Hike Farther, Feel Better: Thru-Hiker Tips for Hydration
Are you drinking enough? Filter faster and hydrate smarter with these pro tips.
A dialed-in hydration strategy can make a huge difference in the success of a long hike—a fact many backpackers tend to undervalue.
“I think a lot of people don’t see backpacking as needing a high level of fitness, but when you’re hiking 10 to 25 miles per day, that’s a really high output activity—and that’s something you should take into account when you think about nutrition and hydration,” says Kylie Yang. She should know. Yang has thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, spent two seasons working as an Appalachian Trail Ridge Runner, and is now the Field Programs Manager for the Continental Divide Trail Coalition. “When you’re not hydrated, your performance drops significantly, and you’ll start to feel exhausted. You’ll feel like you’re dragging around brick legs,” she says.
In fact, research shows that as little as two percent dehydration can impair athletic performance. Then there’s the safety aspect. Every bodily system, including your brain, requires water for optimal function, Yang adds. Studies show that dehydration can lead to brain fog and impaired cognitive function—far from ideal when you’re making risk-management decisions in the backcountry.
Yang says another reason hikers tend to under-hydrate is because water fill-ups can feel like a chore, especially if you have an old, low-output filter or if your bottle or reservoir is difficult to use. Yang’s first tip for drinking more water? Find a way to streamline your filtration process.
“Having a filter you like to use and that works well is key for actually wanting to stop and consume water,” she says. Yang recommends digging into the specs on filters before you buy. Weight is critical for any long-distance endeavor, but it should never come at the cost of functionality, she says. She also looks at flow rate and filtered particle size—key metrics for ease of use and safety.
“The flow rate I look for is 1.75 liters per minute minimum,” she says. She also looks for filters with a pore size around 0.2 micron, which means they’re fine enough to filter out nearly all bacteria and parasites. Most reputable filter brands, like LifeStraw, have a pore size of 0.2 micron or smaller.
Yang says she also finds LifeStraw’s superfast flow rates—3 liters per minute for the new Peak Series Collapsible Bottle filter, almost double her old standard—particularly appealing. She’s also drawn to the light weight and packability of the Peak Series Collapsible Bottle, which works as both a durable squeeze-pouch filter and a stand-alone filter bottle. The filter on the squeeze can also be attached to the outside of the bottle for maximum output when cooking or at camp.
“The 650ml and 1L squeeze bottles are great for grabbing water at alpine lakes near summits and at any water sources along the way,” she says. “ The material used for the squeeze bottles is ultra durable and leak proof, and I don’t have to worry about it failing mid-hike or leaking in my pack. I’m looking forward to taking them with me on the Wind River High Route [in Wyoming] this summer.”
Yang adds that it’s exactly the kind of thing she wished she had on her Appalachian Trail thru-hike.
“While I generally prefer a squeeze filter for personal use, if I’m doing a multi-day backcountry trip, especially with a group, gravity filters are my go-to,” she says. “They’re so easy—you can grab some water, set up your tent, and come back and it’s ready for you to drink.” LifeStraw’s new Peak Series Gravity Bag filters also come with an additional perk: You can detach the filter and throw it in your pocket to use as a personal straw for side trips.
Yang adds that fast filtration isn’t the only way to make hydrating easier on the trail.
Before any backpacking trip, she pores over topo maps and guides which include crowd-sourced data on water availability—to map out fill-ups ahead of time. That way she doesn’t have to think too hard about it on the trail. She’s also vigilant about making sure her water tastes good.
“I try to do one bottle with just water and one bottle with electrolytes,” Yang says. Aside from improving taste, adding a flavored electrolyte tablet helps prevent hyponatremia, a dangerous condition that occurs when your body doesn’t have enough salt to balance extra water intake.
Though different hikers’ water needs vary, Yang says she tries to drink at least half a liter per hour, and more at altitude.
“At high altitudes [like along the Colorado portion of the Continental Divide Trail], I’m aiming for closer to a liter per hour,” she says. That’s because the harsh sun, dry air, and increased exertion at altitude can all dehydrate you faster.
Other hikers might have other tricks—some may prefer the simplicity of a personal straw, like the original LifeStraw, which also has recently received an upgrade with the Peak series, among the most notable of which is its ability to screw onto a squeeze bottle and utilize it as a squeeze system. But the bottom line, Yang says, is to give your body what it needs to perform, and don’t let a sub-optimal hydration routine stand in your way.
“I would say do whatever makes you happiest, whether it’s using a filter you really like, or adding electrolytes or flavor to your water,” she says. “Do whatever is going to make it easier for you to keep hydrating because it really is so important.”
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