Staying Cool While Touring in the Heat

Feb 19th, 2019

We can’t control the elements. It’s part of what makes bicycle touring so exciting: we set off on long-distance journeys, unsure of what conditions we’ll be riding in.

But if you’re planning a summer bike tour across the United States or a trip to the American Southwest, you know you’ll be in for some “scorchers.” Here’s how to keep cool while cycling in hot weather.

Wear the Right Gear

This is not the time for bucket-style helmets and thick black cycling jerseys. You’ll want maximum airflow and light colors to keep the heat at bay. Riding a bike creates a natural breeze, so use that to your advantage by wearing clothes and a helmet with plenty of ventilation. 

Slather on the Sunscreen

You might be a fan of “cyclist’s tan,” the severe tan line that makes it look like you’re still wearing a pale jersey long after you’ve removed your shirt. But you won’t be a fan of the heat radiating from your sunburn! 

It’s a miserable experience to be tucked into your sleeping bag after a long day in the saddle, feeling your skin throb from too much sun exposure. Cover up with cooling layers, or use plenty of sunscreen, especially on your thighs and calves. 

Wet bandana illustration by Daniel Mrgan

Evaporative Cooling

One of my favorite tricks on long bike tours is to wear a wet cotton bandana around my neck. There are a few “cooling spots” on the human body, where the blood vessels are closer to the skin, and the neck is one of them. A wet bandana will dry while you ride, creating an evaporative cooling effect on your neck. The bandana can dry pretty fast, especially in the desert, so it’s necessary to remoisten it at any opportunity (gas stations, cafes, public drinking fountains, etc). 

There are other “cooling spots” on our bodies, such as the inside of your elbows and the backs of your knees, but I don’t recommend wearing wet clothing over those. Damp fabrics can lead to chafing. 

Stay Hydrated

The key to staying ahead of dehydration is to drink a little at a time but frequently. Don’t wait until you feel thirsty, or it may be too late! Drinking electrolytes, as well as plain water, is a good idea to replenish the essential minerals and salts that you lose in your sweat. If not replenished, losing these nutrients can lead to muscle cramps. 

Water tends to heat up in bottles throughout the day, so if you have an opportunity to fill your bottles with ice, do so! The cool drink will be refreshing later on. 

Avoid Midday Riding

The hottest part of the day tends to be around 3 pm, depending on cloud cover and terrain. It’s a good idea to stop and take a long break (preferably somewhere indoors with air conditioning!) when you feel like you’re beginning to roast. 

In some areas, such as the desert of the American Southwest, it’s advisable to plan a long pitstop in the middle of each riding day to take a break from the sun. Riding early in the mornings and late into the evenings will help to make up for the lost cycling time, but always use bright bike lights and reflective clothing to remain visible to drivers.

Post-Ride Recovery

Continue to drink water and electrolytes after your daily ride. If you have a recovery-specific formula, that’s even better. Many companies offer recovery-specific powders that can be mixed with water, and these powder packets are lightweight and easy for touring cyclists to carry. 

Take a cold shower to lower your core temperature, or if there’s a pool, lake, river, or other bodies of water available, now’s the time to go for a swim!

Stay cool out there. And if you have any other tips for riding in the heat, we’d love to hear them in the comments below.

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