Blazing Trails: How to Hike, Camp, and Survive the Summer Swelter
By: Ky Harkey
Most everyone has to deal with at least one unpleasant season. In Texas, where I live and play, that’s the brutal summer heat—and this summer has been one of the worst I’ve seen. We’ve set a record for consecutive 100-degree days, watched swimming holes wither away, and lost track of heat-related deaths in national parks.
Every spring in Texas, outdoor educators put their heads together to try to keep visitors alive. As the summer heat increases, leaders in Texas State Parks and other park managers develop social media, signage, and other messaging to prevent heat-related deaths. I did it for 10 years. And each year, on some hot Monday morning, I'd inevitably get the terrible news of a visitor’s death.
The key to summer adventures is to not be cavalier with the heat, while also not being afraid of it. You’ll need to heed the real dangers of hot weather hiking, especially if it’s not something you’re used to, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t explore the outdoors. To help you stay safe and keep adventuring in these conditions, I’ve shared some tips below for hiking in and surviving summer.
1. Know Your Enemy: Signs of Dehydration and Heat Stroke
First, let’s be clear on how and why heat can create life-threatening conditions.
One day, hopefully a long time from now, you will die when your brain or vital organs no longer get the oxygen they need. Where do they get the oxygen? From a super cool process that takes it from the air into your bloodstream. Because our blood is largely made of water, sweating (your body’s best tool for cooling you off) often robs us of the water our blood needs to transport oxygen—especially if we don’t replenish that water as quickly as we lose it. For me, dehydration is most easily recognized through urine output: clear and copious is generally good, infrequent and dark yellow is bad.
Ok, now go grab a thermometer. What’s your current core body temperature? Hopefully in the range of 97 to 99 degrees, or maybe the gold standard of 98.6. Your brain is great at many things, but functioning below 95 or above 104 isn’t among them.
Hypothermia is easy to understand—you’ve probably adventured enough to know what it feels like when our brain gets sluggish from cold environments. You can think of heat stroke as hyperthermia—excessive heat—and it’s a serious medical emergency. Anytime you see someone with an “altered mental status” associated with heat (acting or talking unusually, for example), rapidly cool them and immediately evacuate them to professional medical help.
Dehydration and heat stroke are the potentially fatal heat illnesses we are working to prevent. You can spot these through the symptoms of heat exhaustion, which are your body’s warning signals: fatigue, dizziness, headache, and/or nausea. These are the dangers of summer hiking in Texas and other areas with excessive heat. Below are some strategies to keep them at bay.
2. Be Mindful of Your Trip Selection
Selecting the right trip is the most important tool in the fight against heat illness. Here are a few strategies to keep in mind.
Gain Elevation to Lower Temperature
We Texans often refer to Fort Davis as the “Colorado of Texas.” This small town is 400 miles west of Austin, at almost the same latitude. But tucked in the Davis Mountains at 4,500 feet, it’s routinely 10 degrees cooler than Austin.
As the air “thins” at higher elevations, there are fewer molecules to absorb and retain heat, creating cooler temperatures—roughly 3.5 degrees for every 1,000 feet of elevation gained. You can go deep on that science here, but I’m sure you’ve experienced it.
So, getting to higher altitudes in the mountains is always a good place to start.
Always consider where the sun will be, and what that means for your adventure choices. Got a sweet loop trail in mind? Start in the open meadows when the sun is low and finish along the shade of the creek in the heat of the day. Being along the northside of a hill or cliff means greater protection from the sun and usually more trees, thanks to soils that stay more moist.
These days, we can select for shadier trails using satellite imagery. But, did you know that the green on USGS topo maps specifically indicates a tree canopy where you can hide a platoon of soldiers? That might be helpful during your next game of capture the flag.
3. Prepare for Your Trip in the Heat
You’ve decided on the perfect summertime adventure—great! Here are a couple ideas for getting ready for a hike with some heat.
Embrace Functional Fashion
Lightweight, breathable fabrics are your friends in the summer heat. I wear Patagonia convertible pants and a lightweight, collared, long-sleeve shirt for sun protection. Dark colors absorb sunlight, so aim for lighter shades. And remember, dorky sun hats are a sign of confidence.
Additionally, a wet bandana around your neck helps through evaporative cooling, while also cooling the blood under your skin and blocking sun from your neck. Accessorize your look with the Gossamer Gear hiking umbrella. It allows you to make shade when you can’t chase it, and saved me on the hottest day of the Big Bend 100.
Understand Your Environment
“Everything is trying to kill me.” That’s what I was thinking on day two of pioneering the Big Bend 100. Deserts are harsh environments, and anything you find out there has survived by having even harsher defense mechanisms (good time to plug being ready to patch your air mattress).
Prepare for less water than you’d expect and understand what recent rainfall has looked like to get a better guess at what the springs and tinajas (stone basins that hold water) might look like.
4. Employ Strategies During Your Trip to Reduce Heat
You’re finally at the trailhead, but you see some triple-digit temps in the forecast. Don’t cancel just yet; keep these strategies in mind during your trip.
Remember Timing Is Everything
Every adventure in Texas is doable at some time of the day, but that’s generally not 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. in the summer. Go on dawn patrol to get an adventure in before it heats up, or in the evening when the sun is low and the humidity drops.
Cool Off Before Bed
Truthfully, I rarely camp in Texas in the summer because I’m cranky trying to sleep when it’s hot. When I camped at Inks Lake in July a few years ago, I soaked in the lake for an hour before bed to lower my core temperature. Air dry when you get out to let evaporative cooling do its thing.
Stay Hydrated, Stay Happy
As mentioned earlier, sweat is our body’s way of cooling us. But excessive sweating dehydrates us. If you’ve got good access to water in the morning, I like “power hydrating” by drinking plenty of water with electrolytes to start the day. Drink enough so that you’re peeing every few hours and your urine is mostly clear, but balance that with salty snacks to keep your electrolytes right. Staying well hydrated keeps you safe and performing at your peak.
5. Know of Nature’s Indifference
As Lao Tzu noted, “Nature is not benevolent: with ruthless indifference she makes all things serve their purposes.”
Nature doesn’t care about your FKT or your average daily mileage on the Pacific Crest Trail. Exercising a little humility in new environments can keep you alive. Heat-related illnesses and death are all too common in Texas. Have fun outside, but never let your guard down.
Watch out for signs and symptoms of dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke (covered in the first tip). Always rest and recover when you see early signs of heat illness, and if you see anyone in the heat with an “altered mental status,” rapidly cool and evacuate them to professional medical help immediately.
Finally, make sure to let people know where you are and when to expect you back.
Prepare Well to Stay Safe and Enjoy Hot Weather Hiking
We need our adventure fix, even in unforgiving Texas summers. But the intensity of the heat is no joke. We need to approach every trip and trail with knowledge, preparation, and respect for the heat.
So, as the sun blazes down on the Lone Star State and across the country, let's be humble and look after ourselves and each other. Whether you're a seasoned adventurer or just starting out, heed the signs, stay informed, and always make safety your top priority.
Ky Harkey is the chief adventurer at LoneStarParks.com. He’s spent time as a NOLS backpacking leader, Wilderness First Aid instructor, and director of interpretation for Texas State Parks. In partnership with Gossamer Gear, he developed and co-founded the Big Bend 100, the longest backpacking route in Texas.