How Much Water Do I Need?
Water. It's the one item we love to have but don't love to carry. No matter how hard you may try to lighten your load, the moment you add water to your pack, the weight increase is significant. I've spent the majority of my backcountry outings failing to figure out how much water to carry with me, but it wasn't until last summer that I was given a great rule of thumb for planning my consumption of water.
I'm an over packer by nature. Give me the room and I'll fill it with something I don't need. This also applies to water. It never fails that I make it back to the trail head with liters of spare water remaining in my pack. Very rarely would I ever plan it just right. So, when I was given the opportunity to ask a long distance hiker how they plan out their water consumption, I wasted no time. I figured someone who hikes thousands of miles in a single summer might know a thing or two about efficiency, so I listened and listened closely.
This thru-hiker told me he planned on consuming around 1 liter of water for every 5 miles of hiking. Take that total and add to it what you require for meals and you have yourself a formula that prevents you from carrying any excess water weight. This formula also helps in preventing you from going thirsty while on the trail. Each person is going to be a little different so if you are the type to drink more or less, take that into account. For those of you just starting out with backpacking, try using 1 liter per 5 miles as a rule of thumb until you have the kinks worked out.
When it comes to water consumption, here are few things to take into consideration when planning out how much water you require for your backcountry adventure:
1. How many miles will you be traveling?
2. What is the terrain?
3. Are you going alone or do you have a buddy? Did they plan to have the correct amount of water?
4. Time of year - will it be hot or cold out?
a. More sweat = more water required
5. Is water available along your route?
a. Snow? Creeks? Lakes? Springs?
6. Is your camping location going to be dry or is there a stream or lake nearby?
7. Do you have pets with you? If so, they need water too!
8. How much water do you need for each meal?
a. Each dehydrated or freeze dried meal requires its own specific amount of water depending on brand. Check before you go! I use about .5 Liters per Mountain House meal.
9. Do you plan to make coffee or tea?
a. 1 cup, 2 cups, 3 cups?
10. Are you bringing an electrolyte powder to mix into water? If so, that's another few ounces of extra water you may want account for.
11. Do you have a water filter?
a. If yes, you can filter water as you given your route has water available.
b. If no, you can either risk drinking water straight from a creek or boil water when you get to camp. Or you simply pack more water.
c. *Avoid drinking directly from a stream unless you have to! Our 2016 stomachs are not used to what might be in those streams so unless you want to become a human water works show, boil or filter your water.
d. I personally carry a Sawyer Mini water filter. It's incredibly small, simple to use, and you can even attach it to a plain old water bottle that you'd find at the corner store. It's lightweight and takes up very little room in my pack which means it's always with me.
The important thing with water in the backcountry is that you plan accordingly. I tend to bring a little more than what I think I need just in case my intake is higher than normal. Since my legs are stronger at the beginning of the hike and not the end, I figure I can dump out any excess water before my hike back to the trailhead.
Here's a quick snapshot of my water system:
· 3 Liter Platypus bag (main source when hiking)
· 2 Liter Platypus bag x 2 (secondary source for filtering or camp water)
· Sawyer Mini Water Filter
Depending on the outing, I may or may not fill the 2 liter bags, but they're always with me just in case. There are smaller water bag sizes available, but I've found it's a pain to fill up a bunch of tiny bags with water when I can fill the 2 liter with as much or as little as I like. Same goes for my 3 liter that I use as my main source. With the way the Sawyer Mini is designed, I can attach the water bags to the filter and drink directly from it without having to filter or pump into another container first. It's like drinking through a straw and is very efficient if I'm short on time.
Referencing my setup above and using the Thru Hiker's formula, I could essentially get about 15 miles out of my main 3-liter bag and 10 miles for each 2-liter bag. That's 35 miles of water! But it also comes with a weight penalty. I've only hiked with 7 liters of water in my pack one time and though it wasn't terrible, I'd prefer not to if I can avoid it. On a typical 6 mile overnight trip (12 miles total), I generally consume about 1 liter of water on the hike in, 1 liter on the hike out, and about 1 liter at dinner/breakfast. Three liters for a short trip isn't too shabby!
It goes without saying that water is essential when in the backcountry. You never know when you may need more than expected and it gives me confidence knowing I have a little extra on my person. More times than I care to remember, my extra water has gone to a friend who either ran out earlier than they planned for or who forgot to bring camp water with them. For that reason alone, if I'm going with a friend, I pack just a little bit more.
Before you head into the backcountry, just remember that water doesn't grow on trees and your body can only go for just a few days without it. If the worst happens, you can survive without food or shelter, but you cannot survive without water. If you're going into the backcountry without a backup plan, then you're doing something wrong. Always have a backup plan! Know where water sources are or should be, and make sure the friend or friends you have with you are equally prepared. The wild places we visit don't care if you're a nice person, the moment you step off the pavement, all things are equal and Mother Nature is in charge. Plan accordingly.
Stay safe and always have a plan.
P.S. I've used both canteens, Nalgene bottles, and water bladders to hike and hunt with but until I found my Platypus bag, nothing ever worked well enough. Water bladders bothered me with how dirty they can get but Platypus has some great designs available. Mine has zip-lock style top that makes it easy to fill and clean and actually has structure to it. Look for my review on the Platypus 3 Liter in the gear reviews portion of the site.