A German tourist while visiting Grand Canyon National Park decided to take a short "day hike," into the Canyon. His plan included descending down the South Kaibab Trail to the Tonto Trail. He then would take the Tonto Trail west to the Bright Angel Trail and exit the Canyon. As night fell his worried family notified rangers. Not only was he not carrying any kind of gear, he was carrying only two pints of water. After almost 48 hours in the heat the man was found under a rocky shelf on the Tonto Trail barely alive. Rescuers couldn't believe that one of the bottles of water was still full. When asked why he hadn't finished the second bottle he told rescuers that a man had told him the water was bad. There wasn't any man around.
The only thing the human body needs more than water is air. Take the air away from a person and they can have permanent brain damage in as little as four minutes. Although people have been to known to survive as long as seven days without water, serious effects from dehydration can happen in as little as an hour in the right conditions.
There are a lot of things that went wrong in the above story. Choosing a route that would take at least two days to complete, a lack of gear, failure to understand the desert conditions in the Grand Canyon, but above all the biggest failure was the lack of proper hydration.
There isn't a magical formula for staying hydrated. One of the first things to consider is your own body. How much fluid do you drink in a normal day? It is recommended to drink about a ½ gallon of water each day but a recent scientific survey revealed that many people drink far less.
We are conditioned at a very young age not to properly hydrate ourselves. Whether it was our parents who refused to stop at each rest stop when we said we were thirsty or the schools that wouldn't let us get a drink during class, we have been programmed to drink only when we become thirsty. The problem with this in the outdoors is if you wait to take a drink only when you are thirsty, you are waiting too long. The sensation of thirst is a natural reaction in the body caused when there isn't enough fluid present in your system. Although this is natural and everyone has experienced it, thirst equals dehydration.
When you go out on the trail you should always carry water. Whether it is a half-mile stroll on a paved overlook or a fifteen-mile all day trek. The basic rule is for each day of hiking you should plan to drink one gallon of water. This elevated consumption is to compensate for the water lost through breathing and sweating due to increased activity. If your hiking plans are for less than a day, than you should carry one quart of water for every two hours you plan to hike. Carrying the water with you is only half of the equation; you also need to be drinking it.
Carrying water bottles in the mesh pockets of your pack may be convenient, but if you can't reach around and grab one you may find yourself waiting until you are thirsty. Although the venerable canteen can do the trick, the bulk and weight of most models is becoming harder to justify. Depending on conditions you should plan to stop often, even if it is just for a moment, to have a drink. An even better solution is to carry one of your water bottles or your canteen in your hand so you can take a drink as you walk. Although both of these strategies will work at keeping you hydrated there is an easier way to get a drink of water, and you don't even have to use your hands.
Recently hydration packs have been growing in popularity and for good reason. A hydration pack consists of a food grade plastic bladder with a hose and clip. At the end of the hose is a bite valve. By positioning the bite valve to where you can easily reach it you simply put the end of the hose in your mouth, bite down, and suck out a drink of water. The bladder holding the water sits safely in your pack. Best of all, you can continually hydrate yourself without having to stop and grab a water bottle. Capacity ranges from one to four quarts so even if your plans include an extreme desert trek, the proper amount of water can still be carried. Quality hydration systems can be found for under $25 and are becoming readily available through a number of outlets. We've come a long way from the canteen!
Of course if you don't have your own pack you can always buy a hydration system that has a pack built around it. These complete hydration packs range in price from $40 to $100. Some models are designed to carry nothing more than your water. Other models have room for storing your hiking gear and a variety of loops and fasteners to attach outdoor essentials. They are perfect for day hiking in your favorite park.
Because the water is contained in a collapsible bladder as you drink down your supply the bladder gets smaller. This eliminates problems when you carry multiple water bottles like load balancing. Hydration systems also don't weep as much as water bottles do in hot weather helping keep your gear dry. Just be sure to position the bladder along the center of your pack to get the maximum benefit.
Another aid to proper hydration is to never assume that water will be available on a trail. If you are doing distance hiking be sure to check with park staff on the status of water availability before you set off. Weighing almost nine pounds per gallon it is very tempting to cut back on your water supply and plan to refill at a river, spring, or even a pump that is down the trail. Rivers and springs can run dry and pumps can break. In extreme environments like the Grand Canyon, you should always plan to be self sufficient, especially when it comes to your water supply.
If you find yourself in an emergency situation and out of water there are things you can do to help slow down the effects of dehydration. Limit movement and activity, especially during the heat of the day. Seek out a shady area and stay out of the sun. Because your body uses water as part of the digestion process, avoid eating food if at all possible. If you come across a questionable water source remember that most water borne illnesses that you can be infected with in North America will not affect you for days or weeks so you are better off having a drink than risking the dangers of dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.
Above all else be sure that you hit the trail with a good plan. A part of every good plan includes an adequate water supply. Whether you bring water bottles or enjoy all of the benefits of a hydration pack, staying hydrated is not only key to your safety, but will help you have a better time out on the trail.