No one wants to get dehydrated. Insufficient fluid intake can lead to heat exhaustion. Heat exhaustion can rapidly develop into heatstroke and the very real possibility of death. Often the signs creep up on you.
Before you know it brain fog, confusion and fatigue make it difficult for you to make wise decisions and avoid serious trouble. And diabetics, like myself, need to be extra careful as they are susceptible to developing this condition. I sweat little which can lead to life-threatening overheating.
So how do you avoid dehydration in the desert when reliable water sources are scarce and carrying an adequate supply of water is impractical?
Know how much water you need to survive and carry it
The rule-of-thumb guide is to take 1 litre of water for every 5 miles (8kms) walked. If you have a 20-mile stretch to cover that means you need a minimum of 4 litres of water.
And that does not include water needed for meal preparation – your hot or cold drinks, and meal rehydration. If I take the recommended 4 litres, I will carry 4kgs in weight which is a decent load to add to a thru-hiker’s already heavy pack weight.
A heavy pack will make the going tough and may increase a hiker’s water needs. We have a lot of conflicting issues to consider here. Do I take the right amount of water and guarantee my survival? Or do I reduce my pack weight by taking less water and potentially risk getting seriously dehydrated?
It all comes down to planning. Are there reliable water sources along the way from which I can replenish my water supply? In extreme dry summer conditions, ‘reliable’ water sources can quickly become ‘unreliable’. What are you going to do if the water you planned on is not available? On the Pacific Crest Trail, Trail Angels often maintain free water caches in these dry areas to aid thru hikers, but you cannot rely on these sources being available. Even if hikers, a few days ahead of you, advise of cache water availability it may be gone by the time you arrive.
Daily routes must be planned meticulously, based on current information on water sources. If you know water is available along the route, carry less. If not enough, and a heavy load is not possible, consider night hiking. Without sun exposure, you reduce the need for greater water consumption.
Know how to reduce the impact of water loss in hot conditions
When your internal temperature rises the body will excrete moisture in visible quantities through the openings of the sweat glands. Sweating is how your body cools itself. Sweat or perspiration is primarily water with tiny amounts of chemicals, such as ammonia, urea, salts, and sugar.
These tiny amounts of chemicals are important to replenish for optimal body functioning. To overcome salt depletion, I take Salt Tablets each day. No flashy name. Just ask your chemist or pharmacy for Salt Tablets and take as prescribed.
Another way to reduce dehydration and replenish salt and other lost chemicals is with electrolyte tablets. Hydralyte, Nuun, GU, Zoom and Voost are brands I have used. I pop two in a 600ltr bottle for a nice tasty effervescent drink. A welcome change from drinking plain water all the time.
What if I am drinking enough and taking supplements but still feel weird?
In fact, what if I notice I have stopped sweating? As sweat evaporates, it cools your skin and your blood beneath your skin. But if you are not sweating or if you sweat too little, life-threatening overheating can occur. This is a known issue for type 1 diabetics who can encounter problems regulating their body temperature.
No longer beetroot-coloured, my face goes a deathly pale pallor, and my skin becomes dry to the touch. I may look cool on the exterior, but inside me, it feels like I am in an oven. Having experienced this overheating before in extreme heat when I walked the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea in 2008, I know there is only one way to treat it. I pour what precious water I can spare down my entire body to create external sweat, which ultimately cools me and regulates my core body temperature. Fortunately, when this condition occurred on the Pacific Crest Trail I was near a plentiful water source and I did not need to sacrifice valuable drinking water.
Know how to treat heat exhaustion
Heat exhaustion symptoms typically last 30 minutes or less when treated promptly. Complete recovery may take anywhere from 24 to 48 hours. To shorten the duration of heat exhaustion, drink plenty of fluids and seek a cool place to rest and recover.
In the desert, find a shady spot, drink the coolest fluid you have and loosen clothing to prevent further discomfort.
If the more severe heat stroke develops do the same as you would for heat exhaustion, paying particular attention to cooling the person’s exterior and lying them down in the shade with legs elevated to get the blood flowing to the heart.
Choose loose breathable clothing with UPF-rated protection. Lightweight, loose-fitting clothing that breathes well will help your body regulate temperature. Nylon and polyester are good choices. And although cotton often gets a bad rap for not drying quickly, it can prove useful in dry and hot conditions. The moisture can feel good against your skin, leaving you feeling cool as it evaporates.
As odd as it sounds covering up more with long sleeves cools you and offers added UV protection. I walked the entire trail wearing Columbia’s Performance Fishing Gear (PFG) long sleeve shirt with adjustable sleeves. Designed to keep the anglers of the world comfortable and looking sharp, it performed brilliantly on the trail with not a fish in sight.
I also recommend head protection. A baseball cap is my preferred choice, but a broad-brimmed hat offers all-round protection. I was constantly applying sunscreen to my ears or attaching a bandanna to achieve the look of a legionnaire’s hat. For the hands, use fingerless sun gloves.
My favourite item in the desert was my walking umbrella. Once considered unfashionable or indicative of incompetence, they are becoming a popular addition to the thru hiker’s arsenal. Mine was strong and extremely lightweight at only 8oz (227g). There was no good reason not to carry it. Many cottage industries supply these umbrellas, mostly rebranded from the original EuroSCHIRM Swing Liteflex, a quality, and sturdy offering. I bought mine from Gossamer Gear here. For more information on the 7 best ultralight hiking umbrellas currently available, when to use them, and what other great uses they have, read Greenbelly’s excellent blog post.
Choose water over food every time
Remember, water is more important than food for survival. Living tissue (protoplasm) is largely made up of water, which is essential for life. Living organisms can live without food for an extended time, but they can’t live without water. If they don’t get enough water, the high uric acid content will adversely affect their kidneys. A sobering thought to ponder. Just find that water.