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Winter Hiking and Hydration

Middle Sister - Sandwich Range - White Mountains

Whenever you go hiking, it's important to stay properly hydrated. This is especially important in winter, when even mild dehydration can cloud your judgment and reduce your energy level.

In winter, water loss occurs through perspiration and respiration. While you can regulate your perspiration rate by slowing down your pace, most people are not even aware that they lose water through respiration.

When you exhale, your breath transports the moist warm air in your lungs to the drier air surrounding you. If you have a mustache like me, this process is very apparent from the icicles that form on it.


I always make a point to prehydrate before I go hiking. If my day hiking partner and I are driving to the mountains for a hike, we each start drinking a liter of water in the car an hour before we hit the trail.

This is especially important in winter when the rate in which you lose water can exceed the rate in which your body can absorb water.

Normally, people lose anywhere from 0.5 to 1.5 liters of water per hour when hiking strenuously. Since your body can only absorb a liter an hour, not prehydrating puts you at risk of becoming dehydrated and staying that way during a strenuous hike.

Drinking Throughout the Day

It's important that you keep drinking water regularly during a winter hike to stay properly hydrated. If you normally use a hydration system during the rest of the year, it can be difficult to adapt to its absence in winter.

I counter this by always taking a sip from one of my insulated water bottles when my hiking partner stops to catch her breath, checks her maps, adds or removes a layer, or stops to look at a bird.

Once you get into this habit, staying hydrated in winter becomes second nature.

Post Hike Hydration

One of the first things I do after a winter day hike is to drink another quart of water and eat some food. This keeps me alert when we're driving home.

If I'm backpacking in winter, I do the same thing, except we have to melt our water first. I also take a quart of hot water to bed with me and sip it when I wake up during the night to pee. Staying hydrated is important even at night because it helps the digestive processes that keep you warm after a big dinner and ensures that you don't wake up mildly dehydrated the next morning.

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  1. Good advice. In the desert and the arctic, the indigenous peoples keep their mouths shut to combat dehydration from respiration.

  2. In addition to water, are there any electrolyte drinks that you use?

  3. Great tips. Were going Hiking this February to a place called 'Big Hump' in the Smoky Mountains. I'll be sure to have plenty of water.

  4. I usually bring 3 qts of water with me on winter hikes and fill one of them with cytomax. It's kind of sweet so I only put 2 scoops in, instead of 3. It's got electrolytes and some easy to absorb sugars. However, electrolyte augmentation is mostly hype. You can get everything you need from some ritz crackers or a handful of salted peanuts. I'm big on nuts in winter because they don't freeze and usually chow on them for mid-hike snacks. All I'm saying is not to get too obsessed with electrolytes.

  5. Thanks Philip. I'm getting my house in order for some big hikes in the next couple months. I will definitely bring some nuts!

  6. most of the electrolyte replacement drinks are about 3-4x more concentrated than is ideal for absorption. (I may be wrong about the ratio, but not the direction). ORT drinks, mixed correctly, are pretty insipid and won't sell that well.

    So using a dilution with respect to the directions is actually a really good idea!

  7. Prehydration, absolutely! My trick for on-the-go hydration in winter is to pack a 1 liter nalgene with snow and stuff it between my base and outer layers. It takes around 30 minutes to melt down to water, at which point I drink & repeat the process.

  8. On the drive up before a 9 mile rt/2700 ft elev winter-ish hike, I was complaining of a cold/sinus infection I was 2 days into and my loss of energy from coughing at night etc. My hiking friend gave me a little tube of 'zipfizz' to add to a liter of water as a healthy energy boost. I completed the hike but can't say for sure if it helped or not.Has anyone heard of or used this and have an opinion? Thanks…..

  9. I doubt it did much, rather than force you to rehydrate properly. What was your condition the next day?

  10. Important topic, many people forget to drink enough while hikign in winter (a bit same is swimming long distances). But I doubt if pre-hydration one hour before starts makes a big difference: either you are well hydrated allready or not. If I'm doing some serious hiking I start prehydration a day before the hike or so.

    And if I melt all my water from snow (which is very typical on trips lasting several days) I like to add some flavour in the water, usually some sports drink powder or hot chocolate powder but as bland mixture. During the day my routine with groups is usually 50 minutes of moving followed with 10 minutes of break and if you drink on every break you stay pretty much hydrated enough. This requires some two liters of water for a full day, and in addition a liter of water in the tent in the morning and maybe 2 liters or more in the evening. (The numbers include all the liquid water used i.e. drinks and food.)

  11. Boy are we different! I always ore-hydrate in winter, and I try to drink even more than 1 liter if I can. I also use close to 3 liters during the day, without fail, leaving just enough for a seed to melt snow when I get to camp. I've even been thinking about adding a 4th liter this year! Perhaps terrain is the difference? We're always climbing mountains in winter. Do you use vapor barriers – I'm told that reduced the need to hydrate during the day, but I haven't put it to the test personally – we still need colder weather.

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