Hydration: How To Prevent Dehydration While Hiking
When properly hydrated, our bodies are around 60% water. Maintaining that level of water is needed so your heart pumps blood more easily, for temperature regulation, lubrication of joints, waste removal, and many other functions including the brain, nerves, and muscles. 1
Adequate hydration is essential for your overall health while hiking, backpacking, trekking, or other outdoor activities. But did you know there’s a right and wrong way to hydrate?
You not only need to keep the right balance of water in your body to avoid dehydration or overhydration. You need to have the right balance between water and electrolytes to keep your body functioning properly.
Electrolytes are minerals that carry an electrical charge to your body’s systems to keep them functioning properly. Your brain, heart, muscles, nervous system, and digestive system all require electrolytes. They also play a role in controlling your hydration. 2,3,4
Sodium and potassium are the two main electrolytes that you’ll be sweating out while hiking. Other common electrolytes that you’ll want to replenish are magnesium, chloride, calcium, and phosphorus.
Let’s look at how to hydrate properly when you’re on your next adventure.
Table of Contents
What to Drink While Hiking
Water is the best drink for staying hydrated. Make sure you bring enough water in bottles or a hydration pack for your hike. If your hike is longer, plan ahead. Are there refill points along the way or will you need to purify water from natural sources?
Drinks with Electrolytes
Drinks with electrolytes are needed if your hike is over 60-90 minutes. Dehydration symptoms will increase when these minerals are depleted and your performance will suffer.
There are 6 common electrolytes that you’ll want to replenish. Sodium and potassium are the two that you’ll be sweating out the most.
6 common electrolytes:
You may be periodically replenishing these electrolytes through snacks. If not, consider adding an electrolyte tablet to your water. They’re easier to carry than numerous sports drinks.
If you’re bringing along electrolytes, consider taking both a hydration pack full of water and a bottle to mix your electrolytes in.
Note: If you opt for a sports drink, consider one lower in sugar. Sugary drinks can give you an energy boost, but when the sugar wears off, you may feel more drained than before the rush.
How Much to Drink
Trying to figure out how much water to drink while hiking?
- The hike’s difficulty level
- The duration
- The climate where you’re hiking
- The weather conditions
- The altitude of your hike
- Your physical condition
- Your age
Drinking a half-liter of water per hour while hiking is a good starting point. The need for water increases as the demands of the hike increase. A strenuous hike in a hot environment may call for a liter or more per hour.
There’s no standard amount of electrolytes to replenish at particular intervals either.
Needs for water and electrolytes will vary from person to person. You’ll have to experiment. Start by alternating between water and electrolyte drinks when your hikes are over an hour.
Listen to the needs of your body. Over time, you’ll learn how to adjust your intake of water and electrolytes to the demands of your adventure.
How to Drink for Preventing Dehydration
It seems a little silly at first but there is a right and wrong way to drink water to prevent dehydration while hiking.
Consistently taking in smaller amounts of water along your hike best supports your body’s various functions and proper hydration. This consistent intake of water is far better than downing a bunch of water periodically. The yo-yo effect of downing water places a strain on body systems, decreases endurance, and increases the odds of becoming dehydrated.
Drink water before you feel thirsty. You can’t rely on thirst to be your guide. Guzzling water due to great thirst means you’re already dehydrated. Prevention through consistent intake of fluids is best.
If you notice any signs of dehydration along your hike, increase your fluid intake. (Dehydration signs are listed below.)
Tip: Consider a hydration pack. These packs perfectly accommodate the need for consistent water intake by allowing you to easily sip while hiking.
Avoid Caffeine and Alcohol
Caffeine and alcohol are diuretics. These discourage hydration by promoting fluid loss.
Avoid caffeine and alcohol before, during and after a hike. Yep, even after. You need to make sure you rehydrate after your hike.
You need to prehydrate before your hike. This is especially so if you’re going on a morning hike. Ever weighed yourself at night and then again in the morning? Did you weigh less? Most of us weigh less in the morning. It’s because water is lost overnight. Sweating and those nightly visits to the bathroom are two of the contributors to the loss of water.
Consider drinking 16 to 24 fl. oz. of water, juice, or electrolyte drink an hour or two before you hit the trail. Due to overnight dehydration, you’ll want to be on the higher end of that range if you’re hiking first thing in the morning.
