How to Stay Hydrated on the Trail
Nothing affects your pack weight more than your choices of food and how much water you need to carry. Today I’ll cover the topic of H2O.
Water management is critical
One pint of water weighs one pound. Depending on your peak water carrying capacity, the difference between having every water bottle topped off and carrying one pint can be more than 7 pounds. The trick is to carry enough water to be safe between tank ups. Here are some tips for doing just that.
- Plan ahead. Before you even leave for your hike, know what the water situation is apt to be. Guide books include descriptions like “usually reliable spring”, “unreliable water source”, etc. They also may include information about reliable water sources near the trail (campgrounds, restaurants, and the like). If I’m bringing the guidebook with me, I highlight these nuggets for quick reference on the trail.Another option is to check social media sites for trail condition updates. Facebook groups can be an excellent source of up-to-date information. Questions regarding recent trail conditions are often answered quickly by someone in the know.If you are hiking in an area far from home, it’s a good idea to check into the general water situation before you leave. One year, when I was heading for the Great Smoky Mountains, I contacted the National Park Service. Was I glad I did! The ranger told me that due to drought, there was a 28-mile stretch without reliable water (more on how we handled that in a minute.)
- Start off hydrated. Be sure to drink plenty of water on your way to the trail. If you are driving to the trailhead, bring plenty of water with you (extra quarts) and drink your fill before you lock up the car and head down the trail. I try to drink a quart while I am making the last fine-tuning of my gear before I begin my hike.
- Stay hydrated. My rest stops are more often determined by water availability than sweeping vistas. Every time I pass a water source, I stop long enough to assess my situation. (How much water have I had today? How much do I have onboard? Where is the next reliable supply? Should I stop here to refill?) Most often, the answer is yes, I should at least get some water. And when I do, I always drink some while I am at the source.
- ALWAYS treat water from backcountry sources. A mountain stream or woodland spring may look safe, but you never know what may lie upstream. Waterborne diseases are not worth taking chances on. As one who has suffered from Giardia, I implore you to carry a water filter and use it. (See water filter recommendations here.)
- Have plenty of water carrying options. Over the years, I’ve tried a number of water bottle solutions, including bladders, which I have finally warmed up to for the sheer convenience of being able to take a drink without removing your pack. For a long time, I carried three 32 oz. hard-sided wide-mouth bottles (two in the water bottle pockets on the sides of my pack and one inside my pack). Lately, I’ve switched to carrying two 48 oz. wide-mouth bottles in my outside pockets and a collapsible 32 oz. bottle that weighs much less than a hard-sided bottle and takes up much less precious pack space. It’s pretty rare when I need to have that much water on board, but I like the flexibility of knowing I can go there. (In extreme cases, such as that trip through the Smoky Mountains, you may want to carry a larger collapsable water bag. I did. It turns out that a number of “trail angels” who were aware of the water situation left jugs of water at road crossings to ensure hikers would be safe. Nonetheless, I didn’t mind carrying a little extra peace of mind.)
This blog post updated 4/27/2021.