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Pre-Hike Hydration: The Key to Staying Hydrated for Winter Hiking

Pre-hike hydration in winter

Winter hikers and snowshoers often have difficulty staying properly hydrated in cold weather because winter hiking is physically more challenging. The physical act of drinking is also more involved than simply sipping from a hydration hose, what with heavy winter gloves and insulated containers.

Even then forcing yourself to drink water regularly during the day can be difficult, since your perception of thirst is so different in cold weather than in warm weather. Perspiring in winter is far less evident, even if you’re managing your layering carefully. You also don’t realize that your body is working harder to humidify the air you breathe, which can also drain “your reserves” significantly during the course of the day unless you drink more fluids.

Pre-hike Hydration

There are two tricks to drinking more than I’ve discovered over the years as a winter hiker and backpacker. The first is to pre-hydrate before reaching the trailhead. Before I start a winter hike, I drink 2 liters of liquid before I even start hiking. I do this by drinking a liter of coffee, milk, and juice over breakfast, and by sipping a liter of water in the car on the way to my hike. I pee more during the day, particularly in the morning, but it lets my body get ahead of the hydration curve rather than falling behind it. I swear by this technique.

The second trick is to add flavored herbal tea bags or a sweetener to my water so it tastes more appealing. I go through about 20 boxes of Bengal Spice tea and several bags of instant honey ginger crystals each winter. A little flavoring really increases your motivation to drink liquid during the day.

Flavor your hot water to make it taste better
Flavor your hot water to make it taste better

Preparation is the Key

I usually carry two or three liters of water on winter day hikes, depending on their length, since you can’t count on being able to resupply your water easily. I boil the water for my polyethylene bottles in an electric kettle in the morning to get it real hot, before slipping a wool sock over them. I then pack them inside my backpack next to my extra insulation layers, which keeps them from freezing for most of the day.

I’ve pretty much given up on storing bottles on the outside of my backpack because insulated bottle covers won’t keep them warm for more than a few hours. When I do carry insulated bottle sleeves, it’s usually on a shorter hike, or when I’m hiking with a group of hikers, which makes it harder to top whenever you feel like it for a water break.

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  1. Maltodextrin is not a sweetener, it’s a carbohydrate. That cytomax product has stevia in it. They have pure unflavored cytomax maltodextrin called Cytocarb which I’ve used for years as a liquid carb source.

    • Good catch – should have remembered that from my beer brewing days. Maltodextrin is short chain of molecularly linked dextrose (glucose) molecules and while it may be slightly sweet, it’s not used as a sweetener but as a carbohydrate element. Didn’t realize it was sweetened with Stevia, but luckily it doesn’t bother me.

      • I dissolve half a nun electrolyte tablet in my bladder or bottles a day or so before the long hike.
        a day or so before is needed to get rid of the effervescence.
        but the main point is a small amount of flavor and also lowering the freezing point of the water by the salts you’re introducing.

    • Love the idea of putting tea bags in water


    • I drink a Nrf2 activator called AXIO. sweetened with stevia and many brain boosting activators and supplements

  2. Wow, that sounds like over hydration to me. I totally support prehydrating with a 1/2L to 1L befor most hikes in summer or winter so I don’t have to cary as much water or stop quite as much while hiking. For most winter hikes, I get by with carying only 1.5 to 2L. Then I make sure to drink some extra when I get home or to camp, but with what you’re suggesting I’d be stopping every 15 minutes to go pee all day. I don’t find it necessary to force liquids and a little mild dehydration at the end of a hike is rapidly rectified with post hike drinking. If there is snow on the ground, I’ll also hike with a wide mouth bottle inside my jacket and add snow to my water bottle as I drink it so I don’t have to cary as much water, I don’t run out of water as fast, and since I generate plenty of heat while hiking, the cool slush mix under my coat is not a problem.

    • Maybe my definition of winter is different than yours. It’s a lot more than “snow on the ground” and the exertion level can be fairly extreme as we climb up mountains, snowshoe, or XC ski on trips that typically last 6-10 hours. I also guzzle a lot of liquid after a hike to rehydrate.

      The best way to determine your hydration level is to look at the color of your pee on the snow. If it’s clear (uncolored) you’re properly hydrated. If it’s yellow, you’re not. If it’s dark or brownish yellow, you are very dehydrated. Drink water as needed to keep the color clear.

  3. I like your idea of sipping from a water bottle in the car in route to the trailhead. We normally stop at Dunkin Donuts before we start out our drive for some sugary treats and coffee, but it usually takes about 15 minutes or longer before I can start drinking my coffee. I’m going to add the water bottle in the car to my routine. I typically throw a bottle in the way back of the car as extra water for the end of our hike, but now I’m going to add another bottle and keep it up front with me. Thanks for the tips about staying hydrated.

