by William Ames
I never really thought much about water or how much to drink. I would drink when I was thirsty, and that was usually during a break in the game, from a bottle in my backpack, or in most cases, during meals.
After a hike on the Appalachian Trail ten years ago, I have become something of a hydration evangelist. It was late July near Palmerton, Pennsylvania, and the air temperature was nearly a hundred degrees, which was quite unusual for that area. In spite of the heat, and even though there had already been a long drought, my brother and I packed two days worth of water for our five-day hike. This would save weight, and we could find more along the trail.
With a number of springs near the Blue Ridge Mountain, we planned our days accordingly, intending to minimize our load and hiking a certain number of miles per day. Water is heavy, after all, and we thought that a lighter load would mean a faster pace, which would give more opportunities to refill our canteens.
By the end of the first day, we had used up all of our water, and the first spring was a considerable distance down the ridge. The rocky terrain was far worse than we had accounted for, and the heat had slowed our progress. We were already two days behind our plan, but we slung our hammocks and waited for the morning.
At first light, having had a substantial meal the night before, and after another hour with our sixty-pound loads, it was clear that we weren’t going to make it to the spring.
My brother was in bad shape and had turned pale, so I made the decision to let him rest. I dropped my pack and took our canteens down the ridge. Without my pack, I could make better time, and I wouldn’t be sweating so much. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but after climbing down the sixty-story mountain and seeing what used to be a spring, now completely dry. Above it was a sign that read “H20.” I fell to my knees. This was serious.
I was hundreds of feet below the spot where I left my brother, and he was in need of water even more than me. Slowly, ten feet at a time, I climbed back to the top of the ridge. I twirled my bandana around, evaporating the sweat, and placed it back on my head. This cooled my scalp for a few seconds, and then I could climb the next few feet. What would normally have taken twenty minutes was now an ordeal. My imagination could not have planned for such a thing, two days earlier.
After what may have been three hours, I made it to the top of the ridge and to the trail. What astonished me was that during the whole day, not another hiker passed by. Appalachian Trail hikers are known for their ingenuity, outdoor savvy and generosity, but we were alone today. I began to feel afraid, and all the while I was less than five miles from a small town. I could have walked to that town with the energy I wasted looking for the spring, and I thought about the movie The Edge, with Anthony Hopkins. His character talked about how most people in the wild die from pride, not the elements. Pride was stalking me, and I should have called it quits instead of heading to that spring.
A large talus run (a pile of boulders really) now blocked my way. It was easy enough to hop down when I was coming from the other direction, but now I would have to crawl upward some fifty yards. The elevation was no more than thirty feet, but after climbing all day, I had little more to give, and my blood cells were already digesting themselves to keep my legs moving. There was blood in my urine long before I started down the hill in the morning.
I’ve never believed in angels, but there he was. At the top of the boulder field was my father, a retired Navy cook, who loved the sea more than hiking, and who only ever walked into the woods to get to a lake or to a stream. I thought about the Ancient Mariner and “water, water, everywhere!” I wondered how my situation was any different. A hiker and a sailor; the same problem.
My father beckoned to me with two plastic grocery bags full of Gatorade. There were various flavors to pick from, some blue, some red, some orange. I thrust my hand into the bag and took the first I could get a grip on. It disappeared in a matter of seconds, and the next seemed like barely enough to start. I didn’t realize that a person could literally open their throat and pour a whole quart down without ever swallowing. After an hour of duplicating that feat several times, I was strong enough to walk out. The effects of heat stroke were obvious. I had cramps throughout my legs, I was dizzy and nearly passed out several times while walking to the nearest road, several hundred yards behind us. Oddly, my forehead was cold.
It seems that when I failed to return after several hours, my brother hiked out in another direction, flagged down a car, and made a phone call. While I was trying to save myself the shame of failing on our trip, my brother was thinking about survival.
We had a short stay in the emergency room, but recovered quickly and completely. I’ve been very careful to prepare myself for all my trips since then, reading, learning and asking the more experienced for any bit of mentoring they can provide. I always make sure to have plenty of water, a backup plan, and a place to bail out if necessary.
As a practical matter, hydration is simple—drink or die. It’s true. Everything the body does is governed by water. After three days without it, most people cannot survive. While I’m about to give my own experiences and advice below, this is a subject best addressed by a doctor, and I recommend that you talk with your family practitioner. A conversation about heat stroke will lead a physician to ask other questions, which may lead to a better overall picture of your lifestyle.
Now that I consciously look for symptoms of dehydration, heat exhaustion and heat stroke, I honestly believe that most of the people I see on the trails are at least partially dehydrated. More common places, like amusement parks, are no different. At the end of the day, having walked for miles and miles to get to the next roller coaster, sluggish vacationers look to me like they need a drink. At five dollars, though, many probably think it’s not worth it. I would disagree.
According to WebMD.com, symptoms of dehydration include:
Personally, I know I’m getting dehydrated when I start to stub my toes. My legs get wobbly, and I start to get tunnel vision. For some people, it’s probably easier to believe that their muscles are simply fatigued, and maybe that’s true, but it could also be an early sign of heat exhaustion. When I’m thirsty, I just want to get off the trail and sleep. Sometimes I don’t even realize that I’m lightheaded until I sit down.
I often see the visible symptoms of dehydration in novice hikers, and I think it must sour their experience in general. This is a shame, because hiking and getting outdoors brings so much to so many people. I’ve seen lost souls on very short trails asking, “Is it much further?” and “How much more to the top?” I know that feeling, and I try to relate my hard lesson in the few moments we share while passing. A little more to drink could have made their experience more enjoyable, and sometimes I give them some of my Gatorade, thinking back to the Appalachian Trail and what might have happened.
I know that some people believe they don’t need much water. Maybe they don’t, because everybody is different. There is also a certain buzz lately about hyponatremia, which is a rare condition brought on by drinking too much. Several news stories of extraordinary situations have some people thinking that they shouldn’t drink so much. I think this is a dangerous assumption to make, and again I urge you to talk to your doctor. A quart of Gatorade before hiking that hill might make your climb it easier. It might increase your performance or prevent cramps.
With my eagerness to tell my story, I realize that I might be something of a zealot. There is always a temptation to think that if a little is good, then more is better. My cardiac specialist assures me that extreme measures like taking salt pills, potassium supplements or increasing your salt intake through food are not necessary. He tells me that loss of sodium through a five-mile hike is not an excuse to eat another bag of chips, let alone take pills.
I learned about the importance of hydration through a life-altering event, and I still have flashbacks, but it doesn’t keep me from getting outside. I do plan more, now, and I always have my CamelBak. My situation on the Appalachian Trail occurred through a combination of inexperience, bad luck and a lack of planning, but mostly it occurred because there was just no water. There are days when I wonder what might have happened if my brother hadn’t given up and bailed out. Would we have died from pride?