When it comes to our health and safety, the most common mistake made by hikers is not drinking enough water. Dehydration can be extremely dangerous, especially if you’re in a remote location or far from emergency help. No matter the temperature, season or altitude you’re hiking, your priority should always be adequate hydration.
All outdoor adventurers need to take extra care and avoid dehydration, as it has potentially dangerous side effects, and can even lead to death. To avoid the unpleasant effects of dehydration, we’ve put together some resources and tips for you to follow during your next hiking trip.
Do Your Research
Your overall hydration strategy should be set out before you set out, so you need to do your due diligence and do some research before heading outdoors. Study guide books and maps of the area you’re heading off to for water sources and resupply stations, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the terrain or trail.
- Climate: When the conditions you’re hiking on are hot and/or humid, or you’re in high altitude he general recommendation is to drink one liter per hour. When high up in the mountains, the air may be cooler, and you may not be sweating as much, but the air is thinner and drier, meaning you’ll need more water. If the conditions are milder, or you’re hiking at sea level, half a liter per hour should be sufficient.
- Exertion level: You lose more body fluids through perspiration and respiration when you’re working harder than usual, meaning you’ll eventually become dehydrated if you’re not replacing those lost fluids.
Individual needs: A general benchmark of how much water is needed can be useful, but we’re all individuals with unique needs. No two hikers need the same amount of water, and while a hiker may be ok drinking 4 liters of water in 8 hours, another hiker may require double that to stay hydrated. Therefore, to find out how much water you need to be drinking, it’s important that you rely on personal experience. Listen to your body, and when in doubt, err on the side of caution.
Is There a Thing as Drinking Too Much Water?
The short answer is yes. Hyponatremia, which happens when there are abnormally low sodium levels in the blood can occur when a hiker drinks too much water without replenishing their electrolytes adequately. If you are hiking in extreme conditions (high altitude, hot weather, etc.), it’s a good idea to add sports drink powders to your water and eat salty snacks such as peanuts and pretzels.
Don’t Wait Until Thirst Sets In
If you are feeling thirsty, you might already be dehydrated. Make a habit of drinking at least a glass of water when waking up in the morning before setting off on a hike. You can think of this technique as your hydration investment for the rest of your hike.
Protect Yourself Against The Sun
Cooler temperatures and shade mean you don’t need to drink as much water, so always wear a hat and during sunny days, stay in the shade whenever possible. And while we’re on the subject of sun protection, never skip on your 50 SPF sunscreen!
Take Advantage Of Water Sources
When hiking on a trail that has potable water sources, but they are few and far between, drink at least one liter of water when refilling your bottle. That way, you won’t need to carry as much water to the next water source, meaning you’ll be able to walk a little quicker since you’re not carrying extra weight.
Schedule Your Hiking Times
When water sources are scarce, the temperatures are hot, and there’s not much shade to be found, the bulk of your hiking should be done during the early morning, late afternoon and early evening when the temperatures are cooler. You can begin your day at sunrise and hike until around 11 am. Find yourself a spot that has shade and rest until early afternoon, taking advantage of this break by eating your lunch or taking a small nap. Resume your hike once the temperature has cooled off a bit.
Rely on Your Experience
Once you’ve had enough hiking experience, you should know how much water you need to drink in different conditions and terrains. It doesn’t make sense to carry a lot of extra water weight, so your aim should be at carrying enough water to make sure you have enough between water sources to stay hydrated, but not so much that you’re carrying extra.
The only exception is when you’re walking in an unfamiliar environment, and you’re not sure of the regularity or quality of water sources. In this case, the better option is to carry as much extra water as you think you’ll need.
Be Flexible and Learn to Adapt
You may have done your research regarding water availability, but nature doesn’t always play by the rules. Once you’re out there, you may find that the water sources you were relying upon are dry, meaning your hydration strategy needs to be reevaluated. Take some time and figure out which water sources should still be available, and ration your water accordingly. In these situations, avoid walking when the sun is at its highest, as you will need significantly more water to stay hydrated.
Don’t overestimate the importance of staying hydrated. Humans can survive around three weeks without food, but only three days without water. Regardless of altitude or climate, dehydration can happen when there has been insufficient water intake, and the person has lost more water than they have drunk.
Dehydration has three stages: mild, where you lose around 5% of your body weight, moderate, where you lose around 8% and severe, where 10% or more of your body weight is lost. Most of us will have experienced a mild level of dehydration, and it can be quickly remedied by water and rest.
When there is a moderate dehydration stage, this may cause abnormalities in potassium and sodium levels in your body, leading to heart rhythm problems. Other symptoms of dehydration include:
- Dry mouth, nose, and lips
- Lethargy and Fatigue
- Rapid and deep breathing
- Increased pulse (around 100 bpm at rest)
- Light-headedness and dizziness
- Temperature drop
- Sunken eyes
- Low blood pressure
- Cramped muscles
When dehydration reaches a moderate or severe level, it may require medical attention. If re-hydrating techniques don’t seem to be lessening the symptoms, you should seek medical treatment.
Apart from dehydration symptoms, there are two simple tests you can take to check if you’re dehydrated:
- Examine your urine: If your urine is straw-colored or clear and running freely, you are sufficiently hydrated. However, if it is yellow or dark orange, and thicker than usual, it means that the waste is concentrated, so you need to up your water intake, even if you’re not feeling thirsty.
- Pinch your skin: Pinch an area of soft skin such as your forearm or the back of your hand. If it stays pinched and is not returning to its normal position quickly, it more than likely means you’re dehydrated.
How To Find Water Sources
If you’ve run out of water, or the water sources you were relying on are not there, there are some tips that you can follow to find water.
A stream that’s close to the trail may appear to be dry, but this might not be the case further up towards the creek’s source. It’s worth the effort to move upstream closer to the source, or downstream for any shady areas or vegetation that may be harboring water.
Climb to a high point, and look out for depressions, valley bottoms or depressions that show signs of vegetation, which means potential water sources.
If you see livestock around you, chances are there’s a water supply in the vicinity. Grazing animals usually stay nearby their primary water supply. Converging paths leading in a downhill direction usually mean a water source. Remember that you should always treat water that is taken from sources frequented by livestock.
Spotting a damp spot or a patch of green in a creek bed that’s otherwise dry means that there is water close to the surface. Dig a hole and scoop out the water with a bottle or pot. You can also place a bandana or shirt in the hole, soak up the moisture and wring it into your mouth.
As a last resort, you can use a condensation trap by tying a plastic bag tightly around the end of a leafy branch. This method will not give you much water, and you will need to wait a while, but it can still be enough to tide you over.