Appalachian Trail Hikers Greatest Enemy–Summertime Heat
“You will have a lot more trouble with hot weather than cold weather,” Warren Doyle assured me.
“I don’t know,” I responded. “I’m a poster child for the hypothermia culture.”
This was a critical question as I prepared to thru-hike the 2,181 mile Appalachian Trail. For a hiker of average abilities like myself, a walk of that length is going to take almost six months. And given that an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker begins in the springtime in the high elevations of the southern Appalachians and finishes in the fall in the high elevations of northern New England, but spends almost the entire summer in the lower elevations of the mid-Atlantic states, an average thru-hiker can expect to encounter all types of weather.
I was taking Warren Doyle’s Appalachian Trail Institute thru-hiking preparation class. Doyle is renowned in the trail community for having hiked the entire Appalachian Trail sixteen times. So obviously his words should be taken seriously. And I can say that for most thru-hikers, he is correct. Hot weather is their biggest problem.
I was a bit different. I am just shy of 7-feet tall, with especially long, thin limbs. In other words, I am built just the opposite of eskimos, who have adapted over the millenia to have shorter arms and legs, which retain heat better.So I was destined to struggle anxiously and helplessly in the early going with the cold and wet springtime weather in the southern Appalachians. I was actually elated for the warmer weather to arrive once we got to the 500 mile stretch on the AT known as ‘Virginia’. But that didn’t mean that the heat wasn’t a significant problem. I was just glad that everybody else seemed to be having as much trouble as me for once!
Hiking in hot, humid weather is inherently challenging. I won’t purport to be an expert, but I can offer up two pointers: First, a long-distance hiker must preempt dehydration. In other words, they can’t let themselves get dehydrated, and then try to drown it out with lots of water. An ounce of prevention is the key. But can an AT thru-hiker find all the water he or she needs to stay hydrated. Good question. One solution is to carry more water than normal. Of course, this goes contrary to a long-distance hiker’s mantra of going light. But it might well be worth it, for the simple reason that a hiker might not be always able to find the quantity or quality of water he or she wants. Yes, they can usually make it to where they are going. But it will weaken them. Further, if water sources aren’t plentiful due to summertime droughts, the quality can become a big issue as well. Quite simply you end up drinking out of places you normally wouldn’t. I distinctly remember arriving at a shelter one night in Massachusetts. All day we had been walking through bone-dry terrain. But the shelter supposedly had a spring behind it that was a little better than seasonal. We arrived with great expectations, only to find a wet hole, filled with leaves. “Bleep this,” one of my hiking partners said and tore out of there at dark to look for more water. I pulled out my water filter and laboriously pumped enough to get me through the night and the next morning. However, not everybody was always so lucky.
Giardia is a great foe of long-distance hikers. Drinking out of water sources at lower elevations increases the chances of getting this intestinal infection, which routinely lays hikers–both experienced and novices–low.
The bottom line is that part of a long-distance hiker’s daily job is to manage water. That may even mean carrying more water at times, to provide a margin of safety. This goes against the day-to-day mentality of a thru-hiker, but can be well worth it.
The other thing an AT thru-hiker can do is manage his or her time better during the day. Hiking in the boiling mid-day sun is bound to use up more calories and bodily water. The best solution is to wake up and get out hiking early, before the hottest hours of the day. Then the hiker will not feel so guilty about taking long breaks in the shade in the middle of the day. Of course, on a journey that long, an AT thru-hiker is bound to get mileage greedy, and might even try hiking at night. Most everybody has done it. However, I have found that it requires three times the energy and adrenaline and is ultimately counter-productive.
But ultimately the decision is yours. Over the course of 5 or 6 months of a linear thru-hike, you can bet you are going to be faced with countless decisions and probably do a few things you never thought you would.
Bill Walker is the author of Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail (2008). He is also the author of Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail (2010), as well as ‘The Best Way–El Camino de Santiago (2012)’ Walker, who is almost 7-feet tall, is currently working on a whimsical book on the subject of height.