Staying Healthy with Water While on the Water

You’ve mapped out your route, rounded up your gear, stashed your stuff, and now you’re ready to take off over the water. What’s one key ingredient that can insure this trip will be the one of your dreams–and not your nightmares? The answer, simply put, is water. No, not what you’re churning through, but what you’re chugging down. Three demons that could decimate your trip are dehydration, hyponatremia, and heat exhaustion. Here’s why they can loom so large, here are their warning signs, and here’s how to give them the slip entirely.

Dehydration simply means that your body is losing water more quickly than you can replace it. And when you sweat, you lose not only water, but electrolytes (which help regulate body processes, including muscle work.) Your body temperature can also be affected, which can eventually lead to heat cramps, heat exhaustion, or even heat stroke. When dehydrated, you can’t go as far or as hard, your balance can suffer, and your judgment can be impaired. Dehydration can happen in both warm and cold conditions.

Early symptoms of dehydration are thirst, or perhaps a headache. Other symptoms include feeling irritable, anxious, confused, lightheaded, sleepy or faint; others include dry mouth, a weak or quick pulse, and clammy/cold or dry/hot skin. One big indicator of dehydration is the color of your urine: danger signals are a very dark yellow urine, or the inability to urinate at all. Rehydrate immediately with fluid, preferably a drink containing electrolytes, and sip slowly. Try to find shade and remove any unnecessary clothing. (A severely dehydrated person might go into shock or lose consciousness; in that case, seek immediate medical help.)

To prevent dehydration, take sips of water or a sports drink–not soda, coffee, or alcohol–throughout the day. Try sipping every 10 to 15 minutes. Your muscles will perform better and experience less fatigue and soreness. Paddlers can stow bottled water, sports drinks or juice boxes in a deck bag, a backrest pocket, or center hatch. Bottle holders, clips and slings can help keep fluids from going overboard. Another great option for rehydrating, particularly when heading through rougher water, is the use of a “dromedary bag” or “water bladder” in combination with a bite hose. The water reservoir can be strapped down, stowed, or even attached to the back of a PFD. These hydration systems can make fluid intake extremely convenient.

Hyponatremia, a condition brought about by low blood sodium, can happen when too much sodium has been lost through sweat, and hasn’t been replaced. Symptoms of hyponatremia, also known as “water intoxication,” include a headache which gets steadily worse, a loss of coordination, slurred speech, swelling of the hands and feet, and bloating. Oddly enough, signs of hyponatremia can also look a lot like heat stroke does, with problems such as nausea/vomiting, lethargy, confusion, fatigue, restlessness, irritability, a lack of appetite, muscle spasms, weakness or cramps, seizures or even coma. When suffering from hyponatremia, one doesn’t feel thirsty. Try tracking your water intake through the day: are you drinking a good amount during the day, not, perhaps, excessively? If you’re having physical difficulties, the color of your urine will also help you in ruling out dehydration, as opposed to hyponatremia: a clear or pale yellow color will indicate you’ve gotten enough to drink.

Prevention of hyponatremia is pretty simple. You don’t need to start popping sodium pills; just eat snacks to help with the electrolyte imbalance. After an hour of exercise, start drinking an electrolyte-laden sports drink instead of plain water. Some good snack foods that provide sodium include string cheese, crackers, pretzels, nuts, dried fruit, granola bars, dill pickles, tomato juice or yogurt. Behind the paddle, try eating a small snack (say, a bag of peanuts) for every liter of water you drink. You’ll find your energy levels are higher, too. Aim to eat when you rehydrate; at a minimum eat once every 90 minutes.

Heat exhaustion, a precursor to heat stroke, means that your body has gotten too hot and can’t cool itself off. Don’t work yourself too hard, don’t overdress (so as to keep your body from cooling down), and definitely keep up with your fluids.

Here’s to a fantastic trip!