Hiking is a great way to escape from the hub-bub of a busy life, connect with nature, and get exercise. Before stepping onto the trail, some considerations should be made to ensure safety.
We asked Michael Gurnow, author of Nature’s Housekeeper, some questions on how to stay cool while hiking in summer’s heat. *The following are suggestions. Before undertaking a hike of any kind, refer to your physician.
1. When you are walking on a trail, you don’t want to be bogged down by a lot of cumbersome equipment. What are the necessary items that should be taken on a hike that is 2 – 5 miles long?
First and foremost is water. As to how much depends on several factors: What is the challenge rating of the trail you plan to go on? What kind of shape are you in? How hot is it and, more importantly, what’s the heat index? For any novice hiker, the best advice is “Better safe than sorry” because a 2-mile hike might sound easy, but once you factor in physical exertion, climate, and the mental and emotional stress of being in a foreign environment that’s more than likely plagued by flying insects and other alien creepy-crawlies, it can take a toll on a person pretty quick. The day before I bring volunteers out on the trail, I hand them a copy of the “Work/Rest and Water Consumption Table” by the U.S. Army.
A pair of comfortable, broken-in shoes is a must. Nothing will ruin your hiking experience faster than a heel blister midway through a trail. The rookie mistake is assuming you need to rush out and buy a pair of hiking boots just to go over the hills and through the woods. The rule of thumb is not to go hiking in shoes that don’t have at least 75 miles on them. If you want to play it safe, grab a blister pack—which is a type of medicated, gel-like Band-Aid—so if you get a blister, you won’t have to limp back to civilization.
Although the temptation will be there, don’t wear shorts. Slide into a pair of pants and tuck them into your socks. Although late spring is high tick season, I’ve gotten one of the eight-legged vampires when there was snow on the ground. Tick patrol will be easier if you don solid, light-colored clothes as well.
2. When you begin to feel hot, is that the best time to stop walking and take a break?
The human body is an amazing thing. When it gets overworked, it tells you that it’s time for a breather by making you feel tired. When it needs its fluids topped off, it flips on the “thirsty” switch in your brain, which you recognize by your mouth feeling dry. Listen to your body; it’s a smart little machine.
3. What do you do when you feel you are overheating?
Dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke are cunning, malicious beasts. Most hikers that are just starting out aren’t aware they’re suffering from the first two until they get home and realize their head hurts—they’re in the throes of a dehydration headache, which can last for hours. Veteran outdoorsmen and hikers know, “When in doubt, drink it out.”
Keep an eye on your urine. If it’s dark, you need to drink more.
But even with this, water-guzzling mid-level hikers often complain that they’re experiencing dehydration. It might seem paradoxical, but it’s possible to drink too much water: Water lowers a person’s potassium level, which affects the individual’s ability to process and absorb fluids. When this happens, it doesn’t matter how much you drink, fluids are running through you instead of into you. An insider trick is to take a sports drink and dilute it at a 1:1 ratio with water. Before hitting the trail, I also make sure to give myself a jolt of potassium by eating a banana, sweet potato, or tomato.
It goes without saying, if you stop sweating and look down to find you have chill bumps on your arms in the middle of summer, you’re in trouble. This is the tell-tale sign that the person’s in the late stages of heat exhaustion bordering on heat stroke. When this happens, you want to control the temperature of the blood that’s going to your brain: Pour some water on a damp cloth, wrap it around your neck, and lie down. You need to create as much surface area as possible so heat can escape your body. When you’re suffering from severe heat exhaustion, it doesn’t matter if your bed is a field of poison ivy that’s hosting a tick rally: Poison ivy rashes will dry up and ticks can be picked off once you get home alive. Conversely, the effects of heat stroke can last a lifetime, or even end it.
4. For a beginner hiker, what should the length of their hike be in miles? Should the person avoid hilly terrain?
Going on a hike isn’t like taking a stroll down level, paved street or power walking through an air conditioned mall.
As with any new activity, it’s a good idea to start slow. Most state and national parks host beginner trails specifically designed for novices. These are fairly level treks with shallow inclines that run less than a mile. Once you’ve traversed a few of these and have a better idea of what to expect, start heading out on longer trails, but always consult trailhead signs first. These tell you what you are facing before you launch.
Short doesn’t necessarily mean easy. The other thing to bear in mind is that the average rate of speed while hiking is a mile an hour, so give yourself plenty of time while remembering that sunset in the forest takes place much earlier than in the suburbs or countryside because the horizon, due to the hills, is higher and, in the summer, the forest canopy and foliage block even more dwindling sunlight.
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