How Much Water Should You Carry on the Appalachian Trail?

At 2.2 pounds per liter, water is one of the heaviest things you’ll carry on a thru-hike. It’s also the most important thing you’ll carry. Figuring out how much water you should carry on the Appalachian Trail can make a big difference in your hike.

Without enough water, you run the risk of dehydration, which can become a serious medical emergency in the backcountry. But too much water will weigh down your pack, which increases both your risk of injury and, ironically, your water intake needs.

Finding the right balance depends on several factors, including, of course, the availability of water on any given trail. For prospective Appalachian Trail (AT) hikers, I have good news: the AT has abundant water sources, especially compared to its Triple Crown companions, the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide trails.

How Much Water Should You Carry on the Appalachian Trail?

woman holds smartwater bottle on shore of clear lake that reflects twilight

Collecting water from a lake in Maine

Water on the AT

Of the three trails, the AT is the only one that doesn’t travel through the desert; thru-hikers often encounter significant rain and thunderstorms, and water sources generally aren’t that far apart.

The Georgia Appalachian Trail Club identifies the section between Hawk Mountain shelter and Justice Creek— about 6.3 miles— as the longest section in Georgia that’s generally without water, “though drought conditions lengthen the distance considerably.” Southbounders hiking into the fall will be more likely to encounter issues down south.

Further north on the AT, it’s possible for thru-hikers to encounter dry stretches of 10-15 miles, depending on the season.

Compare that to the longest waterless stretch on the Pacific Crest Trail: 35.5 miles.

That section, like the rest of the desert, is extremely hot, dry, and exposed. I spent my first couple of weeks on the PCT carrying eight liters of water, and I met hikers who carried even more. When I got a better sense of my body’s needs, I cut down to six liters, but carrying 13 pounds of water was still no joke!

How Many Liters Should You Carry on the AT?

Fortunately, there’s no need to haul around 13 pounds of water on the AT. In fact, I hiked most of the AT with two liters, and I rarely drank all of it before reaching the next water source. There were hot, dry sections in between Virginia and New York where I carried a third liter as backup, and though I didn’t end up needing to use it, I felt better and safer having it on hand.

how much water should you carry on the appalachian trail - hiker crouches on gravel bar with sawyer squeeze and gatorade bottle

Filtering water from a stream in Georgia

How much water you should carry on the Appalachian Trail is going to depend on your personal needs and the environmental conditions during your hike. Just because the AT generally has reliable water doesn’t mean you should be complacent; no matter where you adventure, it’s important to understand your body’s specific needs and what the trail conditions are likely to be when you set out.

If you’re new to backpacking and hope to thru-hike the AT or another long-distance trail in the future, shorter shakedown hikes are a wonderful way to start learning how your body operates on trail and how much water you need.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) recommends having the capacity to carry at least two liters, and this is a great place to start when setting out on the AT. As you hike, you’ll discover whether you need more or less and can adjust accordingly.

Tips for Staying Hydrated

Check your trail guide. AWOL’s Guide and the FarOut app both contain valuable information about the Appalachian Trail, including the locations and reliability of water sources. FarOut comes with the added benefit of comments from hikers who have recently visited water sources ahead of you on the trail.

Knowing how far away your next water source is and whether or not it actually has water available is vital when deciding how much water to carry. You can also check the ATC’s Trail Updates page for general information.

Try different types of water containers. Some hikers prefer water bottles and others prefer hydration reservoirs, also known as hydration bladders, which are flexible, hands-free water containers with tubes that attach to your shoulder strap for easy drinking access.

I’ve met many hikers who find reservoirs more convenient: the bite valve is right there for easy drinking, and some hikers say they’re more likely to take regular sips than if they were constantly pulling water bottles in and out of side pockets.

The downside is that you can’t easily see how much water you have left (that and refilling them can be a hassle). I personally don’t like them just because I find bite valves irritating — I very much prefer Smartwater bottles — but reservoirs are worth trying and may be a fantastic addition to your backpacking gear.

Treat water before you drink it. I won’t describe all the different waterborne illnesses you can pick up from untreated water, but it’s worth noting that diarrhea is about as good for hydration as it is for a fun hiking experience.

