Water. Almost everything is made up of it; 73% of our brain and heart, three quarters of our muscles and more than 60% of our entire bodies. Humans can survive for weeks without food, but only three to four days without water. It comes as no surprise then that poor hydration can really ruin the mood on a hike - not to mention decrease your performance significantly and can even lead to serious injury. So make sure you keep your fluid levels up with these trekking hydration tips.
Things to consider
Climate and Humidity
Depending on where you are planning to go hiking, the climate of the area may vary greatly to what you are used to. Tasmania, in particular, has very localised weather that can vary from week to week, day to day, and even hour to hour. Weather is always important to take into account when planning a hike, not only when it comes to deciding on what to wear and what gear to bring with you. It also influences how much fluid your body is going to need to take in during the trek in order to stay hydrated and for you to stay happy and healthy. While many people are aware of the fact that they are going to lose a lot of water through sweating on a hot day, the importance of hydration is easily underestimated in cold conditions as well. You are going to lose fluids through your mouth and exhalation when you are surrounded by cold air, rather than through sweat, so it is just as important to replenish your body's water resources. For example, did you know that your body's thirst response is diminished by up to 40% in cold weather? Because your body is working so hard to conserve heat, it doesn't conserve water as it normally would, and thinks it's properly hydrated. Therefore, in colder weather you may find that you need to force yourself to drink water more often than your body is telling you! Humidity can have a big impact on your body as well. On hot days, high humidity causes your sweat to drip off your body instead of evaporating, which does not cool you down as sweat normally would. Because you are still going to be hot, your body is going to keep sweating and you are going to lose more moisture. This is why you should always be vigilant of your fluid intake in every condition, especially in an unfamiliar climate.
Level of exertion
During long, exhausting hikes with a lot of elevation, such as scaling the Ironbounds on the South Coast Track, you are naturally going to sweat more due to the higher levels of exertion. Hydration while hiking is therefore dependent on your individual body, personal level of fitness and on how much you are exhausting yourself. A general rule of thumb for how much water a hiker needs per day would be around 3-4 liters, but again, this changes with the outer circumstances and individual.
Everybody is different and every body is different as well. The average person sweats between 767ml and 1335ml per hour of exercise, but this is a very variable amount. Your personal level of fitness, the exercise you are doing and the individual variables of your body are going to impact how much you are sweating immensely. You can calculate your own sweat rate by using certain apps, or by weighing yourself naked before and after exercising for a certain amount of time. The difference in body weight before and after the exercise minus the amount of fluid you consumed during the exercise is the amount of liquid you have sweat out. This is also the amount of fluid you need to replenish to stay hydrated.
Can you drink too much water?
“Hyponatremia” is what professionals would call a case in which a dehydrated person drinks too much water, without giving their body the necessary electrolytes to absorb the liquid. Also called 'water intoxication', it leads to abnormally low sodium levels in the blood of the affected person. On a less severe level, downing three liters of a sports drink all at once might just lead to a stomach ache or to you spending more time looking for a toilet than you would like to. If you are concerned about how much water you should be drinking in your trek, speak to your guide who will be able to assess the day's activities, difficulty, weather and humidity to recommend how much water you should drink.
Camel bladder or water bottle?
When deciding on how to carry water while hiking, it simply comes down to your personal preference. A camel bladder allows you to take small sips frequently, without having to stop and open your pack each time you want to drink something. This might help you in drinking more water more frequently, because it provides an easy access. Some camel bladders can hold more water than standard water bottles can, so you won't have to fill it up as often as you would have to refill a bottle. The downside to them is that cleaning and drying a camel bladder can be a bit of a hassle. Water bottles on the other hand are cheap, easier to refill and just more comfortable to drink out for some people.
It is easier to stay hydrated, than to rehydrate your body after not drinking enough for a while and being dehydrated. Prevention is the best way to deal with dehydration. An average body can only absorb 680 - 900 ml of fluid per hour. Because of that, a hiking water rule of thumb is to take frequent sips throughout your hike, instead of drinking more water less frequently. It also keeps you from drinking too much water at once, causing you to be overhydrated. Drinking 200 – 250 ml of water or sports drinks with electrolytes every 15 to 20 minutes is the recommendation if you are out and about for over an hour.
When and why use electrolytes?
