It’s a hot, dry day in the Sierra foothills. You’re sweating profusely, forcing your legs to move one step at a time down a trail you’re confident leads to a stream. After a few hours of hiking without water, you’re relieved to reach your destination – until you realize the stream is only a bed of dust.
It’s a bleak picture – but an all too common one for California hikers who test out the parched terrain without an adequate supply of fluids. With many of the region’s natural water sources running low this summer, expert explorers say it’s of utmost importance to plan ahead and carry the water you’ll need.
On the regularly updated water report for the Pacific Crest Trail, the longest through-hike on the West Coast, California hikers noted in trail documents that some streams and creeks were “barely flowing,” “scummy and green,” “dry,” “stagnant” and “trickling.” This spring, a teenage hiker called for emergency rescue after he noticed water sources along the trail had run out.
“We’re concerned about people’s safety, especially in drought years where there’s not enough water or the water is spread apart,” said Mark Larabee of the Pacific Crest Trail Association, a nonprofit entity that helps oversee the trail. “You could find yourself miles away from your next water source in the middle of a hot day. It’s not a good place to put yourself in.”
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Many PCT users have historically relied on “water caches,” or troves of water bottles and jugs placed by “trail angels” who help out hikers. With the surge of PCT hikers following 2014 blockbuster “Wild” (nearly 500 more permits were issued in 2014 than 2013), the caches disappear faster and aren’t always refilled, Larabee said.
With that in mind, hikers should think ahead about how much to carry, even if it’s just for a day hike, said Dr. Scott Meier, a sports medicine physician with Kaiser Permanente. He recommends 1 liter for every two hours as a good baseline for hiking, though increased activity, hot weather and high elevation can amplify that need.
The first symptom of dehydration is thirst, but by then the body is already experiencing a deficiency, Meier said. Dehydration reduces the oxygen-carrying capacity of red blood cells, which leads the body to prioritize oxygen delivery to core organs. Severe hydration can result in kidney failure and muscle breakdown.
“If people don’t plan ahead, that can be scary,” he said. “Most people will be OK, but sometimes they’re not. Make a plan; don’t just go.”
Here are some tips from pro backpackers on how to squeeze the most H2O into your hiking pack, and how to make it last.
CamelBaks and reservoirs
Serious hikers, bikers and snow sport enthusiasts have long touted the benefits of the in-backpack hydration system, pioneered by Petaluma-based company CamelBak in the late 1980s. There are now a spectrum of options for drinking hands-free, whether you’re looking for a backpack with a reservoir built in or a pouch and hose to add to your own gear.
Jason Flesher, REI Outdoor Programs Sierra market manager, said the tube model is great for hydration because it allows the hiker to drink continuously without digging a water bottle out of a pack.
“You’re going to find yourself drinking more than you normally would,” he said. “People tend to drink less if they have to stop.”
Dromedary bags and water jugs
For carrying large quantities of water or for keeping water on hand at your campsite, try a dromedary bag or flexible water jug. These vessels are light and collapsible, so they don’t take up pack space when empty. But they’re perfect for collecting water from a natural source and carrying it back to camp for leisurely drinking.
Filters and tablets
Water isn’t always good for you. Backcountry water sources can contain disease-causing agents such as giardiasis, E. coli and salmonella. The higher up and more remote the water is, the less likely it is to be contaminated by animal or human waste, but it’s always a good idea to treat natural water before drinking it.
Iodine tablets or other sanitizing formulas can clear liquid of bacteria, but will not rid water of solid debris such as leaves and dirt clumps. For that reason, some hikers use a combination of tablets and hand-held water filters. Hikers should use a separate vessel to move water from the source to their bottle when possible, Flesher said.
“Don’t ever dip your whole bottle into the water source,” Flesher said. “Your tablet will filter out the water in the bottle, but the spout will still be contaminated.”
Electrolytes and snacks
What you eat on a hike can have a big impact on how much you need to drink. Many energy bars on the market actually require a lot of water for digestion, which makes them a less-than-ideal choice for eating on the go, Flesher said. Eating performance gels or semi-liquid substances such as yogurt or pastes will help your body conserve water. If you have the pack space, bring along juicy foods like apples and oranges.
Electrolytes are chemicals that form ions in bodily fluids, ensuring proper functioning of the digestive, nervous, cardiac, and muscular systems. Muscle cramps are often the result of electrolyte deficiency.
To avoid the added bulk of carrying sports drinks, try electrolyte tablets or powders that can be mixed into water to enhance performance.