Backpacking Essentials: Food and Water

Spam, it’s what for dinner! Well, maybe not.

One of my first backpacking trips was to Lost Maples State Natural Area in the Texas Hill Country when I was about 10 years old. I had an old-school external frame backpack, a sleeping bag the size of a hay bale, and no clue what I was doing. For food I brought Maruchan Instant Noodle Bowls, granola bars, canned chicken, and was carrying all of the water I thought I would need for two days of hiking. One of the other kids had brought a big can of Spam that he ate from for each meal. All of the kids were 10 or 11 years old and obviously uninitiated backpackers. The parents weren’t much better as most had limited experience with camping. Thankfully, the whole idea behind our trip to Lost Maples was to get our toes wet and maybe refine our very rough idea of backpacking. Hopefully, those of you who haven’t been backpacking before can start out a little better than us and those with more experience can get a good refresher.

Me and my dad at Spanish Peaks, Colorado (circa 2000)

First up, how you are going to stay hydrated on the trail. Water is the single most important thing you’ll need to be carrying into the backcountry. Dehydration can set in quickly, unclean water can make you sick, and few other things will leave you in dire straights if you don’t have it for more than half a day.

When you set out you’ll probably be loaded up with water and likely won’t have to worry much about where your first day’s water will come from. What you will need to ensure is that you are carrying enough water and that you have a good way to store it. There is no definitive amount of water that you will need, but where you’re going, how strenuous your hike is, and your physical fitness will all play big roles.

Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park, 2018

As a general rule, Kate and I carry 6 or 7 liters between the two of us. We find that this will let us hike all day, cook in the evening, and have a good amount of wiggle room. We carry 3 liters in Kleen Kanteen Stainless Steel bottles as our cooking and reserve water. They don’t impart a taste, aren’t made of plastic, don’t have an epoxy lining like aluminum bottles, but are a bit heavier. I carry 2 liters in my Osprey Hydraulics Reservoir tucked into my backpack for immediate consumption. Kate carries a Camelback Vacuum Insulated Bottle and I carry a Hydroflask Vacuum Insulated Bottle for using Nuun Tablets. We transfer water into these as we drink them down to limit which bottles have to be kept with the food at night. It seems like a lot of water and weight to carry but we don’t want to risk running out, don’t want to stop during our hike to get more, and have cut enough weight in other areas that it’s not a big deal.

Refilling water from Upper Ouzel Creek, Rocky Mountain National Park

So what happens when you run out of water? Well hopefully you’ve taken the time to identify water sources on your route before you applied for your backcountry permit. We like to go into the mountains and thankfully water is generally pretty abundant. But you should always make sure that you have nearby water sources and that those sources won’t be dried up due to seasonality. As long as you have identified where your water is coming from ahead of time and have brought some extra to create flexibility, you usually don’t have to carry more than a day’s worth of water.

Now that you’re ready to refill your tanks, what about filtering the water? It’s generally accepted that water in the backcountry needs to be filtered or purified before drinking. (There has been some debate that water filtration while backpacking is unnecessary or at least widely overused, but those conclusions are at best misguided and more likely irresponsible. See my thoughts in an upcoming post.) Protozoa such as Giardia species and Cryptosporidium, and pathogenic bacteria like Leptospira species can contaminate water from wildlife, pets and livestock, and other hikers. Making water from lakes, streams, and other sources safe to drink can be achieved a few ways. The most common way is to use a commercially available filter. These may come as a small hand pump or a small filter attached to a gravity driven bladder or directly to a bottle. Personally I like the gravity driven setup to minimize the amount of manual labor I have to do but the hand pumps may be easier to use when collecting water from very small springs and streams. You can also use the time-tested boiling method. This does require that you carry enough extra fuel just for your water and requires that you don’t mind waiting, but of course works well. The CDC recommends bringing the water to a boil for 1 minute. If you are over 6500 feet the CDC recommends boiling for 3 minutes. Finally, you can use chemical agents such as iodine- or chlorine-based tablets. These are slower than the other methods and will impart a taste but work in a pinch. Kate and I always have at least 2 and usually 3 methods of water purification. We primarily use our Sawyer water filter that works through a gravity driven bladder. But we also always have our stove and plenty of fuel and keep a bottle of purification tablets in the first aid kit.

Hoh River at Happy Four Shelter, Olympic National Park

Next up, food. There are tons of food options when setting out on a journey. The most common options include freeze-dried backpacking meals, MREs, cured meats and cheeses, and canned foods. Bringing canned food has decreased in popularity due to the weight of the cans and difficulties in packing the full cans in and empty cans out. Meats and cheeses, even when cured, can be problematic due to lack of refrigeration and the strong odors that they emit once opened. Most backpackers we see use either freeze-dried backpacking meals, other dehydrated foods, nuts and dried fruit, individually wrapped jerky and granola bars. We try to set out with a variety of foods to keep things interesting. For breakfast, we usually have Starbucks Instant Coffee Packets, oatmeal, and breakfast bars or PopTarts. Lunch is normally a homemade trail mix (or GORP as we call it), energy bars, and sometimes summer sausage, cheese, and crackers. Dinner is almost always freeze-dried backpacking meals, and sometimes individually wrapped candy and wine.

Lunch time on the Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park

When planning your meals assume you will need significantly more calories than you would at home. You’re going to be working up quite an appetite hiking, carrying your pack, and taking in those picturesque views. Try keeping to mostly dehydrated meals and things with minimal water out of the package. By eating foods that have water added just prior to consumption or are low in water content you can save space and weight by getting water in the backcountry instead of having to carry that water weight with you.

To wrap up, I’d recommend that you spend some time planning how much water you really need, identifying sources in the backcountry, and creating a meal plan. When you’re first getting started backpacking or you’re exploring an unfamiliar area, I’d plan to take a good bit more water and food than you think you need. It’s better to have too much and carry a little extra weight than to be in the backcountry and run out. Once you have a few miles and mountains under your belt, you’ll have a much more realistic estimate of your personal needs.

View from Sourdough Camp, North Cascades National Park

Happy traveling!


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