6 Tips for Summer Backpacking
1) Lighten up
Different seasons call for different gear requirements, and fortunately for your pack load, summer calls for less. Compared to your colder weather gear, odds are, you can find at least one piece that is excessive.
For me, this means shedding my mid-layer or long-sleeve base layer and leggings, opting to carry only a short sleeve base layer, insulating layer (with preference for my Patagonia Nano Air as it doubles as a great pillow), and running shorts (in most conditions, sun and bugs can change this).
Similarly, you can save a lot of weight by using a warmer weather sleeping bag or quilt. I swap my 15 degree bag for the lighter 30-degree Brooks Range Drift, a difference of 15 ounces. Most of my camping nowadays is done at higher elevation- near 10K feet, otherwise I would opt for an even warmer (read: lighter) bag. You can even lighten up with your sleeping pad, opting for something with less insulation (recommended: Therm-A-Rest’s NeoAir Xlite).
How much you lighten up will depend on your arsenal of apparel and gear (and willingness to shop for season specific upgrades), exposure and tolerance to sun, and your system for bug protection, but odds are, there are at least a couple of options for you to shed some weight.
2) Consider ditching the stove
Really, this an extension of the previous point. There’s nothing quite like a hot meal on a cold night; the same is not the case for a warm summer’s night. For this reason, this is the season where backpackers are most likely to ditch their stove. This isn’t to say you can’t enjoy your dehydrated dinner- cold water will still work, just be prepared to wait for the meal to rehydrate. Or better yet, add water to your meal 30-45 min before reaching your evening’s destination.
Backpackers tend to operate on the sun’s schedule, but you can cover far more ground and avoid the extreme heat of the day by getting on the trail before sunrise. Once the afternoon starts to reach its peak heat, take an extended break. Find a shaded area to enjoy lunch and catch up on the hour or two of sleep you cut short by waking up early. This will go a long ways toward preventing against dehydration and/or heat induced illnesses and refuel the tank to help you cover more ground into dusk and beyond.
I am the furthest thing from a morning person, so this tip is the most difficult for me to implement, but on brutally hot days, it’s also the most impactful.
4) Drink, drink, drink, drink, drink, dr…
For most, perspiring heavily is an inevitability during the heat of the summer. For this reason, you will need to drink water. So, so, so much damn water. Even slight dehydration can be detrimental to physical performance- losing 2% of your body weight in fluid can decrease performance by up to 25% (source). WebMD estimates that you should be drinking ~1L for every hour of activity, more if you’re sweating heavily. The math on that is easy; the consumption, not so much. For this reason, I aim to drink a liter of water at each water resupply point.
You will also have to be mindful about distances between water sources- and thus how much water to carry, rationing the supply, and having some in reserve if the next source is unreliable. If you’re on a well traveled trail like the AT or PCT, word will likely spread enough for you to have an accurate gauge for upcoming water sources. In more remote areas, you will have to spend ample time researching- comparing guidebooks, websites about annual trends, reaching out to local ranger stations, etc. This is where carrying water bottles (soft-sided options included) can be an advantage over reservoirs as it’s easier to monitor your intake and not accidentally consume your entire supply 4 miles shy of the next refill opportunity. I personally opt to carry an extra .5 L of water as an emergency supply, especially if sources are unreliable. But drinking enough water is only half the battle…
5) Replace electrolytes
For those who are particularly heavy sweaters (this kind, not this kind), like myself, you will fare much better if you use an electrolyte supplement– a lesson I learned the hard way during my AT thru-hike. Minimally, you should be consuming a lot of salty foods or taking sodium tablets.
When you sweat, you’re losing more than water- namely sodium, chloride, and potassium. Feasibly, a sweaty backpacker could lose upwards of 10 times the Institute of Medicine’s recommended daily intake of sodium over the course of a day (source, source). Replacing this lost sweat with only water increases the risk of hyponatremia, a potentially life-threatening condition caused by low sodium concentrations in blood.
During the hottest stretch of my thru-hike, I was drinking up to 7-10 liters of water per day. Unfortunately, I was unaware of the importance of maintaining this sodium balance as well. Not only was I not peeing (TMI alert), but my face, hands and feet resembled water balloons, my headaches worsened, and my energy was (seemingly) inexplicably non-existent. A quick trip to the ER (because my symptoms were so severe, I thought I had contracted Lyme Disease) and a couple bags of IV saline solution later, and I felt like a brand new person.
6) Have a BPA
Perhaps the biggest drawback of backpacking in the summer is dealing with the insects, which is why it’s crucial to have a BPA (Bug Plan of Action). This means knowing how prevalent the bugs will be in your region, what kind, and which of the lesser of two evils you’d rather deal with: excessive sweating caused by long sleeves and pants or exposing yourself to these micro-terrorists. Another tough question: use DEET and blaze double middles to your central nervous system or use something that only mildly works? Are you going to wear one of those goofy-ass head nets? There is no one size fits all approach, as the above considerations and your relative attractiveness to insects will determine which answer is right for you.
If I’m heading into bug-hell, I typically bite the bullet and carry a DEET containing product. Some say there’s diminishing return after 30%, unfortunately I seem to necessitate something in the 90% range. If I’m heading into deer tick country (i.e. most of the Appalachian Trail), I would treat my clothes with permethrin.
Related reading: Your Guide to Repelling Mosquitoes (and Other Bugs)
Either way, if you’re heading to the trail during the summer, odds are, you’re going to encounter something that wants your blood and/or orbit your face all day. Be sure to have some method for coping other than four-letter words.
That’s my advice. How do you thrive on trail during the summer? Let us know in the comments below.
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I often comment that my inability to cope with bug bites and the accompanying itching will be the hardest part of a through hike for me. Cortisone 10 helps a great deal but I am unsure if I can carry enough. Although my knees and hips ache after a day of hiking the hills in West Virginia I am generally ready to proceed the next day. I can imagine my fellow thru-hikers avoiding me because of too much complaining about the darn bugs! I hope I will not actually be that bad! lol
I share the feeling, chiefhiker. Bugs are the bane of my existence.
Non-DEET repellents don’t necessarily “only mildly” work. Geraniol and lemon eucalyptus repellents have been shown to work just as well as DEET, though they generally require more frequent reapplication. If you’ve tried them and they didn’t work out, that’s one thing, but you might be pleasantly surprised.
That was an incredible read, Zach! I am planning a short trek to the Western Ghats some time next month and I bumped into your blog at the right time! In fact, I was just coming up with excuses to ditch my stove (ugh, all those pounds I’d be cutting loose now). Thanks a tonne! Here’s something I read the last time I backpacked to Nepal. It helped me, I hope it does some good to you too.
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