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  1. #1
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    Default The desert - dehydrated, no water - how to stay alive

    I read through some old posts here and think we need to set a 'best practices' description for those with less experience in dealing with such a situation and what to do.

    Not to be harsh but a number responses to this issue were providing advise which is just not the right thing to do.

    An 'example' Problem (there are an infinite number of different situations):
    Hiker is starting to suffer dehydration symptoms (moderate to severe).
    Hiker is hiking in the desert sun in 'hot' temps - this would be defined at 85-105 F in the shade, but there is no shade so 100-120 F in the sun.
    Hiker has 5 miles or more of rugged terrain to the next CERTAIN water.
    Time of day is earlier than 6pm - the earlier the more critical the situation
    Hiker has no more than 1 liter of water left

    Caveats:
    What to do is 'somewhat' dependent on experience, fitness, age, etc. If you have never been in this situation take the most conservative approach. It might save your life.

    Solution:
    LAY UP - do not, I repeat, do not continue to hike. That is how you die. This is ESPECIALLY true if you are suffering severe symptoms like nausea, throwing up, bad cramping. If you have stopped sweating all together death is sitting on your shoulder already.
    Find shade, any kind of shade, make shade - you have gear you know.
    Keep as cool as possible
    Do not move around
    If you need to pee - SAVE IT as you might need to drink it. Yes I am dead serious.
    That 1 liter you have will last a long time if you do the above. It will disappear in a heartbeat if you keep walking.
    Wait till o' dark thirty before you go for the water source. Move SLOWLY. Do not get out of breath. Try to move slowly enough that you do not sweat.
    Cache your gear!!! Extra weight in this situation is trying to kill you. And come back for it after you get to the water and rehydrate. If you die then you won't care what happened to your gear anyway. If you live you will be happy. win win
    If you are on a trail like the PCT then DO NOT leave the trail to take a shortcut or anything like that. There are lots of other hikers out there who do have water and they are heading in your direction. Desert trails almost always route to the next nearest water source so leaving a trail, unless you can see the water, normally adds time and effort which is not good. Bushwacking in the desert can easily consume 2-3 times the effort required by a trail so this is often the worst thing you can do. The vast majority of hikers out of water are saved by other hikers coming down the trail.
    Do not panic. Panic kills. Leaving the trail is a form of panic.


    Discussion
    The hiker in the above situation cannot hike at any speed at all due to his/her physical symptoms for one. Another issue is that attempting to hike in this kind of heat on rugged terrain will result in heavy sweating at a rate of at least 1 liter per hour. Since the hiker is already declining physically and is at least 3 hours from the water due to physical infirmity and under a prime requirement not to lose any more water going for the water source is not an option. A high percentage of people who make the decision to go on in this situation die. In AZ each year we have an average of about 15 hikers die this way. Most of them die within 2 miles of water and quite a number right inside Phoenix itself on the hiking trails. If you are already suffering moderate to severe dehydration one finds that the range of human capabilities comes into play. Those with exceptional physiques can often grit their way through but those who are average or below tend to die. So there is no reason to use this opportunity to find out which kind of body you have is there? Just take the safest options and, if you make it out alive, use the experience positively.
    The above example situation is just a snapshot of what is possible and there are endless other possibilities. What one does in a real situation requires serious thought and a mature decision tree. There are lots of answers which can lead to a good result as well as a host of responses which can lead to disaster. Make your decisions when your head is still clear.


    I am just one guy here but I do have a LOT of experience in desert hiking in extreme conditons - 10,000 + miles and I have been out of water in them a couple of times. Plus living where I do I see many times a year people dying due to not having planned well and not knowing what to do to extend their chances.

    Being out of or almost out of water in the desert in hot conditions is not like anything one can experience along the AT or in the East. One can even do a hike of the PCT and never see real bad conditions due to timing - being up high when it is hot and low when it is cool instead of vice versa.


    I have saved hikers in the desert who were out of water due to bad decision making on how much to carry or due to being lost. l I have been off trail and running low on water and had to think hard to stay safe. Be smart and be cautious.

    Here are a few suggestions:
    Throw away the (family blog)ing water bladders. Those pieces of gear are for day hikers, trail runners and mountain bikers. No long distance hiker should be carrying such an item. Why? Weight - they are heavy. They promote overly quick water consumption as the sipping thing they promote is not the way to drink nor can you monitor how full they are. Plus you cannot keep them clean of course.
    Water bottles. By far the best water bottles to have are one's like the Smartwater bottles and their competitors. The are very light - much better than anything sold for backpacking use, they are rugged, they can be replaced at almost every resupply point, redundancy to failure by having a bunch of them with you. My standard load out for the AZT for instance is 6 Smartwater bottles and 2 Sawyer bladders for a total of 8.5 liters - and I would not hesitate to add to that if the situation called for it.

