Thursday, July 29, 2010

Outdoor Activity Hydration Safety

“Our football coaches used to make us do two-a-days in the hot August sunshine with almost no water. They said that water was bad for football workouts,” my co-worker said. Nowadays that would be considered legally actionable abuse.

Awareness of hydration safety has grown immensely in recent years. Dehydration is now recognized as a serious and potentially life threatening problem. My son’s scoutmaster has a “keep it clear” policy. “If your urine isn’t clear,” he tells the boys, “you’re not drinking enough water.”

We have also become much more aware of water purity issues. Years ago when I worked on Boy Scout camp staff, we would head off on hikes with a small canteen, if we took one at all. We wouldn’t go thirsty. We’d drink from any stream that looked clean. After all, how impure could a wilderness water source be? I did this for years without ever becoming ill.

But cases of infection from backcountry water sources have increased dramatically since those days. Human backcountry use has increased. Domestic and wild animals contaminate water too. Even water bubbling up from the highest altitude sources has been found to carry bacteria, viruses, and/or parasites that are potentially harmful to humans and animals.

A couple of years ago, a friend contracted Giardia after drinking from a mountain stream. He said that the common joke about the condition is accurate. He felt so awful that at first that he was afraid he was going to die. When he felt even worse, he was afraid he wasn’t going to die. Fortunately, a trip to the emergency room had him feeling normal within a day.

Sometimes we scare people so badly with tales of water contamination that we circumvent common sense. Dehydration is a much more immediate threat than waterborne infection. If a hiker is out of water and is thirsty, it’s usually better to drink from an available water source, even if it might carry infectious agents. Time is on your side to get treatment for an infection, while refraining from drinking in such a situation might leave you uninfected but dead.

Last week when I accompanied my son’s scout troop on a 16+ mile hike through the Yellowstone backcountry, I started off with more than a gallon of water and a backpacking water filter pump. My son carried nearly a gallon. Although we would encounter a number of water sources on the hike, we carried enough drinking water for ourselves plus extra for others that might be less prepared.

As it happened, hike day turned out to be overcast and cooler. I consumed less than half of my water on the nine-hour trek. But a couple of weeks earlier when my son and I hiked to Lewis Peak, we encountered another hiker at the peak that had already drunk the pint of water she had brought. As I always carry extra water on hikes, I gave her a quart bottle for the return trip. But I thought her to be irresponsible.

I see people carrying all kinds of pricey water bottles. My requirements for a water bottle include size and sturdiness. It doesn’t have to be fancy. It just has to keep from leaking. Liter-sized Gatorade bottles have tended to work out pretty well for me. But I’ve been known to use two-liter soda bottles.

Personally, I don’t care for CamelBak-type water systems for several reasons. They make my back sweat. Consequently, heat transfers from my body to make the water warm quicker. I guess that’s OK if you enjoy a sweaty back and warm water. The bladders tend to have that nasty plastic taste and they leak far too often. To top it off, I don’t really care to sip when I’m hiking or biking. I like to pause, take a deep drink, and then get back on the trail for a goodly distance before pausing again. But, that’s just me.

I’m glad that proper hydration safety is becoming recognized as an important part of all outdoor activities. From personal experience, I can say that you feel a lot better, can go further, and can do more when you are adequately hydrated. It takes some planning to make sure that you take care of this detail. But it’s an effort that pays off.

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