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Well it’s finally feeling like summer here in the Black Hills. We took the dogs for a hike this weekend, and the temperature almost reached 100 degrees. If you’re going to hike in this heat with the sun beating down, it’s important to take steps to stay cool on the trail. Dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke are more serious than a lot of people think, so don’t be caught unaware.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t, or shouldn’t, hit the trail in the summer heat. You just want to be smart about it and go prepared. That goes double for your four legged friends. Here’s what you need to know to stay cool on the trail.
The risks of adventuring in the heat
It may seem silly, but even short day hikes can carry some risk when the temperatures climb. This is doubly true in areas where you won’t find shade. Taking steps to abate these risks means more fun outside, for longer periods of time. Most importantly, it reduces the likelihood of a negative experience.
Honestly, this is one of the most common problems that I see on the trail. When we’re out doing the stuff, we need a steady supply of water. You can’t just slam a bunch of water before your leave the trailhead like I used too — the human body will generally absorb about half a liter of water an hour, give or take. Most of us go through a lot of our lives a little dehydrated as is.
That being the case, how serious is dehydration? Pretty serious, especially in a wilderness context.
At just 4% water loss, our athletic performance can drop by 20 to 30%. At 5% we’ll suffer headaches, fatigue, and our decision-making skills will become impaired. As we get more dehydrated, we get less effective at regulating our body heat. Blood pressure will drop, fainting will become likely, and eventually you can expect organ failure. At just 10% dehydration, death is likely.
So yeah, dehydration is serious. But it’s also seriously easy to deal with. Just drink steadily as you hike. Make sure that you bring enough water or that you have access to water sources and any necessary water treatment methods. I like the Sawyer MINI, because it’s light and easy to use, but there are tons of options out there. The important thing is that you regularly drink treated water. It’s really that simple for the most part.
Some people worry about over-hydrating, and while it’s a real thing, it’s not nearly as common as dehydration. It’s called hyponatremia, and it’s what happens when you have too much water and not enough sodium. It’s also pretty easy to prevent — don’t drink more than a liter an hour max, and occasionally add an electrolyte additive like a Nuun tablet.
In simplest terms, heat exhaustion occurs when your body can’t adequately deal with heat. In other words, you’re not regulating temperature well enough. Often this happens when we’re already a little dehydrated and we aren’t producing adequate sweat to help cool our bodies. It can also occur when the humidity is high enough that it makes sweating ineffective. Symptoms will include fatigue, nausea, dizziness, and even fainting.
Treatment includes adequate hydration and resting in the shade or cooler areas. You can also prevent heat exhaustion by staying hydrated, taking frequent breaks to cool yourself, and being self-aware. On hot days, you may not hike as far or as fast as you might on cooler days. It sounds simple, but heat exhaustion can sneak up on you, which is way it’s important to do your best to stay cool on the trail.
While dehydration and heat exhaustion can be serious problems, heat stroke is life-threatening. Heat stroke happens when the body can’t cool itself or is producing too much heat. This can be due to environmental factors like high temperature and humidity, but also from overexertion.
Unlike heat exhaustion, anyone suffering heat stroke will suffer from an altered mental status — they can be disoriented and irritable, and as the condition worsens they may become combative and eventually lose consciousness. They may also experience seizures or hallucinate. Anyone suffering from heat stroke should seek medical attention immediately. They’re not going to walk this one off.
Don’t play coy, you know what a sunburn is — it’s when the UV light from the sun burns your skin. In other words, sunburns are radiation burns. Ouch!
How serious are they? Well a minor burn every so often isn’t the end of the world, but since lots of research suggests that sun exposure can increase the risk of skin cancer, it’s probably better to take some preventative steps. Luckily, these steps are pretty simple. Cover yourself. Long sleeves, a bandanna around your neck, and a ball cap or a wide-brimmed hat are a good start. Protect your eyes with sunglasses that have UV protection.
You already know that it’s good idea to wear sunscreen. So, what SPF do you use? First things first, SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor, and as a general rule, the higher the number, the longer it will protect you from UVB rays. That’s assuming you apply it properly and it doesn’t get rinsed off from being in the water or sweating.
But no sunscreen will block 100% of the UV rays. And the higher you go in SPF the more you’ll see diminishing returns on how effective the sunscreen is. Super high SPF numbers may last longer — in theory — than lower SPF sunscreen, but they only block a slightly higher percentage of UVB rays. And even though they’re supposed to last longer, in reality we sweat a lot of our sunscreen off. Additionally, we seldom apply even close to the amount that we’re supposed to.
And keep in mind there’s also UVA rays. So you want a broad spectrum sunscreen, which blocks both UVA and UVB rays. Apply before you think you need it, and reapply often.
But isn’t sunscreen bad?
Sunscreen has gotten a lot of bad press in the last few years. Some research suggests that some of the chemicals used in many brands can also cause health issues, and scientists are pretty dang sure that some of those same chemicals are killing coral reefs and other aquatic life. Which is honestly just as shitty as a sunburn.
Luckily there are some cool brands that have worked out solutions to these problems. One of my favorites is Thinksport, which uses a mineral formula that admittedly will leave you looking a little pale when you first apply it, but will help prevent sunburn without damaging marine life.
Keeping your dog cool on the trail
Some dogs can run for hours in the sun and never seem to get hot. Others can only take a short walk before getting overheated. A lot of this has to do with breed, color, and fitness level of the dog. Remember, just like people, dogs are individuals. Some just do better in hot weather than others do. They also can’t use words to express when they’re getting overheated, so it’s up to you to be a responsible owner and make sure that they stay cool on the trail too.
Dogs don’t sweat like us, and instead rely on panting as a method to regulate their body temperature. But if the panting gets too heavy or your dogs pants non-stop, they may be getting overheated. Other signs include a glazed over look in the eyes, weakness or collapse, and an increased heart rate. If they’re getting seriously overheated, they may drool excessively or vomit. Their tongue and gums may turn dark red, and at its most serious they may experience seizures.
Make sure that you’re taking plenty of breaks in the shade, giving your dog time to rest and cool down. Make sure that you’re giving them lots of water, as that will also help with regulating body temperature. I always carry enough water for myself and my dogs, and they use collapsible bowls like this one —
Dogs don’t usually have to worry about sunburn, but if your dog has thin fur on its nose or ears, especially white hair, you may want to consider a little doggy sunscreen. I know, it sounds super-hipster, but if your dog has problems with sunburns (and you’ll likely know if they do), this can really help. I like the Epi-Pet Sun Protector Spray, which is the only FDA compliant sunscreen available.
Our dogs Inkling and Ollie have a lot of black fur on their backs, and on hot sunny days, Inkling has a tendency to overheat pretty quickly. One way to deal with this is through evaporative cooling. If it’s windy and the humidity isn’t too high, we get the dogs nice and wet — this functions as artificial sweating, and can help keep them cool.
We’ve also picked up the Swamp Cooler Cooling Vest from Ruffwear for Inkling. This also provides cooling through evaporation —simply soak the vest, wring it out, and then place it on the dog. But it also has the benefit of reflecting solar radiation away from Ink, preventing her from getting so hot in the first place.
It has a leash opening that integrates with her harness, and others from Ruffwear, making it easy to put on and use. It might not be right for every dog, but it has definitely helped Ink stay cool while hiking.
Stay cool on the trail
Whether you’re headed out for a run, a day hike with your four-legged friend, or a multi-day backpacking trip, it’s important to make sure that you’re prepared for the heat. A little bit of prevention can ensure that you stay cool on the trail and enjoy your adventure time during the heat of the summer.