Any mountain local will tell you that hydration is a key element to having a great time in the mountains. As a high-altitude resident or visitor, have you ever stopped to wonder why we are repeatedly reminded to drink up?
To get specific, what exactly is the link between hydration and altitude? From a physiological standpoint, what effect does high altitude have on our bodies that the solution is to drink more water? I intended to find out.
After an online search, I quickly determined the answers I sought weren't going to be located on general medical sites. When discussing the topic with friends, a buddy's reply was "Water. H2O. Two parts oxygen. Duh."
Hmm, somehow I didn't think the answer was quite that simple. So, I contacted the folks at Byers Peak Family Medicine in Winter Park to provide some insight. Justin Holt, a visiting junior medical student for Dr. Glancey and Dr. Kennedy at BPFM, was happy to help out.
RR: So Justin, from a medical point of view, why are we always telling visitors to hydrate?
JH: "Being at elevation is quite a different environment than being at sea-level, or even down in Denver ... In terms of lack of oxygen, we increase our ventilation to make up for it."
RR: So we have to breathe more [at elevation]. Got it. But what does that have to do with hydration?
JH: "We actually lose a lot of water through respiration."
RR: What? How much?
His answer astounded me. We lose almost as much water through our lungs (breathing) as we do through our skin. As an example, Justin reported that in a typical day for a normal adult, the sources of "obligatory water output" are as follows:
∞ Skin = 500 mL
∞ Urine = 500 mL
∞ Respiratory tract = 400 mL
To my eye, it looks like on an average day we lose almost as much water just through breathing as we do through sweating and urinating. At altitude, we're breathing more, so already losing more water. Couple that with other dehydration opportunities (sweating more from physical exertion (skiing, snowboarding, and the like), alcohol (apres ski cocktails), caffeine, etc.), and you have the age-old advice for the mountains: Drink plenty of water.
The list of hydration systems is as long as the list of activities we love in the mountains: Single use. Metal. BPA-free plastic. Collapsible. Double-walled/insulated. Flip-top bite valve versus screw-top. In-bottle filtration. 16 ounce, 32 ounce, 64 ounce and more.
Which works best? The short answer is whichever system will get you drinking more water. Hate straws? The good old-fashioned twist-top bottle will probably be your best bet. If, however, you prefer a spill-proof option, a bottle with a bite-valve is the perfect fit for you. Other readers will appreciate a backpack reservoir system, with the handy option of an insulated or non-insulated tube for the appropriate season.
The key is to find a system that will allow you to have water nearby at all times, regardless of your chosen outdoor activity or adventure. My experience is that I just can't seem to stray from my beat-up sticker-laden Nalgene ®. No matter how much more convenient, hygienic, or logical a different system may be, I prefer to have my lime green bottle handy and drink from that first.
People have preferences. Find out what yours is, and you'll be more likely to down H2O more often.
With that, welcome to Mountain Musings, readers. This column will investigate quirks, curiosities, and other explorations into the plethora of adventures available to us right outside our doors. While I've been lucky enough to call Fraser Valley home for longer than three years, I still have much to learn about high mountain activities and look forward to passing that information along to you. Thanks for coming along for the ride!
Rachel Rannow is Sales and Marketing Manager for Breeze at Ski Depot in Winter Park. She loves every bit of Grand County living, and her hobbies include hiking, reading, snowboarding, laughing and yoga. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.