When engaging in any outdoor activity, staying hydrated is always an important concern. When you’re in a situation with limited sources of water, like the ones many hikers and backpackers frequently encounter, hydration is even more crucial.
Here, we’ll cover everything you need to know about dehydration, including exactly what it is, why it occurs, what you can do to prevent it, and how to treat it should that become necessary.
So Exactly What is Dehydration?
Most people think of dehydration simply as ‘what happens when you don’t drink enough water,’ and that’s a pretty close, if somewhat coarse explanation. More technically, dehydration describes what occurs when our bodies expel more water than they take in, resulting in your body’s inability to perform its normal functions properly.
Engaging in outdoor activities like hiking, backpacking, climbing, and cycling will cause your body temperature to raise and perspiration to increase. When coupled with the limited access to potable water sources often encountered in backcountry locations, the risk of dehydration becomes significantly greater. Higher altitudes also cause increased perspiration and put you at greater risk of dehydration.
Symptoms of Dehydration
The earliest signs of dehydration are increased thirst, and less frequent urination -- causing the urine to become more concentrated. If the dehydration is left unchecked, a variety of other symptoms may begin to appear, including:
Sticky, dry mouth
Little/no tear production when crying
If dehydration becomes severe the following symptoms may appear. Should any of the following symptoms become apparent, seek professional medical help immediately:
Irritability and confusion
Extremely dry skin, mouth, and mucous membranes (e.g. inside the nose)
Cessation of sweating
Very little to no urination
Extremely dark (usually amber-colored) urine
Shriveled skin (often lacking normal elasticity)
Low blood pressure
In extreme cases, delirium or loss of consciousness
As the cliche goes, prevention is the best medicine. The best way to stave off dehydration when you’re hiking, camping, or whatever else is to drink water slowly for several hours prior to the activity. This will ensure that you’re well-hydrated at the outset.
During periods of intense physical exertion, you should consume about a quart of water per hour. Urine is generally a good indicator. If you’re urinating at least every five hours and the urine is lightly colored or totally colorless, this is a sign that you’re probably hydrating enough. In the case that urination become less frequent and more concentrated, you should increase fluid intake.
It’s a good idea to avoid both alcoholic and caffeinated beverages, as both are diuretics and will cause your body to need more fluids than it otherwise would.
Also, don’t forget that the fluids in fruits, vegetables, and other foods with a high water-content can help to hydrate you. This can be especially useful if there isn’t an easily accessible water source around.
In situations where the weather is especially hot or the activity is especially intense, water alone may not be sufficient to replace what the body loses through profuse sweating. When you sweat, your body also expels minerals. If you’re sweating profusely, but only replacing the water and not the minerals you’re losing, you place yourself at risk for a potentially fatal condition known as hyponatremia (low blood sodium).
In order to prevent this, consume salty snacks like trail mix in addition to water, or drink sports drinks. Outdoors outfitters also sell ‘oral rehydration salts’ -- packets of dry minerals that you can add to your water to account for the body’s lost minerals.
For most mild to moderate cases of dehydration in adults, increased fluid consumption will generally resolve the problem. Water is ideal, but as we mentioned above, make sure to replace electrolytes with a sports drink, snack, or oral rehydration solution to prevent hyponatremia. Salt tablets are usually not necessary, and an excess of salt can actually cause hypernatremic dehydration -- that is, your body will have too little water and too much salt.
In the case that dehydration becomes severe, immediate emergency medical assistance is necessary. Intravenous hydration is can replace fluids and electrolytes much more rapidly than oral solutions can, and speed is crucial in the case of severe dehydration in order to prevent fatality or long-term health consequences.
Dehydration can be a serious health risk, but it’s one that is easily preventable by taking the proper precautions. Hydrate well and pack extra water along with an oral rehydration solution any time you participate in outdoor sports, and you should have no problem.