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Hydration 101

I. Basics: Earth, Air, and...

Since you are reading this page you are probably aware that even the laziest hiker needs water, regardless of how short the hike. We are mostly made of water. When we exercise, our bodies require more water, and it is taken from the most convenient source...ourselves. Thus we have to replace it, or ultimately, we use ourselves up, so to speak. You knew all that, but it helps to establish a point of reference for the balance of this article.

At one time or another we've all set off on a short, mile roundtrip hike, and decided that carrying water was just plain inconvenient. You probably regretted it...No matter how fit or experienced you were, you felt thirsty. And when you returned, you wanted water. Your head was too stubborn, but your body knew it needed water. The question is, how much to carry, when to carry it, and how to carry it.

The "when" is easy: ALWAYS. A short nature loop? Bring a little just in case. At the Grand Canyon? Bring water for every hike period.

The "how much" is better stated "as much." As in, as much as you can carry. Obviously the requirements for a nature loop in Pennsylvania in the springtime are less than the nature loop in Canyonlands mid summer. But when you set off for a few hours, carry as much as you can, no matter where you are. While most of us think in terms of "making the water last for the length of the hike," we should instead be thinking of limiting the length of the hike to the amount of water we have.

II. Canteens and Camelbacks

The canteen is so...yesterday. Perhaps that's why I still like them. When I carry two, I turn around when the first one empties (or at least I should). Carry one; I turn around when it's half empty. Simple. Fill it, carry it, drink from it frequently. I prefer plastic canteens because they are lightweight, although the aluminum version works almost as well. Most pundits argue that aluminum canteens are subject to corrosion and contaminate the contents. While aluminum will corrode more readily than plastic, this is pathetically harmless if the canteen is cleaned periodically. Trust me: The partially hydrogenated oils in your granola bar will do far more damage than a lifetime of drinking from an aluminum canteen.

The real drawback to an aluminum canteen is that it can easily be distorted by even the slightest impact. This leads to seam splits and leaks, or more likely, distortions that will affect the sealing area. Nothing makes a hike more unpleasant than to trudge along with a canteen leaking all over your trousers.

The trendy alternative to the poor old canteen is the hydration pack, worn on the back (which doesn't look bad), around the hip (which does), or as part of an Apollo-mission level trekking pack. I personally don't care for the tubing, the straps, and all the other shnizzle-shnazzle; and I certainly don't like all the effort required to maintain a sanitary system. And I don't care how uncool my canteens look.

If you do embrace the latest styles and trends, the hydration pack (generic name for Camelback) is one of the few items where you generally shouldn't opt for a cheapie. If a leaky canteen is unpleasant...think about it. A decent unit starts at about $35; an excellent 70 oz Camelback brand hydration pack is available here through amazon. I have used it and abused it, and it works. It holds up, and it holds a lot. But again, it's not my preferred way to carry water. Please pass the canteen...

III. Keeping it Clean

Once you've purchased a hydration pack, you need to purchase the special kit and brushes to clean the thing. And you need to purchase the special tablets that sanitize it. Or maybe not...

Again, I'm not a fan of the hydration pack because of the rigamarole involved in cleaning the thing. The hose is the biggest easy way to do it right. As far as the "special tablets" are concerned, these are touted as chlorine dioxide, which is fantastic rubbish. Chlorine dioxide exists only in a gaseous form; the tablet contains the ingredients that react in water to form chlorine dioxide. Assuming you do everything correctly and the reaction occurs according to plan, this is an excellent way to clean your gear.

An alternative to the tablets is to simply use diluted sodium hypochlorite, also known as household bleach. Using the same diligence in your brushing, cleaning and rinsing, good old bleach will work as well as the exotic tablets.

IV. The Myths of Water Purification

Virtually every modern municipal water utility provides your home with safe drinking water. An entire industry exists to further purify water that really doesn't require it; still another industry exists to provide water in bottles so that people can chill it and drink it more conveniently. (an empty pop bottle and your tap will provide more or less the same result, but few people want to be bothered with that, hence the boom in bottle water. Bottled air is next...)

And what of purifying water while on the trail? Again, each system (tablets, filters, boiling, etc.) has its pros and cons. I've consulted a number of chemists on this issue, and the advice is always the same: "A few drops of household bleach never hurt anybody." How much? "Enough to kill the bugs, but not too much that it kills you." Hmmm. Stick to the tablets.

-- Rick Bolger


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