How to Keep Cool Out Walking in a Heatwave

Two Berber women wearing loose layered clothing walking in jungle track

It’s too hot!  How many times have you heard that excuse to avoid going out walking in summer?  But is it a good idea to let yourself off the hook when you’re trying to get into a consistent walking regime?  Far better to go for a short walk.  You’ll feel proud of yourself afterwards.

But we certainly do need to be careful in the heat as it can easily cause problems, overheating, sunstroke, heat rash, dehydration and more. So, what can we do to help ourselves get out there and walk safely even when ‘it’s (too) hot’?

One of the ways to protect ourselves against the heat is to wear the right kind of clothing. What exactly might that be?

Wearing as little as possible for decency is great fun – well in the right circumstances. And wandering around in speedos or a bikini on the beach when the thermometer is soaring could well be a good choice, especially when you can cool off in the ocean. (And for those who like to test out where their comfort zone ends, maybe try the nudist section of the beach?) 

Going skimpy can be fine for wandering around for short periods. Your skin may well survive that quick walk over to the ice-cream van and back to your umbrella especially if you’ve slathered on the suntan cream.   

But you need to take care if you are prone to burning easily in the sun.  Maybe it’s safer to throw on a cover up. For longer walks and hikes out in the sun and heat, it’s better to keep more covered up to protect yourself against the sun and its heat with the right clothes. 

So how do you set about choosing what are the coolest things to wear if you’re out walking in a heatwave? Let’s look at fabrics, styles, colour, practicality, protection and more.

You might adore the wet T shirt look that can look and make you feel really cool. For that you need a really thin cotton and lots of water.

But if you want to stay dry and comfortable, don’t pick cotton. It absorbs your sweat and the humidity from the air. Then it gets heavy and droops out of shape – just like a dishcloth. Choose cotton mixed with a bit of elastane or lycra to it to keep looking good.

It’s not the most comfortable choice for going out walking in the heat because cotton neither wicks water away from your body nor does it dry quickly. So, you still could end up feeling like a soggy dishcloth.  Remember the feeling of how wet your T shirt feels on your back when you carry some backpacks in the heat? 

Many people love linen in summer. (That’s if you don’t mind looking wrinkled -personally I loathe it and the tiresome task of ironing that it entails.) A loose weave linen can feel quite cool and airy though.

If you’d rather walk around feeling dry and comfortable, you could try bamboo, rayon or modal. Each of them wicks moisture away from your skin. Then, being breathable, the moisture easily evaporates and so the fabric dries quickly. Some of the best sports fabrics are blends that give you the best qualities of each fabric.

Manmade fabrics like nylon and polyester dry quickly as they repel water. But they tend to trap your body heat, causing you to feel not only unpleasantly hot but also as unpleasantly odorous as that unwashed wet dishcloth.  Their stretchiness makes them cool for a workout or for swimming where you change afterwards, but perhaps not so good for a full day’s hike.

How best to wick away the moisture?  One way is to wear a reasonably tight vest or T shirt underneath, made of moisture absorbing fabric that wicks your sweat away from your skin. 

Wear something light coloured and loose over the top.  This has two effects.  One is that a lighter colour can reflect the heat and the other is that with an air barrier between the two layers you are wearing, the gap between the fabrics can act like a chimney.  Hot air has the chance to rise up the gap and disappear out of the top of what you’re wearing.  This creates a cooling effect and assists in the wicking away of your body moisture.

Man sitting on wall  in shade of palm trees wearing sunglasses, layered T shirt, shirt, shorts, straw hat and tennis shoes against background of water and mountainous islands.

Choose lighter floaty materials for outer layers. Gauzy, open weave fabrics like muslin or chiffon are excellent.  Fabrics like seersucker are good because the profile of the fabric stops it lying directly against your skin, creating that cooling chimney of air space to allow for evaporation.

For something close to your skin, choose one of the newer fabrics such as bamboo, rayon or modal to keep you dry and comfortable when the sun is unrelenting.

Nice crisp cotton can be comfortable when the air is dry but due to its ability to retain moisture feels less comfortable when it’s humid  or you’ve been sweating a lot .

Custom decrees wearing white because it reflects heat. Trouble is that when your body gets hot, your white clothes reflect your own heat back to your skin. That means that your white cotton T shirt could make you even hotter, especially if it’s a tight fit.

The heat that your body radiates is absorbed by a dark layer but isn’t reflected back onto your skin. So that’s why the Tuareg and Bedu wear loose dark clothes in the desert, particularly if it is windy.  (Want proof – here it is: Why do Bedouins Wear Black Robes in Hot Deserts

Darker colours also provide more sun protection because those fiercesomely harmful rays can’t penetrate through the fabric into your skin so easily.

Wearing shorts and strappy T shirts are great when it’s warm but not burning hot. For longer walks, you might like those trousers where you can detach the lower leg section to wear them as shorts.  They don’t weigh much. You can cover up if your legs start catching the sun or if the weather decides that it doesn’t want to be quite so warm.

Long sleeves and trousers can help protect you against any mosquitoes or midges that fancy some nice warm human flesh.  Biting insects love to buzz around lakes, rivers and canals, especially at dusk.

As the heat increases, choose styles that are loose and airy such as longer trousers, skirts and dresses. Cover your arms with long, loose sleeves.  Try a kaftan or an oversize shirt over a little tank top.  The flapping of the extra fabric as you move provides your very own cooling breeze.

Girl wearing gauzy grey layered harem pants walking across a bridge with flowers

Baggy trousers allow air to circulate round your legs while protecting you from the sun. Loose harem or palazzo pants work for both men and women. They are often made of very thin airy fabrics too. Just make sure that any gathering at the ankle is loose enough to let in the air too.

Hats are a great protection from the sun. It’s particularly important for those who are thinning a bit on top and not only men. I can remember getting sunburnt all down my hair parting when I was out sailing in the sun. Boy was that painful!

Choose styles with wide brims such as a Panama hat or a cowboy hat.  Peaked caps protect your eyes from the glare of the sun, particularly when the peaked bit is lined with anti-glare material.  You can also find caps that have a roll down section that protects your neck from the sun. Have fun pretending you’re a member of the French foreign legion.

Hats and caps made of loose-woven fabrics or of straw allow the breeze through which helps keep your head cool.  If you are doing a serious hike, it’s useful to wear a hat that has a chin strap or some ties to keep it in place if it gets windy. 

You might want to keep your feet covered. I had a lovely pair of strappy sandals but they gave my feet a pink pattern for the summer.  Plus, have you ever burnt your feet on hot sand or tarmac? You need protection. 

On warm, barmy days, there is nothing nicer than enjoying a refreshing walk outside.  As the heat builds, it feels much harder, but it is absolutely possible to enjoy it if you take the right precautions.

We’ve looked at what you can wear when out walking to keep yourself more comfortable.  That’s just one aspect of making the most of the sunshine.  You’ll also need to consider whether it might simply be too hot for you.  Whatever your age, you need to take care not to get dehydrated which can be life-threatening. 

Take into account any health conditions you might have which could be affected by excessive heat or too much sun.  Check with your doctor if you are concerned. Take sensible precautions to avoid sunburn.  Stay in the shade when you can.  Wear suntan lotion.

Then, enjoy yourself. Have fun. Make the most of the beautiful weather. Go out walking to get in a bit of exercise. It’s fine if it’s a bit less than usual. And when you come back from your walk, you’ll feel more cheerful too. You didn’t procrastinate or give into the excuses.

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