Outdoor Blog Entries

Hydration in the Outdoors

Posted by Nestor, UREC Outdoor Leader on Monday, March 15, 2021 at 12:00 PM PDT

Hydration is undoubtedly the most important self-care skill in the outdoors. Not only does it keep you physically well, but also mentally. Dehydration can lead to physical problems, as well as clouded judgement and an all-around extreme emergency. Below is a good rundown of strategies for staying hydrated while in the outdoors.

How Much to Carry & How to Carry:

Deciding on how much water you need really depends on location, weather, activity, and most importantly on you. Two liters of water is a good minimum to have with you on an average day trip. On a hot day, or if starting or ending at unusual hours (i.e. a 2am alpine start), 4 Liters is a good minimum. The same goes for higher altitudes. The more you sweat, the more water you will need to replace. Always pack more than you think will be necessary, not only as a precaution to yourself, but in case someone you are with packs too little of their own.

A 2 Liter bottle is a good way to carry, but hydration bladders (1-4L) or multiple smaller bottles are also great. There are large 10L bags to consider if traveling through areas without fresh water sources, like sea kayaking or desert environs. It’s important to figure out what works best for the area and be sure you can carry the necessary amount. It’s also a good idea to always have extra water in your car or base camp, whether it’s from a large jug, or a bunch of gas station water bottles, it will come in handy at some point.

Staying Hydrated:

Have a strategy for staying hydrated. For example, every time someone in your group takes a drink they remind everyone else to drink as well. Another good plan is to set a recurring timer on your phone that ranges anywhere from 20-40 minutes. Always drink at landmarks such as trail posts, forks in the trail, specific destinations, etc. Make it a point to take water breaks and make sure everyone feels comfortable asking to stop for one at any time. Remember that feeling thirsty is your body’s warning sign to prevent dehydration.

Water Sources, Filters & Purification:

There are many ways to source water while outside. Large, alpine lakes are the best places to refill your water supply and other options include running creeks, rivers, or high altitude sources (10,000+ ft). The rule of thumb is moving, preferably cold water. Avoid still water. As in, do not source water from a warm, stagnant puddle that is likely a cesspool of bacteria. If at a lake, take a few steps out to source from the cooler depths, rather than the murky shoreline.

Is it safe to drink? You may get lucky if in rarely traveled areas, but it is a best practice to filter and/or purify all sourced water to ensure it is potable. The most basic method of filtration is simply to remove any “chunks” of nature from the water by using a coffee filter, a bandana or some clean fine mesh to remove visible bits. What works better, and with more peace of mind, is to use a ceramic-based water filter so fine it catches most bacteria and protozoa. At first it may seem intimidating or too difficult to choose a water filter system, but at this point the technology is so advanced that there is little worry that you will pick the wrong one. An extremely good option is a Katadyn or MSR pump filter, and even though they are not cheap, they are a worthwhile investment for any traveler. Life straws and bottle filters are also a common tool, but work slower and don’t provide as much water as other tools. Water filters are available as rentals from the UREC Outdoor office, if you would like to try one out. Remember to always follow specific cleaning instructions for your pump filter and to clean it after every trip.

We suggest following a two-step system, filtering first, then sterilizing your water using chemicals or UV. Chemical purifiers like chlorine tabs come in a small bottle or in no-spill tablet form, and typically take about 30 minutes to work before you can drink. A Steripen works in 90seconds, using ultra-violet light -the only method that sterilizes bacteria, protozoa, AND viruses. Always follow the instructions on your method of choice and be sure to read them before actually going out. A good plan is to practice using your purifier/chemicals before actually going out.

Finally, filters and purification methods are no use if there is no water. Make sure you plan ahead to see where you can refill along your route. Having a place to refill is another good way to keep hydrated. Plan to have your water bottle nearly finished before reaching a refill spot. Or, if you aren’t exactly sure how far you are from a refill, be sure to drink at least half or all of your water bottle once you get to the refill spot, before your source more water.

To Electrolyte or not to Electrolyte:

This all depends on your body, activity type and duration, and your environment. It’s easy to replace salts with snacks, but there are other drinkable alternatives. On a short day hike in cool to moderate temperatures, it’s not necessary to pack electrolytes. However, on long alpine climbs I always pack a gatorade, in addition to my water bottle. On less intense days, I have electrolyte tablets such as Nuun stashed away in my pack. Overall, it is important to have a way to replenish electrolytes as needed.

Signs of Dehydration & Quick Responses:

The most common signs of dehydration are extreme thirst, dark colored urine, lack of perspiration, cold or clammy skin, headaches, dizziness, and fatigue. Review a wilderness first aid resource for more details. A quick check I use is pinching the skin on someone's knuckle, if it takes significantly longer to spring back to normal, that person may be dehydrated. Once dehydrated, the best strategy is to drink plenty of water, but not all at once, as this could lead to overhydration. Lots of sips are better than chugging. In cases of severe dehydration, you will have to cut your trip short and make a safe return, rather than risk continuing. This is a very important judgement call, and it’s always better to air on the side of caution.