Carrying water when backpacking, a real headache.
Drinking fountain or not?
In reality, even if nothing replaces your stock of water, solutions exist to purify water while hiking and to ensure a good hydration in full autonomy.
I will explain everything to you, so that you will not drown in a glass of water.
Table of Contents
- Before you start
- Why is it important 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 that should drink on a specific trail is difficult to estimate.
The average water consumption for an adult is considered to be 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 to a certain climate and if you’re used to exercise.
The hotter and more humid it is, the more water you will need to consume to compensate for the losses. This is also the case at altitude where the air is drier and the pressure 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 in a day, I can’t see myself drinking 10 liters of water. It would be an impossible challenge.
What is certain is that you will need to drink more water while hiking than normally.
I don’t want to give you specific numbers. If you have no idea what your water consumption is, I prefer that you get an idea as you hike.
In this case, take a safety margin and carry more water rather than not enough.
Keep in mind that it is not uncommon to need 4-5 liters of water per person per day 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 even 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 because it’s cold that you don’t have the same needs in water.
You should be careful to also 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 have been caught out with not carrying 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 water you need for drinking, but also about the water you will be using for cooking or for your hygiene because yes, even when hiking, it is important.
👉 Avoid energy drinks, or even sodas… which will further dehydrate you. What’s more, this kind of extreme sugar intake is very bad for your health.
Why is it important to drink clean water?
Haters will say it’s obvious, but why do we need clean water?
Unless you take water directly from a local resident or from 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 a large amount of chemicals that make products waterproof, water-repellent, robust and elastic, but which are harmful to health and the environment, especially perfluorocarbons, known as PFCs.
Some brands, however, are exceptions and consciously respect the environment. Go look for them!
You will also find bacteria such as Salmonella, Coliform, E Coli, and microorganisms such as giardia.
All of these bacteria can be found in stagnant water, and can quickly cause headaches, diarrhea, cramps, dizziness, and a whole 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 not only to keep you hydrated, but also to avoid a host of diseases.
Available sources of water
To find sources of drinking water or water to purify, it all depends on the type of hike you are doing.
There are abundant sources of drinking water: in the case of a hike during which you will pass by many resupplying points such as villages, refuges, fountains, you can limit the quantity of water to be carried 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 either 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 are going to cross many sources of drinking water, like refreshment points such as villages, refuges, fountains, you can also minimize the quantity of water in your backpack.
A bottle or a 2L hydration bladder can be enough.
This will spare your knees a bit, and leave more room for food.
On the other hand, if the trail you picked do not have abundant sources of drinking water, as 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!
It is therefore essential to have a stock of “clean” water with you.
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 is a multitude of solutions today, i have selected some of them.
The stainless-steel hiking flask: the good old metal flask, quite solid but heavy.
Some of them give a taste to the water but it is less and less true for the recent water bottles.
Disadvantage: In a very cold environment, metal is a good conductor of heat, the water will freeze faster and you risk to stick 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: a considerable space saving and an increasingly light (not as much as common plastic bottles, though!) and practical container to carry water while hiking.
The weak point of collapsible water bottles, is, in my opinion, their limited volume that usually don’t go higher than 1.5L.
Knowing that it is advised to always leave with 2L of water on you for long hikes, it forces you to always carry several water bottles or to be sure to find water on the way.
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 can be easily folded 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 that you always have at hand.
It is very effective to hydrate continuously.
However, there are 2 big flaws to this solution: first, it is difficult to keep track of what you have left in stock and above all, these bags have a tendency to give a taste to the water.
Therefore, prefer the “good brands” in order to avoid this last point.
Also, prefer a hydration bladder with a large opening for the filling.
The plastic water bottle is the least ecological solution, which physically and visually pollutes our environment.
Of course, the water bottle is solid, light, it gives no taste to the water and is easily squeezable and very economical, but 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 in 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 indeed our organisms are used to perfectly clean water, we are therefore particularly fragile at this level.
So it is very important to choose your water carefully and to treat it if necessary.
In any case, and if possible, give preference to drinking water sources. In the mountains you will find refuges, villages or small fountains.
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 of all, it takes a little time, you need material (a stove, a cooker) and it requires fuel.
You can for example choose this technique for the 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 last longer and is more efficient.
It is an interesting 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 body and the nature. Yuck!
There are also filters or filter straws for water treatment.
They are effective against bacteria and amoebas but less effective against viruses which are too small to be filtered.
Filters are usually based on activated carbon cartridges (with a limited life span) or on fiberglass mesh for example.
They are very practical 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, there are also gravity water filters that allow you to filter a larger quantity of water. They are particularly useful 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 a large battery-operated pen that is immersed in a container of clear water.
You just 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.
The big disadvantage of this solution is obviously its price and the use of batteries.
And it is not a miracle product, that will give you water free of any impurity, the water must be clear and filtered previously.
How to carry your water when hiking
Most people carry their water bottle or flask in the outer side pocket of their backpack.
This 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 are equipped 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 of the backpack.
Other options exist, including attaching the bottles or flasks in small pouches, on the straps of the backpack, at the front, at chest level.
I have never tried it, but it can help to distribute the weight of the backpack differently.
For ladies with generous breast, this water carrying technique may not be very comfortable (if you know what I mean! 😉
Some hikers carry their water bottle on their belt, which also allows to distribute the weight of the backpack elsewhere than on the back.
It remains to be seen if having 1 or 2 kg of water on one side of the belt is not too destabilizing.
So here you have it, all you need to 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 here below.