How to Carry Water While Hiking

Are you looking to start long-distance hiking, but not sure how to carry water while hiking?

The idea of backpacking sounds lovely, wandering through nature with just a worn trail to guide you. But when you don’t know how to take care of a basic need like water, the idea turns dangerous. How should you carry the most basic thing you need to survive? 

Packing and planning for your water on a long-distance hike doesn’t have to be scary or overwhelming. With just a little bit of learning, we can teach you the critical things to know about carrying water on a hike. If you are in a hurry, the short answer is:

The best way to carry water while hiking is to use a collapsible bladder-type bag because of their flexibility, low weight and low volume when empty. Collect fresh water from flowing, clear courses and use sterilizing tablets to make it safe to drink.

If you prefer a little more detail behind that answer, then read on...

Basics of Hydration 

A person can last for a couple of weeks or more without food but do you know how long you'd last without water? Well, the answer is in the 'rule of 3'

  • 3 Weeks without food
  • 3 Days without water
  • 3 Minutes without oxygen 

That’s why it’s so important to have water and stay hydrated on a hiking adventure. Most health authorities agree that humans need to consume at least two liters of water per day even under normal conditions sitting in a cubicle at a computer.

However, throw hiking into the mix, especially in hot conditions, up hills or with heavy packs, and all that physical exertion means you'll sweat more, metabolise more (which uses water) and need to take in significantly more than the base two liters.

Some experts suggest you should consume a liter every hour in hot or humid weather. 

And that's all fine, except that water is bulky, heavy and often unsafe to drink if collected on the trail rather than in your kitchen.

Water weighs a little over two pounds per liter. Carrying enough for 8 hours of tough trekking could mean making room for 16lbs of water. Consider that you can reasonably trek with a pack not exceeding 20% of your body weight. If you weigh between 150 and 200lbs, your pack should be between 30 and 40lbs, which means you don't have room for 16lbs of water!

So, if you can't take it all with you, how do you make sure you have enough water to keep you healthily hydrated on the trail? Well, that's what we'll look at next.

How to Pack Water in a Backpack

When you are packing water, there are three main ways to carry it. One way is use hard water bottles. These are usually the easiest to refill and the most durable. However, they add a lot more weight and take up a lot of space in a pack even when they're empty.

Water bladders are another way to pack water with you. Water bladders usually sit inside your backpack with a small drinking tube running from inside the pack, over your shoulder (attached to a shoulder strap) and with the drinking end clipped within easy reach of your mouth so you can drink on the move without having to stop, take off your pack and root around for a bottle.

Water bladders are a good choice if you have trouble remembering to drink water or chug water instead of sipping it. However, water bladders aren’t the easiest to fill, and, because you can’t see how much water you have left, they present the risk of running dry when you're not near a refill point.

Collapsible water bottles are a good alternative between the two. They can collapse down and weigh little like water bladders, but fill easier like hard water bottles. One of the issues with them is they aren’t as durable as hard water bottles and might need replacing more often.

Whichever water carrying system you choose, the other important place to pack water is in your body! You should drink about a liter of water each time you stop at a water source and before you start your trek for the day.

Drinking before exertion in this way is called pre-hydrating. Pre-hydrating allows your body to get ahead of its fluid needs before you start using up your water. Keep in mind that chugging water before you leave doesn’t help, it just causes the fluid to leave your system faster, so stick to small amounts more often.

How to Collect Water from Rivers and Streams 

If your hike is longer than a day trip, especially if you are wild camping, you will need to top up your water supply from natural, outdoor sources.

River under mountains

Fast-moving rivers are best for hiking water

When collecting water, there are a few important things to keep in mind, especially before you ever leave the comfort of your home. Planning your trail and your hikes for each day should revolve around water. Unless you have a constant easily accessible water supply, you should know where your top-ups are coming from. In particular, you should comfortably carry enough water to last you from one refill to the next.

The best sources to collect from are bubbling springs where the water is least contaminated. When you don’t have a bubbling spring, always choose water source that is moving, even if it moves slowly, over a static one like a lake.

To further improve the likelihood of collecting clean water, fill your water bottles as far upstream as is practical for your hike.

Avoid stagnant water and any water that looks dirty, oily, buggy, hazy, or with a lot of algae. Stagnant water is a breeding ground for parasites and bacteria. You should use your maps to also avoid water courses that flow through industrial areas or farm areas.

To refill your water bottle from a stream or river:

  • Take your backpack off and leave it safely away from the flowing water
  • Get your water bottle in hand with the lid off
  • Empty the water bottle (ideally into your body)
  • Make sure to plant your feet near the water's edge in a stable position that's easy for you to maintain balance when bending over
  • Bend over and reach out into the water course with your water bottle, i.e. keep it away from the bank
  • When the bottle is half full, take it out of the water, swill the water around and empty this back into the stream
  • Place the bottle back in the flowing water, away from the bank, and fill your bottle
  • Carefully stand up and move away from the water

With your next liters of drinking water safely collected, you need to make sure they  are purified and fit for you to drink.

Is it Safe to Drink Water from a Stream?

The simple answer is to always assume water collected from a stream or river, even a clean-looking, fast flowing one is not pure enough to drink without treatment.

Most water in nature carries bacteria which can be harmful to humans, so you must purify your newly-full drinking bottle before taking a sip. Don't worry though, this is easy to do with relatively cheap equipment and does not take long to be effective.

