The following is a guest blog by Laura Chapman from Iglu Ski:
There’s no better time to take advantage of the 700 miles of trails in Glacier National Park than the summer. With the warmer temperatures, longer daylight hours and more of Glacier accessible, full day hikes and wild camping are within easy reach. However, even though the conditions may be more favorable than in the winter months, it’s important to remember that the weather can still turn quickly over the summer months and you need to be prepared for all eventualities – the foot of snow we had in August of 1992 is testament to that. While serious walkers and climbers are well aware of the dangers of altitude sickness and how quickly hypothermia can set in, UV exposure and overheating can both be problems when exercising in the mountains and are not always given as much consideration.
Sun exposure at altitude
UV radiation increases by approximately 4%, so even if you don’t climb much higher than Logan Pass at 6640ft, you’re still being exposed to around 25% extra UV than if you were close to sea level; damage to the skin and eyes is therefore a concern. Equally, visitors forget that from June to August it’s not unknown for temperatures to exceed 90°F in the park and while it is cooler with height gain, the temperatures don’t drop as low as you might think – only by 10 or 15 degrees. Hiking all day can potentially place you at risk of dehydration, heat exhaustion and at worst, heat stroke. It’s therefore not just mountaineers trekking miles off the beaten track in winter who need to consider how to take steps to ensure their survival. Here we consider how you can protect yourself in Glacier this summer.
Preventing the burn
Cases of melanoma skin cancer are on the increase across America and burning badly enough to develop blisters – even if it were to happen just once when out walking all day in the sun – is a problem, as intense UV exposure is known to increase the risk of skin cancer. If you were to burn, the damage has already been done, so while keeping the skin cool, using a moisturizer and painkillers can help to sooth the skin, you need to ensure that you prevent sunburn. That means taking action before you start your outdoor activities, as at altitude a lower temperature can mask the sensation of the sun on your skin.
• Using a sunscreen of at least factor 30 is advised by The Skin Cancer Foundation when at altitude. Apply this at least half an hour before you head out to give it time to be taken up by your skin and use it even on overcast days. Don’t forget those easily missed areas that are especially sensitive to sun exposure such as under your chin, your ears and the skin surrounding your eyes; additionally, apply a factor 15 lip balm. Due to sweating you will need to reapply your sunscreen at least every two hours.
• Protect your scalp with a hat and one with a brim will also help to shade your eyes, though this should not replace sunglasses – opt for those with at least 99% UV rating to reduce your risk of cataracts.
• Remember to consider your clothing too as the sun’s rays can still penetrate fabric; if possible, choose items with a UV protection factor of at least 15.
Dangers of overheating
While it’s common sense that we sweat more during activity, especially in the heat, it’s not so widely appreciated that we are more prone to dehydration at altitude. This stems from the fact that when we are at height, there is lower humidity and our breath rate is higher, so moisture losses increase. Along with the water we lose through sweating, we also lose electrolytes – primarily sodium, chloride, potassium and magnesium – all of which are essential for vital processes within the body. It is the upset of our fluid and salts balance that can lead to heat exhaustion – characterized by headache, muscle cramps, extreme thirst, rapid heart rate and nausea. It is vital to know how to manage heat exhaustion - find shade, remove excess clothing, drink cold caffeine and alcohol-free liquids with added electrolytes and cool the skin with liquid. If allowed to progress, heat stroke will develop which can lead to organ damage and is potentially fatal. Signs of heat stroke include confusion, loss of consciousness and hyperventilation. This is a medical emergency, so raise the alarm and treat as heat exhaustion until help arrives - though don’t give fluids if an altered mental state means they can’t manage them safely.
Controlling your temperature
Prevention is always better than cure though, so take the following precautions to prevent dehydration and overheating:
• Wear clothes for hiking made from wicking fabrics such as Smartwool or CoolMax to aid cooling. If you are feeling the heat, soaking your t-shirt and bandana in water can help.
• Always drink according to thirst and if you will be hiking for a good chunk of the day, using a sports drink or adding electrolytes tablets to your own drinks is recommended. Try to take as much to drink with you as you need for the day, as it is inadvisable to drink untreated water out of the lakes and streams in the park – no matter how clear or inviting it looks - due to the risk of giardiasis – a parasitic infection that affects the digestive system. If you can’t physically carry all that you need, which is often the case if you will be wild camping for a number of days, ensure you take halazone tablets, iodine or a filter designed for water purification.
• Salty snacks such as salted nuts, pretzels and Trail Mix can all help to keep up your sodium levels, so don’t skimp on the salt on the days when you hit the trail.
Don’t allow sun exposure to jeopardize your adventures in Glacier this summer; take the necessary steps to protect yourself.
Hiking in Glacier.com