Hydration: How To Prevent Dehydration While Hiking
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When properly hydrated, our bodies are around 60% water. Maintaining that level of water is needed so your heart pumps blood more easily, for temperature regulation, lubrication of joints, waste removal, and many other functions including the brain, nerves, and muscles.1
Adequate hydration is essential for your overall health while hiking, backpacking, trekking, or other outdoor activities. But did you know there’s a right and wrong way to hydrate?
You not only need to keep the right balance of water in your body to avoid dehydration or overhydration. You need to have the right balance between water and electrolytes to keep your body functioning properly.
Electrolytes are minerals that carry an electrical charge to your body’s systems to keep them functioning properly. Your brain, heart, muscles, nervous system, and digestive system all require electrolytes. They also play a role in controlling your hydration.2,3,4
Sodium and potassium are the two main electrolytes that you’ll be sweating out while hiking. Other common electrolytes that you’ll want to replenish are magnesium, chloride, calcium, and phosphorus.
Let’s look at how to hydrate properly when you’re on your next adventure.
What to Drink While Hiking
Water is the best drink for staying hydrated. Make sure you bring enough water in bottles or a hydration pack for your hike. If your hike is longer, plan ahead. Are there refill points along the way or will you need to purify water from natural sources?
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Drinks with Electrolytes
Drinks with electrolytes are needed if your hike is over 60-90 minutes. Dehydration symptoms will increase when these minerals are depleted and your performance will suffer.
There are 6 common electrolytes that you’ll want to replenish. Sodium and potassium are the two that you’ll be sweating out the most.
6 common electrolytes:
You may be periodically replenishing these electrolytes through snacks. If not, consider adding an electrolyte tablet to your water. They’re easier to carry than numerous sports drinks.
If you’re bringing along electrolytes, consider taking both a hydration pack full of water and a bottle to mix your electrolytes in.
Note: If you opt for a sports drink, consider one lower in sugar. Sugary drinks can give you an energy boost, but when the sugar wears off, you may feel more drained than before the rush.
How Much to Drink
Trying to figure out how much water to drink while hiking?
The amount of water you need partly depends on:
- The hike’s difficulty level
- The duration
- The climate where you’re hiking
- The weather conditions
- The altitude of your hike
- Your physical condition
- Your age
Drinking a half-liter of water per hour while hiking is a good starting point. The need for water increases as the demands of the hike increase. A strenuous hike in a hot environment may call for a liter or more per hour.
There’s no standard amount of electrolytes to replenish at particular intervals either.
Needs for water and electrolytes will vary from person to person. You’ll have to experiment. Start by alternating between water and electrolyte drinks when your hikes are over an hour.
Listen to the needs of your body. Over time, you’ll learn how to adjust your intake of water and electrolytes to the demands of your adventure.
How to Drink for Preventing Dehydration
It seems a little silly at first but there is a right and wrong way to drink water to prevent dehydration while hiking.
Consistently taking in smaller amounts of water along your hike best supports your body’s various functions and proper hydration. This consistent intake of water is far better than downing a bunch of water periodically. The yo-yo effect of downing water places a strain on body systems, decreases endurance, and increases the odds of becoming dehydrated.
Drink water before you feel thirsty. You can’t rely on thirst to be your guide. Guzzling water due to great thirst means you’re already dehydrated. Prevention through consistent intake of fluids is best.
If you notice any signs of dehydration along your hike, increase your fluid intake. (Dehydration signs are listed below.)
Tip: Consider a hydration pack. These packs perfectly accommodate the need for consistent water intake by allowing you to easily sip while hiking.
Avoid Caffeine and Alcohol
Caffeine and alcohol are diuretics. These discourage hydration by promoting fluid loss.
Avoid caffeine and alcohol before, during and after a hike. Yep, even after. You need to make sure you rehydrate after your hike.
You need to prehydrate before your hike. This is especially so if you’re going on a morning hike. Ever weighed yourself at night and then again in the morning? Did you weigh less? Most of us weigh less in the morning. It’s because water is lost overnight. Sweating and those nightly visits to the bathroom are two of the contributors to the loss of water.
Consider drinking 16 to 24 fl. oz. of water, juice, or electrolyte drink an hour or two before you hit the trail. Due to overnight dehydration, you’ll want to be on the higher end of that range if you’re hiking first thing in the morning.
Rehydrate and Replenish Electrolytes
It’s important to continue hydrating after your hike to replenish water and electrolyte loss.
If you’re hungry after your hike, consider potassium-rich foods for getting electrolytes back into your system.
Drink More at Higher Altitudes
Higher altitudes can cause you to dehydrate faster by:
- Increasing urinary output.
