HOW MUCH WATER DO YOU NEED ON A HIKE?
Your body’s cells need water during every hour of every day. This natural, metabolic need is only amplified with activity outside. Despite its importance, I continue to pass large numbers of hikers on the trail who have forgotten or chosen not to carry any water.
Don’t risk your health and enjoyment while venturing into wild places. Check out our tips below for calculating the correct amount of water to take on a hike, as well as the best methods for carrying it. Ensuring that you will stay hydrated should be a primary planning concern for every adventure.
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This is akin to asking someone how much it costs to buy a car or a house, where the only reasonable answer is ‘it depends’. How much water you will want to bring along for a hike will depend on the length of your journey, weather, your level of exertion, water availability along your route, and your body’s personal hydration needs.
Familiarize yourself with these factors and accept the reality that your answer to the above question will, likely, be different for every trip. This is the best way to ensure that you stay properly hydrated.
This should be your first consideration in determining your water needs for an upcoming hike. Remember to address, not just the overall mileage of your intended route, but your expected time to complete it. Some hikes may be short in mileage but still require a long time to complete because of their rugged terrain or steep change in elevation.
A good starting point for your time calculations can be 30 mins/mile plus 30 mins/every 1,000 ft. of elevation gain. For example, you could reasonably expect a 5-mile hike that climbs 1,500 ft. to a mountain summit and back to take you 3 & ¼ hours to complete.
Keep in mind that any standardized method for calculating pace while hiking is only a generalization and that your actual pace may be, drastically, different based on your experience and current level of fitness. If you’d like a bit more detail about estimating your hiking time, check out ‘How to Calculate Hiking Time’ on Trails.com or enter your details into this handy hiking time calculator.
Once you’ve calculated a good estimate for how long you’ll be on the trail, consider bringing at least one cup of water for every hour you will be hiking. Warm weather and/or a high level of exertion are, both, good reasons to increase this amount.
The harder you work, the more you sweat. The more you sweat, the more water you’ll need to replace it. It’s a simple formula that gets overlooked far too often. If you will be pushing your physical limits, say on a trail run or a rugged hike with a time goal, consider adding to your standard water needs.
For example, I carry less water when guiding a slow group of beginner hikers than I might for the same route with more experienced friends who will be pushing harder. Ultimately, listen to your body’s needs on the trail and plan ahead with extra water if you are inexperienced or attempting any hike that you expect to challenge you significantly.
Always check the weather forecast before deciding how much water to bring. Typically, our bodies will need more water in hot and dry conditions, where sweat is quickly lost to evaporation. These conditions are responsible for numerous dehydration and heat illness instances every year. It can be easy to forget about hydration when you don’t have the constant beads of sweat on your skin as found when hiking in humid areas.
Everybody is different. Learn to recognize when your body is dehydrated and accept the reality that your fluid intake requirements might be different than the friends whom with you are hiking.
It’s so easy to get lost in the beauty and fun of a good hike that we, often, forget to drink as much as we should. Proper hydration is key to our bodies ability to manage heat, altitude, and cold, and the consequences of dehydration go far beyond feeling thirsty.
Not only does dehydration bring possible, severe complications itself, but it is frequently listed as a contributing factor to numerous other ailments. Familiarize yourself with the following signs/symptoms of dehydration and be sure to, always, listen to your body:
Once you get a feel for how much water your body needs for a hike, you’ll have to choose how to carry it with you along the trail. There are numerous strategies and gear options for carrying water. Thanks to our many miles on the trail, we’ve used them all at some point. To help you better determine which strategy is right for you, we’ve summarized the key differences among popular water carrying strategies below.
Just as the brands Kleenox® and Chapstick® have become synonymous with describing tissues or lip balm, Nalgene® has become the outdoor aficionado's way of describing any hard-sided, plastic bottle. These are a popular option for folks spending time outdoors and a great way to carry your water.
