Water is life.
When you’re out hiking, it’s imperative your body is getting enough of it so it can function properly and do things like lubricate your joints and eyes, flush out waste and toxins, help with digestion, and keep your skin healthy. It’s all about taking in enough to replace what we lose, and hiking is often sweaty and puffy work.
Being dehydrated is not only super uncomfortable, it can also lead to a multitude of problems including headaches, dizziness, fatigue, muscle cramps, confusion and impaired judgement – none of which are ideal when you’re out in the wilds. At its worst, it can also result in heat stroke, kidney failure or even death.
Yeah, it’s heavy and unfortunately there is no ultralight version, but this is important. It’s not possible to ‘train’ your body to handle dehydration. If you don’t give it enough water, you’re starving it of a critical element for healthy function so plan to carry enough to see you through to the next water source. Exactly how much you need varies from person to person but at least a litre for every two hours of hiking in a bladder or water bottles, is a good start. In hot conditions or hilly terrain where you’re doing a lot of huffing and puffing, you’ll guzzle way more.
Retain what you’ve got
Keeping out of the sun will keep you cooler, therefore making you less sweaty and more hydrated. Wear a broad-rimmed hat, cover up the body, seek shade where possible and consider an umbrella if you’re somewhere that makes you a real sitting duck for the sun. Sunburn is never a good thing but amongst its long list of downers, it can also contribute to dehydration.
If hot weather is unavoidable, aim to hike in the cooler parts of the day if possible, maybe leaving early, resting out the middle of the day and then cranking out a few more hours when things cool down again.
Note that sweating helps regulate your body’s heat, thereby reducing the risk of heat stress, but you need to have enough fluids in your system to do so.
Top up when you can
If you can ensure you’re well hydrated before leaving camp in the morning, you’ll start off on a good footing and avoid chasing thirst all day. Likewise, at the end of the day, keep drinking to replenish any water you might have lost. If your route takes you past a water source during your walk (maybe a creek or a tank), you may as well have a good glug while you’re there – you’ll rehydrate and avoid carrying more water than necessary on the trail.
If you feel thirsty, that’s your body’s trigger telling you you’re in need of water. Regular sipping is the way to go. This applies to your pre and post hike drinks, and while out on the trail. Your body can only process so much in one go so don’t spend it all in one hit (you’d end up having to wee more too because the body can’t retain large volumes as easy as small ones).
The right stuff
Nothing beats water. Cordial, juice or soft drinks are usually high in carbs and low in salt (and salt is helpful). Alcohol is a diuretic (makes you pass more urine) and is best avoided, and while caffeine is a diuretic too, the water content in a coffee or tea outweighs any negative effect from the caffeine. Sports drinks contain electrolytes and carbs to help the body to refuel and get balance, but note that they can be high in sugar.
If you lose a lot of water from the body, it upsets the body’s balance of minerals (salts and sugar) which are necessary for good function, so if you need to quickly bring things back into happy balance, consider using electrolyte powders and tablets (they contain sodium and potassium). Salty snacks can also help. You’ll have more energy when your insides are in harmony.
If you’re one of those hikers that needs something fresh occasionally, note that fruit has a high water content and will give a little boost to fluid levels.
Make it easy to grab a drink
Keep water easily accessible and you’re more likely to reach for it. You don’t want to be deterred in any way, perhaps by having to take your pack off or twist your arm awkwardly to reach that precious water bottle. Hydration reservoirs with a drinking tube are super handy for regular sipping. If you prefer bottles, stash it in a pocket on the outside of your pack, within easy reach. If you’re worried about not being able to see at a glance how much is left in your water bladder, carry a little emergency bottle as well. That way if you’re sucking merrily and suddenly run out, you’ll know you’ve got an extra source tucked away in your pack.
Be conscious about it
As mentioned earlier, if you’re already feeling thirsty, you’re already in need of water, so stay on top of things and be conscious about your hydration. No one needs a reminder to drink in hot conditions but don’t forget to do it in cool weather too. Altitude is also likely to make you feel less like a drink but you still need to top up. And if you’re losing fluid to any extraneous activities like vomiting or diarrhoea, you’ll need to make a special effort to ramp up your rehydration.
A little word of caution: Hydration is important but note that it is possible - although highly unlikely, as a hiker - to drink too much water. Overloading the kidneys by drinking more than they can handle can cause hyponatremia (essentially, messing up your blood sodium levels). Having urine a pale yellow in colour is a good indicator that all is well. So let your body be your guide. Don’t get thirsty but don’t overdo it.