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Hiking Water:
Why It's So Important To You

by Diane Spicer

Meet Hiking For Her's Diane

Hiking For Her brings you the best tips for staying hydration year round: how often to drink, how much water to carry, the best water bottles. #hike #backpacking #hydration #hikinghydration

Why is hiking water so darn important?

Here's the obvious reason: to avoid cramps, lethargy and a huge thirst sensation.

  • Drinking water on a hike to stay hydrated is simply common sense.

But there is a lot of nuance around how often to drink water on a hike, the best way to carry it, how to enhance it, and more.

Let's take a look!

How often should you
drink water on a hike?

It won't surprise you to learn that there are no hard and fast rules about when to take a water break on a hike.

It's a matter of "it depends".

The amount of hiking water you require depends upon:

  • the weather conditions
  • the activity level correlated to the terrain you're navigating
  • the amount of weight you're carrying
  • your size
  • your fitness level

That's why you need to create your own set of Hiking Water Best Practices.

Hiking water best practices

Having enough water in your body isn't just about stopping for water breaks.

You can do yourself a huge favor by pre-hydrating: Drink up to a liter of water before you begin your hike.

  • Your kidneys will call for frequent "pit stops", but it's worth it.

You can also help your body post-hike by drinking a quart or two of water right after you take off your boots.

What about on the trail?

Staying well hydrated should be a simple matter of drinking when you feel thirsty, right?


Often, by the time you "feel" thirsty, you've already lost a lot of water via perspiration and respiration (open mouth breathing on an up-slope, for instance).

Allowing yourself to become dehydrated is setting yourself up for hiking inflammation.

Huge water drops on leaves of lupineHiking water: every living thing needs it, not just hikers!

Which of these hikers is you?

  • You stop regularly (say, every 45 minutes) to rehydrate during a hike, year round.
  • You prefer to push on until you reach a destination: the lake, a summit, or your camp site for the night.

Hikers who don't like to stop to rehydrate have a perfect solution: a hiking hydration backpack carrying a water reservoir (bladder).

  • These systems carry additional responsibilities regarding cleanliness and maintenance, and can be pricey.
  • And it's impossible to gauge how much water you're ingesting, so you might under-hydrate and set yourself up for a headache later.
  • But what a convenient method for good hydration habits!

How much water to carry

Here's my routine:

On cool hikes, I bring a liter of water and might have some left at the end of the day.

  • That's when pre-hydration and post-hydration habits help me stay "juicy".

For warmer weather hikes, I carry at least two liters for a day hike if I'm hiking in an area without access to surface water.

Bottom line: If there is plentiful water around, why carry it?

You can purify your water when you need it, thus lightening your backpack.

Water purification tips

You will need some sort of purification method when you're relying on surface water for hydration.

  • Drinking contaminated water could leave you with very unpleasant, debilitating giardia symptoms.

To avoid this problem, read these water purification tips.

Or carry a LifeStraw.

  • Read my review here.

Hiking water bottles:
your choices

I carry water bottles on the outside pockets of my pack, stopping for water breaks throughout the day.

I like the fact that I have to be mindful about taking water breaks.

I have several favorites for water bottles, both plastic and metal.

Plastic is lightweight and allows me to see how much water I've got left at a glance. I carry:

Metal bottles hold up well under lots of trail abuse, accidental or otherwise:

Types of hiking water
to consider on a hike

What should you swallow to keep your body hydrated throughout a hike?

Your choices include:

  • Plain water (either tap or filtered)
  • Sports drinks
  • Turbo-water

Hmmm....let me admit that I'm a minimalist by nature (pardon the pun).

I figure that Mother Nature has limped along with plain old water for a while now, and my body's biochemistry is well adapted to the humble H-2-O molecules.

I don't hike hard enough on any given day (unless you count the 12 hours days I log in the Arctic, thanks to eternal summer daylight) to lose electrolytes at a rate which can't be replaced with trail snacks and water breaks.

I don't hike in extreme heat or altitudes over 8,000 feet, which may create conditions where electrolyte loss is a serious concern.

So take my words with plenty of grains of salts (and sugars) if you do.

Also, I RUN AWAY from artificial colors, flavorings, preservatives and flavor enhancers out of respect for my hard-working organs of elimination: liver, kidneys, skin.

So that leaves me with just the plain old wet stuff: no carbonation, no flavors, no sugars (do a back-of-the-envelope calculation on what you're paying for that tiny dose of sugar & salt in your sports drinks).

I know that a lot of hikers will disagree with me. Taste buds rule, no doubt.

