Most of us get into the habit of carrying a certain amount of water while hiking no matter the conditions. If we were to critically examine this practice, what are the options? The body of this article discusses hydration strategies and alternatives available to wilderness hikers with a brief analysis of each.
This article is limited to drinking plain water (my usual approach) and does not attempt to analyze the various types of sport drinks and water additives. It doesn’t speculate on the amount of water needed (a controversial issue). It also doesn’t attempt to analyze the various types of water containers and where to carry them (many options). Finally, it does not attempt to analyze and recommend water treatment methods or requirements. For this last concern, consult Backcountry Water Treatment Methods.
Different Approaches to Hydration
Pre-Hike Hydration: Most of us are slightly dehydrated most of the time (even if we do not feel thirsty). Therefore, drink extra water at home a day or two before the hike and on the way to the trailhead. At least start your hike fully hydrated.
Analysis: Some experts believe that maximum in-the-field hydration will occur this way. This also conditions the body to accept larger than normal intake of water. Critics question how much difference this kind of pre-hike hydration will make.
Trailhead Hydration: Drink a big slug of water from known clean sources at the trailhead (e.g., bottled water carried from home). Do the same upon returning. It is a good way to moderate the almost universal dehydration effect from longer, more vigorous hikes. It is best to drink before you get thirsty.
Analysis: This practice should result both in getting ahead of hydration needs and carrying less water (weighing two pounds per liter). You will pee out any extra water. However, realize that carrying extra water in the body or in containers requires the same amount of effort.
Calculate Water Needs: Treat and carry only as much water as you actually need to get to the next dependable water source (sometimes zero carried and sometimes gallons), amount based on factors like previous experience and knowledge of the area.
Analysis: It is very difficult to calculate actual water needs. This often results in either carrying excess weight or getting really thirsty when miscalculate. Conservatives claim that it is better to be prepared in case an emergency occurs far from any water source.
Carry Extra Water: As a matter of habit, treat as much water as you can comfortably carry. One can never predict exact water needs. Be conservative and prepare for any emergencies. Err or the side of excess.
Analysis: Good plan if dependable water sources are not a known factor, but this approach could easily result in carrying a lot of extra weight. However, do carry extra water if you are a group leader and have reason to believe that members of your group might not stay adequately hydrated or carry enough.
Cameling: Tank up from the highest quality natural sources while on the trail (often referred to as “cameling”). One exception is that if one is perspiring a lot (losing lots of water), it is better to drink smaller amounts often and to replenish electrolytes to avoid any medical issues (e.g., hyponatremia). If you get seriously dehydrated for whatever reason, drink small amounts often.
Analysis: Cameling should result in staying ahead of hydration needs and the need to carry less water, but one must carefully anticipate future water sources. No real harm will result if anticipated source not present (unless this happens 2 or 3 times in a row). Critics say that it is more energy efficient if drink every 15-45 minutes rather than cameling up at available water sources. Theoretically, excess cameling could result in causing the salt concentration in your blood to fall to the point (if not replacing salts) of causing symptoms including headache and fatigue.
Eating Stops Based on Water Availability: Do not necessarily camp where there is water. Break camp and hike to a water source and stop for breakfast. Then hike to water sources for lunch stops. Same for the dinner meal. Then hike some more to a camping spot carrying only enough water to rehydrate a bit during the night hours.
Analysis: This approach works only if water sources are relatively frequent and hydration needs moderate. If hydration needs are greater, then carrying plenty of water becomes a necessity.
Situational Decisions About Water Needs: Water needs are too variable to go with one or two approaches. There are many, many factors involved (temperature, hiking speed and difficulty, hike duration, altitude, individual physiology, foods ingested, confidence in water sources, etc.) Decide on your hydration needs after careful analysis of these factors. Be open to most of the above approaches and philosophies of water management. Be flexible and go with the flow (of water).
Author’s Hydration Preferences and Priorities
I am try to be flexible on this issue varying my approach to hydration based on the circumstances. Because the human body is made up of a high percentage of water, I stay well hydrated most of the time. I stop regularly to fuel up and hydrate. I do this not because it is necessary (the human body can walk for many days while seriously dehydrated) but to maintain good levels of mental acuity, physical comfort and energy. I carry extra water only when of water availability is in doubt. Cameling up at the trailhead and while on the trail is my preferred mode of water management. Most of my hikes are in areas where water is bountiful so there is little need to carry much water (usually no more ½ liter). If I underestimate my water needs on a hike I try not to overcompensate on the next one.