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Tarpon 140 - Chinaman's Hat, Oahu 2004Hyponatremia VS Hydration For Kayakers
by Athena Holtey

A Kayaker's Guide to Understanding Hydration & Preventing Dehydration, Heat Exhaustion & Hyponatremia - (Too much water)

Healthy fluid intake is a challenge to many of us. Balancing those fluids properly while kayaking is more than just a challenge...it is life saving. Paddler's & hikers can and have died trying to get healthy in the wild, not just from the commonly understood state of dehydration, but from heat exhaustion, or an unhealthy rise in body temperature, and electrolyte loss from over-drinking water, or hyponatremia. At their worst these conditions can lead to severe, life threatening shock. More commonly, and of important concern to all kayakers, they lead to fatigue, cloudy thinking, poor performance and errors in judgment that may put us at jeopardy. I'll share in this article some of the risk factors that set us up for injury or illness from an imbalance of fluid intake in our enjoyment of paddling. I'll also attempt to de mystify the varied recommendations for maintaining good stamina, a clear mind, safety and physical comfort while paddling.


Salty or Electrolyte Snacks & Hyponatremia or Water Intoxication
We've all heard the warning not to be tempted to drink ocean water when bobbing around in our bright colored PFD waiting for rescue, while watching our beautifully outfitted kayak drift away on the swells. This is because the salt is so concentrated that our kidneys will want to flush out more water than we've gulped down, resulting in a state of dehydration. Rescue may come, but will we last? So then why all the fuss about maintaining salt levels in the body or rather electrolytes of which salt is a major player? launchThe USATF (USA Track & Field) 2003 guidelines respond to recent research declaring that loss of electrolytes (sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium etc.) contributes more to risk of injury than dehydration. This loss occurs from drinking too much water that washes electrolytes away, through sweating or urinating, faster than they can be replaced. In other words:
  • Salt + no or little water = dehydration = poor stamina / disorientation / shock / death
  • No Salt + lots of water = hyponatremia = poor stamina / disorientation / shock / death
Signs & Prevention Of Hyponatremia
Electrolyte balance is critical for the body to regulate hydration as well as nerve and muscle function. An unhealthy loss of electrolytes causes the body - and brain - to swell. Watch out for:
  • a progressively worsening headache
  • loss of coordination while paddling
  • slurred speech
  • bloating
  • swelling of the hands and feet (rings, watches, shoes may feel tight)

snacksWater intoxication, as it is often called, can also mimic the signs of heat stroke such as nausea, vomiting, extreme fatigue, respiratory distress, dizziness, confusion, disorientation, coma and seizures. If your urine is colorless or very pale, then you may be drinking either enough or too much. The USATF recommends drinking only when thirsty, as opposed to their previous insistence that if you wait until thirsty you are already dehydrated. They recommend choosing sport drinks over water. I don't think this is a ploy by the sport drink corporations to lure us away from our water bottles. Deaths and severe injuries have occurred to normally hydrated marathon walkers in these studies. In fact they suggest that we don't need to drink as much fluids at all as previously recommended.

However, kayakers, unlike marathon walkers, can snack their way through the day. Eating snacks or foods that provide electrolytes include peanuts and sunflower seeds, of course, but also bullion based soups, dill pickles, string cheese, tomato juice, yogurt, raisins, and crackers. Just check the labels in the grocery store while stocking up. For the purist, almonds, walnuts, an orange or bananna, bag of grapes or carrot sticks in a zip lock...the list is really endless. Electrolyte drinks can be homemade by using the correct proportions of sugar, salt and water if you want to go to the trouble. So:

