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Hydration for Lightweight Backpackers
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John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Re: Re: Re: Timely write-up on 07/24/2013 17:10:32 MDT Print View

Some online hydration articles say our urine should be clear. The term clear is a description of clarity and not color. Our urine should be colorless or pale/pale yellow, not dark yellow or dark any other color. Of course some foods and meds may change the color.

Edited by jshann on 07/25/2013 07:59:27 MDT.

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Light and dark urine on 07/24/2013 20:15:06 MDT Print View

Light and dark urine is not ONLY caused by dilution. It may be that you are simply not eating enough and your body is metabolizing more fats and protiens from it's stores. Usually, such muscle damage is associated with highly active people and is repaired during the period of recovery that follows (often overnight, but may extend to 48 hours. Like everything else, bodily repair can be accilerated by constant use.) Even though you drink normally, your urine can change color. This is usually not much concern, but don't go into panic mode and start drinking more than you need. This will just flush salt and trace elements out faster. Get comfortable with your metabolism. Knowing what a normal variation in the color of your urine is will help.

urine on 07/24/2013 20:40:48 MDT Print View

is your urine clear at home?

Not to be too personal, but mines not.

Some foods/medicines, etc can color it too.

Yeah, if I drink a lot, so that I pee it all out every 30-60 min, it runs pretty clear.

But thats not reality,thats being overly conservative with fluid intake.

A better indication to me most of time , is my saliva.

When it starts to get thick and sticky, I know Im getting dehydrated.

Kathleen B

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Hyponatremia and a "gatorade" recipe on 07/24/2013 21:20:25 MDT Print View

Several years ago on a hot summer day four of us hiked to Mt Persis, a short (4 miles roundtrip) hike with about 2600' gain. One woman drank 7 liters of plain water during the hike, convinced she needed the water because "it was so hot." She didn't want any electrolyte supplements. We told her she was drinking too much water. She fainted when we got home, which reinforced her belief she should have drunk even more. Nothing we said would convince her otherwise. Mindset can be a serious roadblock to sensible hydration, whether it's too little or too much to drink.

I got this recipe for a homemade electrolyte drink that works quite well if you don't want to by the commercial versions. I wish I could remember where I got it to give proper credit.

1 package koolaid, any flavor
½ C sugar
¼ ts salt
1/8 ts salt substitute
8 C water

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Re: Hyponatremia and a "gatorade" recipe on 07/24/2013 21:39:41 MDT Print View

Ha, hey, you can also substitute an 1/8 to 1/4 cup wine vinegar or cider vinegar for the koolaid.
I always called it Farmers Drink from my days working on the farm with my grandfather.

Edited by jamesdmarco on 07/25/2013 04:45:20 MDT.

Steven McAllister
(brooklynkayak) - MLife

Locale: Atlantic North East
Hydration for Lightweight Backpackers on 07/25/2013 05:16:16 MDT Print View

Also not mentioned is about how diuretics, blood pressure and other medicines can contribute to a lack of electrolytes.

I am a fan of "Light Salt". It's cheap, common, and contains sodium and potassium salts.

Shawn Bearden
(ShawnB) - F - MLife

Locale: SE Idaho
Well done and a note on food on 07/25/2013 08:47:29 MDT Print View

Kevin has clearly done his research because he is 100% spot on throughout his article. Well done, Kevin!

As a side note, because the MD degree was discussed. Folks should be aware that medical schools provide little to no training in either nutrition or the physiology of exercise. Having an MD degree does not mean, per se, that a person knows what they are talking about any more than the next educated person in these areas. Additional training is necessary.

Another post mentioned:
"Light and dark urine is not ONLY caused by dilution. It may be that you are simply not eating enough and your body is metabolizing more fats and protiens from it's stores..."
This is absolutely not true. While I am an expert in the physiology of exercise, I am not an expert in the urine composition under severe starvation but for anything remotely encountered even in survival situations by backpackers or endurance athletes, sources of fuel for energy and what macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, proteins) you consume will not alter urine color. By the way, the majority of the energy for the exertion levels encountered by most backpackers comes from fat. Fat metabolism is highest (as a percentage of total energy) at rest and declines as carbohydrate utilization increases with higher levels of exertion.

