Electrolyte Packets for Travel or Survival?

This post began as a reply to a user comment questioning the claims made in this article on Lifehacker: Why You Should Add Electrolyte Packets to Your Outdoor Survival Kit. This is mostly focused on survival strategy, overlapping with travel advice.

Probably the most medically established use for electrolyte supplementation is in oral rehydration therapy, advocated by the World Health Organization and UNICEF, which uses ORS (Oral Rehydration Solution) — a mixture of salt and sugar in specific proportions, sometimes including potassium, intended for use by people suffering from diarrhea and/or vomiting, which, if the fluid loss is severe enough, can lead to severe dehydration and death. If you’re American you may know of PediaLyte, which is essentially a pre-mixed oral rehydration solution with some added colors and flavoring. ORS packets are basically the same thing in powder form, thus making it much easier to transport. In many developing countries you can buy ORS packets cheaply at local pharmacies, and in the US it’s readily available through online retailers including Amazon (I would suggest this product for it’s low price per packet, as other products are running around $7/packet). Note that these formulations are similar to electrolyte products marketed to athletes (i.e. Gatorade) but different in the proportions of salt and sugar used (thus not quite ideal for this medical purpose).

From a travel perspective, if you’ll be traveling in developing countries where foodborne illness is more common and there’s a good chance that you’ll get sick, it would make sense to have some ORS packets on hand.  Whether you buy them locally once you arrive or order them and have them packed in your bag before you leave on your travels, it’s good to have a packet or two at the ready in case you fall sick in the middle of the night, when pharmacies are closed, or if you’re traveling alone and not feeling well enough to make a trip to the pharmacy (we are talking about diarrhea, after all).

There’s a case to be made for having ORS packets on hand in a wilderness survival situation as well, i.e. if you get sick from consuming tainted stream water. Obviously though, the better solution is to not get sick in the first place, so for me that means you should give priority in your survival kit to water purification tablets and means for creating fire and boiling water. You don’t want to be making ORS with tainted water which may only make you more sick, and you need clean water regardless of whether you’re sick or not.

Beyond getting a severe case of diarrhea, there are two things to consider regarding the need for some kind of electrolyte solution in a survival situation: 1. general hydration and 2. the body’s need for salt (sodium) and some form of sugar (carbohydrates). Regarding hydration, while sports drink companies would love for you to believe that their product hydrates you better than just water after a workout, the case for this is weak — that according to Harvard Medical School. One could make the case for needing electrolyte replacement after strenuous physical activity and sweating heavily, but if you’re doing any such activity that is causing heavy sweating in a survival situation, something ill-advised by survival experts, I hope to God that you have an abundant supply of potable water at your disposal (which goes back to my point above that water purification tablets above) as well as plenty of food to replenish those calories. (Survival shows often point out that the calories used to find food can often exceed the calories you gain from consuming it.)

As for your body’s daily needs, first sodium: you need a tiny amount (250-500mg) of sodium per day, which you can get from about 1 gram of salt (1/6th of a teaspoon). If you have any food, chances are you’re getting some if not all the sodium you need from your food source, which means you probably don’t need to worry about supplementing. If you don’t have food… well, there’s a bigger issue there, starting with carbohydrates.

You need about .7 ounces or 20 grams of carbohydrates per day to avoid ketosis, a state in which blood glucose levels are so low that your body starts breaking down fat for energy. This is a state that some people actively try to achieve through low-carb diets, but it can result in symptoms of fatigue, headache and nausea (I suspect in cases where the onset is sudden). Having experimented with cleanses and fasting before, I can say from my own experience that after 36 hours without any calorie intake whatsoever (just water) I started feeling what were basically flu-like symptoms — symptoms which prompted me to start spiking my water with juice to get some sugar in me, which pretty quickly made those flu-like symptoms start to disappear. Would ORS packets prevent this? Well, given the choice of drinking just water for 48 hours and just ORS solution in a survival situation, I think anyone would choose the ORS solution. But the thing is, I’m pretty sure that eating an apple or an energy bar would make me feel better as well. Something else to consider is that, while you might feel lousy if you have nothing but water, that feeling may be temporary and pass (once your body switches over to using your fat cells for energy). We know of cases where people lived for weeks on nothing but water, i.e. Ghandi, who only took sips of water for 21 days during one of his hunger strikes. The difference here is that in a survival situation, you may not be able to afford feeling lousy, assuming no one knows you’re missing and is out looking for you.

The point here is that, while an ORS packet might help in a survival situation, it shouldn’t be put into your survival kit at the expense of more important items, as it’s been pretty well documented that you can survive without them. Would they be a good addition if you have space and they’ll just be in your car while you’re camping? Sure. Should you bring a stack of them on your hike deep into the wilderness? Personally, I’d pass in favor of more real food and backup water purification supplies.

Finally, if you’re the DIY type, note that you can easily make your own ORS mix using salt and sugar. It’s important to note that you must have the correct ratios of sugar and salt to water (and for this reason, you should always follow the instructions if you use a packet). This makes sense when you consider an often told bit of survival wisdom: never drink seawater if you’re stranded at sea, because it will only further dehydrate you. Why? The salt concentration in seawater is much higher than that of your body, so the excess salt will literally suck water out of your body’s cells (a process known as osmosis), which you’ll then urinate out to expel that excess salt.

Comments? Please drop a line if I got something wrong or you have something to add!