Keeping Your Cool Under the Sun

Summer is in full swing and it’s been delightfully mild so far, which has made for really enjoyable bike rides. But with a heat wave approaching it’s a good time to revisit sun and heat safety tips and precautions.

Being car-less with a busy schedule, I rely on my bicycle to get me from point A to B to C— a 35 mile roundtrip commute, during which the prevention of heat exhaustion is crucial. In the days when I was an aspiring farmer, I learned a lot about regulating body temperature and have since utilized that knowledge whilst cycling in the elements. The most important lesson was the more skin exposed to the sun, the greater the risk of heat exhaustion. Although it seems counter intuitive at first, this extensive study (Walsberg, Campbell, & King, 1978. J. Comp. Physiol. 126B: 211-222) explains why wearing dark colored long-sleeved clothing is going to keep the body cooler while riding a bike. Dark colored clothing not only offers better protection from harmful UV rays, but also absorbs the radiation of heat, yes, from the sun but from your exercising body as well! The most important factor here however, is windspeed, because even the most modest wind (anything over 7 m.p.h.) will convect absorbed heat away faster than it can be transmitted to the skin.  The fabric must be breathable and loose fitting though, otherwise that refreshing breeze produced when cycling (via air circulation) is negated and the physics of using dark clothing doesn’t work. Personally, I wear classic all black because it’s my uniform for work and school. A loose fitting shirt cools my core, but I opt for the “sweat-wicking, breathable” tights for their pedaling mobility. Snug athletic pants are ideal since loose fabric can easily get caught in a bike chain. Here are more tips for keeping your cool while riding under the summer sun:

  • Wear loose fitting, breathable, long-sleeved shirts (explained above)
  • Wear sun glasses and a hat
  • Take the shady route whenever possible
  • Drink copious amounts of water and eat salty foods (electrolytes)
  • Go hybrid: bike half and bus the rest
  • Make frequent stops to refuel on water and cool off in the AC
  • Apply skin protectant with at least a SPF 15, reapply every two hours to areas exposed to sun

All of this talk of keeping cool reminds me of yet another reason I love riding the forest trails. Not only is it cooler under the canopy, these wooded trails provide ample shade, so I’m less bothered with sunscreen (and forget the bug spray— the mosquitos can’t keep up!). More interestingly though, is that nature trails have the potential to keep our cities cooler in the heat of the summer. Studies show that our climate is in flux and metropolitan areas in particular have higher temperatures than surrounding rural areas. The phenomena is referred to as the Heat Island Effect (HIE) and it’s caused from lack of vegetation coupled with vast areas of materials that store heat from the sun, such as concrete and asphalt. You can feel the intense heat when you’re on the streets and even more so as the hot cars pass by. These wooded bike trails are one way to help lower temperatures and remedy HIE.

Therefore, biking to work is a means to actively participate in the conservation of our woodlands and environment all while cooling our city and us at the same time. The trails won’t beget themselves though, it will take revolutionary cyclists opting to ride rather than drive. The forests are beckoning, so let’s mount up and go for a ride!

Roanoke Park Conservancy is doing a lot of ecological restoration with these wooded trails within Kansas City, check out this map for detailed information.

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