How to Reduce Your Backpacking Water Weight

How to Reduce Your Backpacking Water Weight

Water is heavy and at 2.2 lbs per liter, it’s probably the heaviest thing you carry in your backpack. Despite this, many hikers and backpackers still carry much more water than they need when hiking or backpacking. That’s wasted effort if you know you can find water along your route to satisfy your needs without compromising your safety. If you consistently end up at your destination with one or two liters of water that you haven’t consumed, maybe it’s time to rethink how much you water you carry.

Here are a few ways to reduce the amount of water you carry and still remain hydrated:

Plan Ahead

Get out a map and figure out where the water sources are on your route. They could be streams, rivers, wells, springs, water faucets, drinking fountains, ponds, or lakes. Carry a water filter or purifier with you if the water quality is suspect or unknown. If you know the distance between water sources and how much water you prefer to consume per hour, you can time it so you arrive at the next water source when it’s time for your drink or bottle refill. For example, I typically drink a liter of water every 2-3 hours and hike at a 2 mph pace, which gives me a range of 4-6 miles before I need to refill my 1 liter water bottle.

Consume Water at Water Sources

Drink water at water sources, so you don’t have to carry it away with you. But do so in moderation. Your body can only absorb a half liter per hour or slightly more in extreme heat. Don’t try to “camel up” with more than a liter of water at a time. Drinking too much water can disrupt your body’s electrolyte balance, lead to hyponatremia which is caused by low sodium levels, and make you feel like shit.

Cook Food at Water Sources

If it’s near meal time and you need water to cook or rehydrate your food, prepare and consume it at the water source so you don’t have to carry extra with you.

Prehydrate

Drink a half liter to a liter of water when you wake up in the morning or in the car on the way to a trailhead. If you’re well hydrated at the start of the day, you’ll need to carry less water to catch up at the start of your hike.

Be Sensible

  • If you don’t know the state or location of the water sources ahead of you, hedge your bets and carry more water.
  • If you hike in the desert or in an extremely arid climate, careful planning and carrying extra water may be required.
  • If you find it difficult to drink enough without a hose/hydration system, by all means, carry one.
  • If you eat healthy snacks or food as you walk, you can usually avoid relying on electrolyte mixes and the added sugar that most include.
  • If you hike with people who don’t want to stop at each water source or wait while you refill your bottle, carry more water or find new hiking partners.
  • If it’s really hot outside, slow down your pace or rest until the temperature drops, and then resume your journey. It’s much easier to manage your hydration level if your body isn’t stressed.

Carry More Than One Water Bottle

While you’re trying to cut down on the amount of water you carry, there will be times that you do have to carry some, including times when you’ll need to carry much more. I like to hedge my bets and carry 4L of capacity on backpacking trips for those times:

  • when I want to camp in between distant water sources
  • when it’s very hot and I need to consume more water, more frequently
  • when I am not certain where the next water source is or I suspect it’s dry
  • in case I lose a bottle or destroy it

This is best done with soft water bottles, like 1L and 2L Platypus bottles, which are very lightweight and can be rolled up and packed away easily. Having lost or cracked bottles in the past, you’d be foolish to just carry one container without a backup.

This is Difficult

Training yourself to carry less water on hiking and backpacking trips is one of the most difficult backpacking skills to learn because we’re instinctively programmed to fear thirst and will do anything to avoid it. But if you can cut down on carrying excess water, you will notice a big difference between carrying one liter of water instead of two or three at a time. It’ll definitely put the spring back into your step!

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49 comments

  1. Did this exact thing a few weeks ago on a Semi-Pemi Loop hike. From Guyot to Galehead just carried 1L and from there back down into the Pemi Wilderness just kept refilling as I went. I’ve learned that as I’ve gotten older I needed to train myself to take more breaks and water sources are a great time to do just that

    • It really makes a difference in level of effort and it’s easy to do in a place that has rivers, streams, and springs everywhere like the White Mountains. But it does get harder and takes more planning in more arid climates.

    • Ditto on the “take more breaks” tip, Bill!

      I also tried using a hydration bladder and hose but gave up when I realized that if I couldn’t stop to get out my water bottle and rest for a couple of minutes, I was doing it wrong (or at least doing it wrong for me.) I realized I wasn’t out there to pile up mileage records and slowing down allowed me to see the country I was hiking through in more depth.

