Magnum Opus on Hydration
By: Pvt. Gregory

How many times have you formed up at ten a.m. for a battle that takes place at two p.m.? You march out; stand in the sun at a formation while the battalions form up. Stand around while a self-important buffoon makes a nonsensical “period” speech or perhaps a “period” prayer. Then we march off to the battle; sometimes close or sometimes really far away.

Once at the battle you wait in the sun. Then your line moves up. While this has been going on, you may have noticed fellow reenactors going down as heat casualties. Suddenly you don’t feel so well yourself.

The vast majority of our events take place in the summer months in what could be charitably described as a warm climate. In the course of my reenacting career I have seen more people carried off the field from heat related casualties than from any other cause.

Let’s look at the facts. We participate in events that could require us to stay in the sun for several hours during the summer in the south. We double-quick up and down the field, over hill and dale. We wear wool uniforms. On the face of it we don’t’ seem to do a lot of smart things.

You have no control over the weather. You have no control over the schedule for the event. The one thing you can do is to drink a lot of water.

Why should you be drinking a lot of water? Okay here’s your health lesson in case you were asleep in school.

Water is an essential nutrient and it is the single most abundant component of the human body. It makes up over 60% of your total body weight. Water helps to cushion the discs in your spine. It also helps lubricate joints.

Unlike a camel, a person cannot store water in his body. Water must be consumed regularly to ensure normal functioning of your body.

Water is found both inside and outside the cells of your body. Most water resides in muscle cells. Water in your body serves many important roles including but it is not limited to:

  1. It participates in digestion and absorption of nutrients.
  2. It aids in the excretion of waste products from the body.
  3. It is essential for maintaining blood circulation throughout the body.
  4. It maintains your body temperature.

In warm weather the average man loses 1.8 quarts of water through sweating and an additional .6 quarts of fluids from respiration per hour. Studies conducted at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine show that continuous exertion in warm weather can increase water loss to as much as 28 quarts (7 gallons) in a single day.

How do you lose this veritable Niagara Falls of water? There are four basic ways that you lose fluids. They are in no particular order

  1. Breathing
  2. Urine output
  3. Sweating
  4. Stool output

You are probably familiar with the term dehydration. How many times have you said, “Boy, am I dehydrated”? When exactly are you dehydrated?

Medically you are dehydrated when you have lost 2 % of your body weight in fluids. Let’s look at a table to examine percentages of body weigh loss and symptoms of dehydration.

Percentage of Body Weight versus Dehydration Symptoms

Body Weight Percentage Symptoms
0% None
1% Beginning to feel thirsty
2% Increasingly thirsty
3% Dry mouth, reduced urine output; reduced blood volume
4% Feeling sick or nauseous
5% Difficulty concentrating, sleepiness, headache

Okay let’s do a little math in relationship to the table above. As an example we use a reenactor with a body weight of 175 pounds. One percent of his body weight is 1.75 lbs.

We will use the earlier statement that during periods of activity in hot weather, the average man is capable of losing 2.4 quarts of water an hour.

Water weighs 8.33 lbs a gallon. There are 4 quarts in a gallon; therefore a quart of sweat weighs 2.085 lbs. According to our chart; a loss of 4 per cent of your body weight in fluid can cause you to become a heat casualty. 4 per cent of our reenactor‘s body weight is seven pounds. Seven pounds of water translates to three and some change quarts.

To sweat out 3 and some change quarts takes just under two hours. Simply put; dehydration is caused by failure to rehydrate on a regular basis. Rehydration is the act of replacing fluid in your body. Dehydration is a significant contributor to heat stress injuries. Dehydration can lead to heat exhaustion, which can progress to heat stroke. Severe dehydration can lead to cardiovascular failure and death.

As a side note, it is estimated that over one third of all American’s are chronically dehydrated.[1] Okay back to our health lesson. You are now going to be familiarized with some terms. The first term is water balance. Water balance is the term that defines whether you are hydrated or dehydrated. When you are hydrated you have a positive water balance. When you are dehydrated you have a negative water balance.

