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Hot Weather Backpacking: Not Too Hot to Handle


PaulMags

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In an ideal world that seems to only exist in outdoor gear catalogs, all our backpacking would take place in temperatures that are 65F during the day. Our nights would be a cool and crisp 45F or so. A few delightful sprinkles of rain would occur to add some atmosphere and perhaps a change of scenery to delight photographers. Otherwise there would be perpetually sunny skies with only a few clouds. Clouds to form interesting shapes that materialize as movie characters, castles, or butterflies in our imagination.

Backpacking in Hot Conditions

It ain't the heat, it's the humility. - Yogi Berra

And no doubt the animals would sing catchy tunes similar to a Disney cartoon and there would be a beer stand greeting us when we finished our trip too. But the world is not ideal. It rains. It gets cold. The wind whips on a mountain pass. Snow becomes slushy and icy.

If backpackers wait for the ideal conditions to backpack, we’d never actually backpack. More succinctly, to again quote the wise sage known as Yogi Berra: “If the world was perfect, it wouldn’t be”. And so it is with hot weather backpacking. The weather can become hot. And sticky. And dry. The conditions are not ideal by some standards. But anytime we have to backpack is precious.

And all conditions are beautiful, challenging, and rewarding in their own specific way. Hot weather backpacking is no different. With the appropriate gear, planning and mental attitude, hot weather backpacking can be a delight.

Hot Weather Backpacking Defined

As with all aspects of backpacking, the term “hot weather” is an elastic one.

Our hypothetical 65F day would be a heatwave near the Arctic Circle. Or the same temperature could be a cold front for daytime temps in the Sahara.

For the purposes of this backpacking discussion, anything more than 85F would be considered hot weather backpacking for anyone used to a more temperate climate. Additionally, hot and humid conditions are often going to require different methods and techniques versus hot and dry conditions.

Considerations When Backpacking in Hot Weather

Backpacking in hot conditions requires extra planning and preparation.

Why Hot Weather Backpack?

In many ways, hot weather backpacking is the mirror image of winter backpacking: the conditions are a bit more challenging and a backpacker has to pay more attention to these conditions.

Having proper hydration, clothing, shelter, sun protection, adequate hygiene, and knowing when the conditions are too extreme for safe backpacking are all aspects of hot weather backpacking that have to be examined.

Much like winter backpacking however, time is too precious to give up to ignore opportunities to be outside. And when the sage smell is carried on a warm breeze, the desert wildflowers are blooming and the reflection of the light from the setting sun is on the rocks, you know why you backpack in the hot weather.

Preparing for Backpacking in the Heat

Choosing your footwear for a hot weather hike will have many factors, including terrain and pack weight.

Footwear and Foot Care

For hiking in hot weather, traditional full leather boots are rarely a good choice. Your feet will not breathe too well in addition to becoming very hot. Blisters, rashes, and even athlete’s foot are very likely. Trail runners with excellent ventilation will help keep the feet cooler and allow for air circulation. A lighter sock is suggested for this footwear.

Concerned about debris? A pair of short gaiters will help to keep the shoes clear of pebbles, dirt, and other debris without adding much weight and still allow the feet to breathe reasonably well.

If the terrain is rough, your pack is heavier, or if you are not confident in the use of trail runners, there are many traditional ankle-high boots with mesh material that also breathe well versus traditional leather boots.

Regardless of the footwear choice, socks should be changed at least twice a day. Let your feet air out. Clean your feet a bit with a bandanna, let the feet dry, and then put on a fresh pair of socks.

For multi-day trips, a popular technique is to rinse out the socks and then dry them out on the pack while hiking. Switch to that pair at the next break. For more on footwear selection across the seasons, see our hiking shoes and boots guide.

Selecting Clothing for a Hot Weather Hike

Proper sun protection is a must while hiking in hot weather.

Sun Protection

While sun protection is very important no matter the season, proper sun protection is a must in hot weather hiking. Besides protection from harmful UV rays, proper sun protection will help keep you cooler and more comfortable while hiking in hot weather. The hiking aspect of backpacking can be prolonged and will be more enjoyable.