There are two levels of cleaning water collected in the wild: filtration and purification. As it sounds, filtration uses a filter to remove bacteria and protozoa, which includes beauties like Cryptosporidium and Campylobacter. You do not want those guys slipping into your body!

For most western-word trekking, with ready access to deep, free-flowing water, these offer a good level of protection.

If you're hiking somewhere more remote, then opt for a purifier which will also remove the teeny viruses in the water, such as Hepatitis A. Purifiers often have an additional level of purification to remove viruses which can slip through a filter, such as iodine or ultraviolet light.

Both purifiers and filters will remove physical matter from the water, like silt and vegetation, making it more appealing to drink too. Both types of filtration can also contain activated carbon to soak up unwanted flavors like chlorine and leave you a crisper-tasting drink on the trail. 

How to Purify Water On a Hiking Trail

There are several methods of purifying water. As we saw above, you can use a filter or purifier. You can also chemically treat the water, simply boil it, or use some combination of these techniques.

Each method of turning wild water into safe drinking water has its advantages and disadvantages, which we'll look at next. 

Water Filter Pros and Cons

Filters come in several different styles (click links to see examples on Amazon):

Gravity filters usually work better for larger groups that aren’t travelling at a quick pace because they handle larger water volumes but take a long time to do so.

If it’s just you on the trail, you might consider a LifeStraw. Most will attach to your water bottle so you can fill up and drink with ease. They are light, small and effectively work instantly. The downside is that they don't come cheap.

Syringe-style filters allow you to fill your water containers with purified water. They are painstaking to use though and so not a common choice.

Pump filters work by using a pump to force water through filters under pressure. Because that additional pressure is there, a better filtration system can be used so these will get your water cleaner than using a passive system and you can use them in ponds and murkier water and still get clean drinking water from them. 

Their downside is bulk and effort. They are a fairly big addition to your backpack and pumping your water needs for the day can quickly become a chore.

Pros and Cons of Chemical Water Purification

Chemical water treatment tablets are a common purifying method. The upsides are they are very cheap and easy to carry because they are light and take up very little room. The disadvantage of water purifying tablets is the chemical taste they leave behind.

They are very easy to use though: fill up your water bottle as described before, drop in the appropriate number of tablets, wait a given time (usually half an hour) and then drink safely. Some tablets come with a neutralizer which takes away the chemical taste, get these if you can.

Note that tablets don't get rid of all viruses, so if you're trekking in the tropics then don't rely on these alone.

Pros and Cons of Ultraviolet Light Purification

The newest method of water purifying your water is to use ultraviolet light.

The huge upsides to using UV light to purify your water are that it's quick, simple and highly effective. Buy one of the many UV pens on the market and all you need to do is expose the water to the UV light for a minute or so and all those nasty bugs will be eliminated.

There are, however, no perfect solutions, UV light included. Its downside are a reliance on batteries, so you either need a method of recharging or spares if you're out on the trail for a long time, and it needs the water to be clean to begin with. By that we mean you should have filtered out debris before exposing the water to UV light because any dirt in the water blocks some light and reduces its effectiveness.

Ultraviolet water filters are also quite expensive, but they are small, light and good for many thousands of liters. They also don't affect the taste of the water and they work very quickly and effectively, which makes them a great solution for water purifying.

See the video below for more info, and check out the range of UV purifier options on Amazon.

Pros and Cons of Boiling Water to Purify it

Boiling water is the time-tested, effective method of water purification. It is highly effective in removing from your water any of the wee nasties that are harmful to health when drunk.

However, it takes time to boil, is not efficient for large quantities and only kills germs, it does not remove any debris from the water. Oh, and it also leaves you with hot water, which is not appetising when you're really thirsty.

Carrying Water Whilst Hiking, Summary 

As we mentioned before, there are a few pieces of equipment that you may want to make carrying and purifying water easier on you.

For carrying water, we recommend bladder-style bags which are light, flexible, robust and require little room when empty. The most well-known and respected brands producing water bladders for hikers are:

As a rule, we like to take two bladders with us on any trek. This gives peace of mind if one develops a tear or leak but, more importantly (since leaks in decent bags almost never happen) you have the ability to carry a lot of water on a tough days hiking with little access to water courses, e.g. up a mountain path.

Purifying equipment is a little harder to make a definite recommendation for because it depends to a large degree on your need and no single solution to every issue exists.

However, if you are hiking in the US, Canada or western Europe with ready access to relatively clean running water, then we recommend a combination of filtration and purification.

For filtration, try the LifeStraw or something similar. For purifying purposes, either use water purification tablets at the cheaper end or a UV light sterilizing pen at the more expensive end.

Carrying water as a long-distance hiker can be easy if you plan and use the right equipment. People have been hiking, carrying their water, and collecting water from nature since the beginning of time. If they can do it, you can too!

Follow these simple steps to help you get started:

  • Figure out the factors which influence your water needs, e.g. weather, exertion, distance between rivers and streams
  • Check your pack weight without your water
  • Decide how much water you can carry without overburdening yourself
  • Buy your water equipment for purifying and carrying. We like to take two bladders
  • Test your equipment until you are comfortable using it
  • Pack your backpack for your hike with water and check weight again

With all that done, you’re ready for a thirst-free hike!