Even more important than the very-important selection of hiking boots and breaking them in, is making sure you stay hydrated on your hikes (or at all times, really).
The problems with dehydration are:
- You can’t immediately counteract the effects by gulping some water and thinking you’ll be OK in minutes. It takes some time for the body to distribute the water and counteract a dehydrated condition. It is far better never to get to that condition,
- Waiting until you feel thirsty before drinking, is not early enough for good hydration.
This is an important note to all hikers, but please don’t think this is a comprehensive coverage of the topic. Each person’s physiology and exertion levels are different. What you are reading here are merely my own learnings and practices. Not drinking enough water and not drinking often enough is probably the most common mistake made by hikers.
Signs of Dehydration
An early but often overlooked symptom of dehydration is a headache. Look at your urine color: if it is dark and you’ve already got a headache, chances are you are at early stages of dehydration. Other symptoms include:
- Rapid heart rate
- Excessive fatigue
- Nausea and lack of appetite
Dehydration can cause hikers to become confused and disoriented. If suffering from severe dehydration seek medical attention as soon as possible.
I have always suggested to my hiking buddies that if they are not peeing on the trail every few hours, they’re not drinking enough. In a mixed crowd, our etiquette is that if a member drops behind the group, we don’t turn around until they say it’s OK. By the way, if you can, pee on a rock – when it dries, local animals appreciate the salt.
If you are experiencing symptoms of dehydration, stop and focus on hydrating and resting immediately. If you try to push through it, that won’t end well. Depending on the severity, dehydration can usually be cured with some water and relaxation. The rest may easily take several hours in a cool, shady spot while sipping on water perhaps mixed with electrolytes if available.
Rehydration is hastened by consuming potassium and sodium (salt), i.e. electrolytes, which you can get if you have some electrolyte powder along, or energy bars that have electrolytes. This is one time that eating some salty snacks is a good thing – they are a source of sodium.
Ways to Stay Hydrated
Prevention is the best treatment for dehydration. These are common steps, and the amounts vary depending on each person.
- Before starting a hike, drink some water, or preferably an electrolyte drink. Eat a banana or two for potassium and magnesium (I eat a banana every morning).
- Avoid drinking caffeine – it acts as a diuretic, causing you to urinate more often.
- In hot weather or higher altitude, you sweat more than you think, it’s just more obvious in humidity. Your water needs are likely to be half-to-one liter per hour of activity. Personally, I’ve been closer to the one-half liter and so a three-liter bladder has worked for me. If you need more, most backpacks are designed with outside side pockets that hold bottled water.
- Drinking from a bladder hose encourages you to take smaller sips more often without having to stop, which I have found is a better way to hydrate than occasional stops, removing a bottle and gulping. Taking smaller, frequent sips will help your body distribute the water better than less frequent, bigger gulps.
- If you are unsure of water sources along the way and the hike will be long, hot and/or strenuous, do some research on the hike (do that anyway) and bring along a water filter (see link). When you see a water source, filter and fill up.
See the Equipment Lists for water bladder and water filter suggestions
Drinking Water Along the Trail
Water is heavy, and if you can avoid carrying gallons at one time, do it. This means knowing if there are freshwater sources along the trail and having equipment to filter and purify it. That usually takes the forms of a water pump and filter or purification tablets.
A water filter adds about 11 ounces of weight but is superior to tablets. It will filter surprisingly muddy and questionable water and makes good, clear water available immediately. The tablets usually require waiting a half hour and you can expect there to be residual tastes and color that you won’t love.
If using a water
filter, know the essentials. A frequent mistake is to let the intake filter to
touch anything touching the outflow, which effectively contaminates your drinking