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How I Get Water While Backpacking - A Complete Guide | Backpacking for Beginners

Updated: May 6

One of the first (and most important) questions most people have about backpacking is: "where do you get water?"


If you're like me, you'll assume water is just another item that needs to be packed in and carried for the entire trip. Sometimes that's true, but fortunately it often isn't!


Today we're covering:


Woman wearing a backpacking backpack with two water bottles in the side pocket.
Double bottle-ing in Arizona.

Let's jump right in!


Note: I've included affiliate links for some products I recommend, which means I may get a small commission at no additional cost to you. Thanks for your support! 🫶🏻


Why We Need to Treat Water

Woman with backpack on a trail looking toward lush, green mountains.
Enjoying the view with my trusty water bottle.

There are two main reasons we need to treat water: microorganism and dirt.


Microorganisms come in three flavors: protozoa, bacteria, and viruses. We want to avoid consuming any of them, but viruses are particularly pesky. Protozoa and bacteria are generally large enough to be filtered out by traditional, physical filters. Viruses are so tiny that we need another treatment method.


Dirt, sand, leaves, twigs, and other visible contaminants also need to be removed from water. Ideally, the water we gather is already pretty clean in this respect, but sometimes we have no option but to scoop up some dirtier water to treat. Since these contaminants are bigger, they're relatively easy to filter out.


Dirt makes drinking water highly unpleasant, but it's the microorganisms we really need to worry about. This is where you can find illness-causing pathogens such as E. coli, Leptospira (causes leptospirosis), Salmonella, and rotavirus.


Obviously, we don't want to get sick every and especially not when we're exploring the backcountry and far from civilization. That's where water treatment comes in.


Ways to Treat Water


Treating water refers to the collective group of methods for cleaning water, which fall into these categories:

  • Physical filters

  • Chemical treatments

  • UV treatments

  • Boiling


Always have at least two methods for treating your water in case one fails. Filters can get clogged, batteries can die, and you can run out of fuel. Having another option handy could be a life-saving decision!


Physical Filters


A two-tiered waterfall landing in a small pool where a water filter sits on a boulder.
The water source at Kalalau beach on Kauai.

Pros: Filters dirt, bacteria, and protozoa in one go, can filter a large amount of water.

Cons: Takes time to filter, somewhat bulky equipment to carry, requires cleaning.


There are a few types of physical filters (pump, gravity, squeeze, bottle, straw), but they all function similarly. Physical filters are essentially super fine strainers that remove almost all contaminants from water. These can take murky water to crystal clear, but the tiniest viruses will still pass through.


Starting with water that's as clean as possible is important for physical filters. Over time, the actual filter becomes filled with the material it sifts out. Properly maintaining your filter by cleaning and back-flushing it can extend its lifespan, but eventually it will need to be replaced. Back-flush by running clean water in the opposite direction of the filtering flow. I do this with my filter at home after every trip.


Chemical Treatments


Recommendation: n/a - never used

Pros: Easy to use, no maintenance required, lightweight, inexpensive, kills almost all microorganisms (Cryptosporidium is the usual exception).

Cons: Doesn't remove dirt, can leave a strange taste in water, consumable and must be replaced when out.


Chemical treatments are added to water to remove any bacteria, protozoa, or viruses -- with the notable exception of Cryptosporidium in many cases. You'll usually need to wait around 30 minutes after adding these treatment tablets or drops to your water before it's safe to consume.


Some people complain of an aftertaste left by chemical treatments, while others don't notice any change. Keep in mind that some of these treatments have a shelf life of a year after being opened, so you'll need to use them all up within that time or toss whatever remains.


UV Treatments


Woman holding a water bottle in front of tall rock formations in the desert.
This LARQ bottle used to go everywhere with me!

Pros: Kills almost all microorganisms, fast treatment, little to no maintenance, product lasts a long time without needing to be replaced.

Cons: Expensive, doesn't remove dirt, can't be used for a large volume at once.


UV treatment devices use ultraviolet light rays to destroy over 99% of bacteria, protozoa, and viruses. The two types I've seen are a pen that you can insert into any water bottle and the LARQ bottle which has the UV device installed in its cap. I love the LARQ so much that I have two of them, a 24 oz double-walled one and a 32 oz single-walled.


It's common to pair a UV treatment with a physical filter as a two-step process. This is what I use on my backpacking trips. First, I'll filter my water using the GravityWorks physical filter directly into my LARQ bottle. Then, I use the LARQ to treat the water for any remaining microorganisms using the "Adventure Mode," which delivers a higher dose of UV cleaning and takes three minutes to complete. Lastly, I'll transfer this water to any other containers I'm using.