    Water bottles allow one to monitor their water consumption accurately. Ration your water consumption at all times. IF consumption and progress are indicating you might run short then take proactive action to improve the situation. Don't be the typical optimistic fool - remember optimists die young because they think things just work out while the pessimist knows that Murphy was a prophet and the world is just waiting to turn to crap and is thus prepared for it.
    Do NOT sip water in the conditions described in this post. Take a mouthful (or two) hold it for a bit and swallow. Sipping all the time results in a lot more water loss through the mouth. Walking with your mouth open consumes lots of water as well so keep your mouth shut and slow down so you don't breath heavy. Time your water consumption based upon how long it needs to last.
    Your hat should be light colored and mesh to allow better cooling. An umbrella is a huge benefit as it cuts the effective temperature a lot.
    How much water to take in really harsh conditions is a different answer than one gets under other circumstances. The decision is based upon multiple factors and not just how many miles it is to the next source. Serious heat and walking in direct sun require much larger amounts of water. On the AT in average conditions you might get by on 1 liter per 8 miles and some don't even carry water between water sources. In extreme desert hiking conditions you can consume 1 1/2 liters per hour. In the most extreme conditions possible you simply cannot hike at all. In the desert water holes are most commonly much further apart than they are in other kinds of terrain and this makes the situation worse. Ruggedness of the terrain is also a factor. The reliability of the water source is critical information also. Many depend on trail angel water caches but this is also very risky - I have seen empty caches on the PCT and lots of empty caches on the AZT for instance. People who are short will take the water you cached for your self frequently also.
    Calculate your water load on the following: miles, terrain, expected heat, reliability of supply, distance to the secondary and tertiary water sources and what reserve is needed to be safe. NEVER plan on arriving at a water supply out of water - only fools do this. Assume the 1's and 2's on the water report are dry. My rule is to have at least 1 liter left in case the water supply is dry (I one time had 3 water sources in a row be dry - yes I ran out). This also gives you some cushion on time which you might need if you twist your ankle and are dramatically slowed or some similar issue.
    How much your pack weighs is not a reason to not carry the water you need. I remember a picture of Wired leaving a water source on the Hayduke with 10 liters (4 of which were in a 1 gallon jug she carried in her hand because her pack was full). So if she is tough enough to do it at about half the size of most of us you can be tough enough also.

    I am sure I have left some stuff out so those who have been there as well please chime in and fill in the blanks.



  2. #2
    Registered User KDogg's Avatar
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    Wow! Thanks for the info. I haven't hiked in the desert but definitely, given the way I hike, would have thought to keep walking when dehydrated.

  3. #3

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    Everyone hikes dehydrated. The trick is to know your body and adjust accordingly. Many people plan their water burn to get them to a source, empty AND thirsty. Wise? Probably not. Does it work for many many people? Yes.

    I had this discussion with a fellow hiker who was a pilot. Her opinion was that you should always have a reserve (like fuel). My counterpoint was that your bloodstream could be your reserve. It adds up to you carrying that extra liter TO the next source.
    My plan was always to get to a water source with a few swallows left, neither empty nor thirsty. And I gave away water to people multiple times.
    The nice(?) thing about the SoCal PCT is the crowd - you can sit on the side of the trail under your umbrella and within a few hours someone will show up. Should you rely on this? no. If there's an accident and you feel like you're screwed? You aren't - someone will come.
    Last edited by AllDownhillFromHere; 12-21-2018 at 14:40.

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    Quote Originally Posted by AllDownhillFromHere View Post
    Everyone hikes dehydrated. .
    The problem with this statement is the definition of 'dehydrated' - or lets start with the definition of fully hydrated. (How do you define it). With human physiology, every breath you let out, you exhale fluid in the form of vapor, so unless you are on an IV drip replacing the fluid at the same rate you are expelling it, your fluid balance will shift. People are way overly concerned with the bullsh-t of having to drink 8 cups of water a day. I am not dismissing the issue of being dehydrated while hiking in the desert. That is a potentially serious, life threatening situation. I just take issue with the 'everyone is dehydrated' statement. Fluid intake is very individual, if the spit in your mouth is watery - you're fine, if it's sticky/tacky/thick, you need more water.