You have a built in indicator to tell if you are hydrated or dehydrated. Checking your urine is a surefire method to check your water balance. The darker your urine is; the more dehydrated you are. In addition if you are dehydrated your urine may have stronger odor. If you are inputting enough fluids your urine should be clear and odor free. Now I can hear everyone now. I don’t want to be whizzing every fifteen minutes. This issue will be addressed a little further on.

Now what should we be drinking to replace lost fluids? There are a lot of proponents of Gatorade® or other types of “sports” drinks. The claim is that they contain minerals and or carbohydrates that you will need to recover from periods of exertion. You can also hang out at sutler’s row and get yourself a big soda from a local concessionaire.

For some information on what you should be drinking check out the table below. The table will list the carbohydrate source of these sports drinks. The table will also list Sodium and Potassium levels. As you lose fluids you will also lose Electrolytes. Sodium and Potassium are among the elements that make up these electrolytes. These elements are vital in the regulation of your metabolism. Drinking these fluids will replace lost electrolytes; but not immediately. It takes hours if not days after ingestion for these elements to enter your system. We will discuss electrolytes a little later.

There is a term used in the table called Osmolality. You might remember the term osmosis from your science classes. Osmosis is defined as movement of a fluid as it passes through a membrane layer to an area of higher concentration (for example; water passing through a cell wall.)[2]

A simple rule of thumb concerning osmolality: The lower the number the easier it is for your body to actually absorb the fluid. Fluids with an osmolality number greater than 350 can cause stomach distress. What you can do is dilute these beverages with an equal amount of water.

Comparison of Fluid Replacement Beverages[3]

Beverage Carbohydrate Source & Concentration Sodium(mg) Potassium(mg) Other Nutrients Osmolality(mOsm/L)
Gatorade® 6% Sucrose/Glucose 110 25 Chloride, Phosphorus 280-360
Exceed® 7.2% Glucose Polymers/Fructose 50 45 Chloride, Calcium, Magnesium, Phosphorus 250
Body Fuel® 4.2% Maltodextrin/Fructose 80 20 Phosphorus, Chloride, Iron, Vitamins A, B,& C 210
10-K® 6.3% Sucrose/Glucose/Fructose 52 26 Phosphorus, Vitamin C, Chloride 350
Quickkick® 4.7% Fructose/Sucrose 116 23 Calcium, Chloride, Phosphorus 305
Coca Cola® 11% High Fructose Corn Syrup/Sucrose 9.2 Trace Phosphorus 600-715
Sprite® 10.2% High Fructose Corn Syrup/Sucrose 28 Trace ---- 695
Orange Juice 11.8% Fructose/Sucrose/Glucose 2.7 510 Calcium, Niacin, Iron, Vitmins A & C, Thiamin, Phosphorus, Riboflavin 690
Water ……. Low Low 10-20

So as you can see from the table the best possible stuff to pour down your neck hole is plain everyday water. Using the table we are going to have a discussion about electrolytes. Loss of electrolytes can lead to muscle cramping and excessive loss of electrolytes can have severe medical consequences.

You have probably heard the old folk advice about eating bananas in order to give yourself extra levels of potassium. A banana is an excellent food source of potassium; but you need to understand something about human physiology. The human body is not a long-term storage locker with little compartments for various nutrients. The only thing your body stores in excess is fat. All excess levels of nutrients and chemicals are simply flushed from the body. So outside of our spare tires we have no backup of any nutritional item.

There is currently a propaganda war going on by manufacturers of “sport drinks.” The claim is that while water is good only “sports drinks” prevent a condition known as hyponatremia. This condition is a result of extreme loss of electrolytes in your body. This is a serious medical problem as electrolytes help regulate brain activity and control cardiac functions.

