Carrying water when backpacking is a real headache.
Drinking fountain or not?
In reality, even if nothing replaces your stock of water, solutions exist to purify water on a hike and to ensure good hydration in complete autonomy.
I will explain everything to you so you will not drown in a glass of water.
Table of Contents
- Before you start
- Why is it essential to drink clean water?
- Available sources of water
- Water Containers and water supply
- How do you renew your supply of water?
- Water treatment and filtering
- How to carry your water when hiking
Before you start
The amount of water to drink on a specific trail is difficult to estimate.
The average water consumption for an adult is about 2 liters for a “normal day” (0.5 liters contained in food and 1.5 liters drunk).
Not everyone drinks this amount of water every day.
Some people drink less, others more.
Let’s see what factors influence water consumption:
Some people sweat much more than others. It depends on your physiology, your habit of a particular climate, and if you’re used to exercising.
The hotter and more humid it is, the more water you will need to consume to compensate for the losses. It is also the case at altitudes where the air is drier, and the pressure is lower.
The intensity of the effort
The more intense your effort, the more you sweat, and therefore the more you will need to replace lost water by rehydrating.
The duration of the effort
The longer the effort, the more water you will lose.
You may hear all sorts of recommendations, like a liter per hour or a liter every 2 miles.
But I don’t think you can generalize.
When I walk 10 hours or 30 km daily, I can’t see myself drinking 10 liters of water. It would be an impossible challenge.
Indeed, you will need to drink more water while hiking than you usually do.
I don’t want to give you specific numbers. If you have no idea what your water consumption is, I prefer you get an idea as you hike.
In this case, take a safety margin and carry more water rather than not enough.
Remember that it is not uncommon to need 4-5 liters of water per person daily in hot weather, and not even during a heat wave.
Above all, don’t get caught out on hot days.
It’s not uncommon to double or triple your water consumption compared to less warm days. Once you have enough experience, you can afford to reduce the safety margin.
Also, don’t think that you don’t have the same need for water because it’s cold.
You should be careful also to drink enough when it’s cold. Because being well-hydrated will help keep you from getting too cold.
Most hikers, mountain bikers, and climbers I know didn’t carry enough water at least once (and I am one of them).
And I’m not just dealing with stupid or reckless people!
So, I repeat, do not wait to be thirsty to drink. Hydrate yourself as you go along, in small regular “sips.”
If you are hiking with your family, be careful with children who get dehydrated faster.
Finally, think not only about how to carry the water you need for drinking but also about the water you will use for cooking or your hygiene because, yes, even when hiking, it is essential.
👉 Avoid energy drinks or even sodas, which will further dehydrate you. Moreover, this excessive sugar intake is bad for your health.
Why is it essential to drink clean water?
Haters will say it’s obvious, but why do we need clean water?
Unless you take water directly from a resident or a safe tap, water in the mountains can still contain impurities.
It is, therefore, necessary to purify it of anything that can be found in it, especially chemical contaminants such as chlorine, nitrates, pesticides, etc., most often resulting from human activity, especially when we hike with waterproof clothing.
YES, the outdoor sector consumes many chemicals that make products waterproof, water-repellent, robust, and elastic, but they are harmful to health and the environment, especially perfluorocarbons, known as PFCs.
Some brands, however, are exceptions and consciously respect the environment. Look for them!
You will also find bacteria such as Salmonella, Coliform, and E Coli and microorganisms such as giardia.
All these bacteria can be found in stagnant water and can quickly cause headaches, diarrhea, cramps, dizziness, and a lot of other fun stuff.
If you don’t have any alarming signs within 3 hours of ingesting this water, such as stomach aches, diarrhea, and dizziness, then go ahead.
So, the point of having a purified water supply is to keep you hydrated and avoid a host of diseases.
Available sources of water
Finding sources of drinking water or water to purify will depend on the type of hike you are doing.
There are abundant drinking water sources: in the case of a hike during which you will pass by many resupplying points such as villages, refuges, and fountains, you can limit the water you will carry in your backpack.
A 1.5 L bottle can be enough.
Don’t hesitate to knock on James and Mary’s door to ask for water. They’ll often do it willingly.
However, if there is no spring on your itinerary, remember to bring enough water for your day or something to purify it.
When you go on a trek, there are several cases in which you will need to rethink your water supplies and the quantity to carry.
First of all, if you cross many drinking water sources, like refreshment points such as villages, refuges, and fountains, you can also minimize the quantity of water in your backpack.
A bottle or a 2L hydration bladder can be enough.
It will spare your knees a bit and leave more room for food.
On the other hand, if the trail you picked does not have abundant sources of drinking water, for example, in the case of a long trek in arid zones, where you may not cross many towns, but there is a good chance that you will come across rivers, lakes or even springs, be careful, nothing proves that this water is drinkable!
Therefore, having a stock of “clean” water with you is essential.
In this case, it will be necessary to take with you a filtration system.
I will explain it a little further down.
Water Containers and water supply
As far as water containers are concerned, there are many solutions today, and I have selected some.
The stainless-steel hiking flask is the traditional old metal flask, quite solid but heavy.
Some give a taste to the water, but it is less and less true for the recent water bottles.
Disadvantage: In a freezing environment, metal is a good conductor of heat, the water will freeze faster, and you risk sticking your fingers on it.