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    Quote Originally Posted by HeartFire View Post
    The problem with this statement is the definition of 'dehydrated' - or lets start with the definition of fully hydrated. (How do you define it). With human physiology, every breath you let out, you exhale fluid in the form of vapor, so unless you are on an IV drip replacing the fluid at the same rate you are expelling it, your fluid balance will shift. People are way overly concerned with the bullsh-t of having to drink 8 cups of water a day. I am not dismissing the issue of being dehydrated while hiking in the desert. That is a potentially serious, life threatening situation. I just take issue with the 'everyone is dehydrated' statement. Fluid intake is very individual, if the spit in your mouth is watery - you're fine, if it's sticky/tacky/thick, you need more water.
    My own definition is when i drink 2 L with dinner, and only pee out 1/2 of a quart ziplock overnight. No doubt my body was down almost 2L fluid.

    But i agree, everyone is dehydrated, to some extent, some of time. A few times Ive become ......befuddled. when I started questioning the map.....i know im too dehydrated. I learnt to recognize this.
    Last edited by MuddyWaters; 12-22-2018 at 10:53.

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    Cant read something that long

    But seriously dehydrated
    With 1L left
    And only 5 mi to go
    Doesnt pose a problem in my book.

    At the worst, hole up, drink water, wait till sun go down. Or all night. Finish in AM when cool.

    Whats the question?
    Last edited by MuddyWaters; 12-21-2018 at 14:47.

  7. #7

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    Can't read it or won't?

    Being seriously dehydrated doesn't pose a problem? Most will disagree.

    I appreciated the original post, thanks Wyoming.

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    Quote Originally Posted by trailmercury View Post
    Can't read it or won't?

    Being seriously dehydrated doesn't pose a problem? Most will disagree.

    I appreciated the original post, thanks Wyoming.
    Serious dehydration isnt a huge problem when have 1 L of water and only 5 mi to go. That enough water to get you to destination without worsening your condition if done after sun goes down or in cool morning , easily.

    I routinely push dehydration.....while carrying water. Not intentional, not smart, but enough to not be afraid to drink all water, knowing i can hike 10 mi + without any in cool of morning if need to. I do it all time...because dont like to stop..while im carrying water.

    If you cant get out if sun at all....thats a bigger problem. Even if stop hiking sun will work on you. Umbrella cones in handy, or it real name , para-sol. Latin for "protect from sun"
    Last edited by MuddyWaters; 12-21-2018 at 16:57.

  9. #9
    Registered User lonehiker's Avatar
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    The author lost me at the "cache your gear" part. Much easier to get off trail while hiking at night to the next water source even with light source. So now you can't find the water source and you have no gear... I'll keep my gear. Also keep in mind that a tent will be much easier for searchers to spot than a body laying on the ground. Keep your gear.
    Lonehiker

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    Agree with the gear part. I'd never leave my gear unless I knew exactly where and how far to go for water and leaving the pack would make real sense (like, going fo the water would be a sidetrack which I'd have to retrace later anyway).
    In most cases water is downhill, so carrying the gear would not be a monster job anyway.

    All other seem to be very valid points to me, especially the multiple bottles vs. water bladder suggestion.

    I'm doing the better part of my hiking in the Middle East desert and the most important thing for me is to know where the next relieable water source will be. Always dimensioning my water carry in a way that I'll always have one bottle resting untouched in my pack.

  11. #11
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    Quote Originally Posted by Wyoming View Post
    Throw away the (family blog)ing water bladders. Those pieces of gear are for day hikers, trail runners and mountain bikers. No long distance hiker should be carrying such an item. Why? Weight - they are heavy. They promote overly quick water consumption as the sipping thing they promote is not the way to drink nor can you monitor how full they are. Plus you cannot keep them clean of course.
    I completely disagree with this statement. The bladder I carry weighs 2 oz, it holds 3L of water. It allows me to drink water regularly without stopping. It changes shape so it always fits in well with the other contents of my pack. And I've found that with practice I can mentally keep track of how much I've consumed to within a few oz.

    With water bottles, I didn't have anywhere to put them on the outside of my pack where I could reach them, so I'd have to stop and take off my pack every time I wanted a drink. And I'd try not to do that often, so I'd be very thirsty and gulp down 1/2 L of water every time I stopped. That's not a good strategy for avoiding dehydration.