Rehydrate and Replenish Electrolytes
It’s important to continue hydrating after your hike to replenish water and electrolyte loss.
If you’re hungry after your hike, consider potassium-rich foods for getting electrolytes back into your system.
Drink More at Higher Altitudes
Higher altitudes can cause you to dehydrate faster by:
- Increasing urinary output.
- Increasing breath intake. Water is lost twice as fast through respiration at high altitudes than at sea level.
- Lowering sense of thirst which is compounded if the elevation is accompanied by cold temperatures.
Risk of Dehydration is Greater in Cold Temperatures
We often think of getting dehydrated in hot weather but staying hydrated when hiking in cold temperatures is equally important.
- Breathing cold dry air causes a loss of water.
- Sweat is a visual reminder to rehydrate. When you don’t see it, you’re less likely to drink. When it’s cold, you don’t realize how much you’re sweating. Sweat vaporizes instead of forming on your skin or soaking clothes.
Wear Sun Protection
Sunburn promotes dehydration, so invest in good sunscreen and/or sun-protective clothing for UV protection.
Dehydration Risk Increases with Age
The older you get the more prone to dehydration you’ll be.
As we age, we store less fluid in our bodies. Older adults may have 10% less than they did when they were younger. To compound the risk of dehydration, there’s also a reduced sense of thirst in older adults.
Risks of Improper Hydration
Improper hydration can lead to dehydration or overhydration. Both of these conditions can throw off systems in your body.
Dehydration occurs when there is a greater loss of water from the body than what’s taken in. 5
For hikers, dehydration usually occurs when sweating exceeds the water intake. If you’re a hiker with a chronic illness, you have a greater risk of dehydration. (i.e. diabetes or chronic kidney disease)
- Dry mouth
- Dry, cool skin
- Urinating less than usual
- Urine is yellower than normal
- Sweating less than usual
- Feeling tired or sleepy
- Muscle cramps
- Decreased performance
- Severely decreased or no urine
- Dark-colored urine
- Lack of sweat
- Increased heart rate
- Low blood pressure
- Poor skin elasticity
For most hikers, the treatment for dehydration is to rehydrate by replacing lost fluids and electrolytes. But in severe cases, intravenous fluids at a hospital may be needed.
Continuing to hike without hydration can lead to serious health problems. Consult your doctor if you or a hiking buddy show severe signs of dehydration.
You should weigh about the same before and after a moderate hike. This is harder to accomplish on intense hikes. If you’re down a number of pounds you’re probably dehydrated and need to drink 16–24 fl. oz. of water, juice, or electrolyte drink for each pound lost to rehydrate.
Overhydration occurs when there is excess water in the body that upsets electrolyte balances. 6
This is a rare condition that can occasionally affect hikers but is more often seen in endurance athletes like marathon runners and triathletes who drink too much water before and during an event.
Certain chronic conditions and medicines cause overhydration. Check with your doctor to make sure you’re healthy enough to hike or if you may be otherwise susceptible to overhydration.
Symptoms of overhydration are similar to dehydration except urine volume will be elevated and its color will be clear or close to it.
Treatment for mild overhydration is to restrict fluid intake, replenish electrolytes, and let the kidneys excrete the excess water. In severe cases, diuretics and additional medications may be needed for those with chronic conditions.
Overhydration often causes hyponatremia.
Hyponatremia is a condition that occurs when sodium blood levels are too low. This condition is relatively uncommon in hikers and can result from improper hydration… not replenishing electrolytes and overhydrating. 3,7,8
The lack of sodium and other electrolytes due to hyponatremia can throw systems in your body out of balance. In very extreme cases, death can occur.
Symptoms of hyponatremia in hikers are usually similar to overhydration.
Treatment for hyponatremia in hikers without any other underlying condition is to increase sodium and other electrolyte levels through eating a salty snack or electrolyte supplements and to restrict fluid intake if caused by overhydration.
- . The United States Geological Survey (USGS).
- J. Fong and A. Khan. Hypocalcemia: Updates in Diagnosis and Management for Primary Care. Canadian Family Physician. 2012 Feb;58(2):158-62.
- M.A. Buffington and K. Abreo. Hyponatremia: A Review. Journal of Intensive Care Medicine. 2016 May;31(4):223-36.
