Hydration 101 for Hikers


Tourist with backpackBy John “fritzski” Fritz

“Utah is hot, but it’s a dry heat.”  Behind this familiar phrase lies a fair amount of truth as anyone who has experienced summer weather in the southeastern U.S. can readily attest.  It may be more comfortable without the humidity, but no less safe. Because our air is so dry, perspiration evaporates from the skin very rapidly. This makes for efficient body cooling, but can also give the false impression of not sweating and therefore not dehydrating.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  In our extreme desert environment the margins leading to heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and ultimately death are greatly reduced.  Proper hydration not only requires prior planning, but constant attention on the trail.
What kind of hydration equipment should I use on the trail?

There are basically three types of equipment to choose for carrying water on the trail.

waistpackThe first and most basic is the waist pack. Also known as a fanny pack, its advantages are that they are lightweight and inexpensive. Great for packing fast and moving fast. Some sport styles are particularly suited for trail running or workout hikes. On the downside they have very limited capacity and tend to get bouncy and cumbersome when loaded up. They normally come with two 20oz bottles, but can be replaced with a couple 30oz containers or bottled water straight from the store shelf. Either way, too much weight hanging on a belt tends to get a bit ponderous, so these make an excellent choice for only shorter and easier trips.

Your next step up would be to a standard daypack with bottles stashed inside.  Advantages include increased comfort and weight carrying capacity as well as the ability to monitor water consumption accurately. One negative is having to take it off and dig out a bottle every time you need a drink. Also, depending on the type of containers you are using they can tend to be a bit heavy. These are a good choice for those who don’t want to go out and buy expensive or specialized gear.

camelbakThe best set up for a serious hiker in my opinion is a specialty hydration pack. They come in a multitude of cargo volumes and bladder capacities of up to 110oz for the more serious hiker. Another benefit is the ability to drink effortlessly from a tube without even breaking your stride.  If there is a downside, it is that consumption rate is not easily monitored and therefore requires a little extra diligence. Designs vary greatly, so do your homework before purchasing. Check out Camelbak or Platypus as reputable options.

Tip:  If you don’t want to go out and buy a specialized hydration pack, but like the idea, most outdoor stores carry inexpensive universal bladder kits for use in any standard daypack.

Tip:  Want water for the pooch?  Take one of those “Platypus” collapsible bottles (very cheap) and cut off about the bottom three inches and you have a collapsible dish that takes up virtually no space and weighs nothing.

How much water should I take?

To figure an accurate formula, one would have to factor in time, difficulty, and distance.  Unfortunately we don’t always know these factors, so to keep it simple lets rely mostly on distance, which can usually be determined.  A good rule of thumb would be about 8oz per mile.  For a 12-mile hike you would want that 100oz bladder completely full.  Adjust this rule accordingly with your best judgment on the level of difficulty, which will, of course translate into more time.  Remember it never hurts to take more than you need.  Ideally you should finish the hike with a small reserve.

coffeeTip:  Try to avoid drinking too much coffee prior to your hike.  Coffee is a diuretic and as such works against you in your effort to retain water.

Should I add anything to the water?

Although it’s not necessary, you may want to try it out for those more strenuous hikes.  Basically you want to increase levels of complex sugars and/or salt.

carbofuelAvoid products such as Gatorade, which consist mostly of simple sugars and will not deliver sustained endurance.  I prefer a product such as TwinLabs Carbo Fuel and others like it that can be found at any health food store.  They are packed with complex carbohydrates for consistent low intensity energy level maintenance.  Experiment with your own mix ratios.

If you tend to sweat a lot or have problems with cramping, you may want to try supplementing your water with a little salt.  As you are well aware, along with the water loss associated with perspiration, salt is also lost. Salts, or electrolytes, at proper levels are critical for proper muscle function. I recommend adding about a level teaspoon of salt per 25oz of water.  You will barely be able to taste the difference.

Tip:  The next time you’re at a fast food place, grab a couple handfuls of those small salt packets. It’s very convenient to just add one packet per 20oz of water.  Also, salty snacks such as Wheat Thins are a good source.

Finally, you may want to consider adding ice to, or freezing a portion of your water during the hot months.  There are specialty products to make custom fit ice cubes for your hydration pack, but it is just as easy to add ice cubes from your icemaker or just freeze the whole bag or bottle.
Try freezing approximately just 2/3 of your water, thus using the slow melting process to help avoid drinking it too rapidly.

mochaIf you carry those little chocolate covered energy bars (Power, Balance, Etc.) it’s hard to keep them from melting.  Most hydration packs have a little extra room in the bladder compartment.  Try stashing the bars in beside the ice water-filled bladder on the side away from your body.

 fritzskiJohn aka Fritzski lives in Gilbert, AZ and is an avid skier, hiker, and owner of the website DesertSnowJunkies.com. Visit for info about skiing and snowboarding in the southwestern U.S. Follow him on Twitter @fritzski.


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The mission of Outdoor Sports Guide Magazine is to inspire and educate endurance athletes and outdoor enthusiasts in the Mountain West through well-written content on adventure, travel, gear, health, fitness, nutrition, industry news, profiles, and ski resort information.

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