Hiking Hydration: All You Need to Know!
I am pretty sure I don’t have to explain how important proper hydration is. Also, although we know now that there is no a set amount of water everyone has to drink during a day, it’s important to think ahead of time about the best way to carry, clean, and drink water on the trail. If you wonder what you can do to stay hydrated and safe while hiking - this article is for you. You will find here tips and advice on proper hydration as well as suggestions for gear to carry and purify water on the go.
Disclaimer: This post, in addition to some awesome tips and advice, may contain affiliate links to respected retailers for your convenience. It means that if you buy anything through those links, I receive a tiny commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you for your support!
Hiking Hydration: How much water do I need?
In the beginning, when you are not sure how much your body needs, think of providing about half a liter per hour of activity. If you hike on a scorching day or the hike is very demanding to you, you might need more. The amount of water one needs depends on many factors: the weather, altitude, your body type, how hard the hike is and how long you walk. If you head out on a hot day to climb steep rocks in high altitude - double the amount of water needed.
With time you start to get a good feeling of how much water you need. It’s always better to reach the hike’s end with some water left than risk dehydration.
Hiking Hydration: Pre-hydrate and re-hydrate
It's an excellent idea to prehydrate, to cut down on the amount of water you need to carry and to benefit from access to water at your campsite (or home). Just drink at least a proper glass of water before you hit the trail to keep your body moving. When you are back home or at your camp, drink some more to rehydrate. I like to eat soup for dinner to add some more liquid in my body that way. In the morning, I usually eat a pretty watery oatmeal starting my hydration that way.
Make sure you keep on drinking when it's cold.
It's quite natural to reach for the bottle when it's crazy hot out there, but we might not feel such need when it's chilly or raining. Our bodies still need hydration! Don't forget to provide it even when water surrounds you all around.
Hiking Hydration: How do I know if I'm dehydrated?
Being aware of the early signs of dehydration is important. You might not be aware of how much sweat you produced if it's windy and hot, and all the moisture evaporates quickly. The first signs of dehydration are thirst (duh), dry mouth, and lack of energy. It's pretty easy to see that it can be confused with merely side effects of hiking. You might think that you are tired (too tired?) and blame recent lack of exercise or steep trail.
The moment you notice the following symptoms, react quickly:
- muscles cramps,
- a headache,
- nausea and dizziness
- the “umbles” (stumbling, mumbling, grumbling, and fumbling)
- dark urine or no need to pee for many hours
- a significant decrease in strength and abilities, when you have no strength to move.
What should you do when you notice such symptoms? The good thing is, the medicine is simple: water. If you have electrolytes, add them, or eat some salty snacks when drinking. Don't jugg too much water at a time, take small sips, rest, let the body rehydrate over time. Make sure you sit in the shade if it's a hot day. You might also want to add some sugar, later on, to add instant energy to your body. Take as much rest as you need.
Hiking Hydration: How to carry water
Over the past years, I’ve tried multiple ways of carrying water: hard plastic bottles, regular plastic bottles refilled, again and again, foldable water bottles of various volumes, and most recently – a water bladder.
The kind of water container you should have depends on a few different things. Before you buy anything, answer a few questions:
What’s the water situation like at your destination? Is water freely available from streams, rivers or village fountains? Alternatively, maybe your trail leads through a dry landscape with hardly any water source? When you know there streams very often (like in Scotland or Norway), you don’t have to carry much water with you. It’s enough to have one bottle or a bladder and a water filtration system. If you hike in areas where water is scarce, you need to think about bigger water containers (on a desert you might need to carry even 5 L on you).
When you are planning for your hike be a little skeptical about the blue lines on the map. In some areas they might show seasonal streams - it happened to me often when I was hiking on Crete, even though it was winter. I only met dry stream beds where water was supposed to flow. Read guides for information about resupply opportunities.