- J.A. Yu-Yahiro. Electrolytes and their relationship to normal and abnormal muscle function. Orthopaedic Nursing. 1994 Sep-Oct;13(5):38-40.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. Dehydration. Mayo Clinic.
- James L. Lewis, III, MD. Overhydration. Merck Manual Consumer Version.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. Hyponatremia. Mayo Clinic.
- James L. Lewis, III, MD. Hyponatremia. Merck Manual Professional Version.
OtterBee Outdoors is for entertainment purposes only and should not be considered medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment recommendations. Statements regarding dietary supplements and other statements on the site have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or health condition. Please consult a physician to determine your best plan for treatment.
Steve Hood is a writer, photographer, and outdoor enthusiast. He has had a lifelong passion for exploring the woods, mountains, lakes, and rivers of the United States with a focus on kayaking, hiking, and fishing and enjoys sharing the love of outdoor adventures, conservation, and education with others.
How to Stay Hydrated While Hiking & Backpacking
No matter the length of the hike, being hydrated is important. Thus, one of the essential items to pack is water.
While knowing you should bring water seems like a simple concept, if you are new to hiking or taking on longer mileage, knowing how much water to bring takes a bit more thought.
Additionally, if you are spending multiple days out in the wilderness, you likely won’t be able to carry all of the water you’ll need. When you overlook these seemingly small details, they could have dire consequences.
Luckily, there are a few simple ways to figure out how much water you need to bring hiking. All it takes is some preparation and know-how.
Here is what you will learn in this article:
Staying Hydrated Basics
Before you can decide how much water you’ll need for the hike, ask yourself a few questions:
- How long will you be hiking?
- What are the weather conditions?
- What is your elevation?
- How much water do you drink regularly?
These four questions will help you personalize the standard calculations we will describe in the next section.
The distance and temperature will be the two most important factors.
If you are hiking in a hot, high desert environment, you may need to be hydrated more than if you are hiking on a crisp Autumn day.
How Much Water to Bring Hiking
Instead of basing the amount of water off how many miles you hike, a safer way to calculate is by how long it will take you to hike that distance.
Things like terrain, your physical conditioning, and if you are hiking with children can all make a somewhat short 2-mile hike into a multi-hour adventure.
For children, depending on their age, anywhere from .25 – 0.5 liters of water per hour will be enough.
Other than age, determining how much you will drink within that range will depend on your hiking pace, temperature, and terrain.
For instance, if you are hiking on a hot summer day on strenuous terrain, you’re more likely to want to drink around 1 liter of water.
If you walk at an average pace, the activity level is moderate, 0.5 liters of water could be okay.
As you begin to make hiking a part of your life, you will get to know how much water you drink on average.
If you’re unsure, though, the guidance above is a good starting point. After all, it is better to over-prepare than under-prepare.
Before you even leave for your hike, remember to be hydrated as well.
Then, as you hike, remember to sip, don’t chug—plan to drink some water every 10-15 minutes as you’re exploring the trail.
If you tend to forget to hydrate while exploring, a good tip is to set an alarm to remind you to take a sip. See our Best Picks for Hiking Watches.
Our bodies can only process 1 liter of water per hour, and if we are chugging all of that at once, it passes through our system too quickly and isn’t as effective in hydrating.
Pro Tip: Remember to wear sunblock. Sunburn can increase dehydration.
You’ll also want to start the habit of re-hydrating after you’ve finished your hike.
Pro Tip: Add electrolytes to your water to replenish what you lose through sweat and exertion.
A great electrolyte product we like is the Nuun Sport range. It’s a tablet that you simply add to your water bottle or hydration bladder.
How Much Water to Bring Backpacking
These calculations become more complicated when you move from a day hike to backpacking, though.
When you’re backpacking for four days, you won’t be carrying water for all four days.
You’ll still be able to apply the same concept as above, but you’ll also have to factor in water access on the trail and water purification and filtration. To learn more about the options, check out our guide to the Best Water Purifiers.
Beyond factoring in how much water you’re bringing, you’ll need to think about how much that water weighs. So, if on the first day of this backpacking trip, you plan to hike 6 miles.
First, determine how long you think it will take you to walk that distance. Let’s say it takes 30 minutes to hike one mile.