    Nowadays, I only carry ONE 1L bottle, which I mostly use for scooping from water sources.
    It's all good in the woods.

  12. #12

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    Quote Originally Posted by LittleRock View Post
    I completely disagree with this statement. The bladder I carry weighs 2 oz, it holds 3L of water. It allows me to drink water regularly without stopping. It changes shape so it always fits in well with the other contents of my pack. And I've found that with practice I can mentally keep track of how much I've consumed to within a few oz.
    This. I perform MUCH better with easy access to water.

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    Quote Originally Posted by LittleRock View Post
    I completely disagree with this statement. The bladder I carry weighs 2 oz, it holds 3L of water. It allows me to drink water regularly without stopping. It changes shape so it always fits in well with the other contents of my pack. And I've found that with practice I can mentally keep track of how much I've consumed to within a few oz.

    With water bottles, I didn't have anywhere to put them on the outside of my pack where I could reach them, so I'd have to stop and take off my pack every time I wanted a drink. And I'd try not to do that often, so I'd be very thirsty and gulp down 1/2 L of water every time I stopped. That's not a good strategy for avoiding dehydration.

    Nowadays, I only carry ONE 1L bottle, which I mostly use for scooping from water sources.
    I have a small drinking bottle (0.4lt) attatched to the shoulder strap, and all the other bottles rest inside the pack, maybe if I had to carry 6 or more bottles (1.5lt each) I would strap two of them by the side straps to the outside of the pack.
    That makes for a heavy pack and I have to take a short rest every hour or so anyway, where I take off the pack and can refill the small drinking bottle, if needed.
    But usually I let myself drop into (slight) dehydration during hiking, I'm not a fan of sipping every few minutes.
    Usually I measure my hydration state by the number of bathroom breaks, and the amount and color of pee. There is not much sense in drinking more than absolutely essential, just to drain it out an hour later.
    I would camel up at the next supply point.

  14. #14
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    lost me at "drink your pee"
    do not drink your waste product, your kidneys worked hard to eliminate it, and will not be able to re-filter the concentrate

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    Quote Originally Posted by Deadeye View Post
    lost me at "drink your pee"
    do not drink your waste product, your kidneys worked hard to eliminate it, and will not be able to re-filter the concentrate
    Absolutely.
    "It's fun to have fun, but you have to know how." ---Dr. Seuss

  16. #16

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    I would add that avoiding a survival situation to begin with is what I focus on.

    In the desert, I try to plan so I never become dehydrated. The rarer and more undependable the water sources are, and the hotter it is, the more conservative I am in my planning.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Colter View Post
    I would add that avoiding a survival situation to begin with is what I focus on.

    In the desert, I try to plan so I never become dehydrated. The rarer and more undependable the water sources are, and the hotter it is, the more conservative I am in my planning.
    This^^^. The primary goal is proactive prevention of becoming dehydrated.

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    Some other culprits that cause or are associated with dehydration are excessive intakes of sodium, a concern for desert backpackers habituated to highly processed junk food or even associated with high sodium content dehydrated backing meals. Personally, on a hot weather backpacking trip I ween myself off diuretics like coffee and tea especially with my high caffeine intake during cold seasons. Coffee makes us urinate more. It's not that coffee or tea are strong diuretics in themselves it's the cumulative diuretic effects from multiple sources and like myself in our heavy usage.

    Really, if concerned with dehydration while hiking it's not only about drinking more water from found surface sources. It's also about not placing ourselves in a high risk position for becoming dehydrated.

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    Thx Wyoming. Lots of good advice and some advice that is more individually or situationally conditional.


    "Calculate your water load on the following: miles, terrain, expected heat, reliability of supply, distance to the secondary and tertiary water sources and what reserve is needed to be safe." More to it than that! If you're going to be smart - "safe" - proactively preventing getting dehydrated has to be included. One might want to consider their personal risk factors for dehydration. Not all people in all desert environments are equally at risk.


    With some studies pointing to almost 70% of all Americans on prescription drugs one's drug use should be considered. Prescription drugs for diabetes, antidepressants, antipsychotics, high blood pressure, antihistamines, etc can have a diuretic effect. With percentages of those with chronic disease so high and some disease causes of fatalities on the rise in the U.S. that should be considered.. Those with renal disease, diabetics, and gastrointestinal disorders like IBD, for example are at higher risk. Those getting back to the SoCal PCT Mojave Desert after over indulging in alcohol at an in town stop can have a higher risk of dehydration. Dehydration has been linked to hangovers. Those ill with diarrhea, fever, or vomiting are at higher risk. Those on some forms of birth control or taking antibiotics can be at higher risks, from electrolyte and mineral imbalances.

