How to Bikepack During a Heatwave

Chris Reffin pushing through the heat in Vietnam. Photo by Karam Nwilati

By Karam Nwilati

Karam is a videographer, photographer, and storyteller based in Berlin

See more about this adventure in the “On the Road” series in @ROAM‘s Instagram stories.

You might not ever choose to go bikepacking in intense heat, but there may come a time when you don’t have a choice. While bikepacking in Vietnam with my friend Chris Reffin we followed the scenic Ho Chi Minh Road into the Central Highlands of the Kon Tum Province, and as we entered the mountain range the temperatures started to climb. Ultimately surpassing the average temperatures for the season, hitting 102 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit (113 to 115 degrees with humidity). Here are a few tips that helped make riding in hot weather possible for us.

Avoid riding on extremely hot days.

When you’re on a schedule, it can be tempting to try to push through inclement weather. But cycling in high temperatures like the ones we encountered puts stress on the body and can be dangerous, resulting in dehydration or heat stroke––conditions that can require medical care if left unaddressed. The beauty of touring by bicycle is the freedom that comes along with it. If you do have the luxury of time (and consider it even if you don’t), take a rest day and wait for the heat wave to pass; spend time exploring the area and meeting the locals. We took two days off to wait out the heat when we got to the remote village of Kham Duc, and were happy to spend a few days surrounded by mountains and waterfalls.

Start cycling before the sun comes up.

It can be hard to enforce a schedule when you’re on a trip, but you’ll find the riding more enjoyable if you wake up and get going before the sun rises. This is something we did often, and never regretted the early alarm when the reward was epic sunrises, relatively cool temperatures, and emptier, quieter roads. It’s worth it to avoid having to ride through the 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., window when the sun––and UVB rays––are the strongest.

Always have more water than you think you need.

Hydration is key. When you exercise in the heat, your body is both working harder to cool itself and sweating at a higher rate than usual. Dehydration can come quicker than you think, so you’ll need to be intentional about replacing the fluids you lose. You should drink water before your ride, and sip on it every 10 to 15 minutes during, and then drink to satiation afterwards. Thirst is a good guide, but it’s important to stay ahead of dehydration rather than playing catch up. And it’s a good idea to add electrolytes into your water as sodium helps with rehydration. Chris and I had three liters of water each for one of our days and it still was not enough. We had to push our bikes up a 16-mile mountain pass that gained around 3,600 feet in elevation. Luckily, just as we ran out of water we happened upon a restaurant where we were able to refill our supplies. Had we not, we would have had to call it and find help. Carry extra water, it’s always worth the weight.

Wear the right clothes to protect you from the sun.

When it’s hot, shedding layers down to your birthday suit seems like the right move, but what you should be doing is covering any exposed skin with clothes. There are lots of items designed specifically for sun exposure that are made of lightweight, breathable fabric, from sun hoodies to sun gloves. It may seem counterintuitive, but go for long sleeves. Find one made from merino wool, which is an antimicrobial fabric that doesn’t retain as much odor as other fabrics do. If you’re fair-skinned like Chris is, then you probably burn easily. This means that the right pants, long-sleeves, and even a bike helmet with a visor can add a lot of comfort to your ride. A bad sunburn will detract from both your enjoyment and your performance.

Take breaks.

When you wake up early to ride before the sun reaches it peak, plan to take a break during the hottest hours of the day. Find a shady spot to hang a hammock, or a fruit stand to re-energize yourself. If you find a stream of water, take advantage of the opportunity to cool off with a swim. Chris and I found many rest stops along the road already set up with hammocks that offered a selection of things like coconuts and cold sugarcane juice.

Ultimately, avoid pushing yourself past your limit, and take breaks when the temperature gets too high or just when you feel like you need it. Set realistic goals for the day and be flexible with where you’ll stop. If you find a nice camping spot, there’s no need to push on and put yourself in danger. And if camping isn’t your thing, make sure that you can actually get to the next town before it gets too dark. If not, stay where you are. And, of course, listen to your body. There is no shame in calling it. If you feel yourself getting fatigued, nauseous, or having muscle cramps then you’re trending toward heat stroke and need to stop and find a shady, cool spot to rehydrate.

Check out our next Expedition: Bikepack SF to LA