Preventing Dehydration While Hiking

Keeping properly hydrated out on the trail is easier said than done.  Your body is about 60% water when you’re fully hydrated.  During the heat of summer you’ll have to do a little bit of planning if you want to keep it that way.

It might seem like staying comfortable and hydrated on the trail is as simple as just drinking more water, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth.  You’ll have to learn how to develop good drinking habits on the trail to avoid dehydration.

How to Prevent Dehydration While Hiking

The best way to avoid dehydration during a hike is to make a conscience effort to drink more water over the course of a day.  Don’t just down a gallon of water when you show signs of dehydration.  Drinking slowly throughout the day and pacing your water intake is going to keep your body in peak shape.

How Much Water Should You Drink on a Hike?

The amount of water you need to drink is going to depend on the difficulty of your hike.  Most people probably won’t even need to bring along a water bottle on a short hike during lunch.  You probably won’t even sweat on a short 1-2 hour hike during the spring or fall.

Problems with dehydration start to show up on longer day hikes and during the heat of summer.  During the heat of summer you’ll need to drink about a liter of water per hour to avoid dehydration.  You might need even more on especially difficult terrain or during the hottest part of summer.

Just try to imagine carrying around a couple 2 liter bottles of Coke on your next hike(It’s Not Going To Be Light). You’re going to need to find a easy way to carry in all that water.

How Do You Carry All That Water on a Hike?

There’s no easy way around hauling all that water on your hike.  You’re going to have to find a way to either carry all the water with you or filter water in the field.  Check out my post on the best backpacking water filters if you’re going on a multi-day hike.

Short Hikes

On shorter hikes 1-2 hours you’ll be able to get by with a small water bottle like these Camelbak 1L Bottles (Cheap and Really Durable) everybody seems to love.  Personally I go with the Lifestraw Water Filter Bottle that filters water as you drink.  It cleans out 99.9999% of bacteria and protozoa found in drinking water.  Plus if you run out of water you can safely fill it up in a small stream or pond.

Intermediate Hikes 2+ Hours

During the summer you’re going to need a lot of water on a multi hour hike.  After a few hours out in the hot sun your going to need a lot of water to stay hydrated.  Nobody wants to get a leg cramp 5 miles away from their car (trust me the trip back isn’t fun).

How are you going to carry all that water? Remember to stay hydrated you need about 1L of water per hour of moderate physical activity.  You’re going to need to get a hydration bladder to haul in all that water.

There are a ton of cheap hydration bladders available to choose from.  Personally I make sure I’m hydrated before I head out and bring along my 2 Liter Camelbak Hydration Pack.  It was a little bit expensive, but the 2L bladder is about the perfect size for 3-4 hour hikes.  Plus it has enough room to bring along some lunch an all the extra supplies you need.

On longer hikes I always toss a cheap water filter like the lifestraw in my pack just in case.  It costs a little more than a movie ticket and it could just save your life in a emergency.  At the very least carry some cheap water purification tablets (35 minutes to fresh clean water).

Long Hikes

You aren’t going to be able to haul all the water you’re going to need on a multi-day backpacking trip.  You’ll probably want some type of hydration bladder, but the bulk of your water is going to have to come from a natural source.  Bring along some type of water filter so you don’t get sick.

Check out a few of my favorite backpacking water filters or save yourself some time and just buy the MSR Trailshot Micro-Filtration System.  Just find a water source and run it through the filter for instant clean water.  You can even quickly refill your hydration pack or water bottle with the Trailshot.

Signs of Dehydration

Dehydration is one of those things that just slowly creeps up on you until it’s too late.  That’s why you really need to take in 1L of water per hour on hot days.  Severe dehydration is very serious so make sure you take precautions.

Early Warning Signs

Dark Yellow and Brown Urine:  Most people only realize they’re dehydrated after they try to take a pee.  After they see that dark yellow or brown foul smelling urine they realize somethings up.

Dry Mouth and Excessive Thirst:  Obviously you’re going to get thirsty when you’re dehydrated.  Watch out for chapped lips and dry mouth.

Headache:  On extremely hot days don’t ignore that headache and blame your loud kids.  Headaches are one of the first signs of dehydration.  This is especially true for women who tend to avoid relieving themselves out in the woods without toilet paper.  Maybe your headache isn’t caused by your loud obnoxious kids (who knows maybe it is).

Light Headedness and Nausea:  Anybody that’s ever gone on a long run knows what I’m talking about.  Light headedness is caused by lack of electrolytes and salt in your body.  Once you get back to civilization buy yourself a bottle of pedialyte and you’ll be back to normal in no time.

General Irritability and Tiredness:  After a while your eyes will start to droop and you might start to feel a little slap happy.  On the opposite side of the spectrum some people get generally pissed off at the world.

Treating Dehydration

For severe dehydration seek medical attention immediately.  Dehydration can quickly turn into a medical emergency if it gets to bad.  You can go into shock and lose consciousness.

