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Hydration for the Sniper

After a recent hydration refresher at a team meeting, it became apparent that the snipers were having a tough time converting the high-intensity, (relatively) shortduration, hydration recommendations into something applicable to the sniper/spotter role.

Since individual mission requirements vary, several broad assumptions must be made. The first assumption is that the sniper needs to be in the position for extended periods up to 12 hours. Second, re-supply will be difficult or practically impossible due to reasons such as concealment and hostile fire. Finally, since gear real estate is often at a premium, both weight and bulk should be minimized.

A great deal of the literature addressing hydration in tactical situations has targeted high intensity, short duration activities. And while these concerns are equally valid to the sniper as he moves into position, what about once he is in position?

From the medical perspective, the concern over pure dehydration is not as great due to the decreased physical exertion. However, any decrease in performance will be more noticeable, and may induce unneeded complicating factors into an already challenging equation. More specifically, while hydration, electrolytes, and blood sugar are not as likely to drastically change, they must also be monitored more closely to prevent any reduction in physical and mental performance.
For example, while a slight hand tremor caused by a Potassium deficiency would be a minor inconvenience to a door-kicker, this slight tremor might prove much more serious to a spotter confirming target ID, or to the precision marksman preparing to take the shot. Under field conditions, variables such as blood Magnesium levels cannot be expected to be ideal. Indeed, if given the “green light”, the sniper should not have to worry about having the proper blood calcium balance to ensure a smooth trigger squeeze. Also, most of the sports drinks on the market are designed to replace lost carbs and electrolytes, rather than maintaining an ideal balance.

Optimal blood nutrient levels are of more concern in the sniper/spotter role, though it is less likely that TEMS will be staged to monitor intake. Naturally, if yourteam has enough medics, consider prepositioning one in or near your position.

Let’s take water and electrolytes first. Based on research and recent discussion with an ER Physician, it is recommended as a rule of thumb to drink a 2:1 ratio of water to Gatorade (or equivalent). In hot conditions, or to simplify intake, drinking equal volumes would be alright. A 1:1 ratio for the first hour, followed by a 2 or even 3:1 proportion after that would be ideal. This provides a small boost and a buffer for any deficits incurred during the stalk, such as missing lunch, while not creating a significant systemic overload.

Another option is to gain electrolytes through a solid food source like sports bars, and to drink plain water. This system can work as well, with two caveats. First, the food must have the right nutrients, and they must be in the correct proportion. Some energy foods are actually designed to remedy deficits, and if used in the maintenance role would create problems in an extended sniper/observer situation, just like those sports drinks.

Second, it is imperative to be attentive to hydration needs. As plain water makes individuals think they are fully hydrated before they actually are, it takes more effort to maintain adequate intake volume throughout the deployment. There is a temptation to deliberately limit fluid intake, so-called “tactical dehydration”, to reduce the need to urinate while in position. From a medical standpoint, this practice cannot be recommended, especially when practiced for sniper deployment periods.

Not only does the body burn water faster than is being replaced, but also toxic wastes build up in the body’s system. In the short term, this means even more performance reduction via both lack of sufficient fluid (vital for cooling, sustained muscle contraction, and reducing cramping), as well as all those toxins that interfere with cellular function. In the long term, it increases the risk of many types of cancer and renal failure.

Next, let’s look at some suggestions for carbohydrates. Practically speaking, carbs are needed to move muscles. Essentially, carbohydrates can be replaced with sugar. Again speaking in the 12-hour deployment range, nutritional requirements need much more attention. Some of the early symptoms of low blood sugar are things like mental fog and shaking hands, neither of which makes the job any easier.

Additionally, great deals of carbs are needed to stay warm, and shivering burns massive quantities of said sugars. Now for sniping the concern is less about eating candy bars to maintain blood sugar than about the heavily perspiring assaulter. In this role, the blood sugar drop will be slightly less precipitous than someone who is intensely active.

However, especially for extended periods between re-supply, the drastic swings in blood sugar must be taken into account before using them as an exclusive carbohydrate supply. Try augmenting them with something that contains less highly processed carbs to ensure a more stable and long-lived blood sugar level.

For example, after slamming a Snicker’s, consider chasing it with Beanie Weenies, chili, or some other easy open can. Yes, cans are heavy and might not work in every situation, but a pull-top can of Campbell’s Stew will provide a lot of calories that will stay in the body’s system quite a while.

