It seems as soon as the hot weather arrives in Ireland it has gone again. But it may return, and summer heatwaves do occasionally occur in our uncertain climate. In addition, many of us now head to hotter countries like Morocco, France and Spain to take hiking holidays.

 Know Your Enemy

There are inherent dangers to hiking in hot weather and when the sun is beating down all day, and the most obvious of these are sunburn, dehydration and heat exhaustion.

Sunburn

Campaigns in recent years to alert us to the dangers of exposure to too much sun seem to have sunk home. Now almost everyone is aware of the risk of sunburn and skin cancer that comes with over exposure to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays.

At higher altitudes the sun’s ultraviolet rays are stronger, as the air is thinner and less able to shield us from them, and this leads to an increased risk of sunburn.

Sunburn is at best painful, and at worst brings the increased risk of melanoma and other skin cancers.

Dehydration

When hiking in hot weather, particularly when working hard or moving uphill, the human body starts to sweat to loose heat and regulate its’ core temperature.  It is important to replace this lost fluid and the mixture of essential salts (electrolytes) that it contains, to maintain normal body functions.

One of the first and most obvious signs of dehydration is feeling thirsty, and this may be accompanied by a headache, dizziness and a feeling of weakness.

Your muscles need water to function correctly, and a further sign of dehydration may well be cramps in the legs.

Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion is not as severe as heat stroke, but could be considered as a precursor to it. It is often related to dehydration, and the early signs are the same, headache, thirst, dizziness and dark yellow urine. These symptoms may also be accompanied by confusion, profuse sweating, cramps, rapid heart rate and fainting.

It is important to cool down, so seek out shade, rest and avoid exertion. Drink plenty of fluids and if possible wet the head and neck. Act quickly to avoid heat stroke, which is a serious condition requiring medical intervention.

Hiking in the heat

 

So how best to cope when the heat is on?  And what can we do to minimise the risks?

 

  1. Avoid hiking in the hottest part of the day.

Consider hiking in the early morning or evening and resting during the hottest part of the day, usually the afternoon. This is a good strategy in hot weather, and is important in avoiding the other risk areas, dehydration and overheating.

  1. Slap on the sun block.

The first line of defence against sunburn is to apply sunblock to exposed skin, the fair skinned and those not used to the sun should consider a factor 30+ or higher, and reapply during the day if you think you are sweating it off.

Remember to apply behind the ears and other awkward places, and if you are travelling over reflective surfaces, such as snow, apply below the chin and under the nose. I have seen some painful cases of under-nose sunburn in people travelling over snow for extended periods!

  1. Cover Up.

It’s important to cover exposed skin, wide brimmed sun hats are a must in strong sunlight, and wear long sleeve shirts and long pants to avoid too much exposure to the sun. Loose fitting and light coloured clothing will help you to stay cool when things heat up.

  1. Wet your shirt or buff to cool down.

Wearing a wet cloth (a light scarf or buff) around the neck, will help to cool you down, as the blood vessels run close to the surface here and a wet cloth next to the skin will help to cool the blood. If it’s really hot you can dampen your shirt in a stream for an even greater cooling effect.

  1. Drink to rehydrate.

To replace these lost fluids drink between 2 and 4 litres of water a day, though this is a generalisation as individuals differ in their needs. Drink when you are thirsty, which makes sense, avoid drinks containing caffeine and alcohol as these are diuretic and will make you pee more.

To replace lost salts mix water 50:50 with fruit juice or add shop bought electrolytes, such as dioralyte, to your water bottle.

  1. Modify your expectations.

Don’t take on too much in the day, rest more often when shade is available, and avoid the hottest part of the day. Take your time.

  1. Take care of your feet.

Sweaty feet pose an increased risk of getting blisters, take your boots off when you can and dry, or better still, change your socks.  Dipping your feet in a cool stream on a hot day is one of life’s finer pleasures, and is great for cooling the blood.

  1. Lighten your pack.

If the weather forecast is nailed on for a sunny day, consider leaving your waterproof pants or spare warm layers at home. You might need the space for extra water anyway.

  1. Check your pee.

Check the colour of your pee, if it is a dark yellow colour than you are dehydrated, in a normally hydrated person it should be of a pale straw colour.

  1. Beware of cold water shock.

This occurs when the body is suddenly subjected to a rapid drop in external temperature, such as you might get if you jumped into a river.  This sudden immersion results in a ‘gasp’ reflex, which can lead to water getting in the lungs, and to drowning.  It is accompanied by contraction of the blood vessels which puts a strain on the heart, leading to possible heart failure.