- 6 miles at 30 minutes per mile = 3 hours
Now, that is a pretty brisk pace, especially when backpacking. So, we will also need to factor in terrain changes and breaks along the way. With all of that, let’s round it up to 4 hours.
- 6 miles of hiking = 4 hours = 2-4 liters of water
- 1 liter of water = 2.2 lbs (1 kilogram)
- 2-4 liters of water = 4.4-8.8 lbs (2-4 kilograms)
Since we are backpacking in this example, it is crucial to recognize that you will need to use water beyond staying hydrated. You’ll need water for cooking as well.
Plus, you will need water for that night to drink and in the morning before you start the next day.
The good news is that depending on where you are backpacking, you likely won’t have to carry the entire 8+ lbs of water as you trek.
Find out if there are water sources along the way, and if there is, you can stop throughout the hike to refill.
Keep in mind that you’ll need to properly filter and purify the water you collect on the trail. If you have frequent access to water, you can easily choose to carry only 1-2 liters of water with little worry.
How to Carry Water When Hiking
Once you’ve determined how much water you need to pack to hike that day, you will also need a way to carry it. The best way to stay hydrated is to have your water be easily accessible.
If the water is difficult to access, it is much easier to forget to drink or not want to because you’ll have to stop hiking.
The two most common containers to carry water while hiking include:
- Water bottle
- Hydration bladder
Water bottles are one of the most common containers for water. They are affordable and durable, but they do tend to be heavier and bulkier to pack.
Water bottles tend to have hard sides, and they are relatively easy to drink from and carry. Some of the best water bottles for hiking include are made by Nalgene. We also recommend the collapsible Platypus Bottle.
A water bladder is what you put in a hydration pack. You can pack a water bladder even if you don’t have a hose hookup. This is an excellent way to carry large amounts of water that you can use to fill bottles.
If you do not have a hydration pack but want the extra water, we recommend an MSR Dromedary for its durability and numerous size options.
You can also hook up a hose to the MSR water bladders to use them inside a hydration pack. To find the right hydration bladder for your needs, check out our Best Hydration Bladder Buying Guide.
One of the most common hydration pack options is a Camelbak. Their packs come in various sizes as do their water bladders.
The nice thing about using a hydration pack is that you don’t have to stop to get a drink. Thus staying hydrated is easy.
The downside is that they can be challenging to clean after a while, and they are easier to puncture.
How to Avoid Dehydration while Hiking
When it comes to dehydration, the best way to avoid it is to follow the tips we listed above.
Remember, if you are to the point of feeling thirsty, dehydration has already begun.
If you ignore this and continue without drinking water, you could start to experience these early signs of dehydration:
- Dry mouth
- Low energy
Continuing forward, if you continue to drink no water or very little water, your symptoms are likely to worsen.
Some of the most severe signs and symptoms of dehydration include:
- Muscle and stomach cramps
- Dark urine
- Stumbling or loss of coordination
- Mumbling or unclear speech
If you or a hiking partner has reached the point of vomiting or fainting due to dehydration, medical assistance is required.
How to Avoid Over-Hydration while Hiking
While we may be aware that dehydration can be an issue when hiking, over-hydration, also referred to as hyponatremia, is just as dangerous.
It may be far less common, but it is essential to be mindful that it is possible and poses serious safety risks.
The symptoms are far rarer to experience, and usually only occurs in long-distance athletes like ultra-marathon runners.
Mainly, what happens when you drink too much water is that your blood’s sodium levels become so low that cell function is interrupted or impaired.
Unfortunately, many hyponatremia symptoms are very similar to dehydration, including headaches, fatigue, and nausea.
This overlap in symptoms can influence people to drink more water, making the issue far worse. In extreme cases, hyponatremia has caused comas or even death.
Both dehydration and overhydration are dangerous, but the good news is that they are entirely avoidable if you properly prepare.
Not only that, but it is vital to monitor and be aware of how much water you are drinking as you hike.
Staying hydrated on the trail is critical.
Before you go ask yourself these questions: How long will you be hiking? What are the weather conditions? What is your elevation? How much water do you drink regularly?
As a starting point, drink 0.5 – 1 liters of water every hour while hiking.
With some preparation and know-how you can avoid the dire consequences of dehydration.
