Summer temperatures in the southwestern U.S. can be extreme. And though there are certainly cooler times of year to go hiking and backpacking out here, when planned thoughtfully and carefully, a hike can be extremely enjoyable. But one of the most important elements is proper hydration and nourishment. Too many people miss at least one of these crucial elements and the consequences range from basic dehydration all the way heat stroke.
The dry desert atmosphere is going to suck the water out of you in every which way. Your body will need plenty of water just to meet its basic needs but you will be losing plenty of water to sweat and even breathing. The dry air around you literally acts like a sponge, drawing the water out of you as you don’t even realize it. The actual amount of water you will need to drink will vary greatly but it will be directly related to the following factors: level of exertion, time spent outside, outside temperature, and humidity. But when the temperatures are hitting the 90s during the day, the average hiker or backpacker should expect to require about 6 to 8 liters per day for a 6 to 8 hour day of hiking.
A basic rule of thumb is to drink when you’re thirsty. There’s no need to “camel-up”, or drink tons of water before hiking in an effort to beat dehydration to the punch. Your body can only process so much water at a time and will get rid of any excess. Additionally, over-hydration can lead to a whole other set of problems which we’ll touch on soon. So drink when you’re thirsty, drink regularly, and don’t stress about it. The best way to determine if you’re drinking enough is to monitor the frequency and color of your urine. You should be peeing every couple of hours and it should be a medium to light yellow color. If your urine is a dark yellow or orange, this is a great sign that you’re dehydrated.
But it’s not just staying hydrated that matters! It is imperative that you are eating plenty of food…and particularly salty foods. When you sweat a lot, your body is losing precious salts (i.e. electrolytes). If you don’t replace those salts, you run the risk of becoming hyponatremic. Hyponatremia is essentially an electrolyte imbalance typically caused by over-hydrating and not replenishing lost salts. It is a potentially life-threatening condition which requires professional medical help to reverse. Therefore, it is critical that you are snacking regularly on salty snacks (as well as other tasty and nutritious foods that will keep your energy level high). Potato chips are excellent. Any kind of snack cracker is great, peanuts, pretzels, whatever. Your body will be craving salt and you won’t believe how delicious and satisfying all those snacks will taste. Electrolyte drink mixes are good too, but they are not a substitute for ample food. Eat plenty, drink plenty, feel great!
Many people skimp on carrying enough water with them when hiking because…well…it is heavy. One-gallon weighs approximately 8.4 pounds. There is no getting around this. When planning your hike, just know you will be carrying some weight and factor this into your mileage goals. It may be the case that you might have to sacrifice those fancy hiking gadgets and make sure you have plenty of water instead.
But often your best course of action is to choose a hike that includes access to natural water sources and have a reliable way to treat that water for safe consumption. This will reduce your need to carry excessive amounts which will likely lead to faster fatigue and a reduced fun-factor. Plus…having a stream to cool off in will make a world of difference!
Symptoms of Dehydration
Dehydration can sneak up on you, which is why staying hydrated is discussed so much by hikers and backpackers alike. One of the earliest symptoms of dehydration is irritability. Your grumpy hiking buddy who usually loves to crush mile after mile on the trail is just not their cheerful self. They’re quiet, slow to respond and just not a whole lot of fun. As the dehydration intensifies, many hikers may feel unusually fatigued, muscle weakness and unwilling or even unable to move. Severe dehydration can progress rapidly to heatstroke, with symptoms that include: confusion, lack of sweating, extremely red (flushed) complexion, rapid heartbeat, extreme dry mouth, and delirium. Heatstroke is an immediate threat to life and must be addressed rapidly with aggressive cooling.
When hiking or backpacking in the heat of the desert Southwest, it is imperative to stay properly hydrated and well-nourished in order to keep your body operating as effectively and efficiently as possible. Plan properly for your adventure by checking the weather, hiking at strategic times of day to avoid the midday heat, packing plenty of food and water, and then eating and drinking regularly. These basic preparations will leave feeling secure and safe and help ensure that you experience nothing but good times during your adventure.
Book your Southwest Backpacking Trip today by contacting Four Season Guides in Flagstaff, Arizona. A professional guide will answer the phone and interview you to determine the best scenario for your adventure. Call 928-525-1552 for more information or to book your trip today!