How Much Water to Take Backpacking? – The Ultimate Hydration Guide for Hikers

Ultimate Hydration Guide for Hikers

Water is probably the most important resource that you can take with you when you go out into the backcountry. Without it, people run the risk of experiencing dehydration. At best, you end up with a mild headache. At worst, you die!

But how do you figure out how much water to take with you? In short, it depends. Each environment, hike, and hiker is different, so it is next to impossible to give a blanket statement on how much water everyone should take with them into the backcountry. But that is why you’re here! 

This guide will help you figure out how to properly manage your water the next time you go for a hike, no matter how long or difficult it is! 

Basic Water Needs

Basic Water Needs

Everyone needs to drink water daily in order to survive, it’s a fact of life! According to the Mayo Clinic, water is needed to make basic bodily functions work. Our bodies have to have water in order to process waste, make sure that our internal temperature is where it is supposed to be, and protect our joints

While it is difficult to make a general statement on how much water you should drink daily, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine offer some recommendations for how much water we should drink every day. For men, it is recommended that you drink about 3.7 liters of water. For women, the amount is less at 2.7 liters of water. 

Keep in mind that these needs are for basic function. This doesn’t take into account the amount you need to drink while engaging in hiking. Before you begin to go hiking, do yourself a favor and make sure to spend at least a day or two before your hike to properly hydrate yourself! 

Water Carrying Options

Water Carrying Options

Now that we have gotten basic hydration figured out, it’s now time to decide how you are going to bring your water with you. There are literally thousands of products out there to carry water with you, how do you decide which one is the best for you? The container that you choose to bring your water in really depends on the intensity of your hike as well as what you feel comfortable with. Below are some different ideas of containers that are recommended to take with you while hiking:

A Disposable Water Bottle: 

There really isn’t anything more simple, cheap, or basic than these! Found in grocery stores and convenience stores all over, you don’t have to worry about finding a water bottle that is easy to bring with you on your next hike. 

The Pros:

  • Easy to carry in a bag or backpack.
  • Cheap.
  • Light weight.
  • Best for a short distance hike if carrying by hand.

The Cons:

  • Inconvenient to carry over long distances without a bag.
  • Adds to plastic waste if you don’t use it more than once.

A Reusable Plastic Water Bottle: 

These are an upgrade from the convenience store disposable bottles. These tend to vary in their style, from hard sided bottles like Nalgene to soft sided bottles that collapse when they aren’t full of water. 

The Pros:

  • Longer lasting than a single use water bottle.
  • Collapsible water bottles are nice to use when you want to maximize your storage space in your backpack when it’s empty!
  • Wide variety of openings, which makes these style of water bottles the most versatile, especially if you want to add a flavor mix-in to your water.
  • Best for a short distance hike if you are carrying by hand.

The Cons:  

  • These tend to be a bit heavier compared to the disposable bottles.
  • Cost of these bottles is more than a disposable bottle. 
  • If you have a hard sided bottle, they don’t compress down to save space in your backpack.

A Hydration Reservoir:

Hydration reservoirs are awesome options for hiking, especially if you are going out over a long distance, up steep terrain, or both! These offer unparalleled convenience due to the straw that attaches to the reservoir, making it so that you don’t have to stop to drink water. 

The Pros:

  • As mentioned above, hydration reservoirs are designed to provide water on demand through a straw, making it easy to hydrate while you hike.
  • They tend to hold much more water compared to water bottles, so you can go farther without needing to refill.
  • Water reservoirs are made out of soft plastic, which means that when you have finished your water, they collapse to save space in your backpack. 
  • These are ideal when going on long hikes.

The Cons:

  • These are the most expensive water carrying options compared to disposable bottles and reusable bottles.
  • There is a risk of them getting poked and popping if hit with enough force.
  • These are harder to fill up because of the collapsible design feature. 

The number one recommendation when deciding which water carrying solution you should take is to evaluate how long you’re going to be hiking. If you are going over a long distance and you want to make sure to consistently hydrate along the way, a hydration reservoir might be the best option. If you’re just doing a quick hike on a local trail, you don’t need to bring more than a small disposable or reusable bottle. 

At the end of the day, it comes down to what is going to encourage you to drink enough water to get you safely to the end of your hike!

How to Pick Water Filtration Devices

How to Pick Water Filtration Devices

Now that we have explored the different options that you have for carrying water with you, it’s time to consider another essential piece of gear: the water filtration system. This piece of gear is super important, especially when you plan on doing multi-day trips into the backcountry. 

When doing multiple days in the backcountry, you won’t be able to carry all of the water you’ll need to sufficiently hydrate each day. Backcountry water sources can potentially carry waterborne diseases and parasites, which could result in you getting pretty sick. Below are a few suggestions of different filtration systems that will make backcountry water sources safe for drinking!


You read that right, you can boil your water to make it safe to drink! The bacteria and parasites that could be in the water source that you want to drink will get killed off after bringing your collected water to a boil. 

The Pros:

  • Simple and safe way to purify water without specialized equipment.
  • Will work in an emergency or if you forgot to bring your water filter with you.

The Cons:

  • You need a way to start a fire to boil the water.
  • You need a container that won’t melt when exposed to hot temperatures.
  • Doesn’t get rid of any sediment that is in the water.