"...don't go into panic mode and start drinking more than you need. This will just flush salt and trace elements out faster."
Again, not quite true. Drinking water, even in large amounts, will not flush electrolytes. The kidney is very good at adjusting electrolyte and water compositions as needed. It is, however, good advice to not force water down if you are not thirsty(with the exception of those reaching a level of dehydration and exhaustion where the body's normal thirst mechanisms are compromised).

If I misinterpreted either of these statements, I apologize but I wanted to clarify for any naïve readers who might interpret them as I did.

Finally, Kevin noted the importance of food in the equation but there isn't any information added that I could see in the article. The importance here should not be underestimated. Sweat sodium losses vary from about 20 to 70 mEq/L of sweat, or about 460 to 1600 mg/L (mEq/L x 23 = mg/L). For a typical day on the trail (if there is one) in warm conditions, one might lose 1-4L in sweat. Typical U.S. intakes of sodium are about 3.5 g/d. I doubt that is the case for many on this forum who are more health conscious but it puts things in perspective. The good news is that many common 'healthy' foods contain lots of sodium. One ounce of beef jerky contains about 0.5 g sodium, one ordinary pickle contains about 1 g sodium, a can of soup and a few pretzels 2 g. Take a look at any dehydrated packaged food you take - much of it has very high sodium content. So they certainly can help replace. In general, MRE's provide Soldiers 3 g sodium per day, plus a salt packet is added and encouraged 'if' weather is hot (6 - 8 L/d sweat losses living in Iraq in summer) and in particular if operational circumstances prevent full consumption of the MRE.

So, be sure to look at your sodium intake in food across the day. There is a very good chance that the vast majority of people on this forum will not need to supplement their drink when food is considered and maybe planned appropriately (such as shifting some of the salty foods already taken to breakfast and lunch rather than all at dinner). Regarding other electrolytes (in addition to sodium), the diet will provide these unless you are eating very poorly.

Again, Kevin...excellent article with very good practical advice that helps to demystify and de-hype the electrolyte and sodium craze.

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Re: Well done and a note on food on 07/25/2013 10:30:48 MDT Print View

"...sources of fuel for energy and what macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, proteins) you consume will not alter urine color."
I do not believe this is true. Uric acid, a break down product from metabolizing fats and protiens is the primary coloring agent for urine. It is yellow to brownish in color. It is normally excreted through the urine. There are two avenues for the color of the urine. First is water: too much can dilute it a lot, or, too little can cause it to become very concentrated. This is what most hikers think of as watching your urine color. Second is the uric acid itself: producing more or less depends on your diet/excersize level. Eating a large amount of beef jerkey for example will cause your urine to be more yellow without effecting the bodies homeostasis. The excess protien the body does NOT need will be metabolized for energy, causing the nitrogen radical (urea cycle), to be excreted. A normal person's urine color can change over many shades with no hint of dehydration. High protien diets (fresh fish and chicken for example) often cause very yellow urine, despite drinking adequtly (and without the salt usually found in beef jerky.)

"Most of the uric acid is removed from the body in urine. A small amount passes out of the body in stool. But if too much uric acid is being produced, the level in the urine will increase. If the kidneys are not able to remove it from the blood normally, the level of uric acid in the urine will decrease."

Yes. In hot weather (the primary subject here) you sweat. A large amount of eric acid passes out of your body through the sweat. In this context, your skin becomes an organ of excretion, too. This was exactly my point above without the more technical details, of course.

"... Drinking water, even in large amounts, will not flush electrolytes. The kidney is very good at adjusting electrolyte and water compositions as needed. It is, however, good advice to not force water down if you are not thirsty(with the exception of those reaching a level of dehydration and exhaustion where the body's normal thirst mechanisms are compromised)."