  4. But don’t forget, other things besides dehydration can affect pee color. Asparagus, Vitamin B supplements, etc.

  5. My winter hiking is in way milder weather than yours but I also “camel up” before any hike with a liter or two. For some reason, carrying liquids internally seems less onerous than in my pack. Studies have shown that during exertion, endurance and performance is enhanced by proper hydration. Sure, I have to stop more often because a flatter bladder is a gladder bladder but being hydrated helps keep this old body moving along the trail.

  6. I tend to drink a LOT more water when I’m snowshoeing. That high level of exertion makes me want to drink a lot more water naturally. But when I’m on a slower paced hike, it isn’t at all evident that I’m not taking in enough fluids.

    One thing I notice in winter time is that my lips are constantly chapped if I do not drink enough water, so that is a good indicator as well if your skin is dryer than normal (which it will be just due to the cold dry air).

    I find that taking an insulated mug of coffee with me in the early morning hours helps keep me warm and hydrated. There is nothing quite like the satisfaction of a good cup of coffee in the woods enjoying the scenery. Part of the ritual of morning coffee is manual brew methods and manually grinding the coffee myself. I take coffee pretty seriously!

  7. Very good reminder, need for h20 is not as striking psychologically in winter as it is in summer.

  8. I’ll add a few tablespoons of chia seeds to water, wait for them to fully hydrate, then drink the mixture (first thing in the morning). They absorb a ton of water then slowly release it in your system so that you can stay hydrated for longer than plain liquids. Also has a huge boost of calories, protein, fat, and fiber. Takes some getting used to, but even better with juices.

  9. Any thoughts on thermos flasks for UL/SUL rehydration purposes? I agree on the prehydration before a day outing, then continuous sipping and major intake after. This saves carrying weight. Similarly, prep landing foods as discussed to make hydration easy makes for tastier food. I love a nice hot drink sometimes but most thermos flasks weigh a ton.

  10. Winter hydration is trickier, I agree. Hydrating before any kind of strenuous activity is always smart. I guess I stick to the same routine as summer, which is to be drinking water before, during and after. It’s hard to say which season I lose more water in. I work harder in winter for the equivalent speed, but I move a lot faster in the summer and sweat a ton, as in streaming off my head.

    I’m as guilty as anyone but coffee dehydrates, probably not the best pre-hike beverage. But hell, I drink it on the way up and usually carry some with me anyway. You can’t get ready for a day out in the cold without the java juice.

    I still havent really found a good way to keep my water bladder valve from freezing up. Any thoughts on insulated water hoses? My impression was they didn’t really work that well.

    • The current theory is that coffee is just fine to drink before a hike and not dehydrating.

      As for insulated hoses. Forget that. Get bottles and insulation sleeves or bury them in your down puffy inside your pack for insulation.

    • Replying to a very old thread in case it helps somebody…

      After drinking from my water bladder, I always bite the valve with my mouth open and let the water in the tube drain back into the bladder. If the bladder is under pressure, do to packing my backpack really tight, I may have to blow air into the tube.

      I do this regardless of the outside temperature. It keeps me from drinking a tube full of hot water in the summer, and it keeps the tube from freezing in the winter.

  11. All good advice – besides my coffee, I drink a liter of water with EmergenC electrolytes in it on the way to the trail. Find this starts me off right.

    As a leader, I get concerned on both winter and summer hikes where a participant is out for 6-8 hours on the trail and never takes advantage of a “separation break”. Too many people don’t drink enough and get away with it – until the time they don’t.

  12. Outstanding advice, Phillip. I had a sports physiologist tell me that most people are clinically dehydrated on a daily basis.

    He suggested a good rule of thumb is to divide your weight in half and that is the number of ounces of water you should drink every day. This is for sedentary individuals and the amount increases with any type of physical activity.

    In extended high exertion activities you should pre-hydrate and continue to drink as you exert yourself. If you wait till you feel thirsty, your stomach cannot absorb liquids fast enough to repay the debt, leading to dehydration, which in winter adds decreased resistance to cold and hypothermia to the classic symptoms…

    • Same holds with food in winter. Your body can only absorb 250 calories an hour no matter how much gu you eat at once. You need to eat constantly in winter to keep up with the caloric demands.

  13. I’m not holding a contest or nominations, I’m representing only myself. SECTIONHIKER is my favorite wilderness author and content creator. I’ve unsubscribed on FB from all the others with preachy messages and political agendas.

    I like Phillip’s content that focuses on backpacking, nutrition, gear, techniques, the elements and trees.

    You’re #1

  14. Thank you for the great advice. Since using a bladder is always easier, I have found an insulation system for the bladder that keeps the water at a normal temperature and doesn’t allow it to freeze. Another trick that is useful is to keep a warmer near the bottom valve of the bladder where it connects with the tube and also to always blow back the water into the bladder after you finish taking a sip. Using this I have been able to use the bladder in temperatures as low as 15-20F.

    What kind of electric kettle do you use on your trips?

  15. I dissolve half a nun electrolyte tablet in my bladder or bottles a day or so before the long hike.
    a day or so before is needed to get rid of the effervescence.
    but the main point is a small amount of flavor and also lowering the freezing point of the water by the salts you’re introducing.

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