Some aspects of sun protection are as follows:

Sunscreen

A minimum of SPF 15 sunscreen is suggested by dermatologists for all skin types. While sunscreen does offer the advantage of being quick and easy to apply, a lot must be carried for multiday trips. Sunscreen may also collect dirt and sweat. Hygiene will be hindered. I find sunscreen is best applied to areas where clothing choices do not protect from the sun as optimally. Some personal examples are the tip of my nose and my cheek bone area.

Headwear

Anything from a simple ball cap to a French Foreign Legion style hat to a wide brimmed hat is favored by many backpackers. I find a hat is superior to sunscreen for reasons noted above. I prefer a wide brimmed boonie-style hat paired with a cotton bandanna underneath. The wide brim protects the ears and the back of the neck in addition to the front of the face. In addition to the sun protection, the evaporative moisture from the bandanna underneath my hat helps keep me cooler. Naturally, a bandanna is also a very handy multi-use item (example of different uses for a bandanna: Washcloth, potholder, first aid, etc.). Soaking a bandanna at a stream crossing and then placing under the hat or even worn around the neck is very helpful in hot weather.

During hot and humid hiking, I find a cotton bandanna is often the only the headgear I need, otherwise I get too hot. The tree cover and some lightly applied sunscreen is typically the only sun protection needed for my head and face in these conditions.

Hot Weather Backpacking

Tree cover, even sporadic and sparse, can offer opportunities to rest in the shade.

Shirts

In hot and dry conditions, a long sleeve shirt helps create a microclimate similar to the bandanna and hat combo above. Your sweat evaporates from the body and the moisture stays trapped inside the shirt. This microclimate helps you stay cooler. Additionally, long sleeves help immensely with sun protection.

A long sleeved button down is more versatile than a light “technical” shirt. If more ventilation is needed, very easy to unbutton the shirt or roll up the sleeves. The collar of a button down shirt also helps with sun protection.

In hot and humid weather, a short sleeve shirt is probably preferable as ventilation is more important than a microclimate to retain moisture. However, hot and muggy weather tends to be more insect prone. The bug protection of long sleeves should not be discounted.

Many experienced backpackers prefer a light colored cotton button down shirt for hot weather hiking over a nylon shirt or similar. My personal preference is for a light colored poly-cotton mix button down; usually a recycled dress shirt of some sort. I find this type of shirt breathes well, dries quickly and is more durable versus a cotton shirt. I have worn nylon button down shirts and have found them inferior to the poly-cotton mix shirts for backpacking. Others may have different preferences.

Shorts or Pants?

Shorts do provide more ventilation versus pants and are often preferable to long pants depending on the hiker.

Long pants, however, do provide more sun protection, creates a microclimate in hot and dry weather and can provide bug protection as well. If there is off-trail travel with a lot of brush or scrambling over rocks, long pants are strongly recommended. I found out the hard way when walking cross-country in Arizona regarding the utility of long pants!!

Handwear

For anyone particularly prone to sunburns, very light gloves are sold strictly for sun protection. A less expensive option favored by some are cotton gardening gloves. Found at any hardware or even grocery stores and only a few dollars. They are not quite as durable as the sun protection gloves but are a more budget minded alternative.

Umbrellas to Stay Cool while Backpacking in the Heat

Using an umbrella during breaks can be a great help above treeline or in areas with no shade available.

Umbrellas

Many backpackers find an umbrella to be fantastic sun protection. For breaks and while hiking, the total protection offered by purpose-built backpacking umbrella is favored by many. A dedicated hiking pole user may find using an umbrella difficult. Naturally, an umbrella is not as efficient for more technical terrain.

Sunglasses

Typically when the conditions are hot, intense sunlight is encountered as well. Sunglasses are a key component in sun protection. Sunglasses help block the glare of course. But also protect the eyes from UVA and UVB radiation. There are many sunglasses to choose from and are available from various sources.

A surprisingly good choice for outdoor sun glasses are safety glasses meant for construction jobs. These sunglasses are light, durable, and flexible. They are typically designed with a “wrap around” style for more complete eye protection. And they are often very inexpensive.

