How to Dry Camp

How to Dry Camp

Most backpackers like to camp close to water sources out of convenience, but there are real benefits to dry camping in places that are not close to them. If you’re willing to haul the water you’ll need for the night and the next morning, you can camp out at a more scenic location while enjoying the extra privacy and in many cases, the extra security that comes from camping apart from other people.

The most important skills required for dry camping are navigation, hydration, and campsite selection.

Navigation

Navigation comes into play because you’ll want to pick an area to look for a good campsite, particularly if you’ve never been there before. If you have a tent, you’ll want to find an area that has enough level ground to sleep on, or if you have a hammock, a forested area that has the requisite tree cover. There are plenty of GPS Apps, including Gaia GPS, that have topographic maps and satellite imagery to help you make an educated guess about what the conditions will be like at your intended destination. And if things don’t pan out, where you’ll want to go next to find a good campsite.

Finally, if you do venture off-trail to dry camp, you also need to be able to resume your intended route and not get hopelessly lost. That means you need to be on top of your navigation game.

Hydration (Water Management)

You’ll need to figure out the distance you need to travel from your last water source, how much water you’ll need for the night the next morning, and until you can acquire water the next day. This is reasonably easy in a temperate climate that has numerous water sources, but it can get trickier in arid terrain, where there are fewer water sources and some of them may be dry. Part of your planning process will need to consider the risk of running out of water and whether you need to carry extra to offset it.

The best way to carry extra water for dry camping is to use a multi-liter soft bottle that is very lightweight and rolls up compactly when it’s not needed. These are available in 2L, 3L, and 4L sizes, including:

For example, I usually dry camp with 4L or 5L of water: 2L for dinner and the night, 2L for tea and breakfast the next morning, and 1L to get me to the next water source.

Campsite Selection

The other reason that backpackers like to camp near water sources is that there are usually pre-existing campsites that they can use to camp. They’re not necessarily good campsites, but most backpackers feel “safer” knowing they’re camping where someone has camped before. That’s a fallacy of course, particularly if you’re camping someplace with a bear problem or your campsite is en route to the local water source that the local animal population frequents.

When dry camping with a hammock, you want to plan to camp where the trees are tall enough to pitch and there’s enough space between them to hang a hammock. 
When dry camping with a hammock, you want to plan to camp where the trees are tall enough to pitch and there’s enough space between them to hang a hammock.

When dry camping, you’re probably going to camp in a spot where no one has camped before. Since it’s not near a water source, you’re less likely to have animals tromping through at night unless you make the mistake of setting up on a game trail and next to a bear cave.

You want to avoid widow-makers – trees that can fall on you and injure you at night or when the wind gets up and to pick a site that won’t get flooded out if it rains.

My preference when dry camping is to camp out of sight of the nearest trail if one is close and to exert the lowest possible impact on the site I choose. This means I’m not going to build a fire ring or have a fire at night or dig a trench around my tent, I’m not going to move rocks or chop down trees, and I’m going to pitch my tent or hammock directly above fragile plant life. While my presence will leave some impact, my goal is to leave things as little changed as possible.

Wrap Up

Dry camping is nice when it all comes together, but it takes some upfront planning and adaptability if things don’t work out to pull it off. It’s also something you don’t want to do in the dark, so build some extra time into your schedule to find a good campsite before the lights go out.

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10 comments

  1. Depending on the size and nature of the woods you walk in, an alternative to carrying water from the last source is to put out a water cache. Many of the “pocket” backcountry areas in Ohio have been reclaimed from abandoned farmland or mining tracts; others are part of “managed” forests owned by the state but leased for harvest to timber and paper companies. As a result, the parts that are reserved for recreation often are near or intersected by public roads or forest service roads, so it’s possible to put out caches within a mile or less of your intended campsite.

    I’ve got such a place within a half hour’s drive of my house; it’s actually a 35-mile backpack trail contained within a conservancy district. The primary purpose of the woods is to serve as a basin for a small flood-control dam (a series of such dams were built after the 1913 flood that hit Dayton, Ohio.) It’s a narrow but long woods full of ravines and small feeder streams into the dammed stream. The dams are such that they don’t really control the normal flow of the stream; the only time the dam creates a pool is when we get prolonged heavy rains. So, the recreation area feels a bit like a “real” forest, and there’s surprisingly little traffic noise at night.

    All 3 of the overnight campsites are dry (one drawback to this reserve is that you must use a designated site.) There’s a service road into two of the three overnight campsites, so I can and frequently do cache the 3 liters I need for an overnight stay less than a tenth of a mile from the camp – really simplifies things. The third campsite is more remote, but it’s less than a quarter mile from the main stream, so carrying water isn’t a problem.

