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3 Keys for Planning and Carrying Water on the Trail

Categories: Hiking Tips & Tutorials


Guest post by Ian Young

Water is your most essential necessity on a hike. It’s a vital ingredient to life and you should consume it in plenty when you’re doing something active like hiking. But staying hydrated on the trail poses some issues that we don’t often encounter in our modern everyday water drinking.

To start, it’s heavy: one liter (the capacity of a traditional Nalgene water bottle) weighs 2.2 pounds. That’s a lot considering you will need a few of those per day. It can also be difficult to carry.

You typically want to put heavy items close to your back inside a backpack, but if you do this with your water, then it’s hard to access and you’re likely to not drink as much as you should. Hard plastic water bottles work well, but take up space when they’re empty.

Finally, there’s the issue of replenishing. If you’re out for a day hike, you can probably carry enough to get you back to the car, but maybe you don’t want to carry so much weight, or maybe you’re concerned about getting lost and needing more than you’ve brought. Choosing a water source along the trail and treating it properly becomes a whole new situation.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, not to worry – here is a breakdown of your options for addressing your hydration needs on the trail.

No one system will work best for every situation, so I’ll present the pros and cons of each option and let you choose what’s right for your needs.

A traditional Nalgene brand hard plastic water bottle and an insulating sleeve, great for keep water cold in the summer or warm in the winter.
A traditional Nalgene brand hard plastic water bottle and an insulating sleeve, great for keep water cold in the summer or warm in the winter.

1. Containment:

You typically have two choices for carrying your water.

The first is to use a hydration bladder, such as a Camelback or Platypus, that stays inside your backpack near your back and allows you to drink through a connected tube that comes out to your shoulder strap for easy access. This method has quite a few benefits, but it’s not without its flaws.


  • The Pros: Most bladders have a large carrying capacity (2-4L), and are flexible so they take up very little space when empty. They allow you to carry your water in the most efficient place, close to your back. It’s also very convenient and easy to grab the tube and drink while you’re on the go, which will help to make sure you drink enough.
  • The Cons: It’s hard to tell how much water you have left without pulling out the bladder, which can be difficult depending on the pack design. Of course you HAVE to pull it out when you refill it, and filling a bladder from a slow moving spring can be nearly impossible without another vessel to scoop and pour. Some people claim they can leave a plastic-y taste in the water, but I’ve found that goes away after a couple washings.

The second option is to carry your water in bottles.


Most backpacks have mesh side pockets specifically for water bottles, and it’s usually easy to reach back and grab one without taking the pack off. There are three types of bottles you can use. The first is a hard plastic bottle, like a Nalgene. These are nearly indestructible, will last for years, have measurements on the side, and can hold hot liquids. They are, however, relatively heavy and take up space when they’re empty. The second choice is a soft bladder-like bottle, such as the Platypus brand. These are reusable, pack down small when they’re empty, and stand up like a normal bottle when full. They’re less durable, and it’s not recommended to put hot liquids in them. The last option is to reuse disposable plastic bottles from commercial drinks, such as Gatorade or Aquafina. These are easy to get, light weight, and you don’t have to worry about taking care of them. They’re good for mixing flavored drinks so that you don’t leave a taste in your Nalgene, but they’re easy to break and don’t pack down.

  • The Pros: Bottles are easy to drink from and easy to refill from water sources. Storing them in outside pockets makes for quick access. It’s easy to tell how much you have left, and how much you’re drinking. Carrying your water on the outside allows for more room inside the backpack.
  • The Cons: Weight can be imbalanced if you’re carrying a full bottle on one side of your pack. Some backpack designs make it difficult to reach the bottle pockets with the pack on. Bottles usually require stopping to take a drink, which can be a nuisance when your hands are occupied, such as when using trekking poles.

2. Treatment:

At some point out on the trail, you’re going to reach a point when you run out of water and need to refill. Except for a few rare, pristine mountain springs, you’re going to want to treat the water you collect to prevent getting ill.

There are many ways you can do this, including: filters (pump, squeeze, or gravity), drops or tablets, UV pens, and good old fashioned boiling. I’ve used all of these methods, and here’s a general overview of their uses and pitfalls:

  • Pump or squeeze filters are the most convenient for backpacking or hiking with one or two people.
Sawyer Mini Squeeze filter and clean plunger for backflushing.
Sawyer Mini Squeeze filter and clean plunger for backflushing.

They’re small, lightweight, and quick to deploy and use, good for on-the-go situations, water is drinkable immediately, and they can work with bottles or hydration bladders. They’re biggest shortcoming is that they can become clogged and run slowly. This can be prevented easily by back-flushing them on a regular basis. They can also freeze and crack, ruining the filter, so they’re not recommended for winter hiking.