We love our Nalgene bottles on moderate hikes where we don’t feel like dealing with the cleanup required of collapsibles and where the weight penalty is of little concern. We’ll, also, bring it on trips where we’ll be using our Steripen for water treatment since the agitation of the water is easier with a wide-mouth bottle. Match your bottle to your personality with over 71 color and design options and, of course, be sure to plaster your bottle with only the coolest of stickers!
Hydration Bladders (check out our guide to the best hydration bladder), are likely, the most popular option for carrying water inside a backpack while out hiking or backpacking. Many versions feature an attached hose and mouthpiece, which make drinking while moving especially convenient.
A hydration bladder is my preferred strategy for carrying water during most hikes, backpacking trips, and trail running adventures. I find myself hydrating more frequently when I can easily sip from the mouthpiece resting right at my chest, than when I must stop and remove my pack. For backpacking trips, I will usually combine a 3L reservoir with, either a Nalgene or collapsible bottle.
These are the newest options for toting water in the backcountry, and they have quickly become one of my favorites. Insanely lightweight, easy to pack, and only taking up the space that is necessary (they get smaller as you drink the liquid inside) make collapsible water bottles perfect for just about any adventure outside.
I, seriously, love these things and they are my go-to whenever I need to carry only 1-2 liters of water. I’ve been blown away by, not just their performance but their durability, which has far surpassed my expectations.
They are less durable than a hard-sided bottle, thus the classification as a disadvantage above, but I could just as easily argue that their durability is a positive. I’m still going strong with the same three Platypus collapsible water bottles more than three years after, originally, purchasing them.
Get into the habit of referencing your intended hiking route on a quality topographic map before finalizing your plans for carrying water. If your hike crosses numerous streams or other bodies of water, you may be able to carry less water, saving noticeable pack weight and space.
The internet is an amazing tool. Take advantage of it! Whether it’s through your smartphone, your laptop, or at your local library, finding internet access is not a challenging endeavor these days. A basic search on the area you will be hiking through is, often, enough to glean critical information regarding water access along your intended trail.
There are numerous instances where a trail will appear to cross a stream on a map, yet be dry and unreliable for many months of the year. This is the exact kind of information that can be gleaned online from locals or others who have visited the area before you. Also, don’t forget about local guides and outfitters who can be a great resource for your planning.
In many environments, you will pass an opportunity to drink and refill your water supply at some point during the hike. Natural springs, streams, and small lakes are all examples of that opportunity.
Be warned: Regardless of how clean and clear that mountain stream water appears, the possible consequences of drinking straight from the source are almost never worth the risk.
Even clear water can contain harmful bacteria, viruses, and protozoa that can quickly ruin your trip. Outside of an emergency, you should always treat water retrieved in the backcountry before you drink it. This can be done with water purification tablets or some of the other methods below.
Bacteria loves moisture. If you never clean out or fully dry your hydration reservoirs and bottles before storing, you’re asking for mold issues. Nobody wants to drink water through a moldy mouthpiece so keep your containers clean!
Easy clean-up trick: Using a small, electric aerator (you can find these in a pet store near fish tank supplies) is a great way to dry out your containers in ¼ of the time compared to hang-drying only, where it can be tough for air to reach the far corners of your reservoir.
Consider an insulated sleeve (I use this one from 40 Below) if you are planning to hike and camp while in extreme cold. You can, also, purchase insulating sleeves for the hose of your hydration bladder, which is most susceptible to freezing.
Once you have finished sipping water from the mouthpiece on our hydration reservoir, blow back into it. This will push any remaining water back into the bladder and reduce the likelihood of any freezing within the tube. This is, also, a great way to avoid those warm water sips that you get during summer where water left in the tube is significantly warmer than what is in the bladder.
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In addition to his role as an outdoor adventure guide, Chris Olson seeks to share his passion for, and experience in, the great outdoors through writing and photography. He has backpacked, hiked, climbed, kayaked, biked, and skied throughout much of the eastern United States, as well as iconic locations such as Zion National Park, Newfoundland, and Puerto Rico. His passion for fresh air, and beautiful places, reminds us all of the simple joys to be had from spending time outside!