Generally yes, I will agree with you. But we are talking about a person sweating a lot of salt out, ie, within normal conditions, but on the low end. Drinking more than you need in such a situation will act as a "sponge" causing the salts to flood into the water. You can easly loose too many salts and go into a hypernatrial state. Be a bit carefull about drinking lots of water with no electrolytes. I just did that on the NPT, drinking more than I needed at a cold stream. I got a bit disoriented and nasueous. I had to sit down and think a minute before recognizing I needed some salt, too. The big clues were I was soaked with sweat, 90+F day, hiking fairly hard for over 2 hours, ate a little, but only a couple bites. I finished my water bottle, filled them up zapped them and drank them, filled them up and zapped them and packed up to leave. About a liter and a half was enough to make me very light headed. This is BEFORE the water even hit my kidneys, maybe 7-8 minutes.

George Davis
(nsiderbam) - M

Locale: mid-Atlantic
TRT on 07/25/2013 11:27:49 MDT Print View

It was kind of funny to read your comment about fast packing the Tahoe Rim Trail. I'm actually thru-hiking it right now and, due to a series of unfortunate events, ended up missing Spooner Lake and did an almost-40 mile day in search of water before ending up at the lakeside inn in South Tahoe. Won't make that mistake again, but fortunately I'm pretty much through with the dry sections.

Good article!

Kevin Sawchuk
(ksawchuk) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Northern California
Re: Re: Well done and a note on food on 07/25/2013 11:36:26 MDT Print View

I'm going to specifically comment on this statement as not having full information could lead to problems:

"Drinking water, even in large amounts, will not flush electrolytes. The kidney is very good at adjusting electrolyte and water compositions as needed."

This is generally correct. However the kidney can not control the very large losses of sodium that CAN occur through sweating. You can lose enough sodium from sweat to cause problems. If you're replacing the fluid you've lost with water (or other low/no sodium drink) you will run into problems with hyponatremia.

As for food sources of sodium you are absolutely correct. If you're exercising only in conditions where and to the level of needing 1-3 liters of fluid per day to replenish it is likely that your diet contains enough sodium that you don't need to take additional salt. However I have been on backpack trips where I needed a liter per hour for a good portion of the day. With my hiking days frequently lasting 10-12 hours at a high intensity I have occasionally needed to take salt pills. Everyone needs to consider the conditions they're exercising in, the duration of their exercise, how much they're drinking, how much they're sweating and have the tools on hand to stay hydrated. This MAY include salt supplementation in particular conditions and for certain people. 30 mile days through the Mojave Desert on the PCT will require more than 12 mile days in the High Sierra.

You are also correct that a physician may not have the level of practical information to guide a runner or backpacker. I'll add to my credentials 10 sub-24 Western States finishes, a (now-broken) JMT trail record, serving as medical captain of the Michigan Bluff aid station at Western States and being involved with studies on hyponatremia.


Shawn Bearden
(ShawnB) - F - MLife

Locale: SE Idaho
good ideas on 07/25/2013 11:49:09 MDT Print View

Thanks, James. This may be a simple case of taking some accurate information and extrapolating too far, coming to incorrect conclusions. Glad I can help to clarify and correct. This happens quite a lot in my classes where my students do the same thing, but it is only natural and part of what drives good research questions. You are certainly thinking along reasonable lines and the logic would seem reasonable at first view but the outcomes you've hypothesized actually aren't quite what results. Although there are a number of factual errors of metabolism in your response, I'll just correct two that are common. Excess protein intake is not used for energy but is rather converted to fat stores. Protein remains less than 10% of energy sources even in prolonged endurance events. I don't know where you are getting your fish or chicken but any change in your urine color is not due to the protein therein. It is true that some micronutrients and food additives can color urine. Vitamin B supplements are a great example, where all the excess turns urine a bright yellow. Happy hiking!

edits: your 'sponge' analogy is a dangerous one and not at all accurate. Your symptoms on the NPT are not uncommon, from your description of the situation, and were unlikely to be a result of the electrolyte composition of your drink during the rest stop. Though clearly there are situations in which added salt to drinks (or drinking sports drinks) is the better choice over water alone.

