As hiking season approaches, common sense sometimes takes a back seat when thinking about hiking clothing. Backcountry users often forget that weather conditions can change just as quickly in summer as in winter. And that sunny 65 degree day can quickly turn sour, until you’re faced with 50 degree winds, 35 mph and rain.
When it’s 65 degrees and you’re hiking hard on that mountain, you’re hot and sweaty. Thin sports shorts and a cotton t-shirt seem like the ideal hiking outfit. But where does this perspiration go? Wear appropriate clothing and the moisture will evaporate. When you don’t wear the right clothes, they can become saturated and damp.
A bit of cooling might be good as we get above the treeline and the breeze cools us down. Now consider a little science. A temperature of 65 degrees and a wind of 15 mph feels like about 64 degrees. With a damp cotton t-shirt, it’s pretty nice after all that effort.
But the weather changes and suddenly a storm rises, a very common occurrence. The temperature can drop to 50 degrees and the wind increases to 35 mph. Now the temperature your body feels, known as wind chill, drops to 41 degrees. This wet cotton t-shirt doesn’t feel very good. You head to the top thinking the weather will get better – it doesn’t.
People often think that hypothermia is just a winter problem. But consider that the average body temperature is around 97.5 to 98 degrees, and now your skin feels like 41 degrees, exacerbated by that damp cotton t-shirt. You start to feel really cold – desperately cold.
Will you be full of hypothermia? Unlikely, as it is a very serious although relatively rare event. But there are stages of hypothermia, and you could very easily fall into one of them. You are brutally cold with no way to warm up and there is a long hike to do. The more you shake, the more energy you burn. Do you have enough food and hydration? Is your decision-making ability now impaired as you face depleted energy reserves? Are you starting to panic? Perhaps, in your rush to get off the mountain and out of the rain, you decide to take a shortcut. You think you can get to that road there because you can see it, and it doesn’t seem that far. Now you are off track.
The Summit Country Rescue Group routinely ends its missions in the early to mid-afternoon in Quandary, only to see people arriving at 2 p.m. dressed in cotton t-shirts, shorts and light shoes, with a bottle of water and rain clouds on the horizon. , maybe even thunder in the distance, and saying they’re heading for the top.
It’s actually very easy to wear a synthetic shirt, decent hiking boots, have that long shirt and pants in a small bag, and some rain gear to keep you dry. Don’t forget the all-important energy bars and hydration.
It’s a horrible thing to feel alone, lost, brutally cold and wondering if anyone will even find you. But with a little planning, a light pack, and good clothes and food, you can face the elements and come home thinking of another great day outdoors. A little advance planning can make all the difference.
Charles Pitman joined Summit County Rescue Group in 2004 and is one of 10 mission coordinators. He is also one of the team’s public information officers and served on the board of directors for eight years. The Rescue Group, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, responded to 216 calls for help in 2021. The 70-member all-volunteer team never charges for rescues and depends on donations and grants for annual operations.