  2. This was the first trick I ever discovered. Back in the day, They said you always had to carry 2 quarts of water (this was during the Cold War, when the metric system was believed, at least in the Midwest, to be just another Commie plot.) After arriving at the next stream with a quart and a half of water several times, I figured out I only needed one quart, even though I had to wait 20 minutes for the iodine tablets to work. After that, I started questioning a lot of things They told me – “you always have to build a campfire,” “You shouldn’t sleep under the stars because the bears will get you.” (In central Indiana??) “You should always carry at least two changes of clothing, and at least two days’ extra food.” When I figured out that They were mostly car camping and feared going too deeply into the woods, I dropped about 10 pounds from my pack and never looked back.

    The widespread availability of reliable filters also helped reduce the amount of water you needed to carry, especially the ones with intake hoses (MSR Miniworks) which let you use small, shallow sources where you couldn’t just dip your water bottle to fill it.)

    • It’s funny how people shun pump filters, but they really are better in some places like when you have to get water out of a puddle or in the swamps below bog bridges, or along rivers or canals with very high banks.

      • The next filter I get may very well be a return to the Miniworks. An incident last weekend has somewhat dulled my enthusiasm for Sawyer clones and CNOC Vectos. I was hiking in high heat and high humidity in moderate terrain. After four or five hours of hiking, we dropped down past a lake and picked up water: I finished off my filtered water and filtered another liter into my CNOC Vesica. I also refilled the two-liter Vecto container to carry to camp for the night.

        We hiked another hour, I fell, and let my companions go on while I rested for a while. After a bit, I decided to terminate the trip and hike the road back to the trailhead. Realizing that I wouldn’t need the extra water for that 2-mile hike, I took a couple of good slugs from the Vecto, then emptied it.

        Yes, I said Vecto. The one with the unfiltered water. Despite the different container shapes and color-coded caps, I drank from the wrong container. (Also note that, unless you carry extra bottles, there’s no way to carry 3 filtered liters.) Although I had pre-planned how to tell them apart, the heat-dulled brain let me blow right by my “safeguards.”

        It probably says more about my mental midgetry than any shortcoming in the CNOC products, but I’m switching back to the Platypus Gravityworks; there’s no way to accidentally drink from the unfiltered container since it only has a zip opening and a quick-disconnect outlet: no bottle cap. If that doesn’t work, then I’ll head back to the MiniWorks.

        The Miniworks also prevents you from accidentally drinking unfiltered water.

        • With the weight savings of the CNOC combo over the miniworks you can easily carry more clean water bottles… It also takes way less effort to get water.

          My max capacity of water I can get to camp is like 6.6 liters. 3 unfiltered in orange 3L vector, 2L filtered in blue vecto, 1 filtered in smart water bottle and 0.6 unfiltered in a katydyn be free 0.6

          I drink out of the smart water bottle or befree… I will cook from the vecto… That is done at camp… The dirty water aka orange vecto is hanging from a tree it’s hard to mess that up.

          I think containers and all I’m at 10-11 oz? My miniworks ex I think was like 18oz and no water containers factored in there…

          IMHO search on Etsy for Justin’s ultralight water bottle holder for your shoulder strap…. Put the smart water bottle there.

  3. Good job, thanks. Sometimes it seems like you are having trouble finding things to write about 5 times per week. So far you are making very good use of that motivation.

    In this case if you had asked me yesterday, I would have said that I know everything I need to know about the trade-offs with carrying water. But when you lay it all out in detail with reminders about potential problems, I realize that I’m carrying almost 2 liters of “just in case” water. One liter in a bottle in case my bladder springs a leak and 1/2 to 1 liter in the bladder so that it won’t run dry. Your forcing me to look at the details, should allow me to eliminate the redundancy and get under a liter of “extra” water — since I hike where water sources are plentiful. Saving 3 pounds at the cost of a 5 minute read is a good deal.

  4. If you haven’t done it already, should link this into the “How to Become a Better Backpacker”!

    As you point out so much of this comes down to planning. Knowing where the water sources are and what your expected H2O consumption is given the terrain, weather, pace, etc.

    I used the think the water filters were just for backpackers. As (mostly) a day-hiker I’d go out carrying everything I thought I needed for the day and usually ended the day with at least a liter left. Complete game changer to bring a filter along.

  5. We also find it useful to pre-hydrate several days before. Not overhydrate mind you, but ensure you are fully hydrated so your body isn’t in need of water day 1.

    • In my section hikes on the AT, I find on average that I drink a liter for every 3 miles (5 km). I need about a liter for breakfast and dinner. Once I recognized that, it cut down on the “just in case” carrying.

      One hard thing I had to do on a section hike was pour out 2 liters that I’d just finished filtering. Some more experienced hikers at a shelter knew where I was going to camp (my buddies had left there earlier) and they convinced me of the folly of carrying all that extra weight for the 2 miles (3 km) I had left.

      I’m still waiting for someone to invent dehydrated water. It woke be much easier to carry!

