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Electrolytes for Hiking: Stay Hydrated While Backpacking

Electrolytes for Hiking Hydrated While Backpacking FlipFuel

By Theresa Bridges, guest blogger and wilderness nutrition expert

You know what they say: Stay hydrated! But do you understand the meaning behind it? Staying “hydra-ted” means more than just drinking plenty of water.

Losing just 2% body weight can cause a decline in your aerobic performance, and without replacing electrolytes with enough salt from food or supplements like Gatorade during exercise — which normally provide 1/2 cup per hour for adventure athletes going longer distances — you could end up working harder than necessary while feeling weaker due to muscles that aren't getting fed properly.

How can we prevent this? As adventure athletes, it is critical that you drink enough before, during, and after your activity.

Although I do want to mention here, you cannot out-adventure a deficient diet when it comes to proper hydration and fueling.

Electrolyte Levels and Muscle Function

Sweat, like blood cells and muscle fibers, contains minerals such as salt (electrolytes). Sweat contains different concentrations depending on the intensity you're going through. This means during high-intensity activities such as trail running, for example, replacing these lost minerals is incredibly important.

While all kinds play a role in keeping us hydrated; sodium comes with many benefits because it's so prevalent among athletes who participate intensely over long distances. This includes not only muscles but also other organs throughout your body.

Here are the types of electrolytes and how much of that electrolyte you lose per liter of sweat:
 
Electrolyte Recommended Intake Amount lost in sweat
Chloride 2300 mg 710-2840 mg/L
Sodium 2400mg+ 460-1840 mg/L
Potassium 2500 – 3400 mg 160-390 mg/L
Magnesium 500-800 mg 0-36 mg/L
Calcium 1000-1500 mg 0-120 mg/L

Importance of Electrolyte Balance

We’ve established that electrolytes are essential to hydration, but they have many other important functions in the body:
  • Without magnesium, your muscles would not be able to contract and function the way they should. Magnesium also assists in carb metabolism which helps with protein synthesis for healing purposes!
  • Potassium is an important mineral for several different functions, including fluid balance and nerve impulses.
  • Calcium is important for a lot of things, like muscle contraction and maintaining bones. It also helps with blood coagulation!
  • Sodium is essential for many processes in the body, including nerve impulse transmission and muscle contractions.
  • Finally, chloride is used for acid-base balance and fluid regulation. It also helps with nerve impulses to keep your body functioning normally!

Now that we know how awesome electrolytes are, where can we find them?

Electrolyte Sources
Magnesium Nuts, seeds, spinach, tofu
Potassium Avocados, bananas, beans, dairy, oranges, potatoes, coconut water
Calcium Dairy, dark leafy greens, legumes
Sodium salt, salty snacks, canned foods, prepackaged meals
Chloride Foods high in sodium

Signs of Dehydration While Hiking

Dehydration can have many effects on the body depending on how much water the body has lost.
  • At 1-2% loss, you start to feel thirsty, have minor fatigue, and loss of strength.
  • At 3-4% loss, you may notice that your aerobic power and endurance are difficult to maintain, as well as a difficulty regulating body temperature. Additionally, you're more likely than not going to experience overheating symptoms from all this stress on the body!
  • A 5-6% loss will make you feel sick with headaches, decreased concentration, and cardiac output. You may also have chills or nausea as well an increased breathing rate that is sometimes paired up next to palpitations (a faster than normal heartbeat).
  • At 7-10%, you may experience symptoms like dizziness, muscle spasms, and poor balance. It can even lead to collapse, shock, and coma.
Electrolytes for Hiking Backpacking FlipFuel

General Hydration Guidelines: When to Drink Water

Hydration is important for your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. It can help to keep a schedule, so you don't overdo it!

Here is an example:

  • 2-3 hours before activity: 16-24 oz (2-3 cups)
  • 30 min before:  8oz (1cup)
  • Every 15 minutes: 4oz (1 gulp ~ 1oz) ½ cup
  • After event: 16 oz (2 cups)

Strategies to Prevent Dehydration on the Trail

  • Drink early and often
  • Aim to start drinking within 15 to 20 minutes of the start of your activity
  • Thirst is not always a reliable indicator of hydration status
  • Start well hydrated- be sure to be drinking regularly throughout the day before your activity
  • Make a hydration schedule if your adventure will take more than an hour for over an hour, developing a fueling and hydration schedule and following it will help you stay on top of fluids
  • Don’t forget electrolytes- losing sweat reduces the amount of water in your body and key electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium
  • Taking sports drinks or electrolyte drinks, salt tabs, electrolyte tablets/chews, electrolyte mixes / electrolyte powders during an adventure will help replace losses
  • Eating a wide variety of food will help fill your tank as well
  • Use salt liberally on foods
  • In a normal healthy adult, the body can regulate how much sodium it retains
  • When planning an adventure in hot temperatures it will be your advantage to increase salty food intake to help your body retain, fluid and avoid sodium deficit when sweating occurs

Essential Electrolytes and Your Outdoor Adventure

Electrolytes are important for athletes of all levels, both indoors and outdoors. They have many functions beyond hydration, including aiding in muscle contraction and relaxation, nerve function, and blood pressure control.

There are many sources of electrolytes available to athletes, so there is no need to worry about getting enough. However, dehydration can still negatively affect the body, so it is important to take precautions against it by drinking plenty of fluids before, during, and after exercise.

FlipFuel guest blogger Theresa Bridges
About Guest Expert: Theresa Bridges
Theresa is a health expert, outdoor enthusiast, and future Registered Dietitian. She is currently in graduate school studying nutrition, while also running an Instagram account and newsletter where she shares her skills with others to help keep them safe and healthy while exploring the outdoors. 
Theresa has nearly a decade of healthcare experience under her belt. She has past education in nursing and holds a degree in health sciences, along with a wilderness skills certification and wilderness first aid training. 
Learn all of her nutrition tips at https://msha.ke/theresabridges
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