    Despite the increasing degree of medical literature and studies conducted that bias presume all Americans are on prescription drugs or in some state of chronic illness they are not. Everyone is not at the same degree of risk. Because so many in the U.S. are consistently on prescription drugs some argue it is one of the primary causes of dehydration...off trail. If that is accurate it equates with Americans being in some state of dehydration before ever setting foot on a trail or heading into hot desert environments.

    Seniors, even if surprisingly don't assume any of these risks factors, are at higher risk.

    Those at higher altitudes are at higher risk. Some have a notion that all deserts are low elev and always hot. They are not. Some assume even the PCT SoCal Mojave Desert segment is flat always hot desert. It is not.


    Some hot weather tactics that can be considered to lower one's risk of dehydration 1) Night hike. Said a zillion times. Duh, right, but how many hikers ignore or complain or possibly could have avoided states of dehydration if they had given more wt to considering and adopting desert night hiking? Night hiking has additional benefits like not needing to find or carry as much water which leads to NOT putting oneself in the critical dehydrated situation as Wyoming described. This is simply a way to continue or approach the hike by getting in the shade a cooer environment reducing body temp. Let the hike's conditions determine the approach adapting rather than expecting to rigidly adhere to one cookie cutter approach expecting the conditions to meet one's typical backpacking behavior. 2) Add an electrolyte and mineral powder to drink or food or choose foods for desert hikes that have these. A lot of this comes back to diet and lifestyle decisions! What we experience doesn't always just magically fall out of the sky happening to us without our input!


    This thread is in the PCT Forum, maybe the best Forum. However, the popular PCT So Cal Mojave Desert segment is a narrowed snapshot situation in contextual regard to dehydration and desert hiking.

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    On two of three PCT SoCal hikes, two going NOBO starting in early Apr, one in a 'normal' snow yr, I supplemented water, calories, electrolyte, mineral, enzyme, protein, vitamin, and fiber needs while boosting digestion, energy, immune system, and metabolism by growing and eating trail sprouts. Sprouts were part of satisfying desert backpacking water and nutritional needs preventing dehydration with no significant additional wt or water carrying requirements. Any trade offs were significantly positive. HOW? Read on. The one PCT hike I relied only on water to keep from being affected by dehydration. I drank enough water, too much water, attaining a severe state of hyponatremia where I diluted the blood sodium, electrolytes and other minerals from my body. Humans don't obtain their desert hiking electrolyte, mineral and vitamin needs from water. FOOD SELECTION plays strong roles in NOT becoming dehydrated and water needs. It can be that water, too much water, facilities symptoms not that unlike dehydration. It's my suspicion more SoCal PCTers and desert hiking NBs than thought are actually experiencing early stages of hypnotremia or not getting enough electrolytes, minerals, and vitamins from food and bring on more severe stages of hypontremia assuming gulping more water will alleviate the onsetting of dehydration. This can exacerbate hypontremia. This is the mistake I made.


    We're often admonished to not take fresh foods on hikes especially hot desert hikes. It's true fresh food selections can be heavier from water wt and be perishable. BUT, if combined with night hiking or primarily hiking during early early morning and late late evening, a non cooking approach, less perishable more appropriate for desert backpacking selections, and appropriate storage and use the water wt saved from not having to carry as much separate H20 can be wt and bulk balanced. This leads to not needing to find separate running water as often or haul as much H20 and has OTHER ANCILLARY BENEFITS. This is what many desert animals do. For example, desert lizards and reptiles will attain water needs by eating insects, plants, etc, Rodents, reptiles, birds, like owls, and mammals will forage at night when cool gaining critical in short supply H20 from their non cooked foods rather than drink while simultaneously reducing water needs through their wiser timing selection of heightened activities. What better way to experience desert hiking than experiencing sunrise and sunset and cooler temps and perhaps carrying less wt and bulk? LOOK to Nature. It provides answers!

    NO. desert hiking doesn't always require finding and getting to more surface water nor carrying separate mega quantities.


    Now, every time I leave a resupply town on a hot weather desert hike I leave with something fresh that supplies water, and high electrolyte, mineral and vitamin content and I don't boo hoo about it even with UL hiking sensibilities.

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