If you’re just getting into bikepacking – or even if you’ve been at it awhile – it can sometimes be hard to know how much water you should be carrying. Running out of water in the middle of nowhere can be unpleasant at best and downright dangerous at worst.
The problem is, water is heavy. At 2.2 pounds for every liter, it’s easy to end up hauling around way more weight than necessary.
So how should you go about estimating how much water to carry while bikepacking? It’s part science, part art, but it doesn’t have to be a mystery. In this post I’ll walk you through the main factors to consider, and give you a framework for how to estimate your water needs in any circumstances.
Basics of Water Planning for Bikepacking
As humans, we have this inconvenient need to drink water frequently, or we die. We can go several miserable weeks without food, but only a few days without water. Our bodies are 60% made of water! Getting our water supply right is essential for both fun and safety.
Bikepackers typically ride from water source to water source, often natural ones like streams, filling up at each with enough water to drink comfortably until the next stop (and filtering or treating it). The idea is to find the balance between staying hydrated, not carrying too much weight, and not needing to stop all the time to refill.
How long between stops? In water-rich areas it might be every few hours. Lunch stops are the perfect time to fill up on water. In dry areas you might need to carry water for a couple days and even a couple nights too, carefully planning your itinerary and gear setup around a detailed water plan.
It’s always important to know your route and the water sources along it. This information might come from an established route description, or you might need to carefully inspect maps or research online for reliable water sources (key word: reliable!).
Before passing up a water source while riding, always ask yourself when you’ll reach the next one. Be especially mindful at transition areas, like where the route leaves a river and starts heading uphill. There may be water everywhere… until there isn’t, and the discipline to backtrack can be hard to find.
Quick Bikepacking Water Guide
Here’s a bare-minimum guide to estimating how much water you’ll need for bikepacking. However, if you’re actually planning to pedal yourself into the middle of nowhere with complete self-reliance, you should keep reading the rest of this post for the details.
|Purpose||Amount (per person)|
|Riding in normal weather||0.5 liter per hour|
|Riding in hot weather or at high altitude||0.75 – 1 liters per hour|
|Camping (cooking, drinking, washing)||2 – 3 liters (less if you’re not eating dehydrated food or washing much)|
|Safety margin||1+ liters in dry or remote areas, depending on backup plan and certainty of water sources|
Keep reading to understand how to modify these basics based on climate, camping style, and reliability of water sources.
Estimating Your Water Needs
How much will you drink?
Your water needs while bikepacking are similar to any kind of outdoor athletic activity. A common recommendation is to drink 1 liter of water for every 2 hours of activity in moderate weather.
Some people need more water than others. My husband, for example, always runs dry before I do, yet for some reason it took us years to start building this into our water plans. Individual differences depend on metabolism, size, and sweat rate, among other things. The only way to know how much you need is to do more riding and collect more data.
Now, how many hours will it take to ride to your next water source? Underestimating the difficulty of terrain is one of the most common causes of running out of water, so read up on how to estimate daily mileage if in doubt. Expecting 20 miles of flat gravel (2 hours of riding) and instead encountering 20 miles of sandy, rocky, undulating singletrack (5 hours of riding) is an easy way to end up thirsty for a few hours.
Adjusting Based on Conditions
Heat and Humidity
If you’ve ever tried to do ANYthing in sweltering hot weather – bikepack, hike, or just walk the dog – you know it feels so much harder. You’re sluggish, sweaty, and your heart rate feels higher than it should be. You feel like you need more breaks. And most importantly, you need to drink a lot more water to replace what’s lost when you sweat.
This is true regardless of humidity, though humid heat often feels “hotter” for the same temperature. This is because dry heat evaporates sweat from our skin, which helps us feel cooler. Ditto for riding fast enough to create a cooling breeze. The danger is that we don’t feel as sweaty and hot so we don’t drink as much, compared to the drippy heat of a humid climate or a slow climb. But we’re still losing water and it still needs to be replenished.
