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How Much Water Should You Carry When You Go Hiking?

Stream on the Skookumchuck Trail, White Mountains
Stream on the Skookumchuck Trail, White Mountains

Water is one of the heaviest things in your backpack at at 2 pounds per liter it can really weigh you down if you carry to0 much of it when you don’t need to. I used to do this all of the time, first as a day hiker and then later as a backpacker.

As a day hiker, I used to carry 3 or 4 liters of water for a long summer hike, even though I was surrounded by water sources in the mountains where I hiked. I hadn’t learned to use a water filter yet, and would often turn back when my water started to run out rather than resupply from the streams at my feet.

I can still remember the first time I used a water filter. It was on West Hunter Mountain in the Catskills. I stopped at a stream and pumped 2 liters of water into my platypus hydration system.  It was one of the most liberating moments I’ve ever experienced hiking! I knew from then on, that the distance I could hike in a day would never be limited by the amount of water I could carry in my pack.

But even then, I still carried two much water between fill-ups, especially on backpacking trips. I’d often carry 4 liters or more in my pack at any given time, even when I was experimenting with lightweight backpacking.

This was brought home to me a few months back when I met a trip leader I used to hike with a lot in those days. The first question out of her mouth was whether I was carrying too much water still! I can’t believe she remembered that about me after all those years.

Nowadays, I carry a lot less water with me on day hikes and backpacking trips, and top out at 2 liters max. If I need more, I just stop and filter some. Granted I mainly hike in New England or on the Appalachian Trail where water is plentiful, but it’s something to keep in mind. I’m not suggesting that you drink less, but that you carry less:  I still manage to drink about 5 liters a day regardless of whether I’m day hiking or backpacking.

Here’s my system:

  • I pre-hydrate by drinking a liter of water just before I start hiking because carrying water inside you is lighter than carrying water on your back!
  • I start out with 2 liters and drink about 1 pint every hour.
  • I plan my route carefully so I know where there is water if I run out, and can carry more if necessary.
  • I camel up when I resupply at a stream or pond, drinking a full liter on the spot.
  • I drink a liter at the end of the day, after I’ve finished hiking.
This is pretty much what I do year round, except in winter when I don’t resupply during the day if I need to melt snow. I still pre-hydrate (although a bit more) and carry a maximum of 2 liters unless there’s something about the route I’m on which requires that I carry more.
With a little planning and a water filter or purifier, you can really cut down on the extra water weight you have to carry during the day. It really is liberating to have a lighter pack and be more self sufficient, especially when you develop the urge to hike all day.

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  1. The Sawyer filter makes claims that can not be backed up by good science from what I read.

  2. I live in Arizona and unfortunately, many passages of the Arizona Trail have no water sources at all. So I end up carrying 6 liters for my 2 day hikes, and sometimes carry an extra platypus bag for longer hikes. Whenever I see even the tiniest of water sources, I stop and drink as much as I can handle, and leave my loaded water intact. On my last section I battled a rattlesnake for the one water source on the 20 mile trek – a gorgeous spring in the middle of the desert. Love my Sawyer Mini for filtering.

    • I hike in AZ also and have wondered what other hikers do to lessen their water load. I just cant make myself rely on water that may not be there. I did a 15 mile section of AZT and there were running streams at the start but nothing after the first few miles.

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