Water makes up approximately 60% of the human body and every biological system depends on it. Maintaining this fluid balance is essential to your cognitive and physical functioning. Even light hiking can drain your body’s water supply – leaving you feeling tired, achy, and ready to turn back to the trailhead. Fortunately, the solution is as easy as can be! Here are some tips and tricks on how to stay hydrated while hiking.
Why is it Important to Hydrate While Hiking
I don’t need to tell you that drinking water is important – we all know that no living thing can survive without it. But for those that ever wonder why, here are a few main reasons:
- Regulates body temperature: Water helps regulate your body temperature by sweating.
- Removes waste: Water helps remove waste and toxins from your body through urine, sweat, and bowel movements (fancy word for pooping).
- Lubricates joints: Synovial fluid, which is mainly made up of water, acts as a lubricant for your joints, helping them move smoothly and reducing the risk of injury.
- Promotes healthy skin: Water keeps your skin healthy by flushing out toxins and preventing dryness.
- Supports digestion: Water helps break down food so your body can absorb nutrients.
- Boosts energy levels: Imbalanced fluid levels lead to muscle fatigue. Staying hydrated can help you feel more alert and energized on your hike!
- Improves cognitive function: Dehydration can impair cognitive function, including memory and concentration.
- Keeps your veins healthy: Drinking water helps your blood thin out and flow more freely. Thick blood can put veins at greater risk of clotting, and increase the likelihood of bloating and swelling.
- Protects you against headaches: Dehydration causes your brain and other tissues to shrink. This contraction pulls your brain away from the skull, which causes extra pressure on nerves and corresponding pain.
How Much Water to Bring on a Hike
The amount of water you should bring on a hike depends on several factors, but it’s a fairly straightforward calculation:
- Individual needs: Characteristics such as age, body weight, fitness level, medical conditions, and personal preferences all contribute to how much water you need. I tend to use a general rule of 2 cups (about half a liter) per hour for adults and 1 – 2 cups per hour for kids, then adjust to my personal need.
- Length and difficulty: Of course, the longer and more strenuous the hike, the more water you should drink.
- Weather conditions: Your body uses sweat to regulate its internal temperature – especially on hot days. In humid weather, the surrounding air can not hold any more water vapor, so your sweat evaporates much slower (if at all). This causes your body to retain more heat and sweat even more, therefore increasing your need to rehydrate.
- Access to a reliable water source: Distance from a reliable water source will determine how much water you need to pack in. For longer hikes or backpacking adventures, I always bring my LifeStraw Gravity Filter and backup Potable Aqua Tablets. If you are in need of a new filter and looking for the right match, learn more about the 17 Best Backpacking Water Filters + Purifiers.
As a general rule, it’s always better to bring more water than you think you’ll need, especially if you’re hiking in an area where there may not be reliable sources of water. The American Hiking Society recommends bringing at least 2 liters (68 ounces) of water per person for a day hike. This amount can vary depending on the factors mentioned above, but it’s a good guideline to follow.
8 Tips for Staying Hydrated While Hiking
- Drink water regularly: Take sips of water every 15-20 minutes, rather than drinking large amounts infrequently. This will help keep you hydrated without making you feel too full or bloated. Our HikingDaily resident alpinist Jack Barker keeps a 20-minute timer on his watch to remind him when it’s time to refuel.
- Find what reservoir works best for you: Taking a heavy backpack on and off just to access a water bottle can get pretty frustrating. On longer hikes, having a hands-free hydration bladder in my backpack helps save time and energy when refueling. However, on day hikes, a simple water bottle is usually good enough for me! You can learn more about the best available options via the 8 Best Hydration Bladders and 10 Best Hiking Water Bottles.
- Use electrolyte supplements: Electrolytes, such as sodium, potassium, and magnesium, help regulate fluid balance in the body. You can take electrolyte supplements, either in tablet or powder form, to replenish lost electrolytes while hiking. I love snacking on Skratch Lab’s energy chews or dumping their powdered hydration packets into my water bottle.
- Snack on fruits and veggies: Fruits and vegetables contain high amounts of water, fiber, and electrolytes. Snacking on these while hiking can help maintain your body’s fluid balance while providing you with the calories needed to fuel your adventure. To save money and waste, try Dehydrating Food and Meals for Backpacking Trips and Thru Hikes.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine: Many of us love a good ole’ trail beer and a thermos filled with coffee (at least I do). However, alcohol and caffeine can be dehydrating, so it’s best to limit their consumption while hiking – or at least offset their effect by drinking more water.
- Learn the shades of your pee: The color of your pee is a good indicator of your hydration level. Aim for a pale yellow color, which indicates that you are adequately hydrated. When in doubt, refer to a Hydration Color Chart like this one.
- Rest and seek shade: Taking breaks in shaded areas helps you avoid overheating and sweating too much.
- Wear sunscreen: The body loses moisture through sunburned skin. Wearing sunscreen, hats, or other protective layers like Kühl’s Airkühl Hoody helps protect against that loss. This is especially important when trying to stay hydrated on sunny, desert hikes.
Hydrating During High Altitude Hikes
On high-altitude hikes, the air is thinner and drier, causing you to breathe faster and lose more water through respiration. This increased effort may make you sweat more, even in colder and drier temperatures (you just may not notice it as much). Mindful hydrating, therefore, is even more important at high altitudes. Even if you do not feel thirsty, (which you are more likely to feel in cold weather and at high elevations), you should keep rehydrating! Setting a 20-minute rehydrating reminder in this environment is extra helpful.
Know the Signs of Dehydration
Dehydration occurs when your body loses more fluids than it takes in, which can happen during physical activity, in hot weather, or at high altitudes. Some common signs of dehydration include:
- Dry mouth and throat
- Dark yellow urine
- Fatigue or weakness
- Muscle Cramping
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Dry and flaky skin
- Infrequent peeing
If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s important to rehydrate by drinking water or electrolytes. If your symptoms persist, seek medical attention. Severe dehydration can lead to serious health complications.
Signs of Overhydration
Overhydration occurs when you drink too much water, thereby diluting the electrolytes in your blood. Common signs and symptoms include:
- Nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea
- Confusion and disorientation
- Fatigue and weakness
- Swelling in the hands, feet, and/or legs
Though these signs are similar to those of dehydration, you should know the underlying issue by the frequency you have been drinking water. If you experience any of these symptoms, stop drinking water and seek medical attention if symptoms persist.