What’s your backpack like and how easy is it to dig out your bottle? For quite a while I carried bottles in my backpack’s side pockets. However, it was not easy to use them – although I could take them out with the backpack on, there was no way to put it back in. Which meant that if I wanted to drink, I had to stop and take the backpack off. I don’t have to say that it translated into a not optimal hydrating situation.
Do you want to save as much as possible on weight? Water bottles made of hard plastic or steel are much heavier than thin water bladders or reused soda drink bottle. For shorter hikes, it might not make much difference, but for long treks, the weight is much more of an issue.
Do you hike alone or with a bigger group? When you are a solo hiker, you have to carry all by yourself and find tools and gear that work well for your needs. Some water filters work great for a solo hiker but would be annoying to use for a larger group. It’s better to invest in a filter that can quickly clean gallons of water for the whole group. Another thing is, that if you hike with a buddy, they can handle you your bottle (and you can do the same for them). When you are solo, you need to either twist your arm back to take it out or take your backpack off.
Do you typically hike for many days or day hikes? For day hikes it might be a good idea to buy a small and light backpack with a built-in bladder. It is also an excellent option for people who like to hike very fast or run parts of their distance. For long treks, you need a bigger backpack. The good thing is, most of the available backpacks nowadays are prepared for either water bladders or carrying bottles in side pockets.
Take a look below at some great water bottles - find one that fits your needs: soft and foldable, hard plastic and vacuum steel, narrow or wide mouth:
Hiking Hydration: Bottle or bladder?
For years I opposed the idea of using a water bladder. I just had visions of nasty mold growing on the tubes and inside the containers! I used bottles, but I’ve realized it didn’t work for me. There was no problem during a short day hike – it was easy to take a bottle out and put it back in. However, with a bigger backpack, I had to make a stop, take the bag down, drink, put it back…
Moreover, as I walk slowly, I don’t want to take breaks too often. By the end of a hike, I often had only one bottle emptied – about one liter. That’s way too little!
So last year I decided to give a water bladder a go. I picked one with a large opening to clean it quickly and minimize my worries about nasty mold built up. I can even turn it inside-out and wash it in a dishwasher.
So my hiking life has changed dramatically! Now I started to sip now and then – whenever I wanted, I hardly had to stop to do it! I don’t look back and only use foldable bottles as a backup when I need to carry more water than just the 2 L bladder volume.
The other surprising upside of a bladder was that the water stayed cold for longer. When carrying water in a bottle on the outside of my backpack, it was quickly at least the temperature of the outside air and often warmer – when the day was unusually sunny.
However, the bladder hidden inside the backpack stays cooler for much longer. It brings so much more refreshment and hydration when it’s not warm!
If you are interested in giving water bladders a try - take a look below at some high-quality options. I use Hydrapak Shape Shift and can recommend it.
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Hiking Hydration: Making sure you drink safe, clean water
I find that carrying a water filtration system is a must. Sometimes it might be you never use it if you hike from campsite to campsite and can do refills from safe tap water. However, it’s still worth carrying it – just in case.
If you happened to hike in a more wild area, filtering water can not only save you on some weight but also protect you from some nasty infections or parasites. Even when the stream seems clean, you never know. There could be a dead animal up the stream or sheep might graze close to it (and pee into it). There are filters which are so small and light that the risk is just not worth it.
For about three years I used the mini-Sawyer filtration system and was pretty happy with it. However, sometimes the squeezing was not that easy, and my hands were growing tired very fast when using it. When I was doing it in on a cold day, hands were getting stiff very fast. I recently switched to Katadin BeFree as it got raving reviews in the hiking community. I will be testing in during my upcoming trek in Portugal. From the reviews, it seems that BeFree should be faster and easier to use.
If you travel in a bigger group, you should think of taking one of the big capacity filters or gravity filters – they would work much better for high volume needs.
If you know your hike takes you through the wilderness where the only sources of water are standing ponds with green growth and murky lakes, you need a powerful water filter that is made for such harsh conditions. Read carefully product info and what exactly it can protect you from.
