Why Water Is Good Travel Medicine

If you’re arriving in Europe this summer for a Wheel & Anchor tour, you might need to form a new relationship with your water-bottle.

It’s a proper scorcher over here: temperatures in Italy, Spain and Greece right now are consistently in the high 30s and low 40s Celsius (95-110 F), and France, Germany and Poland look to be next in line. But then, it’s set to be a hot year all the way round the world, fuelled by the latest phase of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation cycle of winds and surface sea temperatures in the Pacific (this warm phase of it is nicknamed simply “El Niño”), intensified by the increasingly sultry world climate..

The result of this is something you’ll feel the moment you step off the plane – and if you don’t take precautions, it might ruin your whole trip.

In his latest update from Austria, Gordon said this:

“We all know we’re not supposed to take health for granted, but the effect of having good health is that your awareness is generally directed toward all the wonderful things good health lets you do, and not toward all the negative thoughts and feelings around its absence.

On the whole I think this is 80% the right approach – it would be a terrible waste of one’s vitality to spend it thinking too much about losing it. So yes, make hay while the sun shines, smile while you still have teeth, and travel as much as you can while you are able to!

The key is to give proper attention to that other 20% as well, which is where prudence and not taking things for granted comes in. That entails eating healthily, sleeping appropriately, and making sure we’re moving and looking after ourselves enough to keep the 80% going full steam.”

So here’s some advice that fits into that 20%, inspired by conditions like Europe’s experiencing right now (because if there’s one predictable thing about travel, it’s that you never quite know what the weather will be doing when you arrive).

First, the big one: that three-fifths of our bodies that we’re all spectacularly bad at looking after. 

Many lack sufficient water intake, essential for three-fifths of our body
Many lack sufficient water intake, essential for three-fifths of our body

Multiple studies have concluded that within the United States alone, 75% of adults are chronically dehydrated – not just a parched day here and there, but as an ongoing feature of their lifestyles. And of course that’s the rest of us as well. 

You probably already know what dehydration feels like, especially if you’re an experience globetrotter who has been caught on a hot bus for hours without enough drinking water, or stayed out in the delicious sunshine a bit too long to find that familiar ice-pick headache jabbing behind your eyes…

(Fun story: in 2016 I spent two months in a wooden cabin in the north of Portugal in temperatures of 40 C / 104 F, and being a cold-weather Brit unaccustomed to the creeping signs of chronic dehydration, I managed to land myself with full-blown heat exhaustion and a grinding headache that lasted a full 2 weeks. I would not wish this upon your holiday. Not a bit of it.) 

The problem is – we’re used to only drinking water when we’re thirsty. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work? Wouldn’t our bodies tell us? 

Nope. This is probably why everyone’s chronically dehydrated – because dehydration is all about your body going haywire, giving you entirely the wrong signals,and furnishing you with the kind of woozy lightheadedness where you’re going to make a lot of potentially very foolish decisions. You’re not going to be aware of how much you’re water-depleted – because the first thing that goes is your awareness of how much trouble you’re in.

Dehydration should be avoided by all
Dehydration should be avoided by all

So here’s a simple fix that will keep you safe, happy, healthy and upright:

Start treating water like it’s medication.

If you’re used to drinking water when you feel like it, switch your thinking around so you’re regulating it. Give yourself a target to aim for, take it as seriously as prescribed medicine, and make sure you’re monitoring your progress towards it. 

This could be simple as carrying a one-litre water bottle around with you, and saying to yourself, “okay, I need to drink two/three/four of these today.” The actual amount you’ll need will vary, because everyone’s a little different (Harvard Health has some specific tips here for tailoring your amount to your needs) – but generally speaking, women should try to drink 2.5 to 3 litres and men something north of that, while factoring in the water ingested through food and drink.

My other half (who is a doctor) would like to add: you should also hike this target a little higher if you’re doing a lot of walking around in the heat. This leads into the other big factor here: what your skin is doing. The amount you sweat isn’t just lost water – it’s salty water. You’re losing precious salts as you sweat. You’re probably going to replenish those as you eat (after all, Wheel & Anchor tours are all about the good eating), but for really hot days where you’re sweating a lot, you may want a sweet & salty boost. Keep a pack of hydration powders in your bag to add to a liter or two of your daily water allowance. 

(I rely on these, available at pretty much every pharmacy in Britain – but you’ll find a version of them everywhere, including in handy candy-like tablet form.)

Animals recognize the importance of hydration; so should we.
Animals recognize the importance of hydration; so should we.

Finally, there’s what you’re wearing.

Last week, the New York Times ran a story on a new type of white paint that can reflect 98.1% of incoming sunlight – and it contained the following stop-you-in-your-tracks paragraph:

“If materials such as Purdue’s ultra-white paint were to coat between 1 percent and 2 percent of the Earth’s surface, slightly more than half the size of the Sahara, the planet would no longer absorb more heat than it was emitting, and global temperatures would stop rising.”

Obviously this is wildly impractical (uh, exactly how much paint would that require?) but it nicely demonstrates the cooling power of a white surface. This means you’re probably better off wearing lighter colours – but there’s some fascinating dissent over this, because it fails to explain why Bedoins wear black robes in hot deserts (here’s a scientific paper on it). 

However, what’s certain is you’ll definitely want something soft and breathable next to your skin if you’re in the heat for any length of time – something that wicks away moisture and allows airflow. Choose comfort over style, and pick things that let the air move over your skin as you walk. 

(Oh, and chaps, if you’re follicularly challenged like me, don’t forget your hat – sunburn on a bald spot is brutal.

Wherever your travels take you this year, I hope you stay hydrated. If you keep that liquid 60% of you happy, I bet the rest of you will be too.

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