- Increasing breath intake. Water is lost twice as fast through respiration at high altitudes than at sea level.
- Lowering sense of thirst which is compounded if the elevation is accompanied by cold temperatures.
Risk of Dehydration is Greater in Cold Temperatures
We often think of getting dehydrated in hot weather but staying hydrated when hiking in cold temperatures is equally important.
The risk of dehydration in cold temperatures is often greater…
- Breathing cold dry air causes a loss of water.
- Sweat is a visual reminder to rehydrate. When you don’t see it, you’re less likely to drink. When it’s cold, you don’t realize how much you’re sweating. Sweat vaporizes instead of forming on your skin or soaking clothes.
Wear Sun Protection
Sunburn promotes dehydration, so invest in good sunscreen and/or sun-protective clothing for UV protection.
Dehydration Risk Increases with Age
The older you get the more prone to dehydration you’ll be.
As we age, we store less fluid in our bodies. Older adults may have 10% less than they did when they were younger. To compound the risk of dehydration, there’s also a reduced sense of thirst in older adults.
Risks of Improper Hydration
Improper hydration can lead to dehydration or overhydration. Both of these conditions can throw off systems in your body.
Dehydration occurs when there is a greater loss of water from the body than what’s taken in.5
For hikers, dehydration usually occurs when sweating exceeds the water intake. If you’re a hiker with a chronic illness, you have a greater risk of dehydration. (i.e. diabetes or chronic kidney disease)
Signs of mild to moderate dehydration:
- Dry mouth
- Dry, cool skin
- Urinating less than usual
- Urine is yellower than normal
- Sweating less than usual
- Feeling tired or sleepy
- Muscle cramps
Signs of severe dehydration include extreme versions of the symptoms above as well as:
- Decreased performance
- Severely decreased or no urine
- Dark-colored urine
- Lack of sweat
- Increased heart rate
- Low blood pressure
- Poor skin elasticity
For most hikers, the treatment for dehydration is to rehydrate by replacing lost fluids and electrolytes. But in severe cases, intravenous fluids at a hospital may be needed.
Continuing to hike without hydration can lead to serious health problems. Consult your doctor if you or a hiking buddy show severe signs of dehydration.
You should weigh about the same before and after a moderate hike. This is harder to accomplish on intense hikes. If you’re down a number of pounds you’re probably dehydrated and need to drink 16–24 fl. oz. of water, juice, or electrolyte drink for each pound lost to rehydrate.
Overhydration occurs when there is excess water in the body that upsets electrolyte balances.6
This is a rare condition that can occasionally affect hikers but is more often seen in endurance athletes like marathon runners and triathletes who drink too much water before and during an event.
Certain chronic conditions and medicines cause overhydration. Check with your doctor to make sure you’re healthy enough to hike or if you may be otherwise susceptible to overhydration.
Symptoms of overhydration are similar to dehydration except urine volume will be elevated and its color will be clear or close to it.
Treatment for mild overhydration is to restrict fluid intake, replenish electrolytes, and let the kidneys excrete the excess water. In severe cases, diuretics and additional medications may be needed for those with chronic conditions.
Overhydration often causes hyponatremia.
Hyponatremia is a condition that occurs when sodium blood levels are too low. This condition is relatively uncommon in hikers and can result from improper hydration… not replenishing electrolytes and overhydrating.3,7,8
The lack of sodium and other electrolytes due to hyponatremia can throw systems in your body out of balance. In very extreme cases, death can occur.
Symptoms of hyponatremia in hikers are usually similar to overhydration.
Treatment for hyponatremia in hikers without any other underlying condition is to increase sodium and other electrolyte levels through eating a salty snack or electrolyte supplements and to restrict fluid intake if caused by overhydration.
- The Water in You: Water and the Human Body. The United States Geological Survey (USGS).
- J. Fong and A. Khan. Hypocalcemia: Updates in Diagnosis and Management for Primary Care. Canadian Family Physician. 2012 Feb;58(2):158-62.
- M.A. Buffington and K. Abreo. Hyponatremia: A Review. Journal of Intensive Care Medicine. 2016 May;31(4):223-36.
- J.A. Yu-Yahiro. Electrolytes and their relationship to normal and abnormal muscle function. Orthopaedic Nursing. 1994 Sep-Oct;13(5):38-40.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. Dehydration. Mayo Clinic.
- James L. Lewis, III, MD. Overhydration. Merck Manual Consumer Version.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. Hyponatremia. Mayo Clinic.
- James L. Lewis, III, MD. Hyponatremia. Merck Manual Professional Version.
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