spot and maybe even lie down for a nap. I started napping on my thru-hike during the summer, and it was a great way to rest, recharge, and avoid hiking in the heat. Sometimes, I even stopped for 2-3 hours to rest and wait for the heat to pass. The afternoon siesta is one of the best summer backpacking secrets!
It’s common for seasonal streams to dry up in the summer months, so when you do have access to water, use it! It’s a good idea to “camel up” at water sources by stopping and drinking as much water as you can. Then fill all of your water bottles before you start hiking again. Check to make sure you know where your next water source is located and make sure you carry enough water and some extra to get you there. On the Appalachian Trail, I could usually get by with carrying 1 liter of water between sources, but not in the hottest parts of the summer. During July and August, I tried to always carry 2 liters of water- one with plain water and one with an electrolyte solution mixed in.
Speaking of electrolytes, it’s a good idea to carry some to add to your water in the summer. You’ll sweat a lot when hiking in the heat, and your sweat contains a lot of salt. That salt has electrolytes that are essential for muscle contraction and the movement of chemicals in your body. As you sweat and lose salts, you’ll need to replenish those electrolytes with food or drinks. The quickest way to do that when you’re hiking is with an electrolyte drink mix. There are many electrolyte powders available and they can be found in most grocery stores. I like to use Liquid IV or Pedialyte Sport powders, but I know many hikers that use others as well. Try a few at home to see what flavors you like before taking them on a hiking or backpacking trip. When I was thru-hiking, I planned to consume 1 electrolyte mix every day in the summer.
Take a Dip
When it’s really hot, don’t pass up a chance to cool off! Try dipping a bandana or buff in a cool stream and putting it around your neck while you hike. Splash some cold water on your face when you stop to refill your water bottles. And if you find a lake or a river, take a break and go for a swim! When I was thru-hiking, I tried to camp near a water source so I could fill my water bag, hang it from a tree, and let the water drizzle out so I could have a nice cold shower before bed. Just make sure that you don’t contaminate any drinking water sources- move 200 feet downstream to rinse in a stream and don’t use soaps or shampoos at water sources.
If you are hiking or backpacking in areas that are open to the sun, make sure you have sun protection. Apply sunscreen frequently and wear sunglasses or a hat. You can also try a hiking umbrella, like the Gossamer Gear Lightrek Hiking Umbrella, for some added shade and relief from the heat. Or you can wear a sun hoodie to protect your skin from sunburn and shade your face. On the Appalachian Trail, I found most of the trail to be well shaded in the summer months due to tree cover, but many hikers (including myself) got sunburn in the early spring before the trees were fully leafed out.
I think one of the worst parts about backpacking in the summer is the potential for chafing. Nothing is a bigger pain in the butt than a chafed butt crack! The best way to prevent chafing is to keep your skin dry and clean, which can be difficult when you’re hiking or backpacking. The first step to preventing chafing is to choose proper clothing. Remember, cotton kills! Cotton tends to absorb and hold onto water, which makes it difficult to stay dry and clean. Choose clothing made of synthetic or wool fabrics that wick away moisture and dry quickly. Once you’ve soaked yourself in sweat while hiking, I recommend wiping your skin clean at night to remove the salts left behind from sweat and taking time to “air out” when you can. For me, that meant rinsing my skin with cool water before bed and then sleeping in fresh dry clothes. It also helps to rinse your clothes out when you have access to water to get rid of some of the salt. Salty buildup on your clothes can cause more friction and irritation. If you do start to chafe, try treating the area with some powder, like Gold Bond or baby powder, to absorb moisture during the day. Then clean the area and apply Vaseline or Aquaphor at night to promote healing.
Know the Signs of Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke
Finally, before you head out on your next summer adventure, make sure you know how to spot signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke before they become a medical emergency. Check in with yourself throughout the day to make sure you are staying hydrated, and check in with your hiking partners as well. And if you prefer to travel alone, make sure you practice solo hiking safety skills. If you start to notice you are feeling nauseous, dizzy, lightheaded, weak, or thirsty, move to a cooler location and stop to sip some water.
Whether you are going out for a short day hike, a weekend backpacking trip, or thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail through the hot summer months, it’s important to know how to handle being outdoors in the hot summer sun. It’s extremely easy to become overheated and dehydrated when hiking and backpacking in the summer, which can lead to heat exhaustion and heat stroke. You don’t want to end your trip early with a trip to the emergency room, so be careful out there!