What “hot” means will vary by person, but here are rough guidelines:
- Hot weather (~75 to 90 degrees F): 1.5 liters of water per 2 hours
- Really hot weather (90+ degrees F): 2 liters of water per 2 hours
When you’re drinking this much water it also becomes important to replenish key electrolytes – like sodium and potassium – that are lost in sweat. In normal conditions we usually get enough electrolytes from snacks and meals, but in hot weather consider supplementing with electrolyte drink or tablets, or extra salty snacks.
Riding at high elevation also requires drinking more water. Not only is the air often dry up high in the mountains, but drinking extra water helps our bodies adjust to altitude. Similar to riding in hot weather, allow 1.5 liters of water per 2 hours of riding if you’re dealing with high elevation (around roughly 7000 feet and up, with need increasing as you go higher).
Estimating Water for Camping
Important rule of water planning for bikepacking: try to camp near water. Most established campgrounds have water, and many natural sources like streams, lakes, or rivers have good camping nearby if you’re in a place where dispersed camping is allowed.
If your campsite doesn’t have water, it’s called dry camping. It’s a bit of a pain, but totally do-able. Being equipped to dry camp makes you more flexible, potentially allowing you to pass up busy camp spots in favor of more peaceful ones, or break up mileage where it feels right.
How much water do you need for dry camping? Depends on how you like to camp! Here are some guidelines.
Drinking: 1.5 to 2 liters. It’s important to rehydrate at camp after a day of riding and in the morning before you start, especially if it’s hot and you’re already a little dehydrated. A bare minimum would be 1 liter, if it’s cool out and you’re already well hydrated.
Cooking: 0 to 3 liters. This depends entirely on what’s on the menu. If you’re carrying a sandwich from the last resupply stop and eating a protein bar for breakfast, you don’t need water for cooking at all. If you’re cooking dehydrated meals and counting on evening tea and morning coffee, you’ll need much more. Here’s a rough estimate:
- Dehydrated dinners and breakfasts: 1/4 to 1/3 of a liter per serving.
- Tea, coffee, hot chocolate: A full mug like this might be around 2/5 of a liter, but if water is scarce even a half mug can be satisfying. This water can partially come out of your “drinking” allocation, since it’ll help you to rehydrate just as well.
- More complicated cooking, like pasta: this is fairly water-intensive and best done with a water source nearby.
- Rinsing dishes: a 1/2 liter can provide a good swish and rinse, followed up by a wipe with a bandana. This is all you need really, but if you prefer a more thorough washing routine and use a separate pot and eating container, budget more like a liter (and do it away from natural water sources and with biodegradable soap).
Example: dehydrated dinner plus tea at night, and oatmeal plus coffee in the morning, would need around 1 to 1.5 liters of water. For drinking I’d bring another liter of plain water. So that’s already 2 to 2.5 liters! Water needs add up fast when dry camping.
Hygiene: 0.5 to 1 liters: If ever there was a personal topic, this is it! We all have our preferences, but my recommendation is to keep your personal routine pretty minimal if dry camping. You can always wash up the next day when you get to a water source.
- Basic: 1/2 liter for quick splash-n-scrub of critical areas (face, underarms, saddle area), minimal rinse of chamois, and brushing teeth.
- Moderate: 1 liter is enough for a more thorough wash, but still probably not enough to do laundry, for which you should probably just wait until you reach a water source.
Special note for the ladies (guys, cover your ears): if you use a squirt of water to clean up after peeing in the woods, you’ll want to bring a little extra.
Riding the next day: If you’re dry camping, don’t forget to include drinking water for the ride to the next water source the following day! Set it aside at camp and make sure you don’t accidentally go through it while washing or cooking.
Adding a Safety Margin
Everyone’s risk tolerance is different, but it’s good to think through what could go wrong with your water plan. This is especially important in dry areas where water sources are few and far between, and doubly so if you don’t expect to encounter many other people. For solo riders in these circumstances, a satellite messaging device would be a wise backup plan.
