Drink to Your Health
Words by Eddie “Oilcan” Boyd
Avoiding Dehydration and Altitude Sickness On Trail
There I was, 14 miles into my Appalachian Trail thru hike. I had just packed everything up for the third day of hiking and was about to leave Hurd Brook lean-to when I unexpectedly threw up my breakfast. The two days before had been extremely taxing on my physical well-being. It began by climbing Mt. Katahdin from the knife edge side, a ten-mile hike that took me 12 hours to complete. I had brought two liters of water up with me, and it was empty by the time I reached the summit. What followed was six hours of grueling downhill terrain that put the nail in the coffin at my chances for waking up the next day feeling normal.
I was miraculously able to hike 10 miles the next day to Hurd Brook. But my fortunes did not last long. I began to vomit the third morning, and I could not stop. I had failed to hydrate properly, and obviously pushed my body too hard. It seemed like I was going to have to quit my first attempt at thru hiking the Appalachian Trail. Fortunately, I was able to restart my thru hike a week later at Harper’s Ferry.
My first bout with dehydration had almost ended my dreams of becoming a thru hiker.
Fast forward a year later, and after finishing the Appalachian Trail, I was ready for a new and more challenging adventure. On May 1, 2016, I stood at the Mexican border in California to begin the Pacific Crest Trail. Being that I am an Ohio boy and by no means accustomed to the extreme heat and exposure the desert has to offer, I naïvely got on trail and hiked to Lake Morena in day one. I brought four liters of water for the twenty-mile stretch and thought that would be plenty to get me through. By mile fifteen, I was at the bottom of the first significant climb of the trail and was down to my last half liter. By the end of that day, I felt extremely weak and was dragging myself the last three miles.
Right when I got to camp, I chugged a liter of water and made dinner. I had two bites of mashed potatoes and immediately threw up everything. Very alarmed by this, I went to bed and slowly sipped water throughout the night. The next morning, I woke up and after walking around camp for a while, I threw up a few more times. Not having much choice, I put my pack on and slowly started walking north. All day I would have to stop and sit in the shade every thirty minutes or so and would throw up just about every time I sat down. By the end of that day, my hiking friends decided to drop me off with some other hikers and keep going. I hung out at camp and tried my best to rehabilitate myself with no success. I had pushed myself past the point of being able to recover in the wilderness.
On the third morning, a few hikers helped me get to Mount Laguna where the employees at the outfitter promptly called an ambulance for me when I walked in. I wasn’t sure if that’s what I needed, but as soon as the EMT gave me two whole bags of saline and anti-nausea medication, I felt worlds better. After two zero days, I had fully recovered and was able to hike out of town.
Eight hundred miles later in the Sierra Nevada Range, I had come off trail to go into the town of Bishop, CA which is in the desert below the range at about five thousand feet elevation. The hitch back to Onion Valley Trailhead took five hours of waiting in the intense desert heat for a generous soul to pick us up. The next morning, we headed back up Kearsarge Pass at eleven thousand feet elevation. This massive elevation change after sitting in the sun for five hours the day prior was undoubtedly not advisable. Everything seemed to be going fine until I got to camp and sat down for dinner. Two bites in and I threw up once again, this time I knew something was really wrong. Over the next two days, my mileage was reduced to about twelve per day as I literally walked for twenty minutes and sat for twenty minutes to try and make my body recover because I still had to make it to Reds Meadow, one hundred and eighty miles down trail, no matter what. Thankfully at the end of day two, I was able to eat an entire dinner on top of Muir Pass and felt much better the next morning.
My most recent battle with dehydration and altitude sickness came last summer in the Beartooth Range in Montana at the start of the Greater Yellowstone Traverse. Fresh off the plane from Ohio, I headed up a trail-less pass to ten thousand feet. Due to lack of trail and very intense bushwhacking, it took my crew and me three days to cover eighteen miles. Six miles in on the first night I began to throw up right after I ate dinner. Again, I was very alarmed and honestly pretty mad that this was happening to me for the fourth time. The next day was the absolute worst day of hiking I have ever endured. The most intense bushwhacking and off-trail navigation I had ever done paired with debilitating dehydration made for a prolonged push up the mountain. There were points where I could only walk for about ten minutes before having to stop and throw up. Very small mileage and supportive friends got me to town where I could take a day off and recover back to the point where I could continue hiking.
All of my terrible experiences with altitude sickness and dehydration have certainly taught me a lot. Here is how you can avoid the same fate.
First, it is essential to do a fair amount of training before you go on a long hike. I’m sure most of these situations could have been avoided had I just been in better shape at the start of my walk. If you are the type of person who doesn’t like to train–like myself–it is important to plan only very short days for at least the first three days of your hike. Even if at the end of the day you get to camp at three o’clock and don’t feel tired, stop and keep yourself hydrated and well fed. If your appetite drops off drastically and eating the simplest of foods is a chore, it’s time to stop for the day and keep yourself hydrated.
Another important tip is that you are only as hydrated as you have been for the last few days, meaning it’s vital to increase your water intake a few days before the hike, especially if that hike is at a high elevation. If you start to feel abnormally tired and by that, I mean you have to coach yourself to the next mile, it is time to stop for the day and keep yourself hydrated. Don’t just drink only water, though; it is important to have a source of electrolytes to help your body better absorb water when you are in a dehydrated state. Eat foods slowly and make sure they are high in salt. If you have started to throw up, it is imperative that you try to stop as soon as possible. The key is to not let your body get to a point where recovery is impossible without medical intervention. Even if you only hike five miles all day, that is better than putting yourself at serious risk of the major complications once you get too far down the road of dehydration.
At the beginning of a long hike, slow and steady wins the race. Those thirty-mile days will come eventually, but take care of your body so the trail can build you into the mile crushing machine you always wanted to be!
Follow me on Instagram @oc_boyd to see if I can follow my own advice on the Colorado Trail this summer! Happy hiking and stay hydrated!