Another option is something like the popular Clif Bar. These bars split the difference between a candy bar and real food, they get some sugar on board faster than beans, and last longer than their plastic wrapped cousins. Yet anotheridea may be Trail Mix (if no M&M’s, then be sure it has some dried fruit like raisins or dried apricots), GORP, Granola, or the equivalent.

When choosing one of these mixes, look for ingredients to fulfill the two concerns alluded to above: short and longterm sugar levels, and small enough pieces that allow a handful to contain a mix of both. For that quick sugar boost, look for something like candy and/or pieces of dried fruit. Fruit, especially, gives you that initial boost almost as fast as straight sugar, and is easier on your system (think insulin) than its more processed relatives.

To achieve a more stable and sustained blood glucose level, look for something in the nut department. Peanuts are a really good source of easily digestible protein that meets the handful requirement. If you avoid peanuts, almonds are a good choice, although most other commonly available nuts will fit the bill. Just drink a little extra water, especially if these nuts are salted. This reduces the chances of osmotic issues sneaking up, and gives the stomach enzymes plenty of H2O to work with while converting nut proteins into something usable.

Another sniper suggested idea is the versatile banana. Not only does the natural mix of fruit sugars reduce the likelihood of sugar spikes and drops (averaging about 110 calories each), but they also contain significant quantities of potassium, magnesium, and vitamins B6 and C. And the wrapper is non-reflective and biodegradable.

Finally, while heat is the primary culprit in hydration problems, cold also presents its own issues to the deployed sniper. Given that balance is the goal, most of the above principles translate regardless of temperature. In fact, since cold suppresses the thirst drive, be sure to maintain fluid intake on those cold weather ops.

Since coffee is a common way of boosting core temperature amongst snipers, here are a few additional thoughts related to hydration in cold weather. Part of the reason coffee works to “warm you up” comes not only from its temperature, but from the caffeine itself. Specifically, the caffeine, acting a stimulant, increases the resting metabolic rate. This causes the body to burn calories faster which increases core temperature. However, this raises mild concern in two regards.

First, the immediate side effect is increased urine output. It would be logical to assume that you are fully re-hydrating yourself by drinking a quart of coffee, when long term the reverse is occurring. Second, although obvious, be aware that your system is burning fuel faster than might be expected. Here, simple awareness that this is occurring should be sufficient to thwart any adverse effects.

Medically speaking, so long as you maintain hydration and caloric intake to make up for those burned, and don’t mind taking a leak sooner than expected, drink up. Hot coco is an option that bypasses the caffeine issue, while maintaining many of the benefits of an easily prepared hot drink. However, it has the same problem as candy bars in terms of drastic blood sugar changes.

Another option might be black tea, as it would be easier to carry and prepare, as well as more cost effective than hot chocolate. Plus the tea will contain about half the caffeine of brewed coffee (sweeping generalizations, gentlemen). Just bear in mind that all your electrolytes and carbs will have to come from some other source.

So, you ask, how do I get my electrolytes when the Gatorade in my Camelback is a solid brick? Good question. If you can’t keep it from freezing, you will have to get your electrolytes and carbs from solid food, which is easier to do in cold weather since you are loosing fewer electrolytes to begin with. In such cold weather situations, electrolytes become less of an issue, while naturally the carbs and proteins move into the limelight.

A can of meal-type food should provide several hours of electrolytes and carbs. As an aside, you are still burning water even while not sweating under all that cold weather gear, so don’t forget to drink. In fact, you will lose more water through respiration due to the very low humidity. As a rule of thumb, about 25% of your total water-out each day comes from humidifying inhaled air. In a very low humidity op with little physical exertion, this percentage will be significantly higher.

Remember that any hydration/ nutrition plan is only as good as its execution. Better a good plan enacted rather than the “ideal” left behind. Drink water. However you fulfill your carbohydrate and electrolyte needs, be sure to imbibe sufficient water. Powdered Gatorade can be mixed with plain water upon deployment, simplifying logistics (it has a long shelf life) and reducing slime growth in your fluid carrier.

Try to pack some “real” food, whether this is an MRE retort, commercial can, or peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Lastly, avoid the temptation to neglect your fluid needs in cold weather; you are still burning water while surrounded by the frozen variety. 

Travis Ward is a Special Deputy with the Union County (OR) Sheriff’s Office, serving as the medic for the Specialized Multi-Agency Response Team. He is state-certifified EMT II, and has worked extensively in the hospital emergency room environment, as well as hospital based ambulance services.

Published in Tactical Response, Sep/Oct 2005

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Posted on : Mar 28 at 8:54 AM By Pedro

An excellent point.

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