There are a few things that can go wrong with your bikepacking water plan:
Unreliable water sources: You heard the stream was flowing, it looked big on the map, but when you get there… no water to be found. What will you do? If there is any chance a source will be dry, you’ll need to either:
a) carry enough water to squeak by, if a bit thirstily, to the next reliable source
b) reroute to another source that’s off your planned route
For me personally, this calculation is a bit squishy and depends on the remoteness of the route, how hot the weather is, and how confident I am in my planning.
Unexpectedly slow pace: Forty miles can go by in a couple hours if you’re cruising downhill. Forty miles can also be a long day if navigating tricky singletrack, or even two days if a catastrophic mechanical issue forces you to walk. Know your expected pace, but also know what you would do if suddenly slowed to 3 mph. Rerouting, carrying extra, or relying on riding partners or passing vehicles are all fair options, but you’ll want to think through the most promising options for your particular ride in advance.
Everyone’s risk tolerance is different, and obviously you can’t carry two days worth of water for every 40 mile stretch. But might an extra liter be worth it on a hot day, just in case? Knowledge is a lot lighter than water, so knowing your maps and bail-out options is smart too.
Water Planning Examples
Let’s make this concrete. In these examples I’ll go through what my own thought process would be for planning water in each specific situation.
Example 1: moderate temperatures with plenty of water
Imagine the day includes 20 flat and easy miles along a stream, then 20 miles up and over a mountain pass with no known water sources, then down well-maintained gravel to an established campground with a water spigot. It’s summer at around 5000 feet, so the temperature is comfortable. The campground website says water is available (always good to check) and recent reports from other riders say the stream is flowing.
How I would plan water for this day:
- Start with 2 liters. I could potentially carry even less since the stream is right there, but it’s flat so the weight is less critical, and I don’t want to stop too often.
- At last access point before route leaves the stream, top up to 2 liters. I definitely don’t want to carry more than this over the big climb, but I also don’t know exactly how tough the climb will be and I want to have enough in case it’s slow.
- Enjoy the luxury of water at the campground for cooking and washing.
Example 2: hot and dry
The day includes 80 miles through high desert in central Oregon, temperatures in the high 80’s. Plan is to ride a full day, dry camp around mile 70, and reach a small river mid-morning the next day.
Here’s how I would calculate water needs for this stretch:
- 6 liters for riding 70 miles of gravel road, which might take me 8 hours or more, including breaks. Ideally I’d want even more because it’s darn hot, but I know I’ll have a tough time carrying it all, so I’m planning to ration a bit.
- 1.5 liters for camping, which I plan to do around mile 70: Most of this is for drinking. My food is pre-cooked (no water needed), but I do want a cup of coffee in the morning. A bare-minimum hygiene routine is good enough; I’m riding solo after all. 🙂 I’d prefer to have more water for drinking at camp, but since this is a dry stretch I’ll have to make do.
- 0.5 liters for riding the final 10 miles in the morning, which might take an hour. At least it’ll be cool early in the morning.
Total: 8 liters!
“That’s a lot!” I can hear you saying. It’s going to be HEAVY, and hard to find space for on the bike. This is where personal judgment comes in.
I’ve ridden nearly this exact scenario, and I set off with 7 liters (technically 6 liters of water plus a Gatorade) instead of 8. I knew I’d be a little thirsty, but I have experience managing water in hot weather and had a backup plan to keep me safe if something went wrong. Your mileage may very, and until you have experience with this kind of decision making, I’d suggest erring on the side of caution.
What about a safety margin? I’m riding solo on a route I made up, so there’s no information available online. I’ve only seen one vehicle all day. It’s hot, there’s very little shade, but I do have a satellite communicator just in case. I know I’ll be crossing a paved road around mile 60 where I could flag down a vehicle if necessary. And if the river at mile 80 isn’t flowing? There’s a small reservoir at mile 90, and a paved road just after that. Between all those options, I’ll be ok. Maybe