Backpacking Water Strategy

I used to use Poland Springs bottles to store water while hiking, but now I use Fiji Bottles.
Stopping for a drink from one of my 1.5 Liter Poland Springs bottles on a rainy day.

Today we will discuss a simple backpacking water strategy for staying hydrated.  According to studies, up to 75% of Americans may suffer from chronic dehydration. Many of the signs of dehydration are overlooked or attributed to other causes. These include fatigue, headaches, dry/itchy skin or eyes, or dizziness.  Proper hydration is critical for every system in the body. Water is necessary for carrying nutrients, regulating temperature, flushing toxins, purging digestive waste, and much more.  When we’re exerting ourselves on hot days in the woods, it is all the more important to have a sound backpacking water strategy.

Four Part Backpacking Water Strategy

I break my backpacking water strategy into four parts.  First, I assure that I am well hydrated before I leave home. While hiking, I drink water regularly and watch my intake. In camp I make sure that I have plentiful water to drink after the day, prepare meals, and start off again tomorrow.  Finally, when I arrive home I continue to drink extra water to help my body recover.   I find that following this four part backpacking water strategy helps to keep me feeling healthy and energetic despite high levels of exertion under the hot sun.

Pre-hydration: It Starts at Home

I start drinking extra water before a trip.  If I am leaving for a weekend of backpacking on Friday night, I make sure to drink about a gallon per day on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.  This ensures that I begin my trip with a healthy baseline level of hydration.  While the evidence is debatable, I believe pre-hydrating also helps to flush the body of toxins and waste products.  Proper pre-hydration helps me to start on the right foot when I hit the trail.

While Hiking

It is most critical to keep up a healthy level of hydration during the day, specifically while you’re sweating and burning  lot of calories under the hot sun.  Many backpackers don’t like to use hydration bladders because they are difficult to refill. Instead, they rely on water bottles stored in quick access pockets on their backpack.  This means that it may be necessary to stop walking occasionally to drink.  Stopping may be difficult when you’re trying to support a schedule or keep up with a group, but it is critical to your health.  Don’t be afraid to stop and drink every once in a while. Not every break has to be long; a 1 minute water break will often suffice.

Backpacking Water Strategy: Hikers filter water and refill their bottles along the Appalachian Trail.
Hikers filter water and refill their bottles along the Appalachian Trail.

It is sometimes difficult to know how much water to carry.  The amount of water you carry is highly dependent on water availability along the trail.  Your water supply should be enough to get from source to source.  Hiking along the AT in the northeast, I find that two liters will often suffice. When peak-bagging, water is generally more scarce and I carry three or four liters.  I have heard of desert hikers carrying several gallons of water at a time.  I do most of my hiking in the north eastern United States and I believe most of my audience does as well.  My strategy is best suited for that region.

While hiking, I often come across a good water source before my bottles have run dry. Because I am not always sure when my next source will be, I rarely pass a good source.  When I come to a good source, I finish up the bottle I have been drinking, then refill it. If it is a hot day or sources are scarce, I will chug both of my 1-liter bottles and refill each.  (It is important not to do this too often, as over-hydration can make you sick or give you cramps.)  Carrying excess water in my belly has two benefits: it is closer to my center of gravity and closer to where I need it.

Backpacking Water Strategy: A leaf can be used to direct a weak flow of water into a bottle or bladder.
A leaf can be used to direct a weak flow of water into a bottle or bladder. (Click for Video)

Sometimes I come to a water source before it is time for a break. In these cases, I fill one or both bottles without treating them. (I use the wide-mouth Nalgene bottles because they’re easy to refill.)  When carrying dirty water, it is important to clearly show which water is dirty and which is clean. My strategy is to place dirty water bottles upside down in my pack’s side pockets. Other people carry colored rubber bands, tape, or even painted caps to mark their bottles.  When I do decide to take a break, I treat my water and turn the bottles up-side down.

Water for Camp

If you’ve done a lot of backpacking, you know that there is not always a good water source at camp.  Campsites are often set up away from water to prevent contamination, overuse, or erosion.  Many campers prefer to camp away from water tor educe tent condensation.  For these reasons, it is good to be able to store water in camp.  I carry a 3 liter collapsible bladder for this. If my guide says there is a good water source near camp, I fill it when I get there. If there is no good source near camp, I fill it at the last good source before I get there and then carry the excess water.  Between my two Nalgene bottles and my 3 liter bladder I will have 5 liters of water for camp and avoid excess walking.

I used to carry an empty gallon jug for storing water in camp. Now I use a 3 liter bladder.
I used to carry an empty gallon jug for storing water in camp. Now I use a 3 liter bladder.

The water I store for camp is not treated. I only treat it when I pour it into one of my drinking bottles or use it for cooking. If I’m going to drink it cold, I use my filter or chemical drops for treatment. If I’m going to boil water for cooking, I just boil the dirty water.

I always drink at least one liter of water as soon as I arrive in camp. After that, I watch my hydration and decide if I need more.   Typically I will boil 700 ml for dinner. Half of that goes into my meal and the other half goes into tea or hot chocolate. All humans exhale 1/2 to 3/4 of moisture in their sleep. I am sure to replace this as soon as I wake up in the morning, before I do anything else. Again, I boil 700 ml for breakfast and put half of that into my food and the other half into coffee.   Any water I have left is used to top-off my drinking bottles or douse the fire.

When I get Home

When I’m done my hike, I want to make sure I recover quickly so that I perform well at work and I’m ready for the next weekend. I will continue to drink water or seltzer on my way home and then continue my gallon-per-day policy the day after. If we go out for drinks after the hike, I limit myself to only one alcoholic beverage which I have along with several waters or seltzer.  This is important because it helps to rehydrate the body, as well as flush out any toxins, waste products, and dead cells which may have accumulated during the hike.

Signs of Dehydration

It is important to monitor your hydration level. One of your first signs of dehydration is dry-mouth. You should drink some water as soon as you feel this and not wait for other symptoms. In addition to dry mouth, you may experience fatigue, headaches, or dizziness.  These symptoms show a more severe case of dehydration. If you feel any of these, you should immediately find a place to rest in the shade and slowly sip some water.

The BSA Hydration chart helps determine hydration level from your urine color.
Amy I hydrated?

Another way to assess your hydration level is to see the color of your urine.  the correct color for urine is pale-yellow. If your urine is completely clear, you may be drinking too much. Dark yellow or brown urine are signs of dehydration.

Other Considerations

They say that you can live for three days without water, but this assumes two things. 1) You’re mostly inactive. 2) You have adequate shelter. I want to focus on the importance of number 2. Maintaining a proper level of hydration is far easier when your skin is in-tact and you’re using shelter to keep cool.  Light colored clothing, long sleeves, hats, sunglasses, sunscreen, and lip-balm all go a long way towards protecting your body and maintaining hydration. While it is important to receive some unshielded sun throughout the day, that amount should be limited to just a few minutes in the morning or late afternoon.