In an 8-ounce portion of any fluid the maximum amount of electrolyte that can be absorbed are 165 mg of Sodium and 46 mg of Potassium. Any amount above these levels is wasted. You need to look at the ingredient label on any bottle of a “fluid replacement beverage” you drink. The National Academy of Science recommends that chloride be the only other electrolyte accompanying Sodium and Potassium.[4]

Now that you have been given some scientific knowledge about hydration; the question remains, how much water should you drink and how often?

Studies have indicated than in warm weather (read most of the reenacting season) you should be drinking at least one cup of water every half hour. That’s right one tin cup every half-hour. You might say to yourself “Wow! “That is a lot of water. How am I going to drink all that water?”

All you need to do is keep a filled tin cup close at hand. “As you are sitting chatting with your messmates passing time away;” to quote a familiar tune you can sip on your cup of water. While you are cooking your meal, keep drinking from that cup.

Let’s have a little discussion about canteens. Canteens of the Civil came in all shapes and sizes. Just documenting the profusion of canteens that were available would be a lifetime research job. As a general rule most canteens of the period were generally a one or two quart model; either wood or tin. The most common seems to be the federal style; either smooth sided or a bullseye type that holds two quarts.

You are about to be introduced to one of Gregory’s rules of reenacting. This rule is very simple. It’s called the EMPTY CANTEEN RULE. As often as you can; empty the contents of that canteen into yourself. Before every evolution you should empty your canteen and then refill it so that you have a full canteen for the evolution. Now while that evolution is going on you should be working on emptying that canteen.

As an example; the unit is going out for a morning drill session, which the good captain has said, should not last more than an hour. Before you go form up; you should have drank the contents of your canteen and refilled so that you have a full canteen. At every opportunity during that hour you should take a regular drink from your canteen. By the time the drill is over you are on your way back to camp you should have an empty canteen swinging at your hip and as soon as you are dismissed from drill, a water run should be organized to refill those dry canteens.

Should you trust event organizers to have adequate water supplies on hand? I would trust them about as far as you can toss a sutler’s tent. Several years ago I purchased two collapsible five-gallon water containers. I fill these containers at home. I also fill my canteen(s) at home. I keep a second canteen in the area of the camp and it has proven very handy in the past.

The time to start hydrating is not Saturday morning. It is a process that takes several days. What you need to do is at least one week prior to the event start pushing fluids into yourself at every opportunity. At a minimum you need to get at least 64 ounces of water a day. This is on top of the cups of coffee, tea, soda or whatever else you drink. The caffeine in most of our drinks acts as a diuretic. A diuretic forces water out of your system; which if we are trying to hydrate is a little self-defeating. As part of your planning just add a cup of water for every cup of coffee or can of soda.

When you start drinking extra fluids you will notice some bodily changes. At first if will seem as if you have to urinate about every fifteen minutes or so. If you stay with the program what will happen is that after a few days as your body’s cells absorb the water the urge to urinate will lessen. So if you start hydrating a couple of weeks before the event and keep at it you will find that you do not need to visit the little reenactor’s room at a crucial moment in the reenactment.

The Israeli military which has forgotten more about fighting in hot weather than most people will ever learn have a saying that every reenactor should take to heart “Hydrate, Dehydrate, Rehydrate.”

Works cited:

[1]Power Eating; 2nd edition Susan Klieiner, Ph.D. Human Kinetics Press Berkley, CA

[2]Merriam Webster New Collegiate Dictionary 10th edition

[3]The Navy SEAL Nutrition Guide Patricia A. Duester PhD., Anita Singh, PhD., Pierre a. Pelletier, ENS, MC, USNR; Department of Military and Emergency Medicine, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences F. Edward Hebert School of Medicine 1994

[4]The Navy SEAL Nutrition Guide Patricia A. Duester PhD., Anita Singh, PhD., Pierre a. Pelletier, ENS, MC, USNR; Department of Military and Emergency Medicine, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences F. Edward Hebert School of Medicine 1994

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