I agree that a plain fluid in your hiking water bottle is pretty dull compared to razzle-dazzle brand name sports drinks.

But again, it circles back to respect for basic biochemistry.

Each one of my trillions of cells is asking for that basic solvent molecule called H - two - oh, and I'm happy to supply it.

   Old dog learns
new hiking water trick

Recently, I had the opportunity to add some electrolytes to my hiking water bottle.

Amazingly, the day after my long, strenuous, hot hike, I was completely without aches, pains, or fatigue in my muscles.

I'm not exaggerating: completely free of post-hike issues.

Being a skeptical scientist, I repeated the "experiment" on the next hike, an equally long, strenuous, but slightly less hot hike.

I also used a different electrolyte product.

To my astonishment, the same results: no issues in terms of soreness the next day!

So now I'm backing off my "plain H-2-O only" advice.

  • But I still advocate avoiding artificial colors and flavors.

Powdered electrolyte brands

Let's take a quick look at the brands of electrolytes I now use in my hiking water bottles.

Ultima Replenisher packets are easy to transport, and essentially weightless in your pack.

I have to admit that I look forward to rest stops so I can enjoy the fruity flavor (lemon, raspberry, orange yummy goodness)!

A few tips:

  • I prefer the packets because the large cannister gets a bit "grainy" and hard to dissolve if I don't use it up quickly.
  • Plus, the packets are tiny sticks which are super convenient (I always stash a few extras in my emergency kit).
  • Buying in bulk guarantees cost savings, too.

The other brand I rely upon is Natural Hydration (Nuun) tablets.

Try all of the flavors.

If you're lucky, you'll like them all and be able to get a bariety of welcome taste "hits" on a long hiking trip every time you take a sip of your hiking water.

More additions to your water bottle

In both Ultima and Nuun, there are water soluble B vitamins and vitamin C in these tablets along with the electrolytes, which is a nice add-on.

  • Sodium, chloride, potassium

Note: If you're looking for a full complement of minerals that your cells need, including calcium, copper, and molybdenum, adding just these to your hiking water won't do it for you.

If you're interested in just a quick shot of Vitamin C in your hiking water, you might want to try these Emergen-C packets.

  • I like this beverage warmed up after a long day of hiking, to sip as I'm setting up camp.
  • During cold weather day hikes I heat it up at home and carry it in a thermos (see below); sipping this beverage at rest breaks keeps me hydrated AND warm.

One more note on vitamin C and hiking water for backpackers:

It gets tough to find great vitamin C sources during a long hiking trip, and these not only satisfy me.

  • They contribute to good blood vessel health and strong immune function while I'm putting my body through its paces day after day.

Did you know?
You need hiking water year round

Don't overlook the fact that you can sweat hard and lose electrolytes during a winter hike, especially while winter hiking and snowshoeing.

I bring along a thermos like this so I can keep my muscles contracting mile after mile after.

  • Be advised that a heavy duty thermos will in fact be a bit heavy. Only you can decide if the warm beverage containing electrolytes is worth it!

You can read about my field trials with the new kid on the block, a Hydroflask double walled insulated metal bottle for cold weather hiking, here.

Three big ways to look at
your water

There are three ways a hiker can appreciate water.

You can look at this amazing clear, refreshing fluid through a chemist's lens:

Water is a molecule composed of two hydrogen atoms bonded to an oxygen atom, conferring remarkable properties for

  • heat storage,
  • solubility,
  • dissociation.

You can regard it through the biology lens:

  • You've got to replace what you lose via respiration, perspiration, urination, and defecation.
  • And make a vow to replenish your electrolytes, or your body will complain loudly.

Or if all that is too science-y for you, just regard hiking water as an obstacle:

  • streams to splash through
  • rivers to ford
  • precipitation pounding on your tent but hopefully not on your head
  • a cold foggy morning hug

But whatever you do, don't ignore how important it is to drink enough water on a hike.

There's one more

Don't forget how much fun it is to PLAY in this amazing clear liquid, provided by Mother Nature for our pleasure!

Devote a little of your trail time this season to appreciating the beautiful lakes and streams of our planet by ingesting, and frolicking, to your heart's content (and I mean that quite literally).

Female hiker wearing shorts and a ball cap, wading in a pristine alpine lake surrounded by mountainsOutstanding in her hiking water

Now that you're well hydrated, how about some tips for the best hiking food?

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Hiking Water

About the author

Diane is the founder of Hiking For Her.

She's been on a hiking trail somewhere in the world for 5+ decades & loves to share her best hiking tips right here.

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It costs you nothing extra, yet it helps to keep this free hiking information flowing to everyone.

Thank you!

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