Squeeze Filter:

One of the amazing things about living in the 21st century is that people have figured out how to make untreated water sources safe with a squeeze of the hand. While there are a few companies that make squeeze filters, the basic function of these filters is the same: 

  1. Screw a filter onto a water bottle that is filled with unfiltered water.
  2. Squeeze the bottle to push the unfiltered water through the filter.
  3. Collect the clean drinking water in another source on the other side.

The simplicity of using these filters makes them a great option for most hikers. They also tend to be inexpensive compared to other water filter devices. This makes it so that if they break, it’s easy and painless to replace them! These filters vary on how much water they are able to clean, but some models are able to filter up to 100,000 gallons of water over the life of the filter!

The Pros: 

  • Easy to use.
  • Inexpensive.
  • Can filter A LOT of water.
  • Filters out sediment so you aren’t accidentally drinking in dirt and rocks.

The Cons:

  • You need a water bottle that has a standard screw on cap so that it can properly fit on the bottle.
  • If you squeeze too hard, they have the possibility of breaking.
  • If it gets too cold, the filter can freeze and crack if there is still water left inside of it.
  • You’ll need to carry something to backflush the filter in case it gets clogged with sediment.

UV Pen Light Filter:

If you thought that the squeeze filter was impressive, just wait until you hear about UV Pen Lights! These are exactly what they sound like; a pen that you can turn on to emit UV light. The UV light kills off all of the harmful bacteria and parasites that could make you sick.

The Pros:

  • Most effective at killing off harmful bacteria and parasites.
  • Lightweight and easy to use.
  • Can be used in any container you can fit it into.

The Cons:

  • If the battery runs out on it, you’ll need to replace it or it will be useless.
  • Doesn’t filter out sediment.
  • One of the most expensive filters you can buy. If you break or lose it, it will cost a lot of money to replace.

Water filtration is a must when going into the backcountry. Whether you’re going for a day or for multiple days, it’s always safe to carry one with you, just in case!

How to Pick Safe Water Sources

How to Pick Safe Water Sources

Now that you have figured out what you are going to carry your water in and what you are going to use for a water filter, it’s time to learn how to identify safe water sources. While the water filters are very effective at eliminating harmful waterborne diseases, you’ll want to pay special attention to the source you’re drinking from. That way there is as small a chance as possible of you accidentally picking something up from your drinking source.

The following list ranks the best water sources to pick from to the worst.

Mountain Springs

Mountain springs are the best choice for collecting water because they usually haven’t been walked across by animals or people and they are coming directly out of the mountain which usually is full of rocks and other sediment that has pre-filtered the water for you. 

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use your water filtering device though. 

This just means that you’ll have the least likelihood of accidentally picking up a waterborne illness. This water also tends to taste the best because it hasn’t been tainted by anything else.

Streams, Creeks, and Rivers

Streams, creeks, and rivers are great sources of water if there isn’t a spring nearby. What makes these water sources good is that they are running, which means that if an animal has used the source and left behind a parasite, that parasite has likely been washed away downstream. 

You’ll want to pay attention to where you are collecting water from though. If it looks like there is a lot of animal tracks near where you are wanting to collect water, it might be a good idea to walk further upstream to find an area that hasn’t been heavily trafficked by animals. That way you’ll reduce the risk of picking up a waterborne illness.

Be careful not to fall in, especially if the stream, creek, or river is running fast. Don’t turn routine water collection into an emergency. If the water is running too fast, look for a slower spot or move on to find another water source.

Ponds and Lakes

Ponds and lakes are the third best water source to collect water from, mostly because it is difficult for water to move in and out of the source. Pay close attention to the surface of the water for algae as it can make it difficult to filter, especially if using a squeeze filter.

Pay close attention to the area around the pond or lake. Just like with streams, creeks, and rivers, avoid areas that look like there has been high use by animals. Also keep an eye out for anything that might be dead and floating in the water!

A Puddle

Use puddles for water as a last resort only. Puddles generally are full of bacteria, animal waste, and other nasties that could potentially harm you. If you have a squeeze filter, consider filtering the water through twice just to be sure that you strained out any waterborne illnesses that might be swimming around. It also would be a good idea to boil the water after you have double filtered, just to be safe.

If you are in a pinch, your water filter is broken and you have no way to boil the water from the puddle, drink the water. This should only be done in emergency situations where you are extremely dehydrated and this is your only source of water. 

You are much more likely to experience the effects of drinking tainted water after a week or two. Dehydration is much more dangerous at that point. Rescuers might only be a day or two away. They’ll be able to take you to a hospital where you’ll be treated for any water illness fairly easily. 

Now it’s time to hit the trail! You’ve got all of the knowledge you need to confidently go off into the backcountry and know that one of the most important needs you have is taken care of. As a reminder, prioritize your water management plan by following these steps:

  1. Start getting hydrated at least 24 hours in advance of your planned hike.
  2. Choose the appropriate water container for your trip.
  3. Be sure to pack a way to filter water on the trail just in case you run out.
  4. Identify the best sources of water to draw from to reduce your chances of accidentally picking up a waterborne illness.

And if nothing else, remember this; don’t wait until you feel thirsty to drink water while hiking! Drink early. Drink often.

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