  • Gravity filters are best for groups of three to five, when water is easily available and speed is not a priority.
Platypus CleanStream gravity filter system. 4L capacity. Great for a group canoeing trip. To backflush, simply reverse which bag in higher and run water backwards through the filter.
Platypus CleanStream gravity filter system. 4L capacity. Great for a group canoeing trip. To backflush, simply reverse which bag in higher and run water backwards through the filter.

These are great to use when camping near water sources because it can be filled and left to work on its own. They can filter a large capacity (3-4L) at a time, but are slow to setup and work. Water is drinkable immediately, and they, too, can work with bottles or hydration bladders. They also need to be back-flushed regularly, and can freeze and crack.

  • Treatment drops or tablets are the lightest weight option and work well for an individual or small group.
My preferred treatment drops, Aquamira. Simple, effective, and lightweight.
My preferred treatment drops, Aquamira. Simple, effective, and lightweight.

They are light enough to bring as a backup treatment option should your filter system fail. They are reliable, and most options available to hikers these days leave little-to-no taste in the water. They also won’t freeze, so they work well for winter hiking. The major downfall is that you must wait 15 minutes before you can drink, or as much as 30 when the source is very cold. These also do nothing about dirt and debris, so you’ll want to use a bandana or part of a shirt as a filter when filling your bottle from the source.

  • UV pens are a special breed and work well only in certain situations.
Steripen UV water treatment pen along with a wide-mouth bottle that’s needed to use it.
Steripen UV water treatment pen along with a wide-mouth bottle that’s needed to use it.

You need to use them with a wide-mouth hard plastic bottle such as a Nalgene, so they don’t work for soft bottles or hydration bladders. Water is drinkable after only about 90 seconds of stirring, but they do rely on batteries, so make sure you bring extra. They also don’t do anything about dirt and debris, so careful source selection and filtering with some cloth is a good idea.

  • The last option, which is typically only used as a last resort, is to boil your water.

If you’re backpacking, you most likely have a way to make fire and a small cook pot. Boiling is simple and effective, and can be a backup option if your other treatment option failed. It’s not fast, or convenient, and it leaves you with HOT water which is not usually what you want while hiking.

3. Choosing a source, and planning your day:

So you’ve got something to carry your water, and you’ve got a way to treat it, but where will you refill along the trail ahead? You can use a few different resources to find water sources along your planned hike. Trail maps of the area and Google maps can help you spot streams or lakes nearby, or possibly creeks that cross right over the trail. You can call local rangers, or trail stewards to ask where the best sources are and how well they’ve been flowing recently. Trail guidebooks will tell you where the major places to fill up are, but you may come across unmarked springs as well.

photo by Linda Kaiser
photo by Linda Kaiser

*When planning a trip on the North Country Trail, check our online interactive webmap (view our online tutorial for the webmap here), purchase our retail waterproof paper maps, and contact the local chapter who maintains the Trail in your desired hiking area. Keep in mind that water sources change with the varying seasons. Some sources may dry up in summer, or freeze in the winter. Always take precautions and carry more water than you think you will need.

Things to look for in a good water source:

  • Is it flowing? Even a small trickle is better than completely stagnant. Stagnant water is a better breeding ground for bacteria and parasites.
  • Does it look clean? Oily film at the edges, algae growth, lots of bugs, haziness, or bad color are all things to avoid.
  • Where is it coming from? Springs flowing high up near ridgelines or the tops of mountains have less chance of contamination. When possible, collect from as far upstream as you can find, preferably where it bubbles out of the ground or rocks. You definitely don’t want to collect water downstream of a large farm or industrial area.

Once you know where you can refill along your hike, you can plan your day accordingly.

backcountry hiking
photo by Matt Davis

The name of the game is to carry as little water as necessary to get to the next source. Before you start the hike, and at each water source, you should “camel up”, which means to drink as much as your body will hold. This strategy allows you to carry less weight on your back. Pump and squeeze filters work well for doing this at water sources because they’re fast and ready immediately. After guzzling some down at the stream, you’ll want to fill up enough to get you to the next good source.
James Fisher, CPT and Performance Enhancement Specialist, recommends:

“During the hike, a good goal is to drink 6 to 12 ounces of water or sports drink every 15 to 20 minutes.” (http://www.backpacker.com/skills/the-essential-rules-of-performance-nutrition/).

Ideally, you want to drink small amounts often, and be taking your last sip as you approach the next source. It’s not a bad idea, however, to carry a little extra just in case. We all know that the last mile always feels like the longest mile, and sometimes it’s a literal uphill battle. On a multi-day hike, camping near a good water source is ideal, but not always possible. In that case, make sure you know where the last water source is before your camp, and fill up enough to get you through the night AND the next morning until the next source.

Now that you know how you’re going to carry your water, you’ve picked a treatment option, and you’ve got you day planned efficiently, the last step is to GO GET OUT THERE! Enjoy your time on the trail and stay hydrated.

Ian Young is an avid hiker from Ohio who has participated in and completed the Allegheny 100 Challenge multiple times. Check out his YouTube channel for helpful videos on hike training and planning.