How-To: Water for Hiking, Backpacking and Camping


Water. Hydration. It is, or should be, one of your top concerns when spending time in the wilderness like hiking, backpacking and camping. Because after air, water is the most needed item for your survival. Inadequate hydration can also lead to physical impairments like cramps, spasms and extreme fatigue which are common causes of accidents. Being dehydrated can also cause you to overheat or become hypothermic, and it and even create disorientation. As such, below I will share some information about tips for planning hydration for outdoor adventures, including how much water to drink, tips for minimizing risk, and products I find really helpful.

Most of us are aware of the survival “Rule of 3.” This purports that we humans can survive 3 weeks without food, 3 days without water, 3 hours without shelter (in a harsh environment), and 3 minutes without air. While this is a very good rule of thumb, it of course is not exactly accurate.

Each circumstance depends on so many things. The amount of water we each need, for example, varies person to person and is hugely impacted by a great number of factors. Essentially, water losses need to be replaced by water intake but the rate of loss is greatly varied depending on things like temperature, exertion, age, weight, etc.

Another number to remember is that if you sweat out more than two percent of your body mass, your performance goes into decline to the point that your overall judgement is reduced by a whopping 25%! Lose more than 10% and your body functions are severely limited. Feeling thirsty is a sign you are already dehydrated. Don’t wait for this feeling before hydrating.

How Much Water Should I Drink?

Everyone has different needs, but for the sake of simplification, it is generally recommended by health professionals that the average person going about an average day consume a minimum of 2 litres of water each day. Hiking is not average activity so be sure to add more depending on how long you’ll be active for, how hot it will be, and how much you sweat, pee, and breathe heavily.

I’m no expert but my general rule of thumb is to have with me 2 litres per day hiking in cold and mild weather, IN ADDITION TO making sure I hydrate well the day before and morning of before setting off, and having water available back in the vehicle for my return. If it’s a really hot, summer day and I am not absolutely positive there will be a water source available on the trail, I will bring an extra litre per half day.

How to Stay Hydrated

So we’ve covered that staying hydrated is important, and how much water we should be drinking, but how can we best do this is the next topic we should discuss.

Pre- and post-activity hydration is key as our bodies store water. SportMedBC explains it well here saying, “to ensure adequate pre-exercise hydration, athletes should drink 2-2.5 cups (500-600mL) of fluid 2 hours before exercise. If tolerated, drink ½ -1 cup (125-250mL) 10 to 20 minutes before exercise.”

They also explain when best to drink during activity. “A guideline to start with is ½ – 1 cup fluid every 20 minutes. In hot conditions, it could go as high as 2 cups every 20 minutes. Aim to drink fluids on a consistent schedule (set a watch timer).”

Finding Water Sources

Even if you plan on carrying all the water you need, it is smart to identify potential water sources along your route, and to carry a filtration system in case the unexpected happens. Part of the trip planning you must do for every outdoor adventure, you should look at detailed maps before heading out, identifying where nearby water sources are. Know where the closest large, guaranteed source is, like a large river that has water year-round. Smaller streams, waterfalls, and ponds are less reliable as they can dry up during the summer months.

Just because it’s clear, doesn’t mean it’s safe to drink. Some rules of thumb for choosing the safest water to drink include choosing water that is:

  • Moving. Always opt for the fastest moving water such as a waterfall or flowing river instead of standing/still water like a pond or even a lake.
  • Not near an area frequented by people. Water sources near campgrounds, for example, have a higher risk of contamination due to the number of people using it and potentially misusing it (ie not following Leave No Trace principles).
  • As close to the beginning of the source as possible. The closer to the origin, the cleaner it is and less chance of it being contaminated.
  • Teeming with life. Life depends on water so if the source has plants in it, or you can see signs of animals drinking from it, it’s probably a safe source.

How to Carry & Filter Water

Carrying weight is a huge pain. We all feel it. We all want to minimize the amount of weight we carry in our packs. One litre of water weighs a whopping 1 kg (2.2 lbs) so minimizing the amount of liquids we carry is often top of mind for many recreationists.

I always begin a trip carrying at least 1.5-2 litres of water with me just in case. It is usually in a reservoir/bladder unless it is below zero temps and my tube will freeze. In those cases, I still try and just blow back the water into the bag after every sip so there is none in the tube exposed to the elements. But I also carry with me hot water in insulted water bottles like a Hydroflask inside my pack. In addition to this, I always have my 1 litre , which is a soft water bottle with a built in filter so I can quickly and easily filter water found in rivers and streams (or puddles when desperate!).

If I am on a multi-day trip, I will also bring my Platypus GravityWorks 4.0L Filter System. This amazing thing is super light, compact and filters a ton of water in just minutes, and doubles as a reservoir to hold water if needed to carry. Camping often requires a lot more water than day hiking as you need it for rehydrating food, making coffee, washing dishes, hands, etc.

See my blog post Best Backpacking Meals

Some people prefer to use tablets or drops to treat the water. I do sometimes too, but they can create a taste in the water and/or take time to become effective. The Pristine drop system is my fave.

Other methods for treating water including boiling it (which is actually the safest method for treating water – just make sure to leave it on rolling boil for at least 1 minute or 3 if over 2000 metres elevation), or using UV Light. Learn more about the pros and cons about each method on the CDC website here.

Some Other Tips

Some other tips for hydration while hiking include:

  • Keep some electrolytes in your first aid kit. I always have some Nuun tablets, other powdered electrolyte sachets, Salt Stick capsules, as well as salt packets with me. The former are great additions to flavour water and provide a boost on especially hot days, and the latter for when unexpected dehydration happens. I’ve given them to numerous people over the years found on the trails with cramps and muscle spasms.
  • On hot days especially, I make sure to carry watery foods with me sprinkled in salt. Tomatoes and cucumbers are my faves. Grapes minus the salt are wonderful sweet natural energy bites. On cold days, I use my Jetboil to make noodles so I can drink up the salty soup.
  • If you bring food you want to keep cold (ok who am I kidding, for the mountaintop champagne too!), pack some ice cubes to keep it cool, which can double as emergency liquid, or you can dump it and water the plants if not needed. I toss a bunch in a reusable sealable bag [because disposable plastic like Ziploc is AWFUL for the environment!] with my drinks.

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