The Quiver- Hydration options for backpacking

Another article about the tools in my gear kit. This time? Some hydration options I use.

A flowing stream in the P-J forest. Ahhh… PCO Joan.

In the fall of 2017, I hiked across southern Utah. As with the Appalachian Trail, this hike ended up as a demarcation point for different parts of my life.  Before the Utah walk…and the new life I led after.

And during that walk, my beloved Nalgene Cantene sprung a leak on the seams. As much as I love this piece of gear, it is a failing with any bladder of this type. And why I tend to replace it every year or two.

Needing some larger water capacity but with no gear store nearby, I simply bought two 1.5 liter water bottles. With my equally basic Powerade bottle, I had a water capacity of 4 liters that ended up being easy to pack, carried well, never leaked, and worked efficiently with all the dry camping I did on that trek.

Over the treks the following year, I bought another Nalgene Cantene, and it worked well for short water carries and dry camping. However, upon being a full-time high desert dweller, I found it did not carry well for extended hauls. Trying another bladder system, I found the easier-to-pack soft-sided container packed better but too “futzy” for my more straightforward needs. And if I did not futz with it correctly, the bladder leaked a bit.

So, I migrated back to what worked well for me in the fall of 2017. And I’ve been pleased ever since for my high desert backpacking.

Which is to say that:

And with all that in mind, here’s my current methods of hydration when hiking or backpacking.

As always, this is what works for me. I don’t claim it is the one, true, and absolute way of backpacking. 🙂


My go-to system for Colorado Plateau backpacking as of April 2020

Available at finer gas stations everywhere! From Fisher Foods.

After another bladder failure, I eschewed my mainstay system of a Powerade Bottle/Nalgene Catene/1 liter Platypus.

Though this system worked well for many years, I found, for me, it worked best for shorter water carries and dry camping. Now that I routinely schlep 3 or 4 liters at a time, I find that the 1.5-liter water bottles fit my ULA packs with its deeper water bottle holsters well. At 1.5 ounces each, I have a 3 liter capacity for 3 oz.  

However, collecting water with trickles often found in the desert is less than ideal with these types of bottles.  Another long-time stalwart of my backpacking works exceptionally well – a Powerade bottle. The 1 oz. bottle with a wide-mouth lends itself well to collecting water from trickles and decanting into other bottles or containers.

And if the water is particularly shallow? I’ve sometimes re-purposed an empty Ziploc on more than one occasion to collect water!

For 4 oz, I have a hydration system that carries 4 liters of water over longer distances well enough. I prefer dry camping and can comfortably hike between water sources over longer (20+ miles) distances, so this capacity works well for me.

Three-season backpacking:  Intermountain West or similar, non-desert

A “classic” photo from a “Ring The Peak” hike around 2010. PCO Lawton “Disco” Grinter. D-low approves!

My long time system, and one I used during my New Mexico loop to good effect most recently, is the Powerade Bottle/Nalgene Catene/1 liter Platypus system I mentioned at the start of this article.

I carry slightly more capacity because I find that in areas with more frequent water if less than my native New England,  being able to stash and use water capacity as needed ends up being valuable with its versatility.

The one-liter Platy fits in my water bottle holder well for easy access; likewise for the Nalgene Cantene, which I’ll break out for shorter carries of no more than five miles when I want to dry camp.



Three-season backpacking: Eastern Woodlands or similar

In the Pemi Wilderness of New Hampshire.

In areas with lots of water, even dry camping does not need that much capacity.

When a “big” water carry is sub-10, or even sub-5, miles, a two-liter capacity works well for me. As such, the 1-liter Platy and the Powerade bottle system does the trick. Droughts now occur more often even back East, so my typical Intermountain West system above might be put into play if the summer is mainly dry vs. historical trends.

Deep winter (snow travel) backpacking

A trip I guided with Andrew Skurka. Many people gravitated towards a similar system on this trip. PCO Andrew.

For winter backpacking, I find the wide mouth Nalgene Canteen filled with melted snow, and buried at night, works well. I still bring a Powerade bottle for quick drinking during the day and in camp. The Powerade bottle ends up being buried in my pack if particularly cold or simply stored in an old wool sock in the water bottle holder.

A wide-mouthed Nalgene bottle is a pain to drink from without a lid attachment, but I have yet to find anything better for holding boiling water, perfect to sleep with at night in my bag.  The hot water bottle assists with keeping me warm at night, and I have at least some luke-warmish water to start my morning.

Day hiking

Unless I find I am going a long way between water sources during the day, the one-liter Platy and Powerade bottle system work well.  Joan “Utah-ized” our day packs of choice, and it now fits the 1.5-liter bottles rather well if I need some additional water carrying capacity during the day.

Other uses?

We won the lottery for a rare backpacking trip in Wupatki. Because of the nature of this guided trip, the NPS mandated we carry 8 liters of water. An excellent trip and worth schlepping in so much water.

A handful of times, I need a larger water capacity. I have yet to find the ideal system that allows versatility, ease of carrying, and reliability. I suspect if I need to retake 8 liters, I’ll use my “go-to” Utah system above, combined with a one-liter Platy and Nalgene Cantene.  Once I use the water up from the Platy and Nalgene Cantene, I can stow them in the pack again easily.

For guiding, I also find that the Nalgene Cantene works well for extra water capacity at camp to share.


From “The Onion.” I’d totally buy this bottle if still available!

  • High Desert or similar backpacking –  Powerade bottle, Two 1.5-liter water bottles
  • Three-season backpacking, Intermountain West or similar, outside of the desert –  Powerade bottle, 1-liter Platy, Nalgene Cantene
  • Three-season backpacking, Eastern Woodlands or similarPowerade bottle, 1-liter Platy
  • Deep-winter (snow) backpacking – Nalgene Cantene, Powerade bottle, Nalgene bottle
  • Day hiking – Powerade bottle, 1-liter Platy and swapping in a 1.5-liter water bottle(s) as needed
  • Other – Nalgene Cantene and 1 liter Platy for guiding or extra water capacity

Remember, these are just the choices that work for me. Your needs might be different. 

Joan, for example, employs a Powerade Bottle/2 Liter Platy/Nalgene Cantene setup for the backpacking we often do. She finds her water needs different from me.   

Kevin “LB” also has some excellent and thorough information on this topic.


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Roger Moore
Roger Moore
3 years ago

Good write up, Paul!

I just finished a five day hike with two guys thet would not get offf the Nalgene train.

I actually keep one of those roll-up Platy’s in my shoulder bag for work. There is nothing better than filling it at a cold water fountain before spending an hour in a meeting.

2 years ago

I use a Befree 1 liter for on the go, and a Sawyer Micro Squeeze that attaches to a smart water bottle as a back up. Around camp I have a collapsible cup that I filter into for fancy living.