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Keeping Your Cool: How to Stay Safe While Hiking in Summer

Here comes the sun, longer daylight, and irresistible itch to hit the beautiful trails around us. From the stunning vistas of the North Cascades to the serene forests of Olympic National Park, there’s no shortage of breathtaking scenery to explore in Washington state. With all that summer fun comes a hidden danger that can turn an enjoyable hike into a serious emergency: heat. Yep, even in the land of evergreens and misty mornings, the sun can pack a punch. But fear not! With a bit of know-how, you can stay safe and keep on exploring like a pro.

Understanding Heat-Related Emergencies

Let’s break down what we’re dealing with here. Heat-related emergencies generally come in three stages:

Heat Cramps

Heat cramps are painful, involuntary muscle spasms that typically occur during heavy exercise in hot environments. These cramps often affect the legs, arms, and abdomen and are a result of intense sweating, which depletes the body's salt and moisture levels. While heat cramps are the mildest form of heat-related illness, they can be quite debilitating and are an early warning sign of more severe conditions like heat exhaustion or heat stroke. To prevent heat cramps, it's essential to stay hydrated with water and electrolyte-rich fluids, take regular breaks in the shade, and ensure you're not pushing your body too hard in the heat.

Heat Exhaustion

Heat Exhaustion occurs when your body loses too much water and salt through sweating. Symptoms include heavy sweating, weakness, dizziness, nausea, and headache. It's your body's way of saying, "Hey, I'm overheating here!" If untreated, it can progress to heat stroke.

Heat Stroke

Heat stroke is a severe, life-threatening condition that occurs when the body overheats and cannot regulate its temperature. It often follows milder heat-related issues like heat exhaustion and requires immediate medical attention. Symptoms include a high body temperature (above 104°F), confusion, loss of consciousness, rapid pulse, and hot, dry skin. Unlike heat exhaustion, where sweating is profuse, heat stroke can lead to a cessation of sweating, exacerbating the overheating. Without prompt treatment, heat stroke can cause serious complications, including damage to the brain, heart, kidneys, and muscles. If you suspect someone is experiencing heat stroke, call emergency services immediately and try to cool the person down until help arrives.

Tips to Prevent Heat-Related Emergencies

To make sure your hiking adventure is memorable for all the right reasons, here are some friendly tips to stay cool and safe on the trails.

Plan Your Route

Avoid hiking during the hottest part of the day, usually between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Early morning or late afternoon hikes are not only cooler but often offer more wildlife sightings and beautiful lighting. Choose trails with plenty of shade and, if possible, near water sources. Forested paths or trails along rivers and lakes can be significantly cooler than exposed ridge lines. Check out these shaded hikes, as recommended by Washington Trails Association. Don't hike Granite Fire lookout on a sunny day!

Pack Smart

What you bring along can make a huge difference. Here are the essentials for a hot day hike:

Water, Water, and More Water: Hydration is key. Bring more water than you think you’ll need or carry a water filter. Start drinking water well before your hike and keep sipping throughout the day. A good rule of thumb is to drink about a liter of water every hour you’re hiking in the heat. Consider using a hydration pack, which makes it easy to drink without stopping. Pack electrolytes to replenish the salts you lose through sweating. My personal favorite is Nuun sport hydration.

Snacks: High-energy, salty snacks also help maintain your electrolyte balance. 

Sun Protection: Sunburn not only damages your skin but also hampers your body’s ability to cool down. Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 before heading out and reapply every two hours, or more often if you’re sweating heavily. 

Dress Smart

Light-colored, loose-fitting clothing helps reflect the sun’s rays and allows your body to cool naturally. Opt for moisture-wicking fabrics to keep sweat off your skin. And don’t forget a wide-brimmed hat and UV-protective sunglasses. A UV-shield neck gaiter is a wonderful way to keep the head and neck cool, just add water!

Listen to Your Body

Pay attention to how you’re feeling. It’s important to rest periodically, especially in shaded areas. This helps your body cool down and recover. Use these breaks to hydrate and snack on energy-boosting foods like fruits, nuts, and granola bars. It’s better to take it slow and enjoy the journey rather than pushing yourself too hard and risking heat exhaustion or heat stroke. If you’re not used to hiking in hot weather, gradually increase your exposure. Start with shorter hikes and slowly build up to longer ones. Your body needs time to adjust to higher temperatures.

Hiking Together

Hiking with a friend or group isn’t just more fun—it’s safer. You can keep an eye on each other for signs of heat-related problems and assist if one of you becomes ill. You are welcome to join us on any hike!

Know the Signs and take action

Be aware of the symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. If you or your hiking buddy start showing signs, it’s crucial to act quickly. Move to a cooler place, hydrate, and seek medical help if necessary.

Emergency Response

If you suspect someone is suffering from heat stroke, it’s important to act fast:

  • Call 911 immediately. King County Search and Rescue the the awesome organization that is dedicated to rescue hikers (at no cost!)

  • Move the person to a cooler place.

  • Use whatever means you have to cool them down – wet cloths, a nearby stream, or even fanning them.

  • Offer sips of water if they are conscious and able to drink.

Washington’s trails offer some of the best hiking experiences around, but it’s essential to respect the power of the summer sun. By planning ahead, packing smart, and paying attention to your body, you can enjoy your hikes safely and avoid any heat-related mishaps.

Happy trails, and stay cool out there!

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