These flasks also exist as collapsible bottles. The primary objective of collapsible bottles is simple: to bring you comfort and flexibility during your hikes in the wilderness while it gradually shrinks as you drink.
The advantage of soft bottles is a considerable space saving and increasingly light (not as much as ordinary plastic bottles, though!) and practical containers to carry water while hiking.
The weak point of collapsible water bottles is, in my opinion, their limited volume, which usually doesn’t go higher than 1.5L.
Keep in mind that it is recommended to always leave with 2L of water on you for long hikes forcing you constantly to carry several water bottles or to be sure to find water on the way.
A plastic hydration flask is a good alternative.
There are even water bottles that filter water directly.
It is not bad, but it is to be taken as a complementary water container because there are not enough big bottles at the moment unless you multiply them.
The hydration bladder: these food plastic pouches are practical because they are not very heavy, and you can fold them when empty.
Water bladders can be carried in your backpack during the day and allow you to drink water while walking, thanks to a tube you always have.
It is very effective to hydrate continuously.
However, this solution has two big flaws: first, it isn’t easy to keep track of what you have left in stock, and above all, these bags tend to give a taste to the water.
Therefore, I prefer the “good brands” to avoid this last point.
Also, I prefer a hydration bladder with a large opening for the filling.
The plastic water bottle is the least ecological solution. Physically and visually pollutes our environment.
Of course, the water bottle is solid and light gives no taste to the water, and is easily squeezable and very economical. Still, we do not necessarily want to see Everest littered with plastic water bottles.
How do you renew your supply of water?
It seems easy, like filling a water bottle with a source. FATAL MISTAKE!
We never say it enough, or we are voluntarily careless, but unless you are sure that there are no dead animals or corpses (spooky!) upstream of the spring, don’t drink.
It is about being careful because our organisms are used to perfectly clean water. We are, therefore, particularly fragile at this level.
So it is crucial to choose your water carefully and to treat it if necessary.
In any case, and if possible, give preference to drinking water sources. You will find refuges, villages, or small fountains in the mountains.
In foreign countries, tap water is not always drinkable for us.
If in doubt, assume that you will have to treat the water or buy bottled water: unless you are immune, which may be the case if you have traveled a lot recently.
Water treatment and filtering
But if you still don’t have a direct source of drinking water available, there are several techniques.
First, you can boil your water: this is the simplest and oldest technique to sanitize water, and it takes less than 5 minutes.
But this age-old technique has several flaws as well.
First, it takes a little time, you need material (a stove, a cooker), and it requires fuel.
You can, for example, choose this technique for cooking water only.
Because yes, we don’t necessarily think about it, but cooking your food in dirty water can be very dangerous.
There are also chemical treatments, such as Micropur tablets.
There are different types of tablets, but in general, they are chlorine (or derivatives) or silver-based tablets that will kill bacteria and amoebas and keep the water clean.
The action on viruses lasts longer and is more efficient.
It is an attractive solution because it is safe and effective, but only if the water is clear and we let the product take effect, i.e., 1 to 2 hours.
But this solution is also polluting because all these chemicals end up in our bodies and nature. Yuck!
There are also filters or filter straws for water treatment.
They are effective against bacteria and amoebas but less effective against viruses that are too small to be filtered.
Filters are usually fitted with activated carbon cartridges (with a limited life span) or fiberglass mesh, for example.
They are convenient to drink clean water immediately. The big advantage is that they can even be adapted to hydration bladders or on some bottlenecks.
It is generally more expensive than tablets, but you can treat more water over time.
In another style, gravity water filters allow you to filter a larger quantity of water. They are handy if you are traveling with several people in countries where access to drinking water is limited or non-existent.
👉 Caution: viruses sometimes get into the water filter, and chemical disinfection may be necessary.
Finally, there is the ultraviolet treatment. This water purification process uses UV light to neutralize organisms in the water.
These devices look like large battery-operated pens immersed in a clear water container.
You have to shake it for the time indicated by the manufacturer, often a few minutes, and the water is then drinkable.
On the positive side, it does not have the unpleasant taste of chemical additions.
This solution’s significant disadvantage is its price and the use of batteries.
And it is not a miracle product that will give you water free of any impurities. The water must be clear and filtered previously.
How to carry your water when hiking
Most people carry their water bottles or flasks in the outer side pocket of their backpacks.
It is very convenient because it is easy to grab when you are thirsty, and it separates your water from the rest of your gear inside the backpack, avoiding any possibility, in case of a leaky bottle, of spilling water inside it.
However, not all backpacks come with this type of pocket. Or some have only one, which does not allow you to balance the weight of your backpack with a 500ml bottle on each side.
Other options exist, including attaching the bottles or flasks in small pouches, on the backpack’s straps, at the front, at chest level.
I have never tried it, but it can help distribute the backpack’s weight differently.
For ladies with generous breasts, this water-carrying technique may not be very comfortable (if you know what I mean! 😉
Some hikers carry their water bottles on their belts, which also allows distributing the backpack’s weight elsewhere than on the back.
You will still have to check if having 1 or 2 kg of water on one side of the belt is not too destabilizing.
So here you have it. You now know about carrying water, supplying it, filtering it, and purifying it when backpacking.
You will have no more excuses to beg for water from other hikers. We know you, the unorganized hikers!
Do you have your proper ways of carrying water when hiking? Feel free to share your tips with us by leaving a comment below.