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As illustrated by Jeff’s recent misadventure at Syllamo, riding in extreme heat can lead to a pretty serious outcome. If Jeff hadn’t made the call for help when he did, the situation could have become tragic. Fortunately, with some planning and preventative measures, extreme heat doesn’t necessarily need to prevent us from enjoying the outdoors on our bikes.

First, some basic rules apply that should apply to *any* ride:

  • Ride with someone, if you can.
  • Tell someone where you are going. This includes signing in at the trailhead if there is a mechanism for that.
  • Set a “return” time and have the person in step one check in on you if you’re not back by then. (assumes there is cell service where you are going)
  • Bring what you need. (Details and examples below)
  • Plan your route, know the area (as best you can) and stick to the plan.
  • If you start to run into issues, turn around before you get into trouble. Better to cut a ride short than to never ride again.

Next, what can happen if you’re not prepared?

Injury and mechanical issues can occur on any ride, so here I will just focus on heat exhaustion.

According to WebMD.com, heat exhaustion can occur after varying amounts of exposure to high temperatures. There are two basic types of heat exhaustion: one caused by water depletion (dehydration) and one caused by salt (electrolyte) depletion. Mountain biking in extreme heat can easily lead to both conditions simultaneously, and when combined with humidity, the symptoms can develop rapidly. Here are some of the typical symptoms of heat exhaustion. If you start exhibiting these, STOP RIDING, find some shade and work on cooling off.

  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle cramps (indicates low electrolytes)
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Rapid heartbeat (that won’t return to normal whenexertionis stopped)
  • Dark colored urine (indicates dehydration)

If you or a riding partner gets to this point, here are some things you can do to recover:

  • Drink whatever fluids you have, whether it be water or electrolyte drink.
  • Remove extraneous clothing, especially if it is tight fitting. (Helmet, gloves, jersey, shoes/socks)
  • If there is water nearby, get in it or soak your jersey, and put it back on.
  • If you’re at or near the trailhead, get into an air-conditioned vehicle.
  • If none of these steps show any signs of alleviating the symptoms, call for medical help.
  • Untreated, heatexhaustioncan progress to heat stroke or even death.

Better yet, here are some steps to take to avoid getting into trouble in the first place:

  • Ride early (or late) when temps are cooler and the sun is not as direct.
  • Hydrate before the ride.
  • Carry as much fluid as you can manage, both water and electrolyte drinks.
  • Carry Hammer Nutrition Endurolyte tabs.
  • Get a backpacking water filter or water purification tablets in order to use water along the trail. (Note:The $10 filtering water bottles at Target do NOT filter out bacteria found in lakes and streams, however this one from Katadyn does.)
  • Wear non-cotton, wicking clothing. Proper wicking material will actually siphon away sweat and cool you better then going with bare skin.
  • Choose a trail where less exertion is required: something without too much climbing. Even better: lift-serviced downhill.
  • Go at a slower pace overall. This is not the day to beat your Strava score.
  • Again, if you start running into minor issues, turn around! Don’t let the issues accumulate into a real problem.

Here in the West where humidity is typically quite low, I can ride pretty comfortably up to 95 F. Above that it starts to get sketchy and I need to dial back the exertion, or ride a trail where I can stay moving fast enough to keep good air flow. Those of you in the South and East also have high humidity to deal with and all of the above prevention methods become that much more important.

The bottom line is to use your common sense. Prepare for the ride as you normally would with notification, tools, spares etc. After your basic preparation, pack as much hydration as you can carry as well as electrolyte tabs and water purification. Finally, make sure you’re dressed appropriately and take it easy. A slow ride is better than a Flight-For-Life ride! And of course, if it’s still too hot for riding even with these precautions, then head to the pool and ride the water slide.

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# Comments

  • jeff

    Great tips and important reminders for riding in the heat.

    One of the things that got me into trouble earlier this summer was overconfidence. I had recently completed a 100-miler and had been riding at altitude in Colorado for 3 weeks so I figured a 1.5 hour ride in the Ozarks would be a piece of cake. As such I probably bit off more than I could chew given the temps. and didn’t do all the things on your checklist above, even though I knew those were the right things to do.

    So I guess my advice is to avoid confusing strength and endurance with heat tolerance. Despite completing many long, challenging rides I really hadn’t done much riding in high temperatures and I felt it about an hour into that fateful ride.

    I’ll be sticking to early morning and night rides until the fall…

  • mtbikerchick

    We got a late start yesterday and found ourselves climbing a grueling section out in Loma right around noon. It was HOT! Thankfully we had both brought plenty of water and had electrolyte drinks waiting at the car; we also had plenty of snacks and energy chews to help too. We made it just fine, but had we not been as prepared it would have been a tough ride back to the car.

  • mtbgreg1

    Great post! One thing I’d like to mention: wicking clothing is perfect for high-altitude mountains and the high humidity of the southeast, but in the desert wearing cotton and trapping your sweat near your skin actually keeps you cooler than wicking the sweat away. At least, that’s what I learned when I did my NOLS WFA course. But did I actually wear cotton when MTBing in the desert? No….

  • maddslacker

    I’m going to go ahead and disagree about wearing cotton in the desert. Evaporation is what cools your skin and wicking material facilitates that. Also cotton tends to chafe, badly, when it gets sweaty and salt-encrusted.

    And I *have* tried cotton in the desert. Let’s just say it’s better suited for bath towels than bike jerseys. 😀

  • dgaddis

    Agree with madd on this one. Gotta get the sweat off you, that’s how you lose heat. When the moisture moves to the surface of your skin it brings body heat with it – get it off you, and lose the heat. Keep it on you, you don’t.

  • skibum

    At this point, I use the only 100% foolproof safety from the heat–abstinence. I just don’t ride in excessive heat. It’s just misery for me. I’ve found I use the lights I bought for riding in the winter when days are short are just as useful in the summer when days are hot.

    Fortunately living at 6,300 feet with reasonable access to trails all the way up to 12,000 feet (or more) means I can easily escape the heat, at least on weekends.

  • alskoj

    This has been the worst summer for heat in Colorado. The best way to beat it is to suck it up and get out early (i.e. hit the trailhead before 6 am). Also, the farther you get into the mountains the less heat you’ll encounter. Get ready the night before so that you’ll have less to do in the morning. And its so much better riding in the low early light morning than it is in the harsh afternoon sun.

  • abegold

    Dogs suffer from hot day problems above 75 degrees, at most. I don’t run them nearly as far in summer as in winter. When I do it’s to a swim at a lake or stream and back.
    A ‘Buzz Off’ bandana under or velcroed on your helmet will keep away the gnats!
    Here in Tucson night rides are plentiful and there’s even a petition to open county parks to night riding where parks close at sundown. Several have sweet singletrack.
    If you haven’t peed in several hours you are dehydrated.

  • Jared13

    Another thing to consider: When riding near water, the humidity level will be higher. I learned that yesterday at Sugar Bottom. It was “only” in the 80s but the humidity there was much higher than the weather website said.

  • JSatch

    just a note, if you have ANY of the symptoms listed by maddslacker, you already have heat exhaustion.

    do not think, ‘i’ll just power through’, or ‘i’ll just chill my pace as i don’t have all of the symptoms yet’.

    unfortunately, heat exhaustion also makes you less capable of making rational decisions.

    think long-term, repeated dehydration can have accumulating impacts on your organs.

    an option is night-riding

  • blundar

    This is another good article for the “Mountain Biking for Beginners” Channel…

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