Sometimes my trail Tuesday posts start to feel like a steady string of PSAs. Perhaps I’m just becoming a worrier as I age. No matter, today I have yet another trail safety post, this time about staying sun safe in the mountains.
Being a ginger, I am no stranger to sunburns. Being a sissy when it comes to heat, I am also no stranger to minor heat stroke. In other words, sunshine and heat are no joke, and their effects are only amplified when hiking in the mountains. At altitude, less UV rays are blocked by the Earth’s atmosphere, something to the tune of 4% for every 1000 feet of elevation! Combine this with exertion, sweating and heat and you have a recipe for heat stroke and/or sunburn. Yikes!
sun safety for sunshiney trail days
1. Carry extra water: I used to carry tiny ass bottles of water for full day hikes. I never got thirsty. I have no idea why. That changed suddenly and inexplicably a few years ago when I started to experience dehydration in a big way and needed to carry tons of water. I have never experienced such a feeling of mental anguish and physical defeat as when i dropped my last water bottle off the side of the mountain at the tail end of a 32 km day hike in 30+ degree weather. I had to hike out the last 2.5 km, which doesn’t sound like much but it feels long when you’re thirsty, and then had to drive another half hour to get to any form of beverage-selling civilization. Even though I had consumed a full 2 L of water on the hike (before I dropped the last bottle), I was still kicking myself for not having more. Carry a lot of water. A lot.
2. Cover yourself: Wearing a hat, light-weight long-sleeved shirt and pants keeps the rays off your skin, meaning no unsightly sunburns. I used to think it was way hotter to hike in pants, but I’ve found as long as they’re loose fitting and light-weight fabric, they actually feel cooler than shorts. Plus, no one has to suffer the sight of my alarmingly pasty white legs. And don’t forget your sunglasses, particularly if you’re hiking anywhere with snow. Sunshine + snow = hella glare that you don’t want to deal with for hours on end without the benefit of sunglasses. Even if you’re not near snow, the effects of sunshine on your eyes can be quite damaging without UV-blocking sunglasses. If you’re like me and enjoy the wonder of sight, you do not want to mess with your eyes.
3. Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen: I know, I know, sunscreen’s not actually good for you either. At least there are more and more natural sunblocks available on the market so you don’t have to fear that you’re trading off a sunburn in exchange for toxic chemicals. As I mentioned, hiking at high altitudes will make the sun’s rays even more damaging to your flesh, even if you think you don’t burn. One summer years ago, I had been hiking so regularly that my legs were beyond needing sunscreen for the average hiking excursion–or so I thought. Then one day I spent 2.5 hours on a ridge top in unobstructed sunshine and it proved to be too much for my delicate flesh. Between the length of time and higher elevation than my typical hikes, the backs of my legs were done like dinner. I have never had such a defined sunburn line nor a stark contrast between burned and normal flesh. In fact, the line of the sunburn was visible for months. Months. So yeah, wear your sunscreen (see also: cover yourself).
4. Watch for signs of heat stroke: Sometimes heat and exertion will just get the better of you. Pay attention to your body when you’re hiking in the sunshine. Yes, you’re going to get warm hiking in the summer sunshine, but there’s a difference between being hot and heat stroke. Keep an eye out for the following symptoms: headache, dizzyness or light-headedness, rapid heartbeat, nausea, weakness or lack of sweating despite heat. I’ve had mild heatstroke only a couple of times and it was noticeably different than just being hot and tired and, in my case, was definitely due to pushing the limits of distance and elevation gain in high temperatures without sufficient food and water. I’ve learned my lesson. If you see early signs, pay attention and act accordingly (i.e. do something to try to cool yourself down and avoid further overheating), instead of stubbornly continuing to climb upward as I did. That expression do as I say and not as I do is meant for people like me.
Okay, now I promise (I think) to avoid PSAing you to death. From now on in, you can just enjoy your hiking season.