Add electrolytes to your water. Electrolytes are minerals in the blood and are involved in many functions of the body. We lose them through sweat, and on long hiking days, it’s important to replace them. Electrolyte packets are not only lightweight and easy to pack, but they can also add a satisfying dash of flavor to your water.

We’d love to hear about your AT experiences! How much water did you carry and what were the driest sections you encountered?

READ NEXT – Treating Water and Managing Hydration on the Appalachian Trail

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Comments 8

  • Henry Latimer : Mar 7th

    Very much a HYOH thing, but I only carried more than 1/2 a liter a few times. I mostly camped near water, so didn’t need to arrive with water.

    Drank a liter first thing in the morning, and cameled up at trail side sources pretty often. Would depart those with my 500ml bottle full. Would be upset if it was still full upon hitting the next water.

    I spent some hard earned $ getting to a lower base weight, and heck if I was going to carry a bunch of water unnecessarily.

    • Mark M : Mar 7th

      I agree. Only eat at water sources (if possible), and camel up before hitting the trail. I also start hiking at daybreak, so it’s not as hot. I drink at lot at my meals, so I don’t drink a lot in between. If the temperature is in the 60’s, I won’t drink any water at all for hours. Other people I know seemingly drink nonstop.

  • Gingerbreadman : Mar 8th

    In AT9 I was basically broke which is not a good idea. Having no filter, I had to use only spring water or town water. Luckily the AT has much of both, so I didn’t have to carry much. Many springs have a pipe stuck into the source, at least 35 years ago, at many shelters. My stove was a hiker box aluminum plate I poured isopropyl into; the Sierra cup was on fire when I took it out!

  • Andrew Kuhlman : Mar 8th

    If you can manage to cook at or near water you don’t need to carry much. Otherwise you should probably plan to pack another half liter for cooking at camp site. The problem is if you’ve never hiked the trail you don’t know exactly what is ahead of you. If you drink a lot of water at night you start the day with little water. You can try and plan this out of course. But there’s no guarantee the next water source hasn’t dried up. I’ll pack a little extra water for safety then whine about 2 pounds.

  • bozo : Mar 9th

    sometimes the water source is kind of far from the shelter or campsite, and there is no place to camp at the source. i always carried a 3 liter collapsible water carrier so i could get enough water with one trip for dinner, breakfast and on to the next water source the next morning. saves a trip.

  • Clover : Mar 10th

    AT hikers get spoiled by the generally wet nature of the trail. When I hear someone say that water caches at trailheads on the AT save lives, I internally roll my eyes. Even in dry conditions, water carries on the AT are usually not more than 10 miles, and these life saving water caches are usually at road crossings where a hiker could easily hitch into town if they were in a state of dehydration that threatened their health. Most of the time you don’t need to carry much water if you are willing to stop and camel up, but in those few areas where water is more scarce, hikers should be prepared to take care of themselves and not rely on the hope a cache will be available. Collapsible water bladders fold down small and weigh little in the event you need to carry more than a liter or two.

  • Joel Allen : Mar 11th

    Hello, AT vet and extensive hiking on other trails. I recommend building an understanding of how much water you drink and setting a system based off that. I carried 2L when I started, but sometimes had 1.4-1.7L capacity. After over 2000 miles hiking out west I realized on the AT for me 1.4 is plenty. This definitely doesn’t apply to everyone, but I can easily hike a minimum of 10 miles on one L. In reflection of my AT hike I would generally pass 2-3 water sources regularly between refilling. A technique I adopted in Grizzly country was to have dinner at a water source a few miles before camp. This especially helped with water carrying, especially when I was hiking in deserts. In deserts I took this technique to the next level and only ate meals that required a lot of water at water sources. Dinner sometimes for breakfast or lunch, and my dry breakfast for dinner. If you learn to be flexible and creative you may never need to carry a little over a liter on the AT

  • Michael Hoffman : Mar 21st

    The driest so far was the rollercoaster section. Temps were in their Mid 80’s. Carried 3L and ended up sharing. A rough recovery for the next day


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