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What I Learned: Treating Dehydration When You’re Miles from Camp

ftd-dehyd
Photo via Ken Thomas

A brief story of dehydration while backpacking and what we learned from it.

Whether you’re hitting the trail or carving out your own, dehydration is something that can really put a damper on a good trip. It isn’t too severe on its own, but with the wrong weather it can lead to a number of worse conditions, such as heat stroke or hypothermia.

Prevention by drinking water continually is always your best bet, but it doesn’t always do the trick and can be easily forgotten (especially if you’ve been sipping beer or coffee all night/morning).

On a recent backcountry trip in Glacier National Park, about 3/4 of the way to camp, my camping buddy started exhibiting all the symptoms of dehydration:

  • headache
  • confusion/disorientation/lightheaded
  • nausea/dizziness
  • dry mouth
  • heavy breathing
  • fatigue/lethargy

Early on, a mile or so before this point, he realized something was wrong and immediately notified me.

Beyond prevention, this is the best thing you can do while out; pay attention to your body and tell your hunting/camping buddies what is going on.

He mentioned he was feeling a little dizzy and was having trouble breathing, but kept smiling and working the trail. Another mile down the trail and he was vomiting in a huckleberry bush. So, we proceeded with the first phase of treatment, sitting him down and having him drink water and try to eat some small salty/sweet food items (we had candied nuts). On a hot day, you would also want to get the dehydrated person out of the sun, but for us it was cold and raining, so it was not as much of an issue. Because of these conditions, hypothermia was now a very real and looming threat.

We continued moving, but my buddy needed to stop and rest often. He became pale with a drained look to his face.

The view back down the trail towards any help
The view back down the trail towards any help

At this point we both knew it was going to be really rough going. We were four miles from the trail-head, the car, and any kind of medical assistance beyond the small first aid kit we had with us. But, we were only a mile and a half from our campsite. We stopped and started discussing our options.

We had two: I hike back to the trail-head alone and contact emergency services, or we both head to camp, but leave my buddy’s pack behind with the intention of retrieving it once camp was set up. Given it was later in the day and there are high threats of grizzlies in Glacier (we had spotted a print on our way up, as well as a number of piles of scat, but it was hard to tell if it belonged to a grizzly or black bear), splitting up near dark seemed like a bad idea.

We decided on the latter option. So, I looked through our first aid kit and gave him some ibuprofen. Then we continued to the campsite, taking breaks often and drinking continuously, my back laden with two packs until we hit a large clearing where the extra pack could be easily spotted on the return only a hundred yards or so farther.

Print found on the trail
Print found on the trail

When we arrived at camp my buddy was looking awful. Worse yet, he could barely communicate and was shivering heavily. Both our clothes were fully soaked through.

I immediately unpacked our gear and set up the tent while I had my buddy change into dry clothes. After both were done I had him get into the tent and into his sleeping bag, then had him eat as much food as he felt able (Note: In grizzly country you should avoid eating in camp, but unfortunately we had no choice). While he warmed up and ate, I recovered his pack then tied our remaining food up and strung it on the bear pole.

At this point my buddy was doing much better. Color had returned to his face and he was beginning to communicate in full sentences again. We started making jokes and soon went to sleep. When I woke up the next morning he had already gotten up and was taking pictures of Lake Otokomi.

The next day, on our hike back, he wasn’t looking great, but was smiling and communicating the entire hike. It was downhill, so less effort was required, but we made sure to be careful. We took frequent breaks alongside the many waterfalls and even had the pleasure of encountering a bull moose (at a safe distance).

One of the waterfalls along the trail
One of the many waterfalls along the trail

This event took us by surprise and had we not been aware of what to look for and how to handle it, it may have been much worse.

Here is a quick recap of how to prevent, realize, and treat dehydration in case you ever find yourself in a similar situation.

Prevention: Drink water and avoid caffeine. It sounds obvious, but we have a suspicion the four cups of coffee prior to our setting out played a major part. Sip your water frequently and throughout the day. Pay attention to the weather and plan ahead: High heat and sun or cold and dry weather are the worse kinds for dehydration.

Something to help keep hydrated: The Lifestraw

Realization: Pay attention to your body and don’t be the hard-ass who is too proud to take a break or tell their companions.

Treatment: Once you have the slightest inkling you or a camping/hunting buddy is dehydrated, stop. Take a break, drink some water, have a little snack, and plan out your next move. Is it worth pushing forward? Would it be safer to turn around and head back? Set up a game plan and follow through, always playing on the safe side.

More links:

Have you ever been severely dehydrated on the trail? Let us know in the comments.

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What I Learned: Treating Dehydration When You’re Miles from Camp