      • I meant to say “… would be much easier to carry” not “woke be”. I’m not trying to say anything that could be misinterpreted as some sort of political statement.

        I was riding in a friend’s truck when I wrote that and didn’t proof it well enough.

  6. Alexander T Messinger

    I’ll add my own tip which is to carry a water Dipper to take advantage of very shallow sources. I cut off the neck of a small spring water bottle, one of those ribbed throwaway kinds that weigh nothing and contribute to our Solid Waste problem. I can also check the water for debris before I send it through the filter

  7. What do you all think about adding electrolytes or emergen c to water. Does that help you retain it better rather than peeing it all out

    • I’ll add a couple of Nuun tablets to every 3rd liter or so. I don’t do it specifically for the electrolytes – though I suspect I get some benefit there – as much as for a change of taste/flavor.

    • I balk at the disgusting level of fearmongering that most of the Electrolyte companies use to market their products, not to mention the loads of excessive sugar they put in them. Mainly I just try to eat regular food and that keeps me properly hydrated and in a balanced state of electrolytes since trail food has plenty of salt in it. When I do use an electrolyte, it’s Elete, which is just salt water.
      https://amzn.to/3PPhsop
      The problem with flavored electrolytes is that they’re hard to clean out of reservoirs and they create a smellable if put in a bottle that you have to store in a bear bag at night.

      • I’m the same but I recently used some real turmat stuff that you reconstitute in its own bag. I found it a big help at the end of each day and didn’t have it in my water bottle.
        My main problem is drinking enough water.

      • I have never used electrolytes, even in desert hiking. I find that the right snacks and foods have what I need. Good article.

    • I just use potassium chloride (no-salt) or lite salt that has both potassium and sodium in it. You can also get magnesium powder. If you Google recipes for keto-aide or homemade electrolyte drinks you’ll find lots. Making your own is cheaper and you can control what’s in it.

    • I try to have a couple of salty snacks each day in order to get the needed sodium from food.. I carry Medi-Lyte tablets which have all the electrolytes except sodium on the theory that I get enough sodium in my food.

    • I recently “discovered” salt tablets. They are dirt cheap, have no sugar, food coloring, etc. Our REI Adventures Grand Canyon North Rim guide (shout-out to Marci!) turned me on to them last year.

      I dissolve a 500 mg tablet in my mouth along with a long drink at a water stop. (I might be weird, but I enjoy the taste.) One or two of those salt/water stops on a hot a day helps me to tank up and seems to have fixed my bending-over-to-stake-out-the-tent head rush problem at the end of the day.

  8. Thank you for mentioning hyponatremia. I feel like a lot of people I hike with think that water is a panacea when it’s so easy to just drink water all day and not realize you need food too. I have the opposite problem of someone who doesn’t drink enough without a hydration hose; if I use one all I do is drink because it’s so easy to do and then I don’t eat enough because that takes too much effort, and then I get cranky and headache-y. Are headaches a symptom of dehydration? Sure, but if you’re drinking water all day regularly and it’s not 120 degrees out, it’s not likely that you are actually dehydrated. I can’t actually *prove* that my headache is from hyponatremia since I’ve never been tested for it, but I have been out several times where someone else complains of headache or leg cramps and think they need to drink more water. When that doesn’t solve the problem, I then ask if they’ve eaten anything lately and the answer is often no. So I tell them to eat something and usually that helps a lot more than drinking just plain old water.

    So, to reiterate: yes, water is important. Is it a cure-all? No! Sometimes it’s actually harmful to keep drinking it! (See: marathoners who’ve actually died, sadly, because of drinking too much water.)

    • Too much water and too much sodium (via salt tablets or electrolytes mixes) can both make you feel like shit, or worse. Everything in moderation. Eat food on your hikes and drink when you’re thristy or on a reasonable, set interval and you’ll be much happier. People snack all day at their home…they should do it when they hike too.

      • Exactly!

      • I’m not much of a snacker at home but I do make sure i rest regularly on the trail. I hope with others that I find I’m reminding them to eat too.

        One reason I prefer one electrolyte packet a day is it helps me drink down some water early in the day. I find I’m am not a fan of straight water – don’t know why but it doesn’t go down easy.

        Great article, sir.

        • FWIW I have found 1 Nuun serving per day (1.5 tablets in a dedicated collapsible bottle I can store in a bear bag or canister at night) a game changer. For some reason salty snacks and water alone just never worked for me to keep a headache at bay. Now I have no problem, and it’s not nearly as sugary as Gatorade etc. The other help has been a 500ml collapsible Hydrapak water pouch on my shoulder strap, that has a short hose with bite valve. I can sip (just water) as and when I need, hands-free, and it’s way easier to refill and field clean than a full hydration bladder system. Now I can hydrate just the right amount as needed. Wonderful! Thanks as always for the great articles Philip!