Shelters

In hot and dry conditions, I find cowboy camping to be the best method for sleeping outside. With my blanket as the stars above, it is very easy to get fully immersed into nature. A tarp is always packed in case of inclement weather of course. Waking up and seeing the Milky Way above is one of my favorite memories from sleeping under the stars.

Summer Camping

Admittedly, most backpackers would not be terribly comfortable with that type of sleeping arrangement. A shelter with ample mesh is suggested in that case. A single wall tent composed strictly of some sort of nylon material will not breathe well and will become very hot.

For hot and humid conditions that are typically insect prone, a similar type of shelter is suggested. Hot and humid areas also tend to have more trees. For that reason, a hammock shelter is very popular in these areas.

Cowboy camping is still possible, but some bug netting should be brought. I’ve used something similar to mosquito netting sold for cots. I then set up the mosquito netting with my hiking poles. At about four ounces, the weight penalty was slight and I was still able to sleep under the stars in the way I prefer.

Sleeping Systems

In many areas where hot and dry conditions are prevalent, the nights can be cool or even cold. Such areas as the Colorado Plateau or the High Plains are high in altitude and will lose heat at night. A sleeping bag or quilt with a lower temperature rating will often be needed. A corresponding sleeping pad with a good R-value (how well a pad insulates; the higher the number, the better) will also be required.

Conversely, in hot and humid areas, the nights often stay warm and do not cool off. A lighter sleeping system is optimal.

Sleeping Bag or Quilt

In hot and dry areas with the typically cooler nights, a 30F rated sleeping bag or quilt seems to fit a wide range of conditions. Colder sleepers may want a sleeping bag or quilt rated for lower temperatures.

Lizard in the Sun - Hot Weather Hiking

In hot and humid conditions where the nights do not typically cool off, a 40F bag or quilt is not only adequate but usually preferred. Synthetic insulation more tolerant of humid conditions versus down insulation and is a choice for many in these types of conditions.

In both hot and dry or hot and humid conditions, I personally prefer a quilt since I can ventilate a quilt more on hot nights. Additionally, I can layer with clothing more effectively on colder nights.

Sleeping Pads

A shocking surprise to many people is how cool the hot and dry areas, typically found at a higher altitude, may become at night. A blow up air mattress with an R-value of 1 is usually not enough. A closed cell foam mattress is light and has enough of an R-Value to be adequate. Naturally, other sleeping pads with higher R-values will work.

Sleeping in hot and humid conditions? A pad is typically brought more for comfort than insulative warmth. If using a hammock shelter, a light or even no underquilt is more than adequate.

Stoves, Cooking, Food and Hydration

Stoves and Cooking

In hot weather conditions, the stove of choice may not only be dictated by the weather, temperatures or personal preferences but also by current fire conditions. In the increasingly fire prone American West, Esbit or alcohol stoves have become restricted in their use during times when wildfires are prevalent. Needless to say campfires or wood burning stoves are banned in the backcountry during these times, too.

White gas and canister stoves are the choice for stoves during these fire bans. Canister stoves are lighter but less efficient for group use versus white gas stoves.

Another choice is to simply go stoveless. Less water is needed when dry camping and a cold meal is sometimes preferable if the day has been particularly hot.

For hot and humid conditions, the choice of a stove comes down more to personal preference more so than any restrictions in place. There are exceptions. But those restrictions are rare compared to the drier American West. So far.

Check for Fire Restrictions - Hot Weather Backpacking

Be mindful of fire restrictions, particularly in hot, dry environments.

Food

The choices of food preferred for hot weather hiking is not that different from three-season backpacking. The exceptions are that I generally try to avoid anything that will easily melt in my pack such as chocolate bars or food that is particularly heavy on the stomach such as certain types of cheese or meats.

What I do prefer more so than other times of the year is salty food. Chips, pretzels, and similar are all something my body craves as I am sweating throughout the day.

