What is dehydration?
Basically Dehydration is a condition in which the body or certain body tissues suffer from lack of water. In serious enough cases, this can rapidly lead to death.
What causes dehydration?
Dehydration is a condition that occurs when a person loses more fluids than he or she takes in. Under normal conditions, we all lose body water daily through sweat, tears, urine & stool. In a healthy person, this water is replaced by drinking fluids & eating foods that contain water. When a person becomes so sick with fever, diarrhea, or vomiting or if an individual is overexposed to the sun, or has limited access to water, dehydration occurs. This is caused when the body loses water content & essential body salts such as sodium, potassium, calcium bicarbonate & phosphate.
Occasionally, dehydration can be caused by drugs, such as diuretics*, which deplete body fluids & electrolytes. Whatever the cause, dehydration should be treated as soon as possible.
For us hikers it can easily be caused by not drinking enough water often enough. When someone gets dehydrated, it means the amount of water in his or her body has dropped below its adequate level (our bodies are about 2/3 water). Small decreases don't cause problems, & in most cases, they go completely unnoticed. But losing larger amounts of water can sometimes make a person feel quite sick.
* Some sample diuretics: Soda / Pop (with caffeine), coffee, tea, alcohol (yes, even beer, sorry!), many medications especially those for heart patients (Lasix is commonly called a “water pill” it’s function is to eliminate water from the body and it does so VERY WELL.) Some who regularly drink caffeine report no additional loss of fluid, however I suggest: Why take a chance? Also, try to drink more water to "compensate".
What are the signs/symptoms of dehydration?
The following are the most common symptoms of dehydration, although each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:
•Thirst (late sign/symptom) one of the most obvious, so pay close attention to it.
•Dark urine (early sign/symptom, be aware!)
•Dry skin (late sign/symptom)
•Dry mouth & mucous membranes
•Increased heart rate & breathing (possibly with associated chest pains)
Please note that thirst is a late sign/symptom; do NOT rely on thirst as an indicator of need for water. As Andrew “Iceman” Priestley states:
“It takes a while for that water to work through your system. You can be drinking & still be dehydrated. By the time you feel thirsty, you are over a quart low. If you never make up that quart, you'll still feel thirsty.
I drink almost constantly while hiking. I keep 2 liters on me if at all possible & drink A LOT. Frequent pee breaks become a valuable method of judging your level of hydration. Toss a packet of sport's drink concentrate in once a day as well; the extra electrolytes & such are good for you when your water throughput is high. During hot summer months I probably drink upward of 1.5 to 2 gallons of water a day when hiking. But then I sweat a lot.”
I can hear you say: “Two Gallons? That is way too much!” Yes, the (old) recommendation from the medical community was to "drink Six to Eight Quarts a day". A quart is ¼ of a gallon, so yes 8 quarts = 2 gallons. Almost no one drinks that much & most people are chronically dehydrated, and then they go hiking. The 6 to 8 Quart recommendation is for “strenuous activity” and may very well be way outdated. The point is still drink a lot of water. I do believe that hiking in the mountains carrying a backpack would qualify as strenuous activity, don’t you. Also, please note that in severe cases of dehydration, it takes anywhere from 48 to 72 hours to completely replenish water to normal levels.
Hints / tips:
Drink at least a quart of water first thing in the morning before even starting out; it won't keep you from getting thirsty, but by putting a quart in right away, it postpones the thirst by flooding the system before you even start hiking.
Also take a big drink every time you get to a decent water source & this is also a good time to check the water bottle levels at every source to make sure your not running too low; this is CRITICALLY important if you're using a hydration system/suck tube.
Get in the habit of checking your supply or sooner or later, you'll run out several miles from the next water. Many also keep a full quart by His/Her head at night so if they wake up several times during the night, they can take several short drinks; this keeps one from "drying out" during the night.
And lastly, don't forget to drink water when you're in town, many folks drink nothing but beer or soda in town. The easiest way to do this in town is to ask for ice water with your meals, & drink this instead of or in addition to an alternate beverage. But the key thing is to drink a lot of water & drink it often. Dehydration weakens muscles & tendons, & leaves you chronically fatigued. Most of the time when hikers complain of feeling poorly, feeling exhausted, all achy & irritable, these are all symptoms of chronic dehydration, & this is easily avoidable. Drink water BEFORE you get thirsty, & drink even when you're NOT thirsty, & however much you're drinking, drink more. Nothing like that good Mountain Spring Water, girls & guys.
So, now you are dehydrated, what to do?
To counter dehydration, you need to restore the proper balance of water in your body. On the trail this means drinking copious amounts of water, as a start. If you find a decent water source, set up camp then & there. No, you do not continue hiking, remember it can take: “anywhere from 48 to 72 hours to completely replenish water to normal levels.” So you need to STOP and get re-hydrated NOW! The trail will still be there, & the hike will be much more fun if you are properly hydrated. Added salt is still controversial, some say yes, some say no, & still others say in limited amounts. I lean toward no or very limited additional salt, especially if you are eating mostly pre-packaged things (Ramen flavor packets are mostly salt) you are getting ample salt, and besides the problem is too little water not too little salt. “But my sweat is salty, so I must be loosing salt”. Not necessarily, much of that “salt taste” is excess salt your body is getting rid of. Anyway: take a full day off, drink the above 2 gallons of water as a start then drink more. Probably, when you are peeing clear the majority of the crisis is over, you may then continue with your hike, but please take it slow and continue to drink and drink and drink.
An example: I got dehydrated at work, my partner started a 1-liter IV on me, and at the hospital I was diagnosed with moderate dehydration. After 2 liters of IV fluid and about 2 liters of oral water I was released from the hospital, I didn’t feel 100% for over 48 hrs. I had “endless thirsts” for about another 24 hours after that.
Dehydration & heat exhaustion & stroke can be very dangerous. In the outdoors, it cannot be stressed enough: If you cannot get to a clean water supply, GO AHEAD & DRINK THE WATER. It is best to re-hydrate yourself, whether it is from creek, stream or lake. Your survival might depend on it. When you are then found & get back to a location where you can be treated, the health-care professionals can treat your symptoms at that point in time. For example, Guardia Labia, which is the very common organism that causes diarrhea, the incubation for Guardia is approximately 3 weeks. You will be found most likely in less time than that, & you are not going to suffer any symptoms until you get back. So, hydration is key. Please drink the water if you are in a situation that warrants that.