How To Never Be Without Water During Your Camping Trip

You heard you can survive 3 days without water.

But it might be even shorter than that.

According to Randall K. Packer (biology professor at George Washington University) how long you can go without water depends on what you’re doing.

Hiking, backpacking, scrambling over rocks, setting up tents. All of this exertion makes you use up water faster. If it’s hot? Dehydration ramps up even more.

What’s that mean?

Guy and Girl Backpacking.

It means water is the most important consideration when you’re heading off into the wild.

In this article we’ll show you:

  • How to properly prepare
  • How to use water in the wild
  • A few things you can do in emergency situations
  • Plus arm you with water safety tips
  • Follow this short guide and never be without water when you camp.

How Much Water Do You Need?

A good amount when you’re camping is 1 gallon of drinking water per person, per day.

If you’re backpacking or going on long day hikes, up that amount to a gallon and a half per day.

Water At The Campsite

Established sites often have water available.

This is (obviously) the easiest way to supply yourself with enough water.

There are just a couple things to keep in mind...

Find out before you go: Will your site have water?

For campsites on public lands (national parks, national forests, state land) head to the park’s website. Water access info is almost always included.

If it isn’t, give the park management office a call and ask.

If you’re car camping where water won’t be available, bringing your own is just a matter of buying gallons at the store or filling up your own containers at home (we like bottles with spigots at the bottom for easy use).

Plan on bringing extra gallons for rinsing dishes and personal hygiene.

Packing Your Own

Water Bottles (backpack holster).

If you’re hiking out to a site without a piped in water supply and no natural water sources, you’ll have to bring your own.

Generally that makes for a short backpacking trip.

Camelbak and other backpack water carriers are ideal. Some backpacking rigs even have built in bladders for water.

But remember a gallon of water weighs over 8 pounds. For hiking you need 1.5 gallons per day.

A 24 hour trip will mean about 12 pounds of water.

A 48 hour trip could mean 3 gallons — that’s 25 pounds of water. It’s possible. But it’s much better if you can use....

Water At The Source

This can be a stream, a river, a lake. Do your research to see what sources are available.

Read trip reports from other hikers who did your loop. Drop in on backpacking forums and ask around.

Buy field guides and maps for the area, definitely worth the investment.

Stop at the ranger’s station before you go.

Make sure the stream you’re counting on is running and the lake isn’t inaccessible. Talking to locals might point you to a water source you hadn’t thought of.

Looking on Google Earth can work too, but corroborate your findings with a second source. Satellite imagery can be tricky.

You Found Water. Now What?

Portable water filters turn found water into something you can drink — almost all of the time (see purifiers below). Filters physically strain out particles from the water.

Bad buggers like Giardia, Salmonella and, E. Coli are large enough to get caught by the filter which makes your water safe to drink.

There are straw filters, squeeze bottle filters, pump filters.

The exact one you want will depend on what you want to carry, how much you need to filter, and personal preference.

Purify it

UV water purifier.

If you’re going somewhere viruses are known to exist in the water, you’ll need a purifier.

There are UV purifiers on the market that use UV light to kill both bacteria and viruses.

These require batteries and tend to be a bit pricy.

Other Ways To Treat Water

You don’t have to buy a filter.

If you’re planning on cooking for yourself on your trip, chances are you’ll have what you need to treat water. All you have to do is boil it.

Boiling is actually the safest way to purify your water. 

Here’s how to do it:

  • Set up your camp stove
  • Bring the water to a rolling boil
  • Allow to boil for at least 5 minutes
  • Let it cool!
  • Drink

Don’t worry, boiled water still retains minerals (it’s distilling water that removes them). But boiled water does tend to taste a little flat.

That’s simply because the oxygen has all escaped. Pour if back and forth between two containers to get some air (and flavor) back in. 

To Pre-Filter Or Not

For both filters and boiling water you might want to use a pre-filter if the place you’re going has murky or cloudy water.

This will save your filter from getting too gunked up and make your boiled water less...crunchy. If you’re going somewhere with pretty clear water (lucky you) you might not need one.

If you don’t happen to bring a prefilter and find some cloudy water, you can always use fabric, like your shirt to filter it to make it better.

Go Chemical

Chlorine dioxide tablets.

A handy backup to filters and boiling (if your filter breaks, if you run out of fuel) are chlorine dioxide tablets.

They don’t weigh much but will kill both bacteria and viruses in the water.

Keep in mind these can take a while to work.

The temperature of the water will affect the speed of the purification too.

As with everything, follow the instructions.

Just In Case

So you’ve done your research, brought your filters, your pot and stove but... something goes wrong.

Not having water is just not an option.

The first thing to do is start heading back and if you have a way to do it, signal for help. Don’t rely on survival techniques as your primary water source.

That said, here are a few things you can do:

Rain And Dew

If you run out of water, but then it begins to rain, say a hallelujah and then get to work. You can collect rain from your rainfly or tarp.

Tie one side of your tarp slightly lower than the other three sides and direct the water to a bottle or pot underneath.

Even if it doesn’t rain, if there’s enough ambient water in the air, you can collect dew overnight.

Here’s a video showing an elaborate home-made tent collection system. Many of the principles apply.

A Solar Still

Water collection (and purification) using a shovel, clear or translucent plastic sheeting and a few rocks is called a solar still.

Once you learn how to do it, you might start carrying a clear plastic sheet as part of your gear.

There’s a whole world of emergency water collection.

Solar still.

General Water Tips

  • Research where you’re going. Find out if there are specific pathogens that might need a specific treatment (or longer boiling)
  • On long hikes, bring extra water if you can and always have a backup plan. An injury can keep you out out longer than you may have initially intended
  • If you are camping near the ocean, never drink salt water (portable desalination kits are available). Salt water will dehydrate you fast
  • Pack it in, pack it out. If you bring any sort of disposable water container, carry it out with you. Enjoying the beauty of unspoiled places is what it’s all about
  • The CDC has great info on water safety

And Your Thoughts?

What are your tips for water while camping?

What is your preferred method for staying hydrated in the wild?

Let us know! We love hearing from beginner and experienced outdoors people!

About the Author

After spending 5 years testing gear, meeting people and exploring his home state of Colorado with his wife, Andrej realized something about the outdoor industry. Mostly, that it was complicated. Andrej set out to create no-nonsense gear that was just as easy to use as it was reliable. He recruited a team of wilderness professionals and educators and hit the drawing board. The result was simple gear that you could trust, with specs you understood. Now he’s inspiring others to get out there and explore, by giving them the confidence to trust both themselves and the gear they use.