You can last a month without food and less than a week without water. To say that water is more important than food would not be an overstatement, it is the liquid of life. The amount of water you take on a backpacking trip can be a make or break any trip.
The problem with water is that carrying it around along with your 25 pounds of gear adds up quickly. Water weighs in at around 8 pounds a gallon and can add serious weight to your load. Considering you will be consuming around 2 pounds of food each day, water weight is going to add up quickly.
How much water you should take backpacking depends on a number of factors and many are unique to the individual and the particular hike.
Health benefits of water
The human body is made up of 60 percent water and your body can last a few days to a week without water depending on your conditions. If you are in the middle of the Sahara Desert you’re only going to last a few days at most. A week in a place where it’s not too hot and not too cold you can make it up to a week without water.
Every cell in your body requires water to work properly. Water performs a number of different functions to help maintain a healthy system.
- Eliminates waste (pee and poo)
- Regulates your body temperature
- Flushes out toxins
- Relieves headaches
- Protects body tissue
We could dive deeper into the health benefits of water, but for now, we have a general idea of why it’s important to drink water on a regular basis. This is about how much water to drink, so we’ll start there.
How much water should I drink while backpacking?
This question is going to vary depending on how much you sweat while you’re hiking. It’s a simple question without an easy answer and multiple variables come into play.
The old 8 glass a day rule isn’t backed by much research and nobody really knows where it came from. For whatever reason, it has become a generally accepted rule when it comes to water consumption.
The formula for drinking water includes a number of different factors including climate, level of exertion (how much you sweat), and individual needs.
So back to the question at hand… How much water should I drink while backpacking?
It’s always a good idea to pre-hydrate and drink a few glasses of water before you start the trip.
Research has shown that we get enough of the required water through foods and beverages that we consume throughout the day. Dehydration does not seem to be the threat that it is perceived to be and drinking water throughout the day usually does the trick.
Plan on drinking 2 liters each day under normal conditions, and bring a way to clean your water in case you run out unexpectedly.
The darker the color of your urine the more water you need to consume, according to WebMd your urine should be a pale yellow to gold.
How much water do I need to carry?
With water weighing around 8 pounds a gallon, the idea that carrying all the water you plan on drinking throughout the day isn’t always practical.
First off, you need to decide the amount of water that you need to carry with you and this is going to depend on your access to water sources along with your route.
Some backpackers carry 2 liters of water while others boil or treat the water they find along the way. Not carrying water only works if you know that there are water sources available and how far between refilling points.
Don’t start walking and expect to find a reliable water source, that story doesn’t end well.
Taking a week-long hike without knowing whether or not there is water available is a recipe for disaster. It’s always a good idea to have some water on you or a means to clean water that you find.
Plan ahead of time and know exactly where the water supplies are located and keep at least 1-Liter of clean water on you at all times, as well as, a filtration system of some kind.
How do I carry water while backpacking?
You really have two choices here, a bottle or a bladder.
We’re going to assume that you know what a water bottle is and while they come in all shapes and sizes, the 1-liter Nalgene bottles are our go to water bottle. They are easy to drink from, hold a decent amount of water, and should be BPA free.
A water bladder, on the other hand, is a plastic bag that you fill water into and then it goes into a backpack. They have straws that reach around to your mouth that hang just over your shoulder and are super convenient. You’ve probably seen someone on a hike or at a baseball game sucking on a hose out of their backpack, that’s what we’re talking about.
There are people that only use bottles and others who only use bladders. It is ultimately a matter of what you are more comfortable with. The most important thing to remember is to bring something to clean water with and something to carry it in.
How to drink water safely
First things first, you want to find a clean water source originating from somewhere with no paint factories or cities, in other words, sources of pollution nearby.
A spring or a stream are good places to start. Lakes and ponds are ok, however, the water is stagnant which becomes a breeding ground for bacteria and other nasty bits.
The best way to reduce the weight of water is to purify your drinking water as you go. There are a number of ways to purify drinking water that can be done in just a few minutes.
The most common ways to clean your water while backpacking…
This is ways that we see most people cleaning water on the trail, there are other methods we just chose the most popular to focus on.
Bring the water to a rolling boil and let it boil for 5 minutes to remove bacteria and virus’. This can be accomplished with a backpacking stove and a pot, easy peasy.
The idea is simple, you keep some pills on you that you can toss into a water to clean. The tablets usually have to sit for 30 minutes and then you’re good to go.
Pump water filters
These operate with a mechanical function which forces the water through a filter to clean it. They come in a number of sizes and the biggest benefit of a pump filter is the amount of water that you can filter in a short period of time.
The LifeStraw is the most famous, however, there are a bunch of companies that make sippy straw filters. They have a carbon, ceramic, or a synthetic filter with some having iodine in the filter for added protection.
There are a ton of filters out there and they all accomplish more or less the same task, cleaning your drinking water. The main difference is going to be the amount of water filtered and time it takes to filter the water.
Sanitize all the water that you plan on drinking while backpacking, and never put yourself in a position to run out of clean drinking water.
If you come upon an expected water source only to find that it has dried up do not panic. Calmly continue downhill, in the direction you came from and look for dark patches in the landscape, that suggests clean water nearby.
If this doesn’t work then hike to a higher vantage point and examine the horizon for potential water sources.
Health effects of not drinking enough water
Not drinking enough water can cause dehydration which can lead to death in the most extreme cases. In an environment like a summer hike in the afternoon sun, your water intake will increase when compared to a sedentary day working in the office.
Dehydration occurs when you have lost too much water without replacing it which prevents your body from performing at peak levels. When hiking at altitude, in the heat, dehydration is something that occurs faster than when you are at sea level.
A few signs of early stages of dehydration are…
- Dry mouth
- Not peeing
- Dark yellow or orange urine
It’s important to know your body and the signs that something is not right. Everyone knows when they get thirsty, if you are thirsty, drink water. It’s as simple as that.
Dehydration is nothing nice and it can be avoided with access to clean water and a little knowledge on the subject.
To sum it all up
Drinking water while backpacking is important, there is no way around it. Carrying water on you at all times is a good habit to get into, and also having a way to clean any water you may find is another good habit.
Clean water consumption on the trail literally will save your life. Plan ahead and be prepared for the worst-case scenario. Most importantly, keep calm and camp on.