    • After colon resection surgery in 2010, the doctor told me to up my fluid intake, so I started drinking over a gallon of ice water a day. I then got hyponatremia and passed out twice one morning, falling and fracturing my ankle and receiving a high and low ankle sprain. My family doctor told me to drink some Gatorade, but to me that stuff is just lime flavored sweat. I did start to put some electrolyte mix in my drinks for a while but since have gotten a better handle on proper hydration levels and don’t bother with electrolyte mixes any more.

      That was a rough year. I was hospitalized five times in as many months and refused to go two other times when I probably should have. One of those was that morning I passed out twice. Another was a couple weeks later when I got hit by a car while hobbling across a street in my walking boot. Between my fourth and fifth trips to the hospital, we had to put our cat down. My granddaughter asked why the cat died and my daughter said it was because it had gotten old and sick. Granddaughter then asked, “So, are we going to put Grandpa to sleep?” Can’t fault the reasoning!

  9. Humans average between two and four million sweat glands. I think I have five million, ’cause I can Sweat. I have always needed to carry a bit more than others on the same hike ( I also learned to carry a couple packets of salt and sugar). I decentralize my water supply in how I carry it. Along with a liter bottle in my pack, I add a couple pint flasks in appropriate pants pockets so the load is below my center of gravity.

  10. I was hugely surprised trail angeling in June that many hikers didn’t know their daily mileage, avg speed, or h2o consumption rate on PCT SoCal desert. Made a rescue for a hiker that started w 6L in a.m. Was dry by 10am. Kept hiking in heat. I got a phone call thru at 4pm. Said SIT-STAY, I will get you in 2 hours. It took me 2.5 to get to agreed place, not there! Hiker walked past a water source after sit of 2 hrs. Source was .25m from sit. Headed to next source that was 5 miles on. Due to complete brain fog. Got 2nd phone call thru, turned them back to roadXX. 3 hrs to complete the meet up. If we didn’t get those calls thru, hiker would not have seen breakfast/sunrise.
    Know your consumption rate, hiking rate, carry a buffer of h2o. H2o is life.

  11. And what if you are carrying minimal water and you have an injury preventing you from moving? Carrying minimal water is taking an unnecessary risk
    If you are so unfit you can’t carry an extra liter or so perhaps you should be staying home.

  12. Notstupidlikeyou

    And if you cut the amount of water you are carrying and find the next few water sources dried up you can die just like the pioneers who took the same message to heart before crossing the Rocky Mountains. REMEMBER DEHYDRATION KILLS.

    • I took the message of story to be to plan your hike and understand where water sources are and where they’re not. We are not blazing a trail across the Rockies – we’re mostly hiking well trodden trails with maps (or digital apps) that clearly show where water is, where it isn’t and where it’s a “maybe”.

      LACK OF PLANNING KILLS.

      Don’t be a DB.

  13. I carry lots of water because more weight carried equals more calories burned and I’m chubby. Seems like a win-win.

  14. “WATER WEIGHT” should include containers and treatment(s).

    MY WATER SYSTEM: 2 L. CAMELBAK bladder & hose, collapsable 1 L. water “bottle”, Katadyn chlorine dioxide tablets

    That’s it. The collapsable bottle is for extra water on days when I camp where there is no water source.

  15. I always keep extra water in my truck for after the hike.

  16. Hiking i Norways mountains – fresh, cold and potable water in every litle stream. In winter time – melt snow

  17. a couple more tips about water and hydration:

    Learn the simple skin-pinch test for a basic assessment of your hydration level.

    Unless you really are critically dehydrated, try to save your last inch of water as an emergency supply. you might need it to take (or give someone) an emergency medication, clean bugs or bug spray out of your eyes, etc so that you CAN make it to your next water stop or back to a trail head.

    You might be aware of your hydration level, but if you are traveling with companions (especially novices) they may not. It’s easy for them to forget to drink. Take regular rest stops and make a habit of checking on your companions at each stop.

  18. I live in Israel
    3 liters is obligatory for a day hike, so an organizer will not let people on a hike without the minimum
    So you can be carrying 7 liters if you do a two day streach without a water source
    Water planning is the major part of any multiday hike
    Nobody carries a filter because the water is polluted with nitrate runoff from agriculture
    Israeli packs are made with side pockets that take 1 1/2 liter soda bottles
    Source is an Israeli company so bladders are readily available
    Source sells a bottle conversion kit to change bottles into bladders

  19. I only drink water filtered through barley and hops with a little yeast thrown in to add some kick

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