Mild and moderate dehydration on the other hand is usually easily treatable.  Get out of direct sunlight to slow down perspiration and slowly take in water.  Take off all excess clothing to reduce sweating.  Just rest and continue drinking slowly until you start to feel a bit better.  After a few hours most people can back to their hike.

Without access to water dehydration will likely get worse.  Severely dehydrated people are going to seem sleepy and confused,  irregular pulse, cold clammy or hot/dry skin.  They could even lose consciousness or go into shock.

Hiking With Children

If you’re bringing along a kid remember that you’re going to have to be responsible for both of you.  That includes both making them drink extra water and hauling it around.  For the sake of your own sanity you should probably limit your hike to 1-2 hours.  Don’t forget to bring along some snacks and sunscreen.

When kids are excited and having fun on a hike it’s hard to get them to stop and take a drink of water.  You’ll have to be the one that forces them to take in enough water.  It doesn’t matter how thirsty they are they won’t admit it until it’s too late.

Signs of Dehydration in Infants and Small Children

Recognizing dehydration in small children is extremely difficult.  Most of the time you won’t be able to tell if the child is lightheaded or has a headache, so focus on the more obvious signs.

The first sign most parents spot is dry lips/tongue and general crankiness.  General irritability and sleepiness is a very common sign of dehydration.  You should know the normal behavior of your child so pay attention to abnormalities.

Fewer pee breaks are another very obvious sign of dehydration.  Most parents have a general idea of how often they need to change diapers.  So if suddenly your normal change time is pushed back an hour dehydration might be the problem.  Also watch out for dark and foul smelling urine.

Finding Water While Hiking

All hikers need to figure out where they’re going to get water before going into the woods.  But what happens if that source is all dried up when you get there.  Don’t panic hopefully you’re not already dehydrated.  You should be able to quickly find a alternative water source.  Most people can live a few days without water.

Follow The Stream

So you get to the stream that was gushing water last year and it’s bone dry.  What should you do?  Make sure you mark your path clearly so you don’t get lost and walk upstream.  As you get closer to the water source you’re bound to find a small pool of water somewhere.

Make sure you put in a little effort checking below rocks, trees and vegetation.  With a good water filter you’ll fill up your hydration bladder in no time.

Keep an Eye Out For Animals

As a general rule most animals aren’t going to stray to far from water.  Deer normally setup shop within a few hundred feet of a water source.

Livestock is another obvious sign that water is nearby.  Grazing cattle are always going to have a water source close by.  Just make sure you treat the water before drinking. Don’t want to ingest poopy runoff.

Find a Vantage Point

Look for the nearest vantage point so you can figure out the layout of the land.  Remember that water always runs downhill so look for valleys and ditches.  Lots of green vegetation in otherwise barren land normally means there’s a water supply.

Other Things To Consider

Determining how much water you need to drink isn’t cut and dry.  Hiking in Ohio won’t require as much water as hiking the Grand Canyon.  Your water intake needs to suit your individual needs.

  • Level of Exertion:  It’s probably obvious, but the harder you work the more water you need to take in.  You’re going to be sweating more so you’ll obviously require more water to stay hydrated.  What kills most people is failing to realize the actual difficulty of their hike.  That gradual 2% incline might not seem like a lot, but over the course of a day it’s a lot of work.  You also Need to take into account all that extra gear you’re likely hauling around.
  • Climate and Weather:  When hiking in extremely hot and humid conditions you’re going to need a lot more water.  Most people will need to take in at least 1L of water to stay fully hydrated.  In mild conditions you can probably cut that down in half.
  • Individual Preferences:  No two hikers are going to need the same amount of water to stay hydrated.  You can’t expect a 250lb out of shape man to need the same amount of water as a 120lb woman.  So how do you know how much water you actually need?  It all comes down to experience and listening to your body.  Remember that it’s almost always better to drink to much water than to little.
Can You Drink Too Much Water?

In general you can’t really drink to much water on a short hike.  You can only carry so much water so you won’t really have to worry.  On longer hikes you’re going to need to watch out for Hyponatremia. Basically it’s a fancy way of saying your body isn’t getting enough sodium to match your water intake and salt loss through sweat.

Luckily this is really easy to treat.  Just bring along some salty snacks to munch on while you hike.  Bring along a few energy bars and you should be good to go.  Just check out the nutrition facts on Clif Bars.  There’s a reason they pack all that sodium into those little bars.

What About Sports Drinks?

Some people really like bringing along bringing along Gatorade and Powerade, but personally I’m not a huge fan.  Don’t get me wrong I love drinking Gatorade when I’m chilling out on my couch, but on the trail they just muck up my hydration bladder and tend to dry out my mouth over time.

If you’re a gatorade fan feel free to bring along those remeasured packs to get all your electrolytes.  Personally I prefer to go with Powdered Pedialyte.  It’s kind of expensive, but it’s specifically designed to treat and prevent dehydration.  My doctor gave me some samples back when I was playing football and I was hooked for life.  I completely stopped getting leg cramps and could play both sides of the ball without getting dehydrated.

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