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Hot Weather Camping and Hiking Tips

By Kent Trulsson

For many of us, summer vacation is the peak season for camping and hiking.  But the warmer summer months can expose you to additional hazards and comfort issues not present during the cooler seasons.  Most of these hazards can be minimized with smart decisions, proper equipment choices and extra care.

Insect populations rise with the temperature.  Mosquitoes in most of the country now can carry the West Nile Virus, so it is imperative that you use a combination of protective clothing and insect repellent to prevent or minimize mosquito bites.  Lightweight, long-sleeved shirts and long pants minimize exposed skin.  Some clothing comes with imbedded insect repellent to help keep bugs at bay.  In heavily infested areas such as Alaska, bring a head insect net, with a brimmed hat to keep the netting off the face.  Use insect repellent on all skin not otherwise protected.  Ticks potentially carry Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.  Apply insect repellent on exposed skin on your legs, and on your lower pant legs and socks, and check yourself each night for ticks.  In areas with heavy tick infestations, hikers should tuck the bottom of the pants legs into their socks.

Snakes are much more active during the warm months.  Make yourself aware of the poisonous snake species that inhabit the area you will be hiking and camping in, and be able to identify and know the habits of each.  Many snakes will be most active during the warm summer night, and cooler parts of the day.  They may be found sunning in the morning, but in deep shade during the heat of the day.  If poisonous snakes are present, do not walk around without a flashlight at night, and watch where you step and reach, so that you can avoid contact with snakes.   Snakes only bite as a last resort—keeping your distance will keep you safe.  Carry a suction-type snake bite kit and know in advance how to use it.

The biggest health hazard during the summer is hyperthermia, or increased body temperature, usually accompanied with (and caused by) dehydration.  There are two main forms of hyperthermia: heat exhaustion and heat stroke.  The more common and less serious form of hyperthermia is heat exhaustion.  Symptoms include thirst, headache, dizziness, nausea, rapid pulse, rapid breathing and exhaustion.  The skin of a person suffering from heat exhaustion may be cool and wet from sweat.  Since the causes of heat exhaustion are dehydration and excessive heat, rehydration and cooling are the obvious treatments.  Give cool, slightly salted and sweetened water to the victim.  Pour cool water over the head and upper body of the victim, and fan the victim to create evaporative cooling.  It may take an hour or more of rest to allow for full rehydration.  Mild heat exhaustion causes no permanent damage if caught early and treated quickly.

The more serious, potentially fatal, form of hyperthermia is heatstroke.  Death from heatstroke can occur within 30 minutes of first diagnosis.  In the classic form of heatstroke, a sick or old victim has been subjected to high temperatures and humidity over a period of several days, leading to severe dehydration and elevated core temperatures.  The more likely form of heatstroke affecting a summer hiker is exertional heatstroke.  The victim is often young and physically fit, but generating body heat faster than he or she can lose it by sweating.  Symptoms include a noticeable change in mental function, such as disorientation, irritability, or incoherent speech.  Skin is hot and red, and usually (but not always) wet with sweat.  Heart rate and breathing are rapid.  Symptoms can start suddenly, without any prior signs of heat exhaustion.  In this form of heat stroke, the core temperature is approaching 105°F, literally cooking the brain.  Quick and aggressive first aid is essential—the body temperature must be lowered quickly to prevent death.  Move the victim to shade, remove most clothing, and apply cool water and ice packs to the head, neck, armpits and groin.  If the victim is conscious, give cool drinks to begin the rehydration process.  Heat stroke victims should be evacuated to a hospital as quickly as possible.

While most of the above health hazards can be easily controlled with a bit of diligence, comfort may be more elusive as the temperature climbs above 90°F.  Wear lightweight, loose-fitting, light-colored clothing that provides UV protection while still allowing for evaporative cooling.  When the humidity is low, use a wet bandana around your head and neck to increase evaporative cooling.  Avoid getting sunburned, which will only make the high temperatures even more uncomfortable.  Use sunscreen on all exposed skin, especially when in reflective environments like the beach or on the water, or at high altitudes where UV radiation is stronger.  Wear a wide-brimmed hat (not just a baseball-styled hat).  Stay well hydrated, preferably with iced drinks, to keep your body’s sweating function at full capacity.

In extreme heat, do what the locals (that is, the wild animals) do.  Schedule the most strenuous activities for the cooler parts of the day.  Hike from daybreak until noon, then lay low until the evening.  Center your afternoon activities near or in water, to stay cool.  Stick to the shade in the heat of the day, and hike in open sunny country in the morning.

When setting up a tent in hot weather, you should find a shaded site, especially if you plan to use the tent at all during the day.  Even if you are setting up your tent after the sun has set, choose a site that was in the shade during the afternoon.  Bare ground absorbs heat from the sun during the day, and radiates it back out into the air during the night.  Cooler ground that was shaded during the afternoon will be more comfortable to sleep on than ground that was in the sun.

Choose a tent that has the maximum amount of screen area on all sides of the tent, extending very close to ground level, so that cooling breezes can flow over you on the floor of the tent as you sleep.  A tent with a fly that can be removed and replaced easily is a plus.  Any covering over the screened inner wall of the tent will hold heat.  In general, larger volume tents will feel cooler than low, small footprint tents that keep the occupants close together.

If your tent is large enough, a cot that suspends your body above the ground will be cooler than sleeping on a foam pad that would trap body heat.  Another alternative is an old-style air mattress, without any foam filling (i.e., not a Thermarest.)  Sleeping bags will probably be too warm for hot weather use--sheets and an optional light, breathable blanket are a better choice.

Battery operated fans can make a huge difference in night tent comfort.  Choose a model with rechargeable D-size batteries which will run all night on a single charge.

With proper attention to the above health and comfort issues, summer camping and hiking can be both safe and enjoyable.

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