When organising our hill skills overnight trips, we give our clients a list of the essential gear they should take. In this blog I have expanded that list to add explanations and notes on my own experiences of over 35 years of wild camping.
Perhaps the overriding consideration is the overall weight of your full pack, it is no good packing to make your trip uber comfortable only to find you cannot lift the rucksack off the floor, ( believe me, I have seen this). A good guideline for total pack weight is that it should not exceed 20% of your body weight. For a 75kg person like me that means no more than 15kg, which is manageable.
When wild camping as a pair, with a friend or partner, you can share the weight of communal kit like the tent and cooking equipment, this helps considerably with the overall load.
Tent.
This will be your heaviest bit of kit, and also your home, your shelter should the weather turn nasty, so the right tent choice is essential.
A two-person tent is ideal for you and a partner, they do tend to be a little snug, so if you are going with a friend, make sure you are both ok with the close proximity this will inevitably mean. Aim to get a tent under 2kg, and one with a geodesic design, where the poles cross each other over the tent. This will give the tent much more stability in stormy weather.
If you are going it alone then a one man tent will suffice, some are very light, less than 1kg, and may require your walking poles to double up as tent poles.
Both two man and solo tents would normally be double skinned, they would have an inner tent, often with a mesh door to keep out unwanted midges and flies, and a waterproof outer, or fly sheet. This combination is best to keep down condensation in the tent and to give you a refuge from the midges.
For lightness, some folks prefer a single skinned tent or even a tarp. Tarp is short for tarpaulin, and is a lightweight waterproof flysheet that you erect with guy lines to trees or walking poles. There is no inner tent and the trade off for lightness is the exposure to insects.
My own preference is for a double skinned tent, if you have experienced Scottish midges then you won’t need to ask why.

Sleeping Bag – Synthetic or Down?

 
There are pros and cons to both. Synthetic insulation filled bags will be cheaper and will perform better if they get damp. Down filled bags will be more expensive, but will give a greater warmth to weight ratio, they do not function at all well when the down gets wet, having virtually no heat retention.
In either case you will need a three season bag for summer wild camping in Ireland and the UK, as it can still be chilly in the mountains at night.
I use a light down bag, rated to 0C, in summer and keep it in a waterproof dry-bag to avoid it getting damp in wet weather.

Sleeping mat

 
When lying in your sleeping bag your body compresses the insulation between you and the ground, this is where most body heat is lost, so a good sleeping mat is important.
There are really two choices here, closed cell foam mats, which are cheap but bulky, and air filled mats, such as Thermarest, which are expensive, but pack down small and offer excellent insulation. This would be my choice.
If you opt for a closed cell foam mat be sure to keep it dry, if you attach it to the outside of your pack then put it in a waterproof dry-bag.
Alternatively, you can open it out around the inside of your rucksack, and pack the rest of your gear within it.

Pillow

 
Some people like to take a blow up pillow along. However, I would consider this an optional extra, and prefer to fill a stuff sack with clothes and use that instead.

Cooking equipment – stove, pots, mug etc.

There are so many stove options available now, using a variety of fuels from gas to petrol, and from solid fuel to wood.
Consider your needs, and the availability of fuel. In Ireland and the UK, screw in butane/propane gas cartridges are readily available, and in combination with a simple lightweight cooker, like the MSR Pocket Rocket, you can have a lightweight, convenient, relatively safe and easy to use option that will boil a litre of water in a couple of minutes.
Choose the smallest volume gas canister for your needs, the shorter the trip the less gas you will need. How much you will need depends on burn time, and what food you intend to cook, (see below for more on this).
For boiling water I use a 750ml lightweight pot with a lid, the lid doubles as an extra pan but I rarely use it. I can fit a gas canister wrapped in a cleaning cloth snuggly inside my pot, saving space. I also use this pot to eat from, avoiding the need to bring a plate.
I have a good sized double skinned plastic travel mug for hot drinks, this keeps my morning tea nice and hot!
For eating I use a spork, mine is plastic, but you can get titanium models if you wish.
Finally, don’t forget a lighter, and reserve matches, some folk like to take a fire-steel ,but two stove lighting options seems fine to me.

