HIKING ESSENTIALS: WEATHER SAFETY
Mother Nature is unpredictable. It isn’t possible to know with absolute certainty what she will throw your way on a hike. However, a little forward thinking can help prevent you from being left out in the cold, rain or heat.
1. Precautions for winter
Are you hiking over an area with a frozen body of water, but unsure of the safety of the ice? With large bodies of water, you’ll want to be sure that the ice thickness has been tested before venturing onto it. However, when hiking in areas with frozen rivers, creeks, etc., you can test the ice yourself before putting your whole weight on it. Just remember the old saying: “Thick and blue, tried and true. Thin and crispy, way too risky.”
Be aware of snow squalls – periods of sudden moderate to heavy snowfall accompanied by strong surface winds (aka whiteouts). They can severely reduce visibility and create slippery surfaces. Most snow squalls are brief, so it is best to stay put if you are caught in one to avoid losing the trail and getting lost.
Frostbite can occur during prolonged exposure of the extremities to temperatures below freezing. It can range in severity from superficial redness to severe skin discoloration and blisters. If frostbite occurs, it is important to seek medical attention as soon as possible. Also, refrain from rubbing the affected skin, as this can cause further damage.
2. Precautions for summer
Start your hike early in the day when temperatures are lower, and cover up with long sleeves, pants and a hat. This may sound counterintuitive, but the less skin that is exposed to damaging UV rays, the better!
Hydrate well throughout your hike (especially if you tend to sweat a lot like I do) by sipping water often. Just be sure to avoid any chugging contests during your hike. Drinking too much water at once can actually do more harm than good because our bodies can only absorb about a half a liter of water every hour.
Since our bodies are losing more than just water when we sweat, eating the right snacks can make a huge difference! Replenishing lost electrolytes can be as simple as noshing on some trail mix or sucking down some carb and electrolyte-rich sports gels. Snack breaks are great times to chill out in the shade and give your muscles a chance to recover while also letting the evaporation of sweat cool down your body temperature.
Know the signs of heatstroke. This condition is caused by the overheating of the body, usually above 104 degrees Fahrenheit, as a result of physical exertion or overexposure to high temperatures. Symptoms of heatstroke may include confusion or agitation, severe headache, muscle cramps, nausea/vomiting, rapid heart-rate and/or breathing, and lack of sweating. Heat stroke can be deadly, and it’s important to find shade and cool down as soon as possible. Extra medical attention may be needed as well, so don’t hesitate to call in emergency services if needed!
3. Rain and thunder and lightning, oh my!
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) coined the term “When lightning roars, go indoors” for a reason, but what if you are out in the middle of nowhere when you hear it? Here are some tips for staying safe if thunder comes rumbling your way:
Watch for darkening clouds and increasing wind speeds, which could indicate an incoming thunderstorm. (The white, fluffy clouds are safe as long as they stay white and fluffy and don’t start growing upwards toward space!)
If possible, find a safe shelter that has four walls, a roof and wiring. (Camping lean-tos and picnic pavilions are NOT safe shelters.) A fully enclosed metal-topped vehicle is also considered safe, so if you are close to the parking lot, making a break for your car is the best bet!
If shelter is not an option, avoid open areas and bodies of water, immediately leave elevated areas (hills, peaks, etc.) and try not to be the tallest object in the area. Avoid tall or isolated trees, as well, as they tend to act as homing beacons for lightning strikes. Also stay away from objects that conduct electricity, such as barbed wire fences.
If you are hiking in a group, spread out. While this doesn’t decrease the odds that someone will get struck, it does help prevent multiple casualties so that help is available if someone is struck.