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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Dangers of Hyponatremia and the Need For Electrolyte Replacement

It's that time of year when things are starting to heat up in our Southwestern Deserts and daily water consumption rates for those of us in the outdoors will only increase.

One danger with consuming too much water is Hyponatremia- also called water poisoning or water intoxication. Like heat-exhaustion which results from not enough water intake, hyponatremia can be life-threatening (remember the lady in Sacramento who died in her kitchen during a radio-show contest to see who could consume the most water in 2 hours).
A lush spring that trickles out of the side of a cliff near Flagstaff, AZ. This was put in by the cowboys nearly a century ago.

We see cases of hyponatremia all the time at our nearby "survival labratory" - the Grand Canyon. Here dayhikers venturing into the innards of the Canyon and contending with triple-digit heat, are consuming too much water without replacing lost electrolytes. A few hours into the hike, they are nauseous, have cramps, headache, and maybe an altered level of consciousness. In the wilderness medical community, you will notice what's called the "umbles" where the person is stumbling, mumbling, and fumbling as their thermoregulatory ability goes haywire.

Technically, you are hydrated and peeing clear fluid but internally your electrolytes have been diluted from over-consumption of water and that's where things can go downhill. Every time you pee, you are flushing the sodium and potassium out and in a hot-weather environment like the desert where water rates might be 4-5 gallons a day per person, you must replace those lost electrolytes!

The solution: get some quality electrolyte replacement powders (ie, not Gatorade which is low in sodium and has too much dye and sugar) such as GU2O, Vitalyte (my preferred), Clif Bloks, or Camelback tablets. The key is to balance your water intake with electrolyte replacement while you exert yourself.

Sometimes, I will just bring bananas and salty chips in the truck and use those if I am car-camping. For every hour of working/hiking in the heat, I will have a handful of the above snacks with my water. This is what a lot of my ranching friend do here in AZ.

At the end of the day, I will also add some extra salt into my dinner or campfire meals. We do this on all of our survival courses this time of year and during the summer when we are out, 'round the clock, for ten days in 110 degree heat. That's also why I recommend carrying Bullion Cubes in the survival kit as it helps with replacing sodium and spruces up nasty backcountry water sources.

Again, you have to compensate for lost electrolytes in the heat or your body will suffer. Most folks who venture into the heat of the desert or tropics, know they have to bring plenty of water and be aware of heat-exhaustion but often fail to include the all-important electrolytes and forget about the risks of Hyponatremia. Your survival and equilibrium are dependent on both water and electrolytes.

Get some different replacement powders from the local gear shop and try 'em out (some are tastier than others) and then stuff a bunch into your vehicle, BOB, and survival kit.

Stay cool,

Tony Nester
Ancient Pathways Survival School, LLC

About Ancient Pathways

Tony Nester is the author of numerous books and DVDs on survival. His school Ancient Pathways is the primary provider of survival training for the Military Special Operations community and he has served as a consultant for the NTSB, Travel Channel, Backpacker Magazine, and the film Into the Wild. When not on the trail, he lives in a passive-solar, strawbale home in northern Arizona. For information on Tony’s books, gear, or bushcraft courses, visit

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