  • Salty snacks + hydration fluids = good stamina / clear thinking / A great time on the water
Carrying a packet of drink mix, like powdered Gatorade in your dry bag for times you don't feel "quite right" is an idea for water lovers like myself & it is recommended we drink 1 bottle of electrolyte type drink for every 2 bottles of water when in doubt.
A simple procedure for staying aware of how well we are balancing intake of water vs electrolytes has been modified here as it works for me as a casual kayak tourer. Since gaining weight during your paddle day could be a sign of developing hyponatremia and losing weight is a sign of dehydration, do this:
  • Take in some "salty" or electrolyte snacks/fruits/vegetables before the paddle
  • Weigh yourself before you dawn PFD & Paddle clothing
  • Be aware of your intake of salty snacks while paddling
  • Follow the USATF guidelines that suggest you drink only when thirsty
  • Be aware of how much you sweat & that high humidity & wicking sportswear can mask perspiration
  • Weigh yourself when you return
  • Eat snacks, but don't drink a lot of plain water after your day is done
You should not have gained or loss weight. I know, I know...well then, you say: "What's the point in kayaking for fitness?" This is more about water weight loss and gain. I lost eight pounds in eight hours from persperation alone during a day I was very ill, so I know this is really possible and very compromising. Two important notes: 1. Do check with your health professional if you are on a sodium restrained diet. 2. It is suggested that pain-relievers such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, aspirin, and naprosyn - NSAIDS - may contribute to developing hyponatremia during exercise. Ask your doctor or avoid or monitor them before and during your paddle excursions.
Oswegatchie Canoe Carry - Adirondacks, NYDehydration
Dehydration is when your body loses water at a rate faster than you can replace it. This can happen in cold as well as warm conditions. Most of us understand the common early symptoms of dehydration: thirst & maybe a headache. When out kayaking, enjoying the sites and adventures that present themselves, for hours on lake or ocean with little opportunity for shade or shelter, signs of dehydration include:
  • irritability.
  • lightheadedness
  • dry mouth
  • anxious
  • confused
  • faint or sleepy
  • have a weak, rapid pulse
  • cold clammy or hot dry skin
If you pull off for a "pit stop" notice if your urine is very dark yellow or if you go for very long periods without having to urinate at all - you are dehydrated. Sweating must be stopped by cooling down. Remove unnecessary clothing and get into shade if possible. Do not rehydrate with plain water if this can be avoided. As stated above, plain water and sweat can wash away valuable electrolytes. Carrying a packet of electrolyte beverage powder, such as Gatorade in your first aid kit will allow you to help slowly replace lost fluids. Severe dehydration results in shock or loss of consciousness and requires immediate medical attention. Towing the individual to the nearest landing where help can be secured may be necessary.
Heat Exhaustion
Paddle cool. Your body is constantly trying to maintain a balance in temperature. Heat exhaustion happens when it can't get rid of excess heat. Too much heat results in, you guessed it:
  • poor paddling performance
  • poor judgment leading to risky situations
  • at its worse: heat stroke.
racingSweating and respiration are important functions of the body that strive to achieve balance.
  • Don't over exert
  • Don't overdress
Hats keep the sun off, but body heat in, so find a hat with some netting or grommets that let air flow, or just remove and replace your hat as needed. As sit-on-top kayakers we have the advantage of jumping off to cool off. Do it and roll yourself around to make sure you do cool down. Dipping the top of your head in the water or if you don't want to jump in, just cupping some lake/ocean water in your hat and pouring it over the top of your head is another way to cool down.

Choose clothing that works for the circumstances you are in, or may find yourself in. I always have an alternative outfit or a place I can reach while paddling to properly store the layers "peeled off" when the need, or heat, arises. See Tom's well illustrated article Watersports Clothing: A BUYER'S GUIDE FOR KAYAKERS Also worth studying is his article on Hypothermia as the same principles apply in understanding how body heat is lost and saved.

Sodas, Coffee & Tea
Sodas are "OK" but contain little sodium, interfere in someway with calcium absorption and so essentially have no electrolyte value. Some sodas, like Coke, Mt Dew or Dr. Pepper, are caffeinated like coffee and some teas which makes them a diuretic, as well, and depending on how big a part of your fluid intake they represent may counter your hydration efforts.
Wine & Beer
Save them for evenings around the campfire. Even then wine & beer are also diuretics that will impact your body chemistry. Just keep mindful to balance such fluids with water and "salty" snacks. Not such a challenge for most of you guys - balancing salty snacks and beer? You can have fun and common sense too.
Climate Factors
Different climates present different risk factors for dehydration and heat exhaustion.
  • Cold Climates Craig Stenstrom Santa Cruz Surf Fest
    Kayakers dress for the waters, and sometimes the water is cold despite the fact that the sun may be beating down around us. If we are all "bundled up" it is important to be aware of our hydration plan or fluid and electrolyte intake vs perspiration. Wicking wear under a wet or dry suit can make us feel more comfortable by wicking that sweat away; but if the body is sweating it is trying to cool down. Over heating can be prevented by taking off our hat now and then and cooling down our head and face with the cool waters we paddle in. In fall or colder months we usually paddle with a fleece lined cap under a sun hat. Sometimes just removing the fleece liner from time to time while paddling is a big help in cooling down. Follow the basic hydration protocol outlined for moderate climates below. See Cold Water Kayaking for cold climate paddle wear recommendations.

  • Moderate or Tropical Climates
    Here is good basic hydration protocol:
    • Carry enough water, fluids and salty snacks to get where you are going.
    • Dress in layers with easy access to storing and retrieving those layers.
    • Maintain a comfortable level of exertion, monitoring perspiration, performance level, and stamina.
    • Keep dry & comfortable in your paddling clothes.
    • Bring along a water purification system or tablets.
    • Keep electrolyte powder drink packets in hand as a back up.

  • Desert Climates Bill Timothy's Lake Powell Journal
    Certainly desert kayaking requires careful preparation and planning. Local outfitters should be pursued, in fact harassed, for information about the waters you will paddle. Since Benjamin Franklin first reported on his experiment of laying colored fabric swatches in the snow to prove they absorb heat in lessening degrees, dark to light, most folks are aware that black is hotter to wear in the summer than white. Unfortunately, most kayak wear and gear is black. Choose light colors, not forsaking your standard safety colors where possible. Do make sure you have a water purification system with you on such a paddle as a back up for your onboard water supply. Follow the basic hydration protocol for moderate climates above.
There is plenty written about this on the web. Make sure your resources are current. As with anything else, some study is bound to come out with additional supportive or contradictory advice. We hope you will let us know if so and we will do our best to keep this report current for the kayaker. I welcome any corrections to my research on this subject.
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