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When I was planning my Arizona Trail thru hike, water was my biggest concern. I’d read horror stories about epic long water carries and thirsty hikers drinking from muddy cow puddles. The Arizona Trail Association was at one point recommending 3 to 5 gallons of water capacity for hikers in spring of 2021!
As you can imagine, this was concerning. Would I really need to carry 40 pounds of water? Or should I drive the entire length of the trail beforehand, caching water and hoping it would be there when I returned a month or two later?
Spoiler alert: fortunately, the answers turned out to be no and no. We found the water situation on the Arizona Trail in spring of 2021 to be manageable with only a moderate amount of on-the-fly planning. We didn’t cache any water and cautiously benefited from the generosity of trail angels only 3-4 times, at caches that were very well stocked. We learned some important do’s and don’ts for caching water (or not) and being good stewards of the trail, as well as practical information for drinking from some pretty nasty water sources.
My goal with this post is to demystify the water situation on the Arizona Trail, and give you the tools to responsibly manage your water supply during an AZT hike or bikepacking trip.
Why It’s Difficult
So why all the exaggeration and vague information about water sources on the Arizona Trail? No one (including me!) wants to be the reason you run out of water in the desert.
The water situation on the AZT is constantly changing. Just a few days, indeed perhaps a few hours, can make the difference between finding water when you need it and running dry in the middle of nowhere.
Understanding where the water on the Arizona Trail comes from can help fine-tune your intuition about seasonal sources. Patterns affecting water supply on the AZT include:
- Snowmelt: in many areas, snow melts throughout the spring and replenishes water sources, which gradually dry up through the late spring and summer months. Some sources only flow for a few days or weeks during peak snowmelt or directly after storms. Snow conditions – the amount of winter snowpack, how fast it’s melting, and recent storms – have a big impact on water availability for spring NOBO hikers.
- Monsoon: rains throughout the summer often replenish water sources for a brief period of time into early fall, but these are unpredictable and the results typically don’t last as long as snowmelt. The summer monsoon season has an impact on water sources for fall SOBO hikers.
- Grazing patterns: I’m no expert on this, but when ranchers move cattle to a different pasture they might stop filling the water sources on the unused land. The AZT is littered with old dry tanks that once held water.
Spring vs. Fall
Fall is generally considered a drier time to hike the Arizona Trail, since winter snow has long since melted and the summer monsoons may or may not have replenished dry sources. Fall hikers are more likely to rely on water caches, should follow updates about sources very carefully, and may need to carry more water more often.
However, this can vary by year and even month. A spring hike following a low-snow winter could conceivably be drier, at least in some areas, than a fall hike following an abundant monsoon season. A late-spring hike could be drier than an early-fall hike. Always check current conditions using the resources listed below.
As I mentioned above, water sources change fast on the Arizona Trail. No one, including me, can give you perfect information about it. If you want to hike the trail, you’ll need to take responsibility for your own water supply. This might mean planning carefully, being able to carry a lot, and/or caching your own water in advance.
I don’t want to be overly dramatic and frighten anyone away, but I do want to say that this is serious business. If you’ve hiked other more crowded trails, please internalize that the Arizona Trail is different. Parts are quite remote and it’s possible to go all day without seeing another human. Depending on when you hike it can also be very hot; we experienced temperatures in the 90’s in March. Self-sufficiency and personal responsibility are key.
Ok, I’ll get off my soapbox now and explain how to deal with all this!
This post is fairly detailed. If you’re looking for the quick version, here are my recommendations for handling water on the Arizona Trail. However, I strongly suggest you read on after this section to make sure you understand the details.
Plan carefully, but not too far ahead. Use recent comments in Guthook (from all types of waypoints, not just the water ones) and knowledge of recent weather patterns to plan just a few days in advance as you hike. Each resupply stop is a good time to look at the section ahead and identify any potentially concerning dry sections.
Carry a robust filter like the Sawyer Squeeze, and take good care of it. Backflush often and don’t let it freeze. Carry a prefilter material (bandana, old piece of nylon pantyhose) to take some of the load off the filter, and chlorine dioxide as a backup.
Expect to dry camp many nights, and be mentally prepared to drink from questionable sources that contain algae, cow pies, live and dead bugs, and mud. Trust your filter.
Carry 5-6 liters of water capacity (see below for more detail) but expect to usually use 2-4 liters. This might change in an especially dry year.
Keep an eye on weather patterns to understand when snow is melting out (resulting in more water sources) and when hot temps will increase your water needs.
