As a climber, I love big days in the mountains and the crags. The freedom of covering huge chunks of terrain, with nothing but a rope, rack and light pack is addictive. Climbing, though, is a high-intensity sport, and in order to maintain performance (and enjoyment!) we need to take hydration seriously.
Here’s the crux: water is heavy. One liter is one kilogram. No matter what some chintzy novelty store might have on their shelves, there’s no such thing as dehydrated water. So, knowing that weight is our primary constraint, how can climbers maximize hydration while still enjoying the freedom of lightly-encumbered movement?
Here are some ideas and strategies that I’ve developed over the years. Consider them “cheats”: ways to stay healthy and functional while not adding to the burden of your pack.
Maintain steady intake in the days leading up to your climb, while not forgetting to maintain electrolyte balance. It is possible to over hydrate with plain water, in extreme cases leading to hypo-natremia (more on this below). Salty soups are a great way to top up your internal reserves while stocking up on sodium.
-Chia water- When soaked in water, chia seeds become little gel pods with many times their original mass in water. Make a “Chia fresca” for the morning of a big climb, and drink it on the approach. Mix ~30mL (2Tbps) chia seeds with 0.5L water, and then add a bit of lemon or lime juice and sweetener (agave is great). I’ve seen claims that the super-hydrated chia seeds linger in your digestive system, acting like little time-release water pills, allowing your body to effectively absorb more of the water. Whether or not that’s true, chia are definitely packed with fat and protein, so give them a try.
-0.5L bottle for the approach- While I use a hydration bladder for running and biking, I’ve never liked them for climbing. They leak, they’re hard to fill from tiny streams, and it’s hard to know how much your drinking. While approaching, I like to clip a 0.5L nalgene to my pack strap, making it quick to access for drinking and re-filling.
It’s got Electrolytes!
As mentioned above, electrolyte balance is integral to proper hydration. It’s possible to lose 2-4L/hour through sweat during high output activities in hot weather. This is crucial to regulating body temperature, but it stresses our reserves. Though the body is ~60% water (by mass), only about 5% of that is available in our blood to be sweated. Dr. Allen Lim, a sports physiologist and coach, writes this on his blog:
“The water in our plasma or blood isn’t just water – it’s more of a salty soup, containing about 9 grams of sodium chloride per liter (3.5 grams from sodium and 5.5 grams from chloride) – an amount that is similar to the sodium concentration in chicken noodle soup which comes in at 3 to 4 grams of sodium per liter. Since the water in our bodies, or more specifically in our plasma, is so salty, the fluid that enters any one of the two million sweat glands across our skin is also salty. In fact, while a number of electrolytes like potassium, calcium, and magnesium are also lost in sweat, sodium chloride makes up the overwhelming majority of the electrolyte loss in sweat. For this reason, electrolyte loss in sweat is really synonymous with salt loss. More importantly, it’s the loss or dilution of sodium, not chloride, that negatively affects our physiology – a phenomenon called hyponatremia that can result in a host of problems that range the gamut from fatigue, confusion, headache, nausea, muscle cramps, seizures, and in rare cases death. Because of these potential issues, getting a handle on the concentration of sodium in sweat (i.e., “sweat sodium”) and replacing that sodium in addition to water, instead of water alone, when dehydrated from heavy sweating is paramount to performance and survival.”
It’s no coincidence that Dr. Lim’s company, Skratch Labs, makes the best solutions for this problem. Containing sugar, dried fruit, and salt, Skratch’s hydration mix is an easy and delicious way to stay energized and healthy.
For extremely difficult situations, they make a “Hyper Hydration” mix, containing five times the sodium of the normal mix. From the product description: “Hyper Hydration Drink Mix is an EXTREMELY high sodium mix designed for those times, and only those times, when you are unable to replace all the fluid you are losing through sweat any other way.”
-Soup- On winter climbs, when you’ll likely have a stove along, bring instant soup packets or bouillon cubes. Trader Joe’s Instant Miso soup is my favorite!
Mountains are environments shaped by water, and it often forms the medium on which we climb. Effectively and quickly consuming that water, however, can be difficult. It’s ironic, but I’ve become the most dehydrated on winter snow and ice climbs. Even in summer, when liquid water abounds in the alpine, it can be hard to capture and trust.
-Carry a stove- This is obvious on a multi-day trip, but I’ve begun carrying a jetboil even on single day outings when there’s snow or ice. In addition to morale-boosting hot drinks, a jetboil actually saves weight in your pack. A Jetboil Sol, with a full 100g fuel canister, weighs just 500g. Water, of course, weighs 1g/ml, so instead of carrying a paltry 1/2L of water, bring the JB along and brew up round after round of delicious hotdrinks!
Check out the tech page Melting snow in a jetboil and make sure you don’t melt your stove (or your jacket!).
-Carry an “Alpine Straw”-
A short length of flexi plastic tubing is invaluable in the summer alpine. Mountain streams are often shallow, and may be hidden beneath a jumble of talus. On route, you might even find water running in the back of a crack, or pooled in huecos and potholes. With your straw, you’ll slurp up this bounty with ease!
If you’ll return past the same point on the descent, stash some food and water on the approach! This is especially useful for huge days and linkups, when I’ll take any little advantage to reduce my packweight and stay hydrated.
-Don’t get Giardia-
Sometimes it’s obvious that we can trust a water source, deep in the backcountry and high on a route. More often tough, especially in more popular locations, there is some nagging doubt about the provenance of that tempting stream. At high elevations, calm lakes are actually the cleanest sources. The same intense sun that fries our skin kills off many of the harmful bugs, and particulates settle to the bottom. Try to scoop water from the top layer, while not disturbing the sediment.
In high traffic areas, like Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Nat’l Park, I like to carry a Steripen to quickly treat water that I collect from clean-looking sources, especially along the approach. A bandana or t-shirt can filter out larger particles before treatment.
If you prefer the simplicity of Iodine, but don’t love the discoloration and taste, add a few drops of Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C). It reacts with the idodine, turning the water clear and neutralizing the taste. And you’ll avoid scurvy!
The proper layering system can make a huge difference with how your body uses water, and generally how you feel after a long day out. We put a lot of thought into layers in cold environments, and rightfully so. Climbing involves periods of high output, interspersed with long period of inactivity. As Steve House says in “Training for the New Alpinism”, sweat inside a jacket is pure waste. It doesn’t evaporate to cool your core, it simply saturates your insulation and makes you shiver at the next belay. Wearing breathable shells, de-layering while hiking or leading, and venting appropriately with chest zips and pockets all help to avoid wasteful sweat on cold days.
-“Sun’s out, hoods up”- There’s nothing better than a splitter summer day in the mountains, and it’s tempting to strip down and enjoy the sun on your skin. This is a bad idea, though, and should be avoided with smart layers. The high-altitude sun is intense and harmful, so of course it’s smart to cover up to avoid UV poisoning. The sun also increases evaporative water loss, so being well dressed is actually a good hydration-maintenance strategy. I like to wear a thin, light-colored shirt with a tight-weave. Long sleeves with thumb-loops and a hood are essential.
I’m not sure if this will help with hydration, but keeping exposed skin covered with sunblock is, of course, critical. I prefer thick zinc-oxide, since it’s easy to see when it’s worn off and time to re-apply.