Hike Smart: How to Stay Hydrated on the Trail

Water, water, water! The magical liquid that keeps us alive!

Hiking a ridge, a meadow, or a river bottom, is as healthy a form of exercise as one can get. Hiking seems to put all the body cells back into rhythm.

—William O. Douglas, Justice, United States Supreme Court

As the weather warms up, hiking starts to be the go-to weekend activity. With amazing trails in parks across the country, it’s a perfect time to lace up your boots and explore the diversity of landscapes and views. RVingwithRex.com has you covered with tips to hike safe and have fun this summer.

Did someone say water? Bring more water than you think you’ll need, every time. Pre-hydrate before you head out starting the night before a hike. Drink throughout the day and always over-prepare. When you’ve finished half of your water supply, it’s time to turn around—no matter where you are on the trail.

Hiking Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan ahead! Before you hike, check and download any trail maps or guides you might need. Take a GPS with you and make sure your phone is fully charged. If you’re hiking alone, let someone know where you’re going and about how long you’ll be gone. Most parks have rangers available to help you pick the trail that’s right for you.

Maintaining body fluids is essential for sweating so you must hydrate before, during, and after your hikes. Limit the amount of caffeine drinks such as coffee and colas because caffeine increases fluid loss. Avoid alcoholic drinks—they also cause dehydration.

When engaged in strenuous trail activity or when hiking in hot environments, drink at least one quart of fluid per hour. Providing a portion of fluid replacement with a carbohydrate/electrolyte sport beverage will help retain fluids and maintain energy and electrolyte levels—however, uou need to alternate sports drinks with plain water.

Continue drinking after hiking to replace fluid losses—thirst always underestimates fluid needs, so drink more than you think is necessary.

Hiking Peralta Trail, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rehydration is enhanced when fluids contain sodium and potassium or when foods with these electrolytes are consumed along with the fluid. Make potassium rich foods a regular part of your diet including:

  • Avocado
  • Bananas
  • Dried apricots
  • Citrus fruits
  • Lemonade
  • Orange juice
  • Tomato juice
Hiking Ocmulgee National Monument, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Assess your hydration by looking for these signs:

  • Low volumes of dark, concentrated urine, or painful urination
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Weakness
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Dizziness

Continuing to hike in a dehydrated state can lead to serious consequences including heat stroke, muscle breakdown, and kidney failure.

Bring sun protection, like a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen. Consider wearing long, lightweight sleeves to protect you from the sun and help keep your body cool. This will help you enjoy your hike and enjoy the memories.

Did I mention water? Don’t get caught without enough to keep you hydrated throughout your hike—you need water for the return trip, too. Bring salty snacks or electrolyte tablets to help stay alert, too. Bananas, granola, dried apricots, and peanut butter are all great options.

Hiking along the Creole Nature Trail, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why hydration is important

Around 70 percent of the body is made up of water and it is vital for essential bodily functions and biochemical processes. We lose water through urine, breathing out water vapor, and through sweat.

Why is this so important when we’re hiking? When we hike the body uses water as a coolant. The body’s temperature rises, triggering the body’s cooling mechanism and signalling to the brain to increase sweat production to help prevent overheating. As a consequence, blood volume drops, less blood returns back to the heart, the heart pumps out less blood, and less oxygen returns back to the working muscles. This results in an increased heart rate, onset of fatigue, loss of energy, and eventually exhaustion.

Hiking Padre Island National Seashore, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Research shows that a loss of fluid equating to 1-2 percent of bodyweight while exercising can impact significantly on ones ability to continue on the trail. And it doesn’t stop there. Progressive dehydration can eventually lead to cramps, headaches, and nausea, heat exhaustion, and eventually to potentially fatal heatstroke.

This makes it important to replace lost fluids as quickly as possible and ensure you’re properly hydrated before, during, and after your hike.

The best way to hike is to be smart, be prepared, and check in with yourself.

Every trail can be your favorite if you have a great time.

Hiking along the Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The role of sports drinks

When we sweat, we don’t only lose water. We also lose electrolytes including chloride, calcium, magnesium, sodium, and potassium and at the same time, glycogen stores become depleted. Sports drinks contain differing levels of fluid, electrolytes, and carbohydrates and are optimised to effectively replenish these supplies during and after exercise.

Hiking Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When and how often should I be drinking?

There’s no cut and dried or easy answer to this. How much you’ll need to hydrate on your hike depends on a number of factors including age, gender, amount you sweat, temperature, intensity, and distance. That said, there are some basic guidelines you can follow:

If you wait until during your hike to think about hydration, you’re on a straight path to becoming dehydrated. Nor is gulping down water an hour before your hike ideal—your gut can only absorb so much water and you’ll end up heading out bloated and uncomfortable—not to mention making needing a bathroom break more likely during your hike.

Instead, aim to stay continuously hydrated as part of your day to day lifestyle. For most people that means drinking around 1.5 to 2 litres of water daily (around 6 glasses of water).

Worth Pondering…

As soon as he saw the Big Boots, Pooh knew that an Adventure was about to happen, and he brushed the honey off his nose with the back of his paw and spruced himself up as well as he could, so as to look Ready for Anything.

—A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh