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Summer Rock Climbing Safety

5 Tips to Avoid Heat-Related Illness


Brian Shelton from Front Range Climbing belays a beginner climber at Pinnacle Peak in Arizona.

If you climb in the summer, you're going to get hot and bothered.

Photograph © Stewart M. Green
Summer Rock Climbing Safety

Ian Green finds shade while bouldering on a hot day near Grand Junction, Colorado.

Photograph copyright Stewart M. Green
Summer Rock Climbing Safety

Carol Garfinkel dresses for summer heat with a hat and cool climbing clothes at Red Rock Canyon in Colorado.

Photograph copyright Stewart M. Green

It’s summer, the living is easy, and it’s hot outside. If you live and climb in most places in the United States, it can get darn hot with temperatures regularly climbing into the 90s. But even if you’re in the middle of a summer heat wave, you still want to get outside on the rocks and do some rock climbing. Is that a wise idea? If you follow my five hot tips below, you should be fine.

Climbing in the Heat

I live in Colorado which, compared to most other areas in the country, is usually not that hot in the summer. And if it is hot, it’s easy to flee to the cooler high mountains where the temperatures rarely get above 80 degrees. Nonetheless I spend a lot of time out in the heat both climbing and guiding climbing trips. This past July saw a severe heat wave in Colorado Springs, with 11 straight days where the thermometer climbed above 90 degrees. I guided rock climbing trips at the Garden of the Gods on four of those days. It was hot but I had no problems nor did my clients since we followed my tips for hot climbing.

Reduce the Risk of Overheatingp

To avoid the effects of the sun, I followed some basic guidelines to reduce the risk of heat-related illnesses, including heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. When we’re outside under blazing summer sun, our body works to cool down. Heat escapes through our skin and we sweat, which cools us by the evaporation of sweat. We get into problems when we lose body salt, have a loss of body fluids, and when we fail to cool down and our body temperature rises.

5 Tips to Prevent Overheating

Follow these five tips to prevent heat-related health problems.

  1. Stay Well Hydrated The most important thing you can do is to drink plenty of fluids. It’s best to drink water and sports drinks like Gatorade. Don’t wait to drink until you’re thirsty, by then you're already getting dehydrated. Drink between 16 and 32 ounces each hour if possible. Sip drinks, don’t chug them. Avoid alcohol, heavily caffeinated beverages, and sugared drinks since these cause you to lose more fluids. A regular output of clear urine is a good sign of adequate hydration.
  2. Replace Salts and Minerals If you’re on the rock and it’s hot, you will be sweating. As you sweat you’ll be losing essential salts and minerals which need to be replaced to maintain good performance and avoid heat problems. A good sports drink containing electrolytes replaces these. I also carry electrolyte pills which can be added to water. Avoid salt pills unless prescribed by your doctor. Sometimes salty snacks like chips help too.
  3. Dress For Heat It’s best to wear loose, light-colored (absorbs less heat) climbing clothing that allows sweat to evaporate. Always wear a hat to keep the top of your head cool. I’m amazed at the number of climbers and hikers that I see out in the mid-day sun without proper head protection. A hat keeps you cool. While you’re at it, rub protective sunscreen (at least SPF 30) on your arms, legs, back of your neck, and face to avoid painful sunburn and future skin cancer.
  4. Avoid the Heat of the Day If you’re on a climbing road trip and doing a lot of cragging, head for the cliffs in the cooler parts of the day—morning and evening. If you’re climbing in the afternoon, look for cliffs that go into shade. You’ll have a lot more fun and stay cooler. If you are climbing under the mid-day sun, take your time and pace yourself, take a break if you find shade, and carry sufficient liquids.
  5. Keep Alert for Overheating Symptoms of overheating or heat exhaustion sometimes creep up on you. They’re not necessarily in-your-face and overt. Pay attention to how you feel. If you start feeling nauseous, develop a headache, feel flushed and red, have abdominal or leg cramps, or are sweating heavily, then it’s time to take a break. Find shade, drink water, and relax until you feel better. A wet cloth on your forehead helps cool you too. Also, pay attention to your partner. She may be developing heat illness and not be aware of it yet. You are climbing partners—look out for each other.

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