How to Dehydrate Food for Backpacking
The best backcountry meals are the ones you prepare yourself. In this article, I will tell you why and how to dehydrate food for backpacking.
By Drew Smith
We live in a golden age of trail cuisine. Freeze-dried and dehydrated meals are better-tasting and more nutritious than ever before. Producers have responded to hikers’ needs by filling nearly every food niche and style. You can still get old standbys like chili-mac, but now you can get them vegetarian, vegan, organic, or gluten-free. You can eat American, Mexican, Indian, Italian, Asian, or any other style you like. Best of all, these meals actually taste good.
But not good enough. You can do better.
Breakfast on a cold October morning in the Lost Creek Wilderness: scrambled eggs with ham, cheese, and veggies.
And I very much mean “you”. My thesis is that the best backcountry meals are the ones you prepare yourself. In this article, I will tell you how to dehydrate food for backpacking.
Individual Taste and Quality Ingredients
The “why” comes down to two factors: individual taste and quality ingredients. Despite the unprecedented variety of backpacking foods available, the chance that any particular meal is made precisely to your preferences is vanishingly small. This isn’t a knock on the freeze-dried food industry. Even within a niche, they must create a flavor profile that is broadly acceptable. They have to sell to many thousands of customers in order to stay in business, and can’t risk offending anyone’s palate.
You, on the other hand, have only to satisfy yourself (and your hiking partners). Do onions give you heartburn? Leave them out. Addicted to that jalapeño burn? Bring it on. Not a vegetarian but want to cut down on meat consumption? Use a third of the meat called for in a recipe. When you tailor your meals to your individual preferences, you have taken a big step on the trail to hiker food heaven.
Ingredients are the other big step. Great ingredients make great food. Every skilled cook knows this. You know it too, which is why you spend time at the market picking out the best tomatoes, apples, and cuts of beef.
Mass food producers can’t do this. They might use the highest grades of food, but that high grade is only an average. They also are restricted to varieties that are amenable to industrial mass production. You won’t find heirloom tomatoes in mass-produced freeze-dried sauce.
But you will in mine. I make my tomato sauce with a variety called Corne de Bouc, a plum tomato that has extremely thin skin. Even though they grow well in Colorado’s challenging climate, their thin skin means they can’t be trucked anywhere. That thin skin also means no bitter flavors even though I don’t peel them. I whir them up in a blender, cook them down with a bit of olive oil, garlic and salt, dry it into fruit leather, and then spend evenings on the trail eating amazing pasta dishes. If you are a gardener or live near a farmer’s market or a good grocery store you don’t have to make any compromises with your trail food.
Drying Corne de Bouc tomatoes from the garden Pasta with cheesy garden tomato sauce and veggies on the PCT above the Feather River.
Hiker food heaven is a real place. But it is not filled with instant mashed potatoes or ramen. Instead, it is full of easily prepared top quality ingredients combined together to make delicious meals.
An Ingredient-centered Approach
My approach is ingredient-centered rather than meal-centered. I build up a pantry full of dehydrated ingredients: onions, peppers, tomatoes, carrots, peas, beans, sweet potatoes, corn, eggs, chicken, beef, ham, etc. I combine those ingredients into a variety of meals, changing the composition and proportions according to whatever seems tasty (and calorically appropriate) at the time.
A shelf full of dried foods keeps me ready to hit the trail. It also satisfies my inner prepper.
But you don’t have to do it that way if you don’t want to. The good news about dehydrating food is that it saves money, improves nutrition, and creates stellar flavors at any scale. Whether you make just a few snacks or prepare dozens of meals for a long hike you will come out ahead.
If you are new to dehydrating food, start with fruit. Dried fruit is crazy expensive at the store, and can be hard to find at any price. Fruits are calorie-dense and are great sources of vitamins, electrolytes, and fiber. They should be a major player in your hiking food game.
A Premium or Unlimited Membership* is required to view the rest of this article.
* A Basic Membership is required to view Member Q&A events
By Drew Smith
Started backpacking in 1967 and (apart from my 3 years living in Indiana) have never stopped. I’ve been section-hiking the Colorado Trail the last 4 years, and gotten to Marshall Pass so far. I’m not fanatic about weight, possibly because I like to load up my Newfoundland dog and use him as a pack animal. The important thing is to go, and to have a good time.