If I'm traveling somewhere that has completely clear water (as in I can't see any dirt in it), I'll often skip the physical filter and just use my LARQ to kill any bacteria. I haven't had any issues with getting sick on the trail yet (knock on wood)!


Boiling


Small pot on a backpacking stove on a picnic bench.
Boiling water for coffee in Havasupai.

Pros: Reliable, kills all microorganisms, easy, can treat a large volume of water.

Cons: Gives you hot water which can't be put immediately into bottles, takes a longer time, requires a stove and fuel or a fire.


Boiling water to treat it is the most reliable way to treat your water. As long as you have a way to start a fire and something to boil your water in, you're good to go.


The general rule of thumb is to have your water at a rolling boil for one full minute to ensure it's properly purified. If you're at a high elevation above 6,500 feet, increase the time to three minutes. You can also increase the time to three minutes to be extra sure you're destroying all microorganisms, including Cryptosporidium (source).


I've used this method as a backup once or twice, but don't rely on it often since it results in piping hot water. Usually I'm treating water so I can drink it, which means I want it cool. Not a deal-breaker since the water does cool eventually, this method just takes more time.


I recommend always having a way to boil your water anyway. This is the stove I've been using since the beginning of my backpacking journey and this is the backpacking pot I use and love.


How to Pick the Best Water Sources


Woman wearing a backpack posing in front of a stream surrounded by trees.
A beautiful clear stream in Arizona.

When it comes to picking from which stream, river, lake, or puddle to gather water, common sense goes a long way. Water that's completely clear and odorless will always be your best bet.


Look for these things when picking your water source:

  • Clear water

  • Quickly flowing

  • Cold water - no hot spring water here!

  • Away from campsites and human activity

  • Away from animals, birds for example


If drawing water from a river, choose an area where the current is fast. Slower areas tend to gather more debris like leaves and can become stagnant, fostering algae growth.


If gathering from a lake or other still body of water, try to avoid the water close to shore. Wading in a bit to draw water further in will result in a cleaner starting point for your water treatments.


Note: Starting with visibly dirty or cloudy water will still work! Your physical filter can remove all the gunk, but this takes a larger toll on the filter components, meaning they won't last as long.


How Much Water Do I Need to Carry?


Woman holding a water bottle in a lush landscape with a waterfall in the background.
Clutching my precious water while hiking the Nā Pali Coast.

The age old question of how much water to carry while backpacking. There's a balance to be found between carrying too much excess water weight and running out before reaching your next water source. We definitely want to err on the side of carrying too much over running out.


There are tons of factors that go into how much water you'll need to carry at a time: weather, fitness level, elevation and elevation gain, weight of your pack. If you're not sure where to start, a rule of thumb I've heard is to carry at least one liter of water for every two hours of hiking you'll be doing.


Pro tip: Start hydrating before your trip even starts. Drinking extra water in the couple days leading up to your backpacking trip prepares your body by ramping up its hydration. Aim to drink at least 3 cups of water the morning of your trip before hitting the trail.


Backpacking miles tend to be much slower than normal walking or hiking, so I do a rough calculation assuming one mile for every 30 minutes. If I know I have four miles until my first water source, that will take me around two hours, which means I would want to carry at least one liter of water.


I may add more depending on the factors listed above, but will never go below that amount. Worst case, you'll have spare water to share with someone else that runs out!


Remember to map out all the water sources along your route before hitting the trail. That way you'll only need to carry as much water as you'll need to get to the next clean water source.


How to Keep Water Sources Clean


Lastly, I want to touch on the importance of keeping water sources clean. There's nothing worse than finally getting to that refreshing stream to fill up you water and seeing someone washing their socks in the water upstream.


We all know the aspects of Leave No Trace that tell us to respect wildlife and keep natural areas undamaged, but we often forget the principle "Be Considerate of Others."


Not only do we want to avoid contaminating water sources with soap, food residue, or skincare products, but we also want to allow others get clean water. This means being aware of places that people commonly gather water. If there's a stream or river, the unspoken rule is that upstream is for gathering water and downstream is for swimming and cleaning off.


I remember camping at the backpacker's campground in Yosemite and experiencing this exact issue. A river runs through the camp, where most visitors fill up their water. When we went to gather water to filter, we looked upstream to see a group washing themselves in the water almost as far upstream as the campground goes. This effectively meant anyone downstream was gathering sweaty, dirty water that had just helped clean off their bodies -- gross!


Remember to always dispose of water used for cleaning, including any soapy water, at least 200 feet away from any water source. This gives the soil a chance to naturally filter the water before reentering the stream or lake.



 


There you have it! Getting water while backpacking is a skill that gets easier and easier with practice. You just need a couple pieces of equipment and an eye for healthy water sources.


Remember to have fun, plan ahead, and always carry a little more water than you need. Now get out there and enjoy.


Happy adventuring,

A

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