H20 to Go: 10 Tips to Backcountry Hydration

Backcountry Hydration

Filtering water takes the F out of Fun, but it needs to be done. It’s incredibly important to not only have clean water, but to practice safe hydration out in the backcountry (and, well, anywhere). It wasn’t until the end of my hike when I started to figure out the best ways to stay hydrated and would wake up more energized each morning, my muscles and joints were less sore and more flexible, and my mood was generally more positive. Water is the best energizer and mood enhancer on the market. The days where I was fully hydrated was when I felt the best, hands down.

Everybody is different, which means how much water you need to stay healthy depends on a variety of factors, including gender, weight, outdoor temperature, how much you sweat, and how strenuous your physical activity is. To get a general idea of how much water YOU need during your hike, play around with this fun hydration calculator.

Ten Tips to Water Fun

1.) Use a Sawyer

I started out with a Katadyn water pump and quickly switched it out for a Sawyer for which I was extremely grateful. Not only did I save some weight this way, having a Sawyer is more convenient, which brings us to the next point…

2.) Use SmartWater (or Gatorade, etc. ) bottles to store your water

Smartwater bottles are the lightest option for water storage. Plus, they’re the cheapest. Sawyers are convenient because you can screw it onto the smartwater bottles and drink your water as it passes through the filter; no pre-filtering required. Just don’t screw it on too tightly or you’ll break the O-ring inside the Sawyer.

3.) Carry two liters of water (or less) at a time

…UNLESS you are in Pennsylvania or it hasn’t rained in some time, in which case you may need to carry more. The wonderful perk about the Appalachian Trail is that there is water everywhere (unless you are in Pennsylvania), and you can survive on two liters or less until the next source. Packing less water also means carrying less weight, your body doesn’t have to work as hard, you sweat less, and, consequently, you don’t need to drink as much water. Once I realized I didn’t need to carry extra water, I only carried a liter of water at a time. But, to do that I had to…

4.) Stop at every (good) water source

I know. It’s a pain. You get into your hiking groove, and the last thing you want to do is stop your stride and carry more water weight. But please do it. Especially if you are carrying less than two liters of water, you want to fill up as often as you can. Plus, there is nothing more delicious than cold, spring water flowing from the side of a mountain. If you see a source like that, take advantage of it.

5.) Chug a liter of water at the source

This was one of the best practices I picked up along the trail. Not only does this save you from carrying the extra weight, it forces you to drink plenty of water. If you stop at five sources in one day, that’s five liters of water right there. And trust me, your body needs it. If it’s a colder or rainier day, drink a half liter at each source.

6.) Store your water bottle in an easy to reach place

This saves you from having to take off your pack or ask somebody to get your water for you. You’ll be motivated to drink more water. It looked silly, but I strapped a bottle sleeve to my hip belt. I also saw people use the trekking pole cords on their shoulder straps to hold their water bottles . I even saw someone create a makeshift duct-tape bottle holder and tape it to their trekking poles. Whatever works.

7.) Don’t use a hydration bladder

Some people may say a hydration bladder is more convenient, but I did not find that to be the case. I carried a bladder for the first month on my hike, and still never drank enough water. It’s harder to chug water through the hose, and it’s harder to tell how much water you’ve drank, making it harder to determine when you need to fill up. Also, having a bladder means it is tempting to carry more water than you need, resulting in a heavier pack.

8.) Drink enough water, even on a rainy day!

I hated stopping in the rain. But your body is still working hard, even on those rainy days, so drink plenty. You’ll thank yourself the next morning.

9.) Mix in water enhancers/powders

Some hikers swore by the stuff everyday. Sometimes it is nice to change it up every now and then. And if it’s tasty, maybe you’ll drink more! (Just don’t make the mistake I did once, where I accidentally bought a caffeinated water enhancer and ended up dehydrating myself all day without realizing it.)

10.) Plan your water stops ahead of time & choose sources carefully

If you’re going NOBO, ask SOBOs what the best water sources are and vice versa. A word to the wise – just because AWOL (or any guide) has a water symbol listed in the guidebook does not always guarantee the safety of the water! Always use your best judgement, but common sense declares avoiding streams near roads, railroad tracks, and farms. If there’s a cow nearby… please don’t drink the water. I saw so many cows doing their biz in the streams. Avoid rivers and ponds, too. Water filters are NOT effective at removing viruses, so don’t assume that just because you have a filter, you can drink from any source. Plan your sources so you know how much water you absolutely need to carry between fill-ups (especially in Pennsylvania where sources often run dry).


Drinking enough water is vital to staying healthy and having a good time on the trail, so take it seriously. It could mean the difference between staying on or getting off the trail. If you’re tired or completely out of energy, you may just need to drink more water. You can avoid an onslaught of stomach bugs and other nasty viruses if you only drink from desirable sources, and of course, filtering water is a great insurance policy against Giardia. Spring water is always your best bet.

Check out this guide from the CDC on how to best sanitize water in backcountry environments.

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Comments 3

  • Reboot2016 : Sep 20th

    I was converted to the Sawyer on my shakedown hike this summer…Literally every thru hiker was packing a Sawyer. Can’t give up my bladder though.

  • Michael Arambula : Sep 21st

    Excellent information and tips!

  • Loosie : Oct 1st

    Sorry (not sorry) to have a contrary opinion but the Sawyer sucks!! Especially the mini. I had it for about a week before I ditched it and then borrowed my friends regular till I made it to the next town where I got MSR Sweetwater Drops. Those little badboys are great! 2oz bottle, 5-10 minute wait time, and they’ll get ride of everything.


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