by Ruby Bayan
Exposure to the natural elements and strenuous physical activity are the main causes of distress in a backpacking adventure. With exposure to the elements, such as hot, dry, or thin air, your body rapidly loses moisture through the skin and mucous linings of the respiratory track. With strenuous activity, your muscles work double-time, generating body heat; your body tries to cool down by breaking into sweat and thus losing fluids. In both cases, therefore, a potentially fatal condition, known as “dehydration” becomes a threat.
Importance of Body Fluids
Without adequate water in the cells and tissues, the body loses its ability to function properly -- it can’t cool down when conditions cause its temperature to rise, and it can’t generate heat when conditions cause its temperature to drop. In short, the fluids in your body help you fight against your worst natural enemies in the outdoors: dehydration and hypothermia. This demonstrates the importance of sustaining the ideal body fluid level, both in warm and cold environments.
Normally, the human body requires six to eight glasses of water a day to maintain its optimum hydration level. Thirst is a signal that the body’s fluid level is diminishing, but by then, the body is already about a quart below normal, and approaching dehydration. Immediate water replenishment must, therefore, be attended to, as well as remedies from further loss of fluids.
Causes of Dehydration
The body loses fluids in many ways: the body perspires, and respires rapidly, from vigorous activity; the skin dries up from exposure to the sun and hot air; the lungs get parched from dry air or low-humidity climates. Aside from these, burns, fever, vomiting, and diarrhea, conditions that backpackers may suffer from while engaging in outdoor adventure, cause severe water loss.
Most fluids can quench thirst but coffee, although a beverage, is a mild diuretic, prompting frequent urination. Alcohol, which requires as much as eight times the amount of water to metabolize, also contributes to dehydration; without sufficient water in the stomach to help process the alcohol, the body draws the necessary fluids from its cells and tissues.
Symptoms of Dehydration
Thirst is the first sign of diminishing body fluids. Beyond thirst, the mouth becomes dry, and breathing rapid and shallow. Dehydration is at its onset when lips start to crack, nasal passages are dry, and skin is rough and flaky.
Dehydration is considered serious when the victim experiences headaches, general weakness, and fatigue. This could progress into difficulty in breathing, pain in the lungs, dizziness, blurring of vision, and ringing in the ears. Unattended, a dehydration victim will collapse into unconsciousness and eventually suffer complications from respiratory infections and organ failure.
How to Deal With Dehydration
Prevention is always better than cure. To prevent the onset of dehydration, whether in hot or cold conditions:
When dehydration is suspected or has set in:
- Take six to eight glasses of water a day, much more while hiking and when exposed to harsh environments.
- Anticipate thirst and drink fluids before it triggers. The minimum amount of water one must drink in a day’s hike outdoors is one gallon -- more in hot areas.
- Never pass up water. Take every opportunity to drink when hot or dry conditions are present or expected. Remember that when hiking in moderate weather, a man can die of dehydration in just three days. In hot weather, a hiker will completely dehydrate in just 36 hours.
- Seek shelter from extreme heat or dryness. Cover your nose and mouth to prevent inhaling hot or dry air.
- Minimize skin dryness by applying protective lubricants or lotions. Cover your skin to minimize exposure and loss of moisture.
- Re-hydrate immediately with plain water, juices, milk, or tea.
- Cool the body down to prevent further loss of fluids and possible heatstroke by pouring water over the head, and wetting the body and extremities. Seek shelter from extreme hot and dry exposure and minimize physical activity.
- Add a pinch of salt in water to help in fluid retention but this should be given only before severe dehydration sets in; too much salt will further draw water from the cells to the stomach, which will put the victim in worse condition.
- Take a dehydrated victim to the nearest medical facility as soon as possible.
Wilderness Medicine: Beyond First Aid, William W. Forgey; Format: Paperback, 5th ed., 256pp.; ISBN: 076270490X; Publisher: Globe Pequot Press; Pub. Date: September 1999
Wilderness First Aid: When You Can't Call 911, Gilbert Preston; Format: Paperback, 128pp.; ISBN: 1560445793; Publisher: Falcon Publishing, Incorporated; Pub. Date: August 1997
Pocket Guide to Hiking/Backpacking, Ron Cordes, Gary LaFontaine. Kirk Botero (Illustrator); Format: Paperback, 28pp.; ISBN: 0963302477; Publisher: Greycliff; Pub. Date: December 1993
Outdoor Survival Basics
A Backpacker's First Aid Kit
OutdoorClub.org: The Wilderness Survival First Aid Kit