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Prof. Hike: Beating Summer Heat, Bugs, & Crowds

Your action plan to make high summer hiking and camping enjoyable.
Pro Hike Love Summer 445x260Escape the crowds by adding elevation, weekday starts, and remote trailheads (photo by Jason Stevenson)

Ah, summertime.

Flipping the calendar to June, July, and August brings longer days, warmer nights, and…for hikers, a new swarm of challenges. Conditions that make playing outdoors so pleasant this time of year also attract bloodthirsty bugs, drenching humidity, and novice hikers crowding the trail. Sure, summertime can drop a few roadblocks in your path. But they shouldn’t deter you from heading outside as often as you can. Here’s how to protect your summer from the triple threat of bugs, crowds, and extreme heat.

The Mosquito Coast
Female mosquitoes require a warm-blooded meal to lay their eggs, so you can’t blame them for being hungry. Just follow this advice to convince any ‘skeeter in the vicinity that your veins aren’t on the menu.

>> Because mosquitoes and biting flies are most active at dawn or dusk, cover up your arms and legs while cooking breakfast and when you arrive to camp.
>> Choose rest stops and campsites that are exposed to sunlight and light breezes—both deter swarming bugs. Likewise, biting bugs congregate in shaded and listless areas, especially near standing water.
>> Avoid wearing dark-colored clothing, especially blue, which attracts most mosquitoes according to laboratory testing. Wear white, khaki, or green clothing instead.
>>Repellants containing DEET proved most effective during a 2007 Backpacker test. The higher the concentration of DEET —anything from 25% to 90% is a good range to consider —the longer the repellant remains effective. Alternatives to DEET include picaridin and all-natural citronella and lemon of eucalyptus oil.
>>Don’t waste your money on wristbands, patches, and other gizmos that claim to repel mosquitoes. According to Backpacker’s own testing, and an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, they don’t work.
>>Avoid using DEET-based repellants on kids—and never use it on infants under two months. Kid-safe alternatives to DEET include the chemical IR3535, as well as natural citronella and lemon of eucalyptus oil.
>>Be thankful you don’t live in the early 1800s. Not only did mosquitoes carry malaria then, but they were especially vicious, as William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame), recorded in his journal on August 3, 1806, “last night the Mosquetors was so troublesome that no one of the party Slept half the night, for my part I did not sleep one hour.” Instead of DEET, Clark and his companions smeared their bodies with tallow and bear grease.

A Face in the Crowd
When I lived in Boulder and drove to the Rockies for a weekend hike, I’d always encounter a line of parked Subarus starting half-a-mile from the trailhead parking lot. Colorado’s Front Range is a special case when it comes to crowds, but hikers anywhere in the country can find similar conditions on summer weekends. Here’s how to increase your solitude during peak hiking season.

>>Seek out trailheads accessed by forests roads or requiring 4WD clearance. Rough roads and tricky route-finding will keep out the riffraff—which you won’t be if you manage to reach your destination. Contact local park HQs or ranger offices for detailed driving directions to trailhead. Don’t rely on your dashboard GPS or iPhone to navigate jeep tracks and forest roads (or you’ll get lost like I did).
>>Hike a popular trail (loop or out-and-back) in reverse of the normal route. Not only will your encounters with oncoming hikers be brief, but they can give you updates about the trail ahead of you.
>>Pick your destination based on the numbers. For instance, Shenandoah National park is June hosts half the number of visitors as it does in October. Another park with low summer attendance is Acadia in Maine. Ever-popular Great Smoky Mountains attracts half a million fewer visitors in August and September than it does in June, July, and October. Scan the monthly visitation stats for every single NPS property at this national park website.

Some Like it Hot
But when it’s too hot, no one wants to move—let alone carry a 35-pound backpack up a hill on a muggy day. Hike cooler (at least thermodynamically) with these tips.

>>Wear cotton. Yes, this advice violates the prime directive of outdoor recreation (and could get me ex-communicated), but it does make sense in some circumstances. That’s because cotton retains cooling moisture—instead of wicking it away. So a cotton t-shirt will keep you more comfortable than a synthetic one during a weekend of 80°F days, when rain or cold temperatures aren’t in the forecast.
>>Wake up early to cover as many miles as you can before the midday heat arrives. Not only does this tactic work well in desert climates, but it can preserve sweat over any terrain. Remember: The hottest temperatures of the day occur between 1-3pm, with a second spike around sundown as the heat re-radiates from the ground.
>>Plan hot-weather routes to coincide with streams, lakes, and swimming holes. Few pleasures can equal a post-hike soak in a pool of cool water.
>>Wait until sundown to pitch your tent. Even a few hours of direct sunlight can heat up the inside of a tent to an oven-like temperature.
>>Keep perishable food and drinks chilled by submerging them in a cool-running stream near your campsite. Put them in a mesh bag, and tie it securely to a rock or tree root.

Should you ever wear cotton? How do you defeat the heat, bugs, and crowds? Share your tips as a comment, or send an email to profhike@backpacker.com.

—Jason Stevenson

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