If you are looking for something you can take everywhere with you, it might a good idea to buy a bottle with a built-in filter. It's a great idea for urban travel, you add tap water and don't have to worry about how clean it is. It's great for a day hike, too.
We have a lot of choice in the world of water filters. Take a look below and see what fits your needs and budget:
Alternatives to water filters
Water filters are not your only option. You can also carry purifying tablets or iodine drops – they don’t filter out the physical impurities but kill bacteria or protozoa. If you have access to generally clean (looking) water, it might be a good option. They also tend to be pretty cheap, especially when compare to the more advanced water filtration systems you could see above.
In a similar situation, you can choose to use a UV pen(SteriPen). It uses UV light to kill bacteria. It’s tiny and can be taken everywhere. It’s a good idea to have when you travel to countries where the tap water is not safe to drink.
Take a look below at your options:
Hiking Hydration: Is water the only drinking option?
Water is the best for us. However, you might want to also think about upping it a bit with electrolytes. It’s a particularly good idea for long, strenuous hikes. There is hardly any need to add electrolytes on a day hike or even 3-day trip. However, when you go for weeks-long treks, help your body recover and replenish all the electrolytes you lose when you sweat. You can add tablets, powder or ready-made isotonic drinks. I do not recommend using them in bladders, though – much more difficult to clean!
It’s also a good idea to eat salty snacks when drinking water – it helps with electrolytes but also holds water for a bit longer in your body.
I love to have my isolated flask on cold hikes, especially for short hikes when weight isn’t that much of an issue. It’s such a significant boost to your morale to stop for a break and drink a hot cup of coffee or your favorite tea. I highly recommend it for a chilly winter or fall hike!
Oh, imagine this lovely moment when you stop for a break, it’s chilly and windy, you are tired… Then you grab your flask and pour steaming liquid of gods… no better thing!
But coffee is dehydrating, isn’t it?!
No, it’s not. There is a myth that you shouldn’t drink coffee because it cause dehydration. Although caffeine is mildly diuretic, we don’t have to worry about it. I can’t even imagine not have a good cup of java every morning - hiking or not! I love it so much that I’m happy to add extra weight and volume to my load in order to have a proper, freshly brewed coffee - even in the Wild. Caffeine has also many proved benefits - including those for athletic performance so no need to deprive yourself of the favorite drink while hiking. Researched showed that coffee is beneficial for endurance athletes - which is great news for hikers.
If you want to make your own coffee in the Wild without compromising on taste and aroma, take a look below at some useful gear:
I use GSI infinity mug, Sea to Summit collapsible drip, Jetboil Minimo stove, and a Sea to Summit titanium long spoon. If you want to see more of my kitchen gear, click on this link.
Hiking Hydration: A few extra tips related to hydration
I am not sure about you, but I did think more than once about limiting the amount of water I drink because I dreaded peeing in an open landscape situation. It's easy to go and hide in the forest, but when you can see for miles around you, it can be somewhat anxiety-inducing. It's good to acknowledge this worry (if you feel it) and think about ways to fix it - so you can drink as much as you need.
For some women, hiking in a skirt (skort) works, some women use peeing devices allowing one to urinate standing, some who hike with a friend use a towel or such to create a modesty screen. You can use your backpack to hide a bit, etc. I hike alone, and most of the time I don't worry much because it's pretty deserted, but when it's close to villages... yeah, it's hard.
You might think drinking less would limit sweating. You might be turned off by the idea of a wet shirt, maybe you worry about nasty smell or such. First of all - sweating is a fantastic evolutionary achievement, which helped our predecessors to survive on wild savannas (did you know that they were able to out-run gazelles thanks to that? awesome). The sweat itself doesn't smell - it's just water.
The smell starts when there is bacteria growth. You can use a deodorant to fill better (I do), pack a bag of wet wipes to clean a bit during a break if that would make feel better. It's also a good idea to pack (even for a day hike!) extra set of dry clothes to put on after you are done. It's a must when you camp - you must have a set of dry sleeping clothing. However, it's also nice to put on after you reach your car/train, etc. to get back home.