Hot & Cold
– John Ruskin (1819-1900)
The validity of the above quotation depends on one thing – your level of preparedness for the conditions at hand. If you are not prepared, then even the most enlightened, positive thinking of hikers will have a hard time convincing themselves that driving rain, high winds and 2° celsius is anything but crappy weather. Preparedness in the wilderness manifests itself in two principal ways:
- Having the appropriate clothing & equipment for the conditions at hand.
- Having the skills and knowledge with which to adapt to whatever Mother Nature throws at you.
Five points to keep in mind when hiking in hot conditions:
- Proper hydration (see Hydration in HEALTH & SAFETY).
- Timing your day.
- Sun protection.
- Lightweight, breathable clothing.
- Appropriate footwear.
TIMING YOUR DAY
- In hot, largely shadeless conditions, particularly when water sources are scarce, do the bulk of your hiking whilst temperatures are cooler (ie. early morning, late afternoon and early evening). It works like this: Begin your hiking day at sunrise. Walk until 11am. Find yourself a shady spot, ideally by a water source, and rest until 2 or 3pm. Make the most of your extended break by eating your main meal for lunch, thus enabling you to hike into the early evening without having to worry about cooking a big dinner. By following such a strategy, it is possible to make do with less water because you are resting rather than exerting during the hottest part of the day. Less water equates to a lighter pack, which in turn means less energy spent and more enjoyable hiking.
Whilst spending 10 hours plus in the sun day after day, hikers need to protect themselves from the sun’s harmful rays. Preventative measures include:
- Sunscreen: Broad spectrum with an SPF rating of 30+ is recommended. Generally needs to be reapplied every 3 to 4 hours depending on the conditions and the level of activity.
- Hat: Wide brimmed or Foreign legion type. A cap combined with a bandana for neck protection is a good combination. For years I have worn an Adapt-a-cap. It still ranks as my favourite sun hat.
- Umbrella: If you are walking in an arid shadeless desert an umbrella is hard to beat for the shade that it provides. Not so great in high winds.
- Sunglasses: Especially important for the snow. Go for practical rather than fashionable. This means larger lenses, which either wrap around or have removable side shades. Polarized lenses definitely make a difference in minimizing glare.
LIGHTWEIGHT, BREATHABLE CLOTHING
- Avoid cotton, which tends to retain moisture, stick to the skin and takes a long time to dry.
- Long sleeved shirt and pants made of breathable synthetic materials (see Clothing in GEAR section) are ideal for maximum protection whilst hiking in areas devoid of shade.
- Tip: When walking in arid environments try and soak your shirt and hat at each water stop. Another tip is to soak a second shirt and store it in a sealable plastic bag inside your pack. When the first one dries, break out the second.
- Shoes: In hot, dry or humid conditions, go as light and breathable as the dictates of your feet and weight allow (see Footwear in the GEAR section). Avoid waterproof footwear in such conditions as it cuts down on the shoe’s breathability, causing your feet to sweat excessively which can lead to blisters. Ditto for leather boots. If you are ever going to try hiking in running shoes or low cut trail shoes, hot environments are the place in which to do it.
- Socks: Thin ankle or crew sized synthetic or synthetic wool blend socks are ideal for hiking. They wick moisture away from the skin and are lightweight and quick drying. Avoid heavy or thick wool socks. Always wear socks that fit. Too much loose material will result in friction and excessive moisture. Socks that are too tight restrict circulation and swelling can result.
When hiking in cold, wet and windy conditions the goal is to stay dry and warm. The trick is to do so without overheating. The solution? The Layering System.
By dressing in multiple lighter layers, as opposed to a single thick or bulky layer, the hiker is able to adapt more efficiently to a wider range of conditions. Layers can be removed or added according to the weather and/or exertion level at any given time. Ideally your clothing selections should compliment one another, so that each layer works together as part of a flexible overall system designed to maximize efficiency and minimize duplicity (ie. redundant items, which equate to needless extra weight). For a detailed look at the layering system, see Clothing in the GEAR section.
For more information and opinions on the Layering system, check out Mark Verber’s Outdoor Clothing and Footwear.
Head, Hands & Feet
In cold conditions, you can lose a significant proportion of your body heat via the head, hands and feet. These are the areas, which due to their high surface to mass ratio, are likely to feel the cold first. You may be decked out in the puffiest of down jackets and pants, but if your extremities are not properly protected, chances are you will be miserable. In the event that your extremities are exposed to extreme cold for an extended period, you run the risk of incurring frostnip or frostbite. See Clothing in the GEAR section, for an overview of protective options for your head, hands and feet.
In cold, wet and windy conditions, the ill equipped and inappropriately clothed hiker runs the risk of hypothermia. Hypothermia results from a drop in the body’s core temperature due to exposure. Other factors that may contribute to the onset of hypothermia include over-exertion, lack of food and fluids, immobility and lack of shelter. Whilst often associated with below zero temperatures, it is worth noting that hypothermia can occur any time that wet and windy conditions are prevalent.
Hypothermia is far easier to prevent than it is to cure. Take the necessary preventative measures and chances are you’ll be fine.
- Awareness: Watch the weather and know your limitations. If conditions aren’t good and you’re feeling exhausted, don’t hesitate to set up your shelter and call it a day.
- Appropriate clothing / Watch the Extremities: Use layering principles. Pay particular attention to the extremities. Your head, hands and feet constitute your body’s initial warning system in cold conditions.
- Avoid sweating: Don’t overdress which can lead to excessive perspiration, which over a prolonged period can result in a lowering of body temperature. Constantly monitor yourself and remove or add layers accordingly.
- Short breaks: The longer you stop the colder you become. When the weather turns nasty, keep breaks short and to a minimum. If you are taking a longer break, consider putting on an extra layer.
- Food: During the day eat high-energy snacks at regular intervals. Before going to bed, your evening meal should emphasize fats and proteins, which are processed slower by your digestive system, thereby keeping you warmer during the night.
- Hydration: When conditions are cold and the sun is no where to be seen, hikers often forget to drink enough water. Big mistake. If you are dehydrated you are more susceptible to hypothermia (see Hydration for details).
- Emergency Shelter: Carry an emergency shelter such as a space blanket or even a lightweight tarp.
Symptoms of mild to moderate hypothermia include: shivering, loss of balance and coordination, loss of dexterity in the fingers and a slowing in the response mechanism.
The immediate objective is to prevent further heat loss. For mild to moderate hypothermic cases:
- Find shelter.
- Remove wet clothing.
- Put on something warm and dry. Get into your sleeping bag.
- Eat high-energy snacks such as chocolate.
- Drink warm fluids.
- If you are shivering and happen to be hiking in a group, share your sleeping bag with someone who is warm and dry.
For symptoms and treatment of severe hypothermic cases, as well as a comprehensive overview of other cold weather maladies, click on the following link from Princeton University’s excellent Outdoor Action Website.