Edited by ShawnB on 07/25/2013 16:52:53 MDT.

Shawn Bearden
(ShawnB) - F - MLife

Locale: SE Idaho
Agree Kevin on 07/25/2013 12:05:01 MDT Print View

Kevin, quite right again. This is why I thought your article was so well done. It, to my reading, lays out well that there are indeed important conditions under which supplementation is important. And, I hope that readers also appreciate the other quite accurate information included in your article that routinely supplementing all fluids one drinks is typically unnecessary. Reading some of the comments to your article lead to believe that many people, as I find in my own population, over-consume sodium when exercising. In addition to salt-sensitivity, there is also good evidence that overconsumption of salt causes microvascular dysfunction that is initially unnoticed but can contribute to other pathologies in the long term.

Didn't at all mean to infer you aren't qualified, clearly you are! For full disclosure, I am a professor of physiology, director of my university's biomedical research institute, fellow of the American Heart Association, etc., former professional athlete (soccer) and an exercise physiologist by training.

Edited by ShawnB on 07/25/2013 13:21:18 MDT.

Kevin Sawchuk
(ksawchuk) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Northern California
Re: Agree Kevin on 07/25/2013 12:08:45 MDT Print View

I LOVE the eclectic group of wierd-ohs who lightweight backpack!! :-)

Greg Mihalik
(greg23) - M

Locale: Colorado
Re: Re: Re: Re: Timely write-up on 07/25/2013 12:11:12 MDT Print View

Kevin: "I'll add to my credentials 10 sub-24 Western States finishes, a (now-broken) JMT trail record, serving as medical captain of the Michigan Bluff aid station at Western States and being involved with studies on hyponatremia."

Well, OK, Maybe you can relate.

This is BPL though, and everything and everyone is subject to endless opinion and conjecture.


Thanks Kevin, for a good article and good follow-up.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Re: Re: Well done and a note on food on 07/25/2013 12:19:34 MDT Print View

Kevin stated "I'll add to my credentials 10 sub-24 Western States finishes, a (now-broken) JMT trail record, serving as medical captain of the Michigan Bluff aid station at Western States and being involved with studies on hyponatremia."

For those who are unfamiliar, the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run happens in California, and the course involves roughly 15,000 feet of vertical gain and 18,000 feet of vertical loss. The mid-point of the course (45 to 55 miles) is the hottest part, and the Michigan Bluff aid station just following that sees more than its share of cases involving dehydration, hyponatremia, heat exhaustion, and (gulp) worse. I think if you had to study these maladies in the field, that would be the place to go. The top competitors can knock this out in about 15 hours.

I remember waiting for one competitor there (I was in the support crew), and it was tough enough just standing around in the shade as we waited.


Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: Re: Re: Re: Timely write-up on 07/25/2013 17:08:36 MDT Print View

"Odd that they didn't mention skin turgor."

A possible reason occurs to me: As people age, they lose collagen in their skin and the resulting loose skin tents easily. This could lead to a misdiagnosis in some cases. You might ask how I know. :(

John Coyle

Locale: NorCal
Hydration for Lightweight Backpackers on 07/25/2013 23:17:16 MDT Print View

The idea of taking high doses of sodium on the trail seems strange to me. High blood pressure runs in my family. My doctor has told me to limit my sodium intake to 1500mg per day. I have done this and reduced my blood pressure quite a bit. I try to stay away from backpacking foods that have more than 500mg of sodium per serving. I limit my sodium intake on the trail and haven't noticed any adverse effects and I hike in the mountains of Northern California, up and down some pretty strenuous trails. Like the author says, everyone is different.

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Hydration for Lightweight Backpackers on 07/25/2013 23:45:05 MDT Print View

The article is good as it points out potential problems and should alert most of us to watch our requirements for fluid intake and salt replenishment.