Water filter

Clean water is a must in the hills, and gone are the days when you could drink, worry free, from mountain streams.
 Wild and grazing animals, and humans, all live in the mountain environment, we all eat, sleep and poo there. It is necessary, therefore, to ensure the water we collect is safe to drink.
By far the best way to do this is to boil it, and this we do when we prepare food and hot drinks, but boiling all our drinking water can be costly, and use up vital fuel.
The alternatives are to filter the water, or to treat it with chemicals. Since the EU banned the use of iodine as a water treatment I have been a little unsure of the efficacy of the chemical treatments available, (mostly based on chlorine). Therefore my preference is for water filters.
There are now some excellent water filters available, taking out all pathogens. They range from drinking ‘straws’, to bottles with filters in the lid, to pump action high volume filters. By using a water filter you don’t have to carry so much water with you during the day, you can make clean water as you go, but be sure to use fast running streams, and take it from as high in the mountains as you can.

Food

This is a subject that generates much debate amongst seasoned backpackers and wild campers. You will burn a lot more energy when trekking in mountainous terrain, at least 3000 calories a day if you are male, 2500 if female. Therefore it is important to consider the calorie content of your food and also its weight, your chosen meals should have a high calorie to weight ratio.
The food should also be quick and easy to prepare, no gourmet dinners here, consider dried packet meals and carbohydrate rich foods.
Experiment with your food choices at home before you go on your trip, it’s no good if you can’t stand the taste!
Every seasoned wild camper will have their own favorites, and here I offer a sample menu of my own. Whatever you decide to take, remember you have to carry it in, so keep it lightweight and quick to prepare.
Breakfast – Muesli with extra oats, dried fruit and seeds. I mix in milk powder at home and keep measured portions stored in a plastic container. This is packed with slow release energy to fuel my morning. Just add hot water, stir, and eat.
Tea/coffee – some folk don’t bother with this, but I need my tea!
Lunch/Snacks – I take homemade flapjacks, my own recipe contains oats, fruit and honey, they can last several days in my pack and are are full of energy. I also take dried fruit, typically apricots, prunes or dates.
Snickers bars are great for a quick energy boost, and as an emergency food supply.
Dinner – Packet dried meals, they come in many forms and your local supermarket will no doubt have a good selection, but check the preparation times, some can be up to 20 mins. I use Lidl dried meals, as they are not expensive, taste reasonably good, and are quick to prepare.
Instant hot chocolate drink is packed with calories and will help you sleep, and well worth taking along.

Rucksack

This has to be big enough to take all your gear and be comfortable when on your back. You should consider anything from 50 – 75 litres, depending on the length of your trip, for an overnight trip I would use a 45 litre pack.
Ladies should get a womens specific rucksack, they are designed to fit the female form, and you may not need such a large volume pack as the men, as you should be carrying less weight, (see 20% rule above).
Try out packs at your local outdoor store, get advice on features, fit and back length as it is important to get this right. Ask them to add weight to the pack, if they cannot oblige, go to a different store.

Spare clothes

On overnight trip I might not bother with this, but on longer trips you would want to take a change of underwear, socks and a baselayer. These are great as bedtime clothes too, giving you something fresh to change into before you get into your sleeping bag.
 

Headtorch

This is a must have item, chose one of the many LED types around. The more expensive models have very bright beams, (measured in lumens), and a long beam distance, but a mid-range headtorch would be sufficient for moving around camp and emergency use.

First aid supplies

Someone in your party should ideally be first aid trained, carry a first aid kit, and know how to use it. For the rest, an ‘ouch pouch’ is enough, this should contain antiseptic wipes, plasters, minor burn cream and blister pads.

Insect repellant

If you hate being bitten by the little critters, then this is an important item, anything containing DEET will keep them off, but other options are also available, if not so effective.

Toilet kit

A trowel to bury poo, (which should be buried 20 cm deep and the turf replaced). Toilet paper, ideally the used paper should be burned or carried out in a ziplock bag, but if this revolts you then bury it too.
Don’t leave it on the surface, that’s just disgusting, unsightly and takes many weeks to decompose, do think of others that come after. Antibacterial gel is a good way to clean your hands.
 

Personal toiletries

For an overnight wild camp you might consider washing and cleaning your teeth unnecessary, for a longer trip you will want to bring a microfibre towel, biodegradable soap, and a toothbrush and small amount of paste.
Do think carefully about what extras you might bring, do you really need deodorant, or a razor?

Repair kit

In here you should keep spare batteries for your headtorch, a small penknife, duct tape, and cable ties. On a longer trip you might want to take a repair kit for your sleeping mat.

Optional Items

Some folk like to take a little luxury, or something to make the trip more comfortable, for them the extra weight is worth it. Typically someone might take a book, camp shoes, or a little of their favorite tipple.
The rest of your kit should be the same as you might take on a day hike, but be sure to keep your kit dry with a rucksack liner and dry-bags.
For more information on Mountaintrails guided hikes, check out the website.