    I’ve also cached water along other trails, and it works well. When putting out a cache, the main concern is that someone will find the cache and assume that it’s fair game – or worse yet, intentionally dump your water and steal the empty containers. I usually find a hiding place 20 yards or so off the trail, usually behind a tree so it’s not highly visible from the trail or road; then I cover it with some brush, leaves, or fallen branches to further disguise it. Finally, I take two pictures: one of the specific location including some sort of distinguishable mark (a forked tree, a boulder, etc.) and one of a distinctive road or trail feature (milepost, etc.) on the trail so I can find the cached later.

    The containers are also something to consider. You can use anything from empty milk bottles or soda bottles to collapsible bottles such as CNOC, Platypus, or MSR Dromlites. While a splash of color (marker, bandanna, etc.) makes it easier for you to find your cache, it also makes it easier for others to find it. You might also want to write on the bottle, something along the lines of “backpacker is relying on this water on (date); please do not disturb it.” Remember: you have to either come back for the empty container later or pack it out with you. If you plan to pack it out, collapsible bottles like the CNOC or Platypus work best.

    I take frequent overnight trips to the reserve I mentioned earlier. Despite the heavy dayhiker use of this park, I’ve never had an issue with a cache being tampered with. For me, a cache is a truly viable alternative to carrying water from the last source.

  2. Dry camping is a term RVers use. Seems strange applied to backpacking. Camping next to a water source is bad form, always has been. Usually not great places to spend the night either, between extra damp and chilly night air and the bugs

  3. Dry camping is a term RVers use. Seems strange applied to backpacking. Camping next to a water source is bad form, always has been. Usually not great places to spend the night either, between extra damp and chilly night air and the bugs.
    FYI, in the Sierra near me, you are required to camp at least 200 feet from water or a trail. Used to be 100 feet.
    I look for large trees on an incline. Tends to be a nice flat spot on the uphill side.

    • Even though Phil doesn’t specify distance in the story I think the implication is that backpackers will sometimes find themselves in situations where they can be a mile+ and in some cases several miles away from a water source.
      Very similar regulation in the White Mtns to your Sierra’s. I would not consider 200′ a hardship to fetch water.

      • Exactly. Dry campsite is a common term in backpacking to mean a site much farther than the requisite 200’ from water source – in the Whites for me it often means finding a spot just a bit below tree line or a peak because I don’t want to go farther down for the night. And a water source could just be a small stream or spring. Most of the high designated sites with water are just a spring.

        My main tip is go no-cook/no-soak. I don’t really need much water for dinner and breakfast. I eat some dinner before getting to camp, and when I get to and set up camp I eat a bit more, and maybe make a recovery drink. I usually have only about 1.5 L at my dry campsite, and I’m good until back on trail. I don’t drink that much before bed – it’ll just keep waking me up for potty breaks. My drinking is during the day sweating on the trail.

  4. I frequently backpack in areas where surface water is rare. And I’ve dry camped more times than I can count. Here are a few more important skills and tips.

    – Know how much water YOU need between water sources. In most conditions I plan on one liter every 5 miles, plus two liters overnight.

    – You must carry more water during hotter weather. How much is very individual.

    – At water sources, drink as much as you can stand – “camel up.” You’ll feel better and hike better. But carry as much water as you planned on anyway.

    – Use a faster water treatment system to save time and frustration at water stops. Every system has tradeoffs, and you really should follow the manufacturer’s instructions. I use BeFree filters. If worried about viruses, I’ll add chlorine dioxide tablets after filtering.

    – As the climate changes, so-called reliable water sources might be dry. You might get info from other hikers that isn’t always accurate. You could carry extra water. Or you can risk short-term dehydration if you are fairly certain of water in the near future.

    – Consider keeping at least 1/2 liter of water in reserve for wound cleaning first aid.

    • Unfortunately, cameling up isn’t so good for you and is a fallacy propagated by many hikers. Your body can only absorb a half liter an hour, so when you camel up by drinking a liter or more at a time, you pee it out quickly along with your electrolytes. It’s much better to train yourself to stay hydrated during the day and carry more water, rather than to binge drink like a frat boy before a dry stretch.

      • Cameling up works for me, tested over decades, including Mojave desert trips. I hike better, get fewer injuries, and feel better. Not binge drinking, just remembering to drink more than a few sips, or “rationing”, another dumb idea. Drink when you feel thirsty! Electrolytes are pretty light, and needed when sweating profusely.

        As always, YMMV.

  5. Why on earth would anyone pack water for dinner if they don’t have to? Cook dinner at your last water source even if it’s noontime then pack two liters to camp eat lunch at dinner time & use the remaining water for overnight & breakfast

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