When sweating, you are not only loosing fluids, but also electrolytes. Sports drinks containing electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, chloride and magnesium. Replenish these and help your body take up more water. Especially the combination of sugar and electrolytes, found in many popular sports drinks, helps your body absorb liquid quicker and more effectively. Sports drinks can be bought already bottled or made at home, by using dissolvable electrolyte tablets or using a diy recipe, which can be easily found online. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends drinking one sports drink containing a minimum of 110 milligrams of sodium per 8 ounces of liquid for anyone doing sports for over an hour. Consuming these is most effective during the activity or directly afterwards. For less strenuous and shorter hikes, water should be sufficient, especially if it is combined with a snack to replace lost electrolytes. Generally speaking, water should still remain your primary source of fluids. Find out what you prefer and what works for you. Some drinks might motivate you to drink them more frequently, which can be an additional benefit, because it increases your overall fluid intake. On the other hand can the sugar contained in the drinks be counterproductive, when it comes to loosing weight or staying fit. There is no one best electrolyte drink for hiking, because everyone's body is different, but there might be one best electrolyte drink for you.
Dehydration is perhaps one of the most underestimated dangers of hiking and one of the most frequent mistakes people make on a trek. Especially children, older adults and people with chronic illness can quickly suffer from the symptoms of dehydration. If your body loses more fluids through sweating, breathing or urinating, than you are taking in, you are going to be dehydrated. This means your body won't be able to cool itself down again effectively, which increases risks such as heat exhaustion or heat stroke and can even lead to serious complications such as muscle breakdown, organ failure and coma.
Mild symptoms of dehydration usually include tiredness, low performance and feeling sick, which can in itself ruin the mood of a hike. Other tell-tale signs might be a dry mouth, dizziness, weakness and lightheadedness. Symptoms of severe dehydration are extreme thirst, painful urine and lack of sweat. The dehydrated person might be confused and extremely irritable. Sunken eyes, dry and non-elastic skin and rapid weight loss are the changes in outer appearance, while the heart of the affected person could beat rapidly, while the blood pressure remained low. This combined with fever, delirium and unconsciousness are alarming signs of severe dehydration. A good indicator for dehydration is the amount, frequency and color of urine. If your urine is clear or lightly colored, you are well hydrated and can happily continue trekking. Dark yellow or amber colored urine on the other hand are signs of dehydration.
A dehydrated person should be cooled down and drink something as soon as possible. A mildly dehydrated person could lie down in the shade and be given a soaked bandana or hat to put on their forehead to try to lower their body temperature. Water, sports drinks, a pinch of salt or rehydrating powder can all be used to administer fluids and electrolytes to the affected person. In a severe case, medical help should additionally be sought out immediately. If you feel you are dehydrated, speak to one of your guides on the trip who will be able to provide the care and attention needed to get your hydration levels back on track.
What food you can eat to enhance rehydration
Rehydrating can take a while and can be enhanced by drinking sports drinks or eating food containing electrolytes. Bananas and citrus fruits are potassium rich foods, while sodium can be found in salty snacks like salted nuts or pretzels. Lemonade, orange juice and tomato juice contain potassium as well and can give your body the electrolytes back it has lost through sweat etc. Another way to support rehydration is to consume food containing high amounts of fluid. Vegetables, such as cucumbers, zucchini or eggplant are made up of over 90% water, as well as fruit such as watermelon and grapefruit. Fruit and veggies won't only help up your water intake, they also assist in meeting nutritional recommendations, being high in fiber and vitamins.
Do's and Don'ts of hydration while trekking
Don't consume caffeine
Caffeine is said to reduce the overall amount of fluids in your body, which makes it sound like a good idea to skip that morning coffee just this once. It'll make the next coffee you'll get when you are back in civilization taste all the better as well.
Do drink water before you start
Drinking water before you start trekking prevents you from already starting out the trek being dehydrated and can give you a head start regarding hydration. But how do you hydrate best before a hike? Again, it is important to not just down a few litres of water at once, but to start taking in fluids on smaller doses before starting your hike. Drinking 250 – 750 ml of sports drinks or water two to three hours before starting the trek and 350 – 500 ml of water one hour before the start will give you a good base to work with. Right at the start of the trek you can drink another 250 ml of water to be perfectly prepared for a good day on the trail.
Don't wait till you're thirsty
Thirst is a poor indicator for dehydration. Once you realize you are thirsty, you are probably already dehydrated. As a reminder: the best way of hydration for hiking is to try to avoid getting thirsty by drinking small sips of water frequently. So here you go. Make sure to drink enough water by taking frequent sips on your way through the wilderness in all climates and conditions to stay hydrated while hiking. You will be safe from dehydration and be able to fully concentrate on the incredible landscapes and views around you.