Hypothermia In The Summer?

Updated: Nov 11, 2020

Appalachian Trail Section Hike, Fontana Dam to Clingman's Dome

July 2017

Day two and I am soaked in sweat. We had just descended from Rocky Top on the Appalachian Trail where we ate lunch. Seven miles completed since morning with only about five to go until Derrick Knob Shelter, our targeted campsite. The first rumbles of thunder appeared just as we finished lunch and hoisted our packs. It was far off in the distance. Barely discernible but definitely there.

Just over a mile from Rocky Top we gained visibility to the west. The thunder was now close and we could see what was coming. All three of us donned our pack covers. The raincoats could wait. Five minutes later the rain started. Two of us pulled out raincoats, one did not. That would be me. Yes. I was the idiot on this particular day.

“This will probably be over in ten minutes. Besides, the rain feels great!”

And it did feel great. Even at five thousand feet the day had been oppressively hot and humid. By this point most of the water from my hydration pack was gone. The rain was a welcome relief. Twenty minutes later it became a nuisance. At forty five minutes I knew I was in a bit of trouble. I could feel the drop in my core temperature. This is when I decided I better get my rain coat. Fortunately for me this is also when the rain decided to stop. The sun returned to its blazing glory. Later at the campsite I found myself standing directly in those warm rays. This enabled me to finally stop the internal shaking.

Rocky Top where we had lunch. My shirt is soaked from sweat. You can see Fontana Lake in the far background. Two hours after this picture was taken I found myself shivering and dangerously close to hypothermia.

When my mistake became obvious to me I continued on anyhow without correcting. On at least three occasions I convinced myself the rain would stop at any moment. This was stubbornness, and not wanting to stop the group's momentum. I would have to remove the pack, dig out my rain coat, and get going once again. It was a silly internal deflection of what needed to get done. I can get a raincoat on in about 3 minutes, give or take.

At the entrance to national parks you will see posted signs. If you happen to read them, most will include the dangers of getting caught in the rain unprepared. Yes folks, hypothermia can and does happen in the mountains during the summer months. I think this is more obvious in the higher altitudes out west. On the east coast many underestimate how chilly it can be at altitudes of five thousand or six thousand feet. A thunderstorm at these altitudes can bring rain water with temperatures below 50 degrees.

A poncho is not good enough. Those should only be carried for emergencies. With the experiences I've had hiking in intense rain, I recommend a solid rain coat that will keep your head, torso, and arms dry. See my article on "Getting Dry" for more about hiking in the rain.

#hiking #camping #mountains #backpacking #backcountry

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