Water - Its uses and sources. - Uphillhike
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Water – Its uses and sources.

With the exception of an occasional day-hike, water is the one item that you begin the day with the need to plan resupplies. Water is heavy so carrying more than a little excess water isn’t the answer.

For that reason water requires more planning and attention than probably any other item you will carry.


First, you need to ensure you have containers for your water. Seems obvious, but I’m serious. My brother and I usually tied empty gallon milk jugs to the back of our packs. These gallon jugs served as supplement storage for dry sections of the trail. This worked well until a hot July trek , I discovered the milk jug missing. The next trail section was to be a long hard dry stretch. I hiked down a side trail several miles out of my way until I reached a dirt road. There in the roadside ditch, I found old plastic coke and sprite bottles. Gathering about 8 of these bottles I hiked back to the trail. At the last creek before the long dry stretch of the Duncan Ridge, I cleaned and filled the bottles. The lesson was learned and I now carry a 2 liter platypus (my personal favorite) inside my pack. The 2 liter platypus serves to retrieve water for camp. I also carry 3 – 4 small plastic bottles (my personal favorite) that water comes in at the grocery store. These small bottles will fit in the pockets of my shorts. Besides accessibility, having water bottles in your pockets means that the water won’t freeze when it is cold.

With a single filling in camp, the containers I carry are more than enough to cook supper and breakfast the next day. Plenty is left for early hiking the next morning. Disposable water bottles are free, lightweight, and easily replaceable. A small water bottle to make it easy to fit underneath the tightest spots to catch drips.  Where you have a small trickle of water that runs down a slope without no spillway, sometimes you can use a leaf held by a small stone to make a spillway. You could dig out a small pool, but you would have to wait for the water to clear.

The Platypus is lightweight, compact, and very reliable. I used one for many years before it developed a leak on a seam. The manufacturer replaced the Platypus for no charge.

Water Treatment

There are many ways to ensure you have safe water. My personal favorite is to use homemade drops from Clorox. Use Clorox Regular Bleach without scents. You don’t want to drink lavender scented water. I dilute a measuring cup with 50% clorox to water mixture. This means that I double the number of drops from the Clorox recommendation. This allows me to treat smaller containers more precisely. My formula would require 4 drops per liter. I use 8 – 10 drops in my 10 liter platypus. My 12 oz water bottles each require 2 drops. I sometimes carry an 8 oz water bottle (my smallest bottle useful for collecting water in tight places) that requires only 1 drop of the 50% mixture.

Using the measuring cup, I fill a dropper. An old Visine Eye Dropper works well. (Just be sure to mark the container so nobody tries to put this in their eye.)

Other options include water filters, iodine tablets, and steripens. I have used water filters and iodine tablets. I have seen steripens used. All of these options work. You should take care that you test out all of your water treatment options ahead of time so you are completely familiar with how to use them. Steripens require working batteries. Water filters can get clogged or contaminated with improper use. (My brother and I hiked in heavy rain along the Chatooga River trail. We pumped water from the swollen muddy river with our new filter and were surprised to find it wouldn’t pump after a couple of strokes.) Things go wrong so if you are unsure, then a lightweight and effective back up might be homemade chlorine drops.

Planning for water

Whether you realize it or not, water requires more planning than anything else you carry. Unlike food, you wouldn’t weigh yourself down with enough water to make it the 5 days to the next trail town. Every day and every encounter with water requires a water decision. Do I refill here or go a little further? Do I already know where I can find water or do I need to get more information?

Carrying easily reached water bottles and chlorine dropper provides the most convenient way to top off or refill supplies while  minimizing time spent refiling. On the other hand, using a  pump takes more time and may encourage you to carry more water (weight) to avoid having to stop to pump again.  When I spy water on the trail,  I pull a 12 oz bottle from my pocket and begin chugging the remaining water. By the time I reach the spring or creek I have an empty bottle at the ready for refilling in a matter of seconds.  I continue to hike as I am capping the water. I drop the untreated water in my left pocket, remembering that this bottle needs chlorine drops. In the meantime, I drink water from the bottle in my right pocket.

Plan to take advantage of the easy trail-side water. Water that crosses the trail makes for the quickest refill stop. Hiking down side trails for water adds the most time for stops. The most effort involves side trails that descend steeply to a spring or stream.

Depending on the heat and the scarcity of water, you may need to carry liters upon liters of water or perhaps just enough water (as little as two 12 oz bottles) to avoid the inconvenience of stopping for refills. Before you begin hiking each day, use your trail guides and apps to plan the amount of water you need to carry. If you are hiking in desert or drought conditions more planning is called for. An otherwise good plan can go bad because the weather is hot or humid and you drink more than you expect or because you are in an area that normally has adequate water, but water supplies are unexpectedly dried up due to drought. Along your hike you shouldn’t forget to ask others hiking in the opposite direction about water sources they have or haven’t  seen. This may alert you to water issues in time to do something about it.  In many instances water supplies are seasonal. Even normally reliable sources can disappear. On the AT, trail shelters should have water, but springs at some shelters often dry up. If this happens to you, check the register at the shelter for notes on the water. Other hikers may have made notes in the register regarding where water can be found. They provide information that a little further downhill from a dry spring that water is dripping.  If you reach a dry source, try walking downhill from the source. Stop and listen quietly for the sound of dripping water. Using this method, more than once I found water from otherwise dried up sources. One time I wrote detailed descriptions in the shelter register of where running water could be found beyond the dry spring. Three days later, I met a man that had passed up that shelter the day after I had made my shelter register entry. He told me that he had wanted to stay at that shelter, but had been in dire need of water. I asked if he had checked the shelter register. He said, no.