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How to Fill a Water Bottle from a Shallow Stream or Spring

How to refill a water bottle with a water scoop

It’s happened to all of us. You arrive at a backcountry stream or spring ready to refill your bottles or hydration bladder and filter water only to find they’re almost dry, running at just a trickle, or very shallow. Here are a few tips and tricks you can use to scoop up enough water to refill your bottles and prevent dehydration.

You can create a pour-over of your own by positioning a tree leaf in a creek or stream bed, like this. Don’t have a leaf? You can do this will any thin object in your pack from a candy wrapper to a piece of tin foil. You just need something that will create mini-funnel that you can position a container under.

Create your own pourover by positioning a leaf in the stream to channel water into a small container like a cook pot before pouring water into your hydration bladder
Create your own pour-over by positioning a leaf in the stream to channel water into a small container like a cookpot before pouring water into your hydration bladder.

If you have a pump-style water filter like a Katadyn Hiker Pro or an MSR MiniWorks, they really shine when it comes to sucking water out of very shallow water sources, especially if they have a pre-filter that removes any muck before it gets to the filter element. I’ve seen thru-hikers crowd around people who carry them so they can get clean water out of shallow springs. The hose is also great for reaching springs buried deep between rocks that you can’t reach by hand.

An old school pump water filter is great for sucking water out of shallow streams or creeks in summer
An old school pump water filter is great for sucking water out of shallow streams or springs in summer

If you carry a cooking pot, preferably one with handles, they make a great water scoop. Simply fill and pour into your bottles.

Hang onto those sandwich baggies or Mountain House packages as well, because you can use them as a makeshift water scoop. They also make good emergency mittens, but that’s another story.

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  1. If the stream is sandy-bottomed, shallow and “flat” (no rocks to use with a leaf, or other collection method), I’ve used my toilet trowel to dig a small hole (5 or 6 inches deep, and about the diameter of my pot) to create a pool from which I can dip water (or, if I have a pump filter, drop the hose end.)

  2. Sidney Hornblower

    I often carry a cut off bottom portion of one of those cheap, thin, very light 12-ounce water bottles to use as a scoop. It crushes down well, pops back into shape, weighs just a very few grams and is inexpensive and easy to replace. A cookpot is always a good backup but I don’t want to put “dirty” water in it if I don’t have to.

  3. I also use a foldable bottle with the top 1/3 cut off. The resulting “folder bucket” is very light and works far better than a bag, and I don’t have to use my mug in dirty water.

  4. Zachary G Robbins

    I cut my old Platypus soft bottle in half, works great as a scoop and folds flat. Also large enough to hold all my Sawyer Mini parts.

    • I do the same thing with a Sawyer soft bottle. Cut it on an angle and it has worked wonders when getting water from streams, springs emerging from rock walls, and sketchy sources I don’t want to stir up. As I recall, I got the idea from this web site.

  5. Terribly slow but when you’re desperate soaking a bandanna or cloth and wringing it into a container works too

  6. We were at Carlo Col shelter a couple of days after you said you hiked that area and saw this leaf trick. I wonder if it was yours!

  7. I use a gallon Ziploc baggie (firmer opening) with a bottom corner snipped off to scoop water. I use it to funnel water into my 1L Evernew bag, which I squeeze or hang with a Sawyer Squeeze. The Squeeze has a threaded attachment at the bottom to screw a Smartwater bottle into. Optional: a section of hose with a hose clamp to shut water off. The bag carries my filter, etc. Not my idea, but i like it. I tried a CNOC bag, but found it way too fiddly.

  8. I still worry every time I get water from a stream whether it will be safe to drink even after I filter it. You know every animal in the woods has shit and pissed in it, and I don’t believe those germs are easily destroyed. Better to always carry as much water as you will need in order to avoid the risk.

    • That becomes impractical after about 6 hours though. Just carry a water filter and you’ll be safe.

    • All filters on the market trap bacteria, but only certain ones trap viruses. The viruses can be killed by treating the water. (The CDC says boiling water for one minute (3 minutes at 6000′ & higher) will kill viruses.) A Sawyer Squeeze & a vial of chemical treatment still weighs less than a pump filter that’ll trap viruses.

      But each of us has our own risk tolerance. Because of the norovirus outbreaks in Section I of the PCT in Washington, I’m likely to start filtering and treating water if I’m on a hike longer than a few days. The idea of gastroenteritis hitting when I’m still a few days from civilization? Ugh.

  9. I’ve been using a plastic syringe in these situations. It works well in very shallow water, and could be used for wound irrigation in an emergency.

    I may try the cut off Platypus bottle as well.

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