Everything you need to know about hydration

By Ian Carroll
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You, like many people, may have thought that camels can live longer than any other animal without water. After all, what are all those humps for anyway? Well, they aren’t full of water, and there are a lot of animals that can outlast a camel on a dry day.

Humans can only last a measly three days without water. When compared to camels, which can go fifteen days without water, we seem pretty vulnerable. But if you consider the kangaroo mouse (which is neither a mouse nor a kangaroo) which can go for its entire five-year life without drinking a single drop of water, things are put into perspective.

So how do other members of the animal kingdom hydrate, and what’s the secret to conserving water for so long? How do we metabolize our most precious resource? And are there any tricks to staying hydrated while you’re outdoor exercising? 

What’s so important about water?

A lot of people know that our body is about 60 percent water. At least, it is by weight. Some parts of our body contain more than others, but simply put, water is the most essential part of the human body and the most vital resource to our survival.

Water makes up most of our planet, as well as most of our bodies.

Why water? Why not some other molecule or element that is rich on the planet? Well, the big answer to that is really complicated. But simply put, we sort of evolved from water. The first, single-celled organisms were basically evolved combinations of water and other molecules.

And although scientists have speculated about noncarbon-based life, free of the need for water, none have yet been observed on Earth or anywhere else in the universe. Perhaps someday we’ll find some, but for now, water is what makes everything work.

Animals and hydration

Every animal stays hydrated in different ways, too. Bodies are complicated and it takes a lot of parts working in perfect harmony to keep everything in order. There are numerous factors that cause the body to lose water, and just as many ways that animal’s bodies have adapted to conserve or collect it.

Camels evolved in the desert to be able to store water in fat deposits inside of their humps.

Take camels, for example. Everyone thinks their humps are like big coconuts evolved on their backs, probably sloshing with water they can survive off of in the hot desert. Wrong! Their humps are, in fact, filled with fat, which is a much more efficient way to store water. Camels do use these reserves when they need to go for long periods without water. They can usually go six or seven days without drinking water in the desert.

Giraffes actually use a similar means of fat storage to go up to 15 days at a time without drinking water. When they do finally fill their tanks back up, so to speak, they can drink as much as 12 gallons without breaking a sweat!

The kangaroo rat is small and is neither a rat nor a kangaroo. Go figure.

Perhaps the craziest in all the animal kingdom, though, is the kangaroo rat, which lives out its entire five-year life without once drinking a drop of water. Or at least, most of them do. They do this by converting moisture directly from their food source, which is mostly seeds.

Sports hydration

Endurance athletes have refined hydration to a fine science these days. Just check out the supplements and snacks aisle of your local outdoor store. You’ll be overwhelmed by space goo, gummy tabs, energy chews, and hydration packets. It might seem like the typical onslaught of consumeristic product development. However, there’s actually great science behind most of those special powders, gels, and capsules.

Sports drinks can be taken on the trail in powder form. It is compact and critical for intense exercise.

It may seem counterintuitive, but hydrating isn’t as simple as drinking water. In fact, under extreme circumstances, you can actually make yourself sick from drinking too much water even while your body is dehydrated. That’s because your body needs salts in order to regulate fluids in our body.

Going about your average day, you likely maintain a normal sodium level easily. However, 12 miles into a marathon, your body will be craving salt. If you don’t give it some, you’ll start to feel really bad really fast.

Dehydration can be a serious issue in the back country.

I’ve taken more than a few pages from marathon runner’s playbooks. Any high-level endurance athlete is going to have their hydration pretty dialed. It’s something I didn’t understand very well or take very seriously until I took up distance running and entered my first trail race. I find that any time I’m going to be exercising for more than an hour or two, hydration is the biggest factor in how good I feel at the end.

Hydration tips

So what’s the secret? What’s the scoop?

Well, hydration starts 24 hours before activity. Hydration shouldn’t be a process of catching up to water loss; it should be a process of maintaining a hydrated state. If you have a big race tomorrow, don’t wait until you’re stretching to start hydrating. You should be peeing clear the day before the race. Many runners actually limit their fluid intake in the hours right before a run so they don’t have to pee as quickly.

hardest race in the world
Ultramarathon runners have some of the most advanced hydration techniques out there.

Before heavy exertion, drink an electrolyte drink or sports drink. Again, hydration comes before the exertion. Bananas also are a favorite food of runners because of their high potassium content. In combination with sodium, potassium is responsible for fluid regulation. Muscle cramps after long runs are usually associated with potassium and sodium deficiencies.

Run with a bladder or buy a vest. Any way that you can make it easier to carry more water and more convenient to drink, it is the best way to stay hydrated running or doing anything for that matter. A lot of ultra runners will have mini bottles on their vest filled with electrolyte sports drinks and a bladder filled with water. Alternating between the two is usually the best way to maximize your performance.

So now that you know what water is all about, why we need it, and how to maximize it, go out there and exercise. Take a couple of these tips on the trails. And next time you see a camel, give him some water; he might be thirsty.

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