But it does not provide specific universal solutions. When hiking many people are going to sweat out more salt (and other minerals) than they normally would in every day activities. Even if your doctor tells you to limit salt intake, hikes can cause you to lose much more salt than normal and too much is bad.

Since year of us is different, and our needs change over time, we need to know how our individual bodies react to higher levels of exertion. We cannot learn this from an article or a book. We must learn from real world experience.

I often hike in deserts. It is not unusual for me to peel off my shirt after several days of hiking and when it dries the shirt is as stiff as a piece of cardboard, it has so much salt in it. I have to wash my backpacks a couple times a year to get rid of the salt.

My personal experience/needs: Sport drinks or mixes in water do not "quench" my thirst. Only ice tea or plain water quenches the thirst. I don't take tea with me hiking (extra weight). Decades ago, from bad experiences, I learned that too much salt loss made me very sick and was dangerous. I tried salt tablets and they upset my stomach; which is unusual, because I can eat just about anything without and upset stomach. I wasn't about to fool around with cutting salt tablets or bringing salt with me. Too much fiddle factor. But I found that potato chips, Frito's, or similar would do the job.

Also, I don't drink constantly when hiking. I stop about once an hour in hot weather for a 5 minute rest and drink water. In cooler weather, not so often.

This is what works for me, and may not work for you.

At my hourly stop, I drink a little water, and then snack on chips. Somehow my body knows when I have eaten enough. Then I drink some more water until I don't feel thirsty.

Donna Chester
(leadfoot) - M

Locale: Middle Virginia
Re: Re: Hydration for Lightweight Backpackers on 07/27/2013 11:03:15 MDT Print View

What about coconut water? It seems the new craze for electrolyte replacement. Now it comes in powder form. Any thoughts?

Jeremy Pendrey
(Pendrey) - MLife

Locale: California
electrolyte loss and cramping on 07/28/2013 17:44:34 MDT Print View

This is a very interesting article and discussion. Thanks for all the info provided in the comments.

I would just like to emphasize the impact of electrolyte loss on developing muscle cramps and see if others have thoughts on the topic. I am a high sweat hiker so I realize my experience may not apply to everyone.

Years ago I used to drink plain water during hikes and electrolyte mixes in camp in the evening. At the time, I thought drinking electrolytes at the end of the day was enough. On several high exertion trips in the High Sierra I got severe pain in either the hip or outside of the knee that lasted for days and put me out of commission. They resulted in very painful hikes out to trailheads. I eventually learned that I could hunker down for a day and get well enough to continue. The fact that the problem went away quickly and no doctor could find anything wrong of course made me suspicious that I did not have a knee or hip problem. At the time I didn't know what was wrong. But I also learned that using my trekking poles like a foam roller on my hip helped alleviate the pain a bit. This made me suspicious that I was having cramps. (I realize I was a little slow to figure this out but what can I say.)

Then I started adding Nuun tablets to my water on the trail and the problem went away immediately. It apparently had been IT band cramps. And I started supplementing with a salt stick during meal times. The aha moment came when I started to feel the beginning of knee pain, immediately took a salt stick, and the pain went away very quickly (maybe a half hour to an hour).

I pretty much only drink water with Nuun when I backpack now. At times, I've tried to cut back on the electrolytes because I'd prefer not to have so much sodium. But when I've done that the cramps return and sometimes can result in some painful hiking before I work out the problem. Based on the numbers Kevin presented, it appears that maybe I do need as much salt as I'm taking in though. I typically hike all day and try to do moderately long miles over multiple days (e.g., just finished yesterday 8 days on the PCT in the Sierra for 130 miles), so maybe I simply need all the salt.

I relate this info for those that may experience muscle cramps on the trail, but also to see if others have had similar experiences and have found particular methods that prevent cramps. As I said, I'd prefer not to use so much salt but the alternative seems to be not to hike long days and miles in the summer Sierra (unthinkable!).