The advantages of salt pills for hunting
While hunting, we extend an exorbitant amount of energy. That energy expenditure starts when we step foot out of the truck and doesn’t end until the last gamebag full of meat is in the cooler and through all of that hiking, we are sweating. Sweating results in the loss of electrolytes (sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium). That loss of electrolytes can lead to muscle fatigue and cramping over the duration of a long hunt.
Over the years I have tried several methods for replenishing lost electrolytes (mainly different powder drink mixes). And this year I started using salt pills made by SaltStick on all my scouting and hunting trips with great results. Salt pills are used by many endurance athletes, and if they are good enough for high-intensity mountain races, I feel they are perfect for hunting.
Using salt pills for hunting
For my style of hunting, popping a few salt capsules is way more efficient than trying to mix electrolyte powders. Don't get me wrong, a lot of the powders can help, but for me, I don't like to pack around a bunch of powder in a Ziploc bag. That bag could tear in my backpack, and involves dirtying up a collapsible water bottle, bladder or Nalgene bottle. Some people might like the added taste boost to water with powders, but remember that I do go by the "food is fuel, not fun" mentality on most hunts, so I don't really feel the need to flavor up my water while hunting.
During days when I am expecting a big hike, I'll pop two capsules with water roughly every 60 minutes of strenuous activity and then a capsule after I stop a big hike. This method greatly helps replenish essential nutrients lost to sweat and works very well for me. Keep in mind that according to SaltStick's website, they don't recommend taking more than 10 capsules a day. I've been using their regular SaltStick Caps, but you can also get the SaltStick Caps PLUS that have an added caffeine boost. I haven't tried the PLUS caps yet, but for me, the higher amounts of electrolyte in the regular caps were my deciding factor in which one to purchase. SaltStick Caps have the following ingredients: 215 mg sodium, 63 mg potassium, 22 mg calcium, 11 mg magnesium, and 100 IU Vitamin D.
A little side story in my search for something to use while hunting, in 2014 I was routinely putting on 25-30 miles of hiking in a 1.5 day period scouting for a mule deer hunt. The trips were very physically demanding. I’d drive all night after work on a Friday, then go right into hiking in the dark to avoid the blistering hot sun at high elevations. Well… one of those trips finally caught up to me. I was hiking down after scouting and my legs completely cramped up. This was the type of cramping that lasted a long time and made it very difficult to keep hiking.
The cause of the muscle cramps I feel was due to exerting so much energy and sweating a bunch, but I wasn’t replenishing what I was losing due to all the sweat with just water. In some sense, I was getting very dehydrated due to the limited water that was available at higher elevations. I was eating well, but that wasn’t doing everything for me. The problem with my cramping was most likely due to me only consuming straight water. I needed something more from my water with the amount of energy I was burning.
But isn’t sodium a bad thing?
I often hear people talking about the high level of sodium in certain freeze dried foods, but what they might not realize is that sodium can be a huge asset on a grueling hunt. The day-to-day foods I eat when I am not hunting are already low on salt, so this added salt pill boost seems to reduce the impact of cramping. It is fairly obvious that when carrying a heavy backpack and hiking up and down mountains all day that anyone will start to sweat. According to SaltStick (and research papers I’ve checked out), sweating causes the average athlete to lose roughly 11 oz of sweat during 30-60 minutes of activity. Plus you are losing 220 mg of sodium, 63 mg of potassium, 8 mg of magnesium and 16 mg of calcium. This means that you want to find something that can closely resemble the electrolytes lost through sweat.
When I was younger, my dad had me drink pickle juice throughout the week to help replace lost sodium due to sports practice. It must have worked because I rarely had cramps. Some of the options like pickle juice would be a little difficult to consume on hunts, which is why salt pills have always intrigued me. There are definitely other options you can use for alleviating muscle fatigue and replacing electrolytes, but for the price per capsule of salt pills and their ease of use, so far this is my favorite system for electrolyte replacement. My system is fairly simple when I’m in the mountains. I really don’t enjoy mixing hydration type powders into my Platypus water bladder as it leaves a bunch of residual taste. If you like using powders, I would highly suggest a collapsible water bladder or a Nalgene if you’re not concerned about the added weight. As always, definitely test out how your body responds to any supplements before you go head first on your next hunt. I'd love to hear your thoughts on other methods you've tried.