Hydration Basics

Dehydration is a serious risk when you are exerting yourself in the wilderness. Most people tend to think it only happens in very hot, very dry climates, but dehydration can strike in any conditions. Fortunately, it is easily prevented with some knowledge and planning. It’s also crucial to recognize the signs of dehydration before they become debilitating or deadly.

When considering how to stay hydrated, you need to begin before you start exerting yourself. If you are headed out for a backpacking trip, a long run, or a day on the slopes, you should make sure that when you begin you are already properly hydrated. This means increasing your water intake anywhere from 12-24 hours ahead of time. Sip more water than usual prior to your activity to allow yourself to start out on the right foot. This is especially important in colder weather, when your urge to drink may decrease but the dry air causes you to dehydrate more quickly.

The amount of water you carry can vary depending on the length of your hike, the trail conditions, altitude, and climate. A general rule is to always carry at least 2 liters of water. For longer hikes or hikes in backcountry with limited water sources, 4 liters is the minimum I recommend carrying. Nalgene bottles are handy but a bladder style hydration system can make drinking on the go easier and more convenient. I personally use the Camelbak bladders, but there are also others on the market that work great too. I also carry a Lifestraw bottle for a backup filtration system.

In hot weather, water alone may not be enough to replenish your fluids and electrolytes. Eating salty snacks such as jerky or nuts and snacks high in potassium like bananas can help. Other things such as electrolyte drinks like Gatorade or a bottle of Mio Electrolytes can keep your body functioning properly. Many electrolyte drinks contain sugar, so getting some salt and potassium from food can help keep things balanced.

Symptoms of Dehydration

The most common symptom of dehydration is a headache. When hiking at altitude, headaches can also be caused by altitude sickness, so it is important to understand the cause of the headache so you know how to treat it and other symptoms to look for. While hiking Pike’s Peak last summer, staying hydrated was a top priority. You can function when you are hungry, but as soon as dehydration sets in, you are putting yourself in danger.

Other early symptoms of dehydration:
Increased thirst
Dry mouth
Tired or sleepy
Decreased urine output
Urine is low volume and more yellowish than normal
Dry skin
Few or no tears

If you experience any of the above symptoms, you will want to take a break to hydrate with an electrolyte drink or water and a salty snack. Early dehydration can usually be cured with some water and relaxation. A dehydration victim should not exert themselves for several hours at the very least and should be consistently sipping on water mixed with a dash of salt and sugar. Lying in a cool, shady spot, with your feet elevated is also helpful. Do not chug fluids, sipping slowly will help you re hydrate more safely and effectively. If you are running low on water, you will want to locate the nearest water source to ensure you have an adequate supply to get you back to civilization.

As with any medical issue, prevention is the best treatment for dehydration. Dehydration can be a gateway to things like heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and hypothermia, and can provoke shock from physical injury. By starting out properly hydrated and ensuring you stay hydrated throughout your activity, you can prevent your day from taking a turn for the worse.

Do you have any tips or tricks you use to prevent dehydration? Please share in the comments!


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