Hydration

Rather intuitively, most of us know to drink water when hiking in hot conditions. I find a conservative rule of thumb is to pack a liter for every five miles hiked between water supplies. Add a two-three liters if dry camping (not camping near a water source). Obviously this rule of thumb changes based on the person, exertion levels, or temperatures. But I find it is a rule of thumb that works for many people.

One issue to be aware of is hyponatremia. Essentially, drinking too much water without enough salt intake. Hyponatremia rarely happens to most backpackers if eating the typical food carried for meals and snacks. For the hikers that blur the line between ultra-running and fast hiking in hot weather, hyponatremia may be more of an issue.

Though heavy, sports drink powder is found to be helpful. Besides providing electrolytes and salt, the sports drink powder will make water more palatable and encourage hydration.

Backpacking in the Desert

Finally, in the hot and dry areas many cactus, prickly shrubs, brambles, or similar abound. A hard sided water bottle or two versus a soft sided container is preferable as a primary water container. More than one backpacker has had a bad encounter between a cactus and their soft sided water container that did not end well.

A large soft sided water container safely inside the pack is usually fine for hauling extra water however.

Rain Gear

As odd as it may sound, adequate rain gear is important to pack during hot weather conditions.

In the high altitudes found for most hot and dry areas, a rain storm the moves in suddenly can cool things off rapidly. Rain gear is needed as much for warmth as rain protection. Light rain gear, pulled out only as needed, works well. A windshirt and umbrella combined is another option popular for many on-trail situations.

Hot and humid? The rain is often welcome relief. Rain gear rarely breathes well in these conditions. I often prefer to get wet from the rain rather than wet and hot from my own sweat. Still, be sure to pack some rain gear in case a cold front moves in and the weather does become cool and wet.

Pack

For hot weather hiking, no particularly special pack is needed.

The only caveat is that during hot and dry hiking, and the scarce water resources that typically accompany this type of hiking, be sure to have a pack that can haul the bulk and weight of the increased water capacity needed.

Hiking Early and Late to Beat the Heat

Other Hot Weather Hiking Tips

  • Start the day when the weather is cooler. A desert sunrise is also beautiful and more wildlife is out.
  • Adopt a “siesta strategy”. Take a break in the middle of the day when the heat is at its peak. Perhaps eat your larger meal at this time. Hike again when the day is cooler and into twilight. Hiking into the desert twilight? Magical.
  • In hot and humid weather in particular, personal hygiene is very important. While dirty hiker trash is often used a sign of affection amongst thru-hikers, it is not good to be literal dirty hiker trash. Sponging off at night helps prevent rashes, chafing and what is colloquially known as “monkey butt”. As funny as the name may sound, an inflamed part of the body due to inadequate hygiene, sweat and salts is not funny at all. It is rather painful, actually.
  • Keep your feet as clean as possible too during hot weather hiking conditions. Athlete's foot and the resulting dry and cracked skin is not a comfortable predicament.
  • Even with proper hygiene, rashes and chafing may happen. Body Glide or similar rubbed along the thighs help prevent this predicament. And if you do come down with monkey butt? There’s an ointment for that, too.
  • As with extreme cold weather, please do not hike in extreme heat if it can be avoided. Know your limits. Less miles hiked per day is preferable to getting yourself in a medical emergency. Heat exhaustion or even heat stroke are real possibilities if not paying attention. Hike when it is cool, stay properly hydrated and do not exert yourself beyond your capabilities.

Final Thoughts

Hot weather hiking is another marvelous way to see the outdoors. Whether it is seeing the dogwoods bloom in the southern Appalachians or seeing the first sego lilies blossom on the Colorado Plateau, nature reveals itself in special ways during this time.

All seasons should be embraced and not avoided for experiencing the outdoors. The outdoors experienced without once smelling of sage in the desert air or the fragrance of thick vegetation of an ecosystem thriving with life? It is an outdoors life that is missing some wonderful memories.

Hot weather hiking has its challenges. But it also has its beauty. With adequate gear, preparation and the proper attitude, hot weather backpacking will enrich the experiences had in the outdoors for anyone.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in Issue 28 of TrailGroove Magazine. You can read the original article here.

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