Have a backup plan in dry sections. If a source turns out to be dry, will you have enough water to continue to the next one? Is there a major road or trailhead nearby where you might be able to beg or hitch? Is there an off-trail or last-ditch (mud puddle quality) source you can make do with instead?
You don’t necessarily need to cache water. Pay attention to Guthook and Facebook group comments to understand general conditions for your year and season. In most cases, if you can hike 15-20 miles per day you should be able to complete the trail without caching (or using public emergency caches). If you do use caches, follow best practices outlined below. If you’re going to cache your own water, only do it strategically where it’s really needed.
AZT Water Planning Resources
With the water situation changing so quickly, how’s a hiker supposed to know where water can be found on the trail?
Hiker comments in the Guthook app are by far the best source of water information on the AZT. They’ll be most helpful if you’re hiking in mid-to-late season and can benefit from the comments of those ahead of you; those striking out early will need to investigate on their own and make educated guesses based on the previous year’s comments.
A few tips for using Guthook to plan water sources:
- Don’t rely on any comment that’s not from the current hiking season (spring or fall of the current year).
- Check comments on ALL types of waypoints, not just the water icons. Many great sources are not officially marked as such.
- Factor in common sense. If the most recent comment for a small seasonal trickle was 5 days ago, and the weather has been hot and dry since then, you should assume it might be dry by the time you get there and have a backup source in mind.
- Pay it forward by posting your own comments if you find a source has changed or hasn’t been commented on in a while.
To get a more general sense of the seasonal water situation, especially if you’re hiking at the front of the pack and can’t rely on Guthook comments, try these other resources:
- ATA Water Report: includes updates from Guthook as well as other sources
- AZT Guidebook: water sources table has a good high-level overview of major sources and their reliability, but not recent conditions
- AZT Facebook group: join the group for the current year (here’s 2021) and keep an eye out for water reports from other hikers and those who know the trail well
Types of Water on the AZT
If you’ve hiked the JMT, AT, or other water-rich trails where you can fill from a clear babbling stream every couple of hours, the water situation on the AZT might surprise you. Instead of ___ Stream or ___ Lake, water on the AZT often comes from sources with exotic names like Cott Tank Exclosure, Halfway Trick Tank, and The Rainwater Collector.
It’s true, the quality of these water sources is lower on average (more algae, cow pies, floaters, and swimmers) than in other areas. But hey, they’re not all horrible, and that’s what your filter is for.
Here are the main types of water sources you’ll find on the AZT:
Rivers: just a few, namely the Gila, East Verde, and Colorado Rivers, are essentially always flowing and reliable sources. They may be silty; prepare to prefilter or let settle overnight.
Streams: usually seasonal and only flowing after rains or while snow is melting.
Pools: when a stream stops flowing, pools are left behind until they evaporate. Without new flow they can grow stagnant and muddy, but they’re better than nothing.
Stock tanks, troughs, ponds, springs, and wildlife rain collectors: These all feature containers intended for livestock or to protect wild game populations through drought, but they can also quench the thirst of hikers. Reliability varies depending on grazing patterns and recent rainfall. Quality varies but is often moderate to poor; see below for tips.
Spigots: sometimes campgrounds, ranger stations, and other establishments will have water spigots available for hikers. These may be turned off seasonally, so check before relying on them.
How Much Water Capacity?
How much water capacity do you really need for the Arizona Trail? Opinions differ, in part because different hikers encounter such different conditions depending on when they hike.
My personal recommendation, based on spring 2021, would be to have 6 liters of capacity but plan to only use 3 – 4 liters most of the time. Please note: this might change depending on current conditions! But in practice, many people are going to struggle with carrying more than 6 liters anyway due to the weight, so I think this is a pretty solid recommendation.
We actually had 8(!) liters capacity each: 3 liter Platypus bladder with hose, 2 1-liter foldable Platypus bottles, and a 3 liter dirty bag for filtering. Only once did we fill up to 6 or 7 liters, and we camped soon after to use our overnight water and lighten the load for the next day. In hindsight it was more than we needed anyway, but we were trying to avoid using public caches.
A typical pattern for us was to get water at some point in the morning or at lunch, then again late in the afternoon. We would most often dry camp, then refill sometime the next morning, and repeat. A long stretch for us would be needing to fill up at lunch for the entire afternoon, dry camping, and most of the next day, which might be 4-5 liters each. This only happened 2 or 3 times.
When planning your water capacity, consider these factors:
- Pace: since most of the longest water carries on the AZT are around 20 miles, those who can hike 15-20 miles per day and plan ahead a bit will be fine. However, if your pace is 10 miles per day it may be impractical for you to carry enough for these stretches. This would be a good reason to cache water strategically.
- Temperature: Weather in Arizona is highly varied and changes fast, so this is impossible to plan in advance. But once on trail be mindful of how weather influences your water needs. When temps hit the 90s we drank nearly twice as much as we did when it was cold and windy just a few days earlier.
- Weight: as every hiker knows, water is heavy. Be realistic about how much you’re willing and able to carry. It’s easy enough to have 6 or 8 liters of water capacity; it’s another thing to actually fill it up and carry it for miles on hot, steep, rocky trail when your pack is full of 6 days of food.
Water and Camping
We found it most efficient to choose camp locations based on mileage and energy levels. This meant we often dry camped, perhaps 90% of the time. If you’re the type who likes to vary your daily mileage, plan a couple days ahead, or push through a long day to reach a water source, you could camp near water more often.
Wherever a spring, trough, or pool is the only water source in the area, please don’t camp within 200 feet of it. Camping too close can scare wildlife away from what might be its only water source.
Filtering and Treating Water
Which water filter is best for the AZT? By far the most commonly used is the Sawyer Squeeze, and it works well.
Two important tips for using a Sawyer filter on the AZT:
- Be sure to get the actual Squeeze model, NOT the smaller mini or especially the micro, which have lower flow rates and clog more easily. Yes it’s slightly heavier, but totally worth it.
- Ditch the squeeze bags that come with it and get a CNOC bag instead. They’re much easier to fill, can be used as a gravity setup, and far less likely to leak.
I personally like to use a gravity setup with a CNOC dirty bag. I filter directly into my Platypus hydration bladder, but you can hook it up to a Smart Bottle or Platypus 1 liter as well. Tie a little paracord around the top and you can hang it from a tree, fence post, or even a tripod of trekking poles for those treeless desert areas, so you can spend your break snacking and resting instead of squeezing your water bag.
Prefiltering: some sources are dirty enough that you’ll want to prefilter to avoid clogging your primary filter. This step simply removes dirt, bugs, algae, and other relatively large objects; it doesn’t make the water safe to drink by itself. Use a bandana, buff, or piece of nylon pantyhose (if you still have any) over the input side of your filter. Ideally it’s thin enough that you can just place it over the threads and screw the filter over it.
Settling: in a few rare cases (the Gila River for example) water may be extremely silty. If possible, allow this water to settle for a few hours before filtering to avoid clogging your filter. We let it sit in one of our dirty bags overnight, then carefully poured out the water into a different bag to filter it in the morning, leaving as much silt as possible at the bottom of the first bag.
Care for your water filter:
- Backflush often. You can bring the syringe that comes with the filter, or use a Sawyer coupler and a compatible water bottle (Smart bottles or a collapsible Platypus 1 liter).
- Sleep with it to avoid allowing the water left inside it to freeze, which will render it useless without any obvious signs (hello, Giardia!). We had a number of sub-freezing nights on the AZT, and not all were obvious when we went to bed. After one close call we started sleeping with our filters every night even if it felt warm, just to be safe.
- Don’t drop it. As with freezing, a hard fall can break the fibers and make the filter less effective.
There’s a difference between water filters and purifiers (purifiers deactivate viruses, while filters do not). I’ve written more about this in my post on water filters for backpacking. To summarize, a filter like the Sawyer should be sufficient for the AZT even with its relatively low-quality water. If in doubt carry some chlorine dioxide tablets (which will deactivate viruses too within 30 minutes) to add after filtering from the most heinous cow-pie-filled sources.
Backups: the water on the AZT will make you sick if you don’t filter it; it’s only a matter of time. I strongly suggest having a backup method in case your filter clogs, freezes, or gets lost. We were two people hiking together, yet we each carried our own filter, serving as each others’ backup. We also carried chlorine dioxide tabs, which are fully effective as a purification method after a waiting period of a few hours, as an emergency backup.
Taste: I personally didn’t encounter any water on the AZT that bothered me to drink, but some people complain about the taste even after filtering. Consider using electrolyte tablets (you’ll want them for the heat anyway – I like Nuun because they’re low in sugar) or other drink flavoring.
Tips for Collecting Water on the AZT
Here are a few tricks that might come in handy when trying to collect water on the Arizona Trail.
Streams and pools: look up or downstream; water may not be obviously flowing everywhere. For the clearest water, collect from below an area that’s flowing.
Troughs: most have a bobber that, when pushed down (as if the water level has decreased) causes new water to flow into the tank. Sometimes it’s hidden beneath a hinged lid. Push this bobber downward into the water to start the flow, which is usually cleaner than water that’s been sitting in the trough collecting cow slobber.
Tanks: some large metal storage tanks will have a stick and scooper that you can use to get water out. Most also flow into a nearby trough which may be easier to get water from. If you find a rainwater collector (big flat sheet with tanks beneath) but nowhere to get water, search downhill for a trough.
Ponds (also sometimes called tanks): as they dry up they can leave many feet of nasty mud guarding the waterline. Look for tree branches and rocks you can embed in the mud and balance on to reach the water.
Windmills, generators, and solar panels: sometimes these are used to power pumps that dispense water or fill tanks. You may need to connect wires, flip a switch, or use a rope to turn solar panels to face the sun. Check Guthook comments for clues and enjoy the puzzle.
A scoop (your cup or pot) is handy for getting water from shallow pools.
Don’t be afraid of algae. Simply move it aside and you may find clear water beneath.
Caching Water on the Arizona Trail
Before we started the AZT, water caches were a bit of a mystery. We’d heard about people stopping along the way to rent a car and cache water for themselves all along the state, or coordinating with trail angels to do it for them. We’d also heard about “public caches,” maintained by the generosity of trail angels and available to all.
What we found turned out to be a hodgepodge of unnecessary caches, helpful ones, empty ones, and some controversy over the right ways to use them. To help clarify for future hikers, here’s what I learned about caching water on the AZT.
Please note that this is only my interpretation from Guthook, the AZT Facebook group, my own hike, and word of mouth. If you’re involved with water caching on the AZT and have input, please comment at the bottom and share your perspective.
How to Cache Water on the AZT
You likely won’t need to cache water for most, if not all, of the trail. However, if you’re hiking at an especially dry time, at a slower pace, or need to limit the weight you carry, you may want to cache your own water at a few strategic locations to shorten long water carries.
Reasons you might cache water, in addition to not dying of dehydration:
- To hike with a lighter pack
- To carry less on a big climb or when your pack is heavy with food
- To avoid having to filter really dirty water
- To avoid off-trail detours to water sources
AZT hikers can drive around caching their own water, get help from a friend or family member, or in some cases you can contact trail angels to help support you.
If you’re going to cache water on the AZT for yourself, a hiker you’re supporting, or as a trail angel, here are the best practices to follow:
- Tie bottles to something (tree, fence post, sign) with paracord or string so they don’t blow away and become litter once empty or almost empty.
- Private caches (for a specific hiker): Label each bottle with the hiker’s name, and a date after which any remaining water is available to anyone.
- Public caches: label each bottle available to anyone with “public” and leave a comment in Guthook with how much water you’ve added.
- Consider hiding your private cache away from vehicle-accessible areas to reduce the chances that someone will use it or vandalize it (yes this happens, unfortunately).
- Don’t leave food with water caches. Though I saw this done in many places (always in the “bear boxes” at trailheads) and always appreciated it as a hiker, I’ve heard locals say this attracts animals to the caches and they would prefer people don’t do it.
- If possible, return to pack out the empties unless you know others have done so.
Etiquette for Using Public Caches
- If you empty a bottle, pack it out (no fair leaving just a few sips for the next person to pack out).
- Update Guthook with the amount of public water left, if it’s considerably different from the last comment.
- If you use a cache and you have the time and resources, consider restocking that cache (or a different one) after your hike to pay it forward.
- Obviously, don’t ever drink someone else’s private cache before the written date unless you are literally about to die of dehydration. We heard about this happening a lot, unfortunately, and the people it happened to were really bummed.
When to Use Public Caches
When is it ok to use a public cache? I want to tread lightly here since others surely have different opinions, but my impression is that it varies depending on the cache and on your strategy for using it. Here are some factors to consider:
How remote and well-stocked is the cache? If you find a small amount of water in a hard-to-access place, consider leaving it as an emergency supply for those who truly need it. On the other hand, if you find a dozen gallons at a major trailhead off a main highway, in what seems to be a regularly maintained cache, it’s likely acceptable to take a little; that’s what it’s there for after all.
How much do you need? If every hiker arrived at the cache with empty bottles and took 3 liters each, even the most well-stocked caches would soon be empty. These caches, maintained by the generosity of trail angels, should be used sparingly and not as an excuse to run light on water because you don’t want to carry the weight. Perhaps you might carry 4 liters and then take a liter from a cache to get you through a long or uncertain dry stretch, rather than planning to arrive empty and refill completely from the cache.
Consider the AZT’s increasing popularity. Traditionally the AZT has been a less commonly hiked trail, and a small but devoted group of incredibly generous trail angels has been happy to support hikers. With the trail’s increasing popularity in 2021 and perhaps beyond, the time and resources of these generous people are being stretched thinner. Let’s not act as though we’re entitled to this free support, or it may not last much longer.
What we did: In spring of 2021 (note that conditions vary by season and year) we took water from a couple public caches. Both were well-stocked caches at major trailheads and in both cases we took between 1-2 liters. In hindsight we could have gotten by without any of them, because we were able to hike to another source in time, but they provided a margin of error on long dry stretches. We also accepted water at trail magic camps a couple times, which saved us from having to go off-trail or filter from nasty ponds.
Challenges of Relying on Caches
Before our hike we thought the idea of public water caches sounded great. But once on the trail and trying to decide how much water to carry from point A to point B, we quickly realized it’s not totally straightforward.
Caches are the most highly variable water sources on the AZT. If you’re one of the first or last hikers to come through in a given season, there may be very little water cached. Even during peak season, they’re unpredictable. Pools and troughs may dry up gradually over several days as the snowmelt stops, but when a cache runs out, it’s out! Even if the last Guthook comment says there are 2 gallons left in the morning, a group of thirsty hikers could have emptied it by afternoon. Thus, when deciding how much water to carry into an upcoming dry stretch, caches are a bit of a wildcard.
My personal advice is to not fully rely on any cache without a backup plan. You probably want to carry enough water to be safe – if not totally comfortable – in case any cache turns up unexpectedly empty. Some of the larger caches are at trailheads where a dangerously thirsty hiker could likely find help or a ride into town; it might be ok to count on taking a small amount from these since a backup plan exists. Small caches in remote areas should probably be considered as emergency sources only. Even private caches are occasionally used or vandalized, making it tough to know when it’s safe to count on finding water even if you put it there yourself.
Where to Cache Water on the AZT
This is the million dollar question! I had so much trouble figuring this out in advance of my hike that I decided to forget about caching completely and just figure it out on the fly (which ended up working out fine). Unfortunately I still can’t give a precise answer, thanks to the constantly changing water conditions on the trail. However, I will offer a few general tips and a list of places to keep an eye on.
In general, choose your locations strategically based on recent comments in Guthook. Toward the beginning of the trail especially, we passed a lot of private caches that were just a couple miles from great reliable water sources. It seemed as if people had heard they needed to cache water and drove around caching at every trailhead they could access. This is a waste of time and energy and creates unnecessary potential for empty bottles left in the wilderness.
Below are a few of the longest dry stretches when I hiked in spring of 2021. Major disclaimer: this list is not complete and conditions change fast! However, if you’re looking for a few places to start with, check recent comments in Guthook for the following areas (use the search feature to find the waypoints). They aren’t necessarily completely dry, but they might have limited, unreliable, and/or particularly nasty sources that require some advance planning to negotiate.
Longish dry sections in spring 2021:
- After Kentucky Camp to Colossal Cave
- Around Oracle
- Sahuarita Road cache box to Cienega Creek
- High Jinks Ranch to Mountain View Tank
- After Whiterock spring
- South of Flagstaff after Railroad Tank
- Areas south and north of the Grand Canyon can be quite dry if there’s no recent snow melt; fall hikers should check these carefully
Of course, caching water requires a good access road and ideally a cache box (though you can also just tie jugs to a fence, sign, or tree). Here’s a partial list of the cache box locations on the AZT, which you could cross-reference with dry stretches to find potential good cache locations:
- Sahuarita road
- Hw 77 crossing (NOBO 205.2) and Tiger Mine Road Trailhead
- Freeman Road Trailhead
- Florence Kelvin Rd Trailhead
- Picket Post Trailhead
- Mills Ridge Trailhead, after steep hot climb if coming NOBO, road is dirt but 2wd-friendly
- Pine Trailhead (but if you’re going into Pine you probably don’t need water here)
- Blue Ridge Trailhead
- Kelly Tank Box
- Cedar Ranch Trailhead
Those are in order heading NOBO, but use the Guthook search feature to find exact mileages. I don’t want to list them because there are several reroutes in progress and the mileage numbers may change soon.
Overall, I found the water situation on the AZT easier to cope with than expected. In spring of 2021 we didn’t cache any water and rarely used public caches. Conditions change quickly though, and if a key water source dries up a long dry stretch could easily materialize. Keep an eye on recent water conditions, prepare to add some water weight to your pack, and get ready to trust your filter!
More Arizona Trail Resources
If you found this helpful, you might also like these:
- AZT Gear List: What Worked and What Didn’t
- My AZT Resupply Plan and Notes
- Hiking the AZT: Essential Questions and Answers
- Lightweight Backpacking Tips and Favorite Gear
Or, check out more hiking and backpacking resources from Exploring Wild.
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