Backpacking Essentials for Carrying Water

Portable Water Containers

It is helpful to camp near water sources, but when you are hiking there is not always a ready supply of water so you may need to carry some with you.

Here are your options:

  • Plastic or metal Bottles, of which the 1 liter Nalgene is probably the most popular. They are extremely durable and have a variety of uses. Nalgene bottles carry a lots of water, have a handy measurement guide on the side that makes them helpful in camp cooking, and can hold very hot water. Carrying the half liter can be a good option for your morning coffee cup and doubles as a hot water bottle to place in your sleeping bag on a cold night. You can even buy a neoprene sleeve to keep liquids warm.

However, most experienced hikers would agree Nalgene bottles are heavy, even when empty, and don’t fit well into packs. The large mouth can make them difficult to drink out of on the go, and the lid often breaks off. They are a great storage solution for car camping and day hiking, but not so great for long-distance backpacking.

The Kleen Kanteen is a stainless steel bottle. With the controversy over BPA and chemical leakage in Nalgene and other plastic water bottles, stainless steel provides a good, safe alternative. Bottles like the Kleen Kanteen are less likely to break, easy to clean, insulated, and lightweight (for metal, that is). Unlike the Nalgene though, you can swap out the lid for a sports cap, making it easier to drink from on the go. Also, in survival situations, you can use stainless steel bottles to boil water by placing them directly over the fire.

  • Soft water bottles, like the popular Platypus line, are far lighter, weighing only 1.3 ounces when empty to Nalgene’s 6.2 ounces. However, they are less durable, can develop leaks, and likely won’t have the lifespan of a Nalgene or other hard water bottles. They certainly take up less room in your pack; however, some people complain they don’t fit well in a pack’s side pocket and might fall out.

Soft water bottles are a good option for storing backup clean or dirty water in your pack, taking up very little space when empty. But they are also more difficult to fill in shallow streams, so you may need a cup or scoop to help get water from shallow sources and fill the bag.  

  • Water bladders like Camelbak are another popular choice. They carry a lot of water (between 2 and 3 liters) comfortably on your back and come with a hose you can drink directly out of. When full, they are very heavy and take up a lot of room in your pack, so you really need to consider how much water you need to carry before you strap them on and fill them up all the way. If you will be staying close to a water source, you probably won’t need to carry more than a couple liters of water for drinking while hiking and collect water as needed along the way. Water weighs about 2 pounds per liter, so filling your 3 liter water bag adds 6 pounds. Water bladders can also be difficult to clean and more likely to leak with all the working parts.
  • Store bought plastic water bottles. You might think with all the cool water-holding contraptions out there and all the bad press these disposable bottles get, why would this even be a recommendation. However, here’s a great video by a veteran Appalachian Trail hiker made detailing why he thinks SmartWater bottles and Gatorade bottles are the best choice. These bottles are cheap, light, refillable, more durable than soft water bottles, and easy to drink one handed, making them his top choice.

Water Purifier or Tablets

Tools or pills for cleaning “dirty” water from streams or other water sources will save weight on the amount of water you carry. Even clean-looking water from streams can contain giardia or cryptosporidium that cause nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. Or worse.

  • A lightweight water filter, like the Sawyer Squeeze is another option for your backpack. This particular filter comes with a small (32 oz) squeeze bag. The filter fits on top of the bag, which you fill with found water (here a cup may come in handy for shallow streams) and you simply squeeze the water through the lid into your clean water holder or directly into your mouth. It has a 0.1 micron hollow fiber filter so it can filter out the tiny protozoa and larger bacteria at a quick rate of flow.

When planning your long-distance hiking or backpacking trip, water should not be a last-minute consideration. It is both crucial to life, and heavy as hell. Learning to be efficient in how you carry water -- knowing how much water to carry and how to use natural water sources to alleviate the burden -- can take some time to figure out.