Your body will lose water very quickly when you’re out in the wilderness, mainly if the weather is hot and dry or you’re at very high altitudes. This water is lost primarily through sweat and respiration. To compensate for this, you will need between a half quart and a quart of water or sports beverage for every hour you’re outside. Do not wait until you feel thirsty to drink; thirst during outdoor activity is a sign that you’re already dehydrated. It’s much easier to stay hydrated than it is to come back from dehydration, so be sure to take frequent small drinks to avoid getting to that point.
An often overlooked component of hydration is salt (electrolytes) that leaves your body in sweat and is vital for proper body performance. Sports drinks are full of electrolytes to replenish those lost in sweat. If you prefer to take water along on your trips, you’ll need to be sure to eat plenty of salty snacks to compensate. It’s not a good idea to drink soft drinks or alcohol when engaging in strenuous outdoor activity, as these drinks dry you out rather than helping to rehydrate you.
Symptoms of mild dehydration include light to moderate thirst, headaches, lightheadedness, and a dry mouth. More severe dehydration is expressed by lack of sweat, hot dry skin, faintness, a weak and rapid pulse, and even loss of consciousness and shock in extreme cases. You can also look at your urine: if it’s clear or light yellow, you’re doing okay, if it’s a darker yellow to brown you’re dehydrated.
If you are dehydrated, you need to immediately reduce water loss by finding some shade and resting. Start replenishing your fluids by drinking water or sports drinks, but don’t drink too fast—slow and steady drinking helps your body absorb the water and electrolytes. Prevention is better than treatment, however, so always be prepared with plenty of water in the outdoors and remember to take frequent small drinks.
Safety in Adverse Weather Conditions
Mountain weather can change with the dizzying speed at any time of year. In summer, when most people head out into nature, thunderstorms form many if not most days out of the week. It can be hot and sunny one minute and cold with wind, rain, and lightning the next. In fall and spring, strong cold fronts often move through the state, with warm dry weather the day before and cold snowy weather during and after. Before you head out, be sure to check the weather forecast to make sure there aren’t any major storms on the way. Be aware, however, that even if no storms are forecast, mountains are unpredictable. Be prepared for cold and wet weather anytime you ascend.
Lightning is an ever-present danger in the mountains, particularly during summer when thunderstorms develop almost every afternoon in the heat of the day. Obviously, the best way to avoid injury or death by lightning is to keep an eye on the sky. If you see the cumulus clouds (link) that are characteristic of thunderstorms coming toward you, avoid mountain peaks and ridges and head back downhill. Lightning from a thunderstorm cell can strike you even if the cell is five or ten miles away, so don’t bet that you can get to the peak and back down before the storm arrives.
If you do get caught by a thunderstorm, you want to avoid wide-open spaces and make yourself as small as possible by crouching on the ground with your legs together, balancing on the balls of your feet. This will create the smallest area through which an electrical charge can flow through you, decreasing your chances of being hit or being injured if you are hit. Stay away from isolated tall objects and anything metal (including any metal gear you might have). Standing next to a grove of trees is a good idea, but not single trees. Small hollows or caves in the mountainside are actually more dangerous than being out in the open.
Avoiding Altitude Sickness
Altitude sickness (or hypoxia) is caused by the inability of the body to get sufficient oxygen if the air is too thin. Symptoms generally appear around 8000 feet in elevation for individuals who are acclimatized to low elevations. Those who live in higher areas, such as Utah’s Wasatch Front (where elevations are between 4200 and 5000 feet) can still suffer from hypoxia above 10,000 feet. The symptoms include headache, unusual breathlessness or tiredness and restless sleep with irregular breathing. To avoid hypoxia, eat high-calorie foods, drink plenty of fluids, and give your body a chance to acclimatize to higher elevations. Once symptoms begin to appear, it’s a sign that you’ve gone too high. Descend at least 500 feet. If you’re going to be camping, hike 500-1000 feet above where you’re going to be sleeping for the night, then go back down.
Hypothermia occurs when the body cannot generate enough heat to keep the core body temperature (the temperature inside your torso around your vital organs) high enough for them to function correctly. This can happen either when it is very cold or you get wet and chilled. The body is good at regulating its own temperature (homeostasis), but a core body temperature drop of even a few degrees can trigger the symptoms of hypothermia, which include moderate to violent shivering, apathy, confusion and loss of muscle coordination. These symptoms increase in severity as the body’s core temperature continues to drop. When hypothermia becomes serious, lethargy, sleepiness, and difficulty speaking all occur.
As serious as hypothermia is, treating it is (at least in mild or moderate cases) a simple matter of warming up. If your clothes are wet, they should be removed and replaced with dry clothes, even if you have to borrow a jacket or some such from your hiking buddy (since you know better than to hike alone). Wet clothes are very good at taking heat away from your body. Drink something warm (not hot) if you have it, and eat some sugary snacks. If you have an unconscious victim, get them to shelter, wrap them up in a sleeping bag or some blankets, and seek medical attention. Be careful when moving them, since hypothermic bodies are more prone to heart conditions. Obviously, if you’re going to be going into the wilderness when it’s cold out you need to be prepared to treat hypothermia, so be sure to take things like a sleeping bag even for a day hike just in case.
Since hypothermia is so dangerous, it should be prevented at all costs. As long as you’re careful and wise, prevention is not a problem. Keep the following in mind and you shouldn’t have a problem:
- Dress in layers. On cold hikes, you want to avoid sweat, since it makes you wet. Layers let you shed extra clothes when you get warm (which you will when hiking) and put them back when you get cold resting. Wear a warm hat or balaclava to keep heat escaping from your head.
- Cotton is not your friend (your tone changes here from formal to informal) on hikes. Wool or synthetic fabrics do a good job of insulating you and wicking moisture away from your body. Avoid cotton!
- Be sure to stay hydrated. When you’re out in the cold, you won’t necessarily feel thirsty or think you’re drying out, but you lose water from your body just as you would on a hot day. If you’re hydrated, your body has a much easier time maintaining a safe internal temperature.
- Eat sugary, starchy snacks regularly, even more than you would on a warmer hike. Your body has to do a tremendous amount of work to stay warm on a cold day, and you’ll need the extra calories to be able to do so.
- Keep from getting wet at all costs, and bring spare clothes with you in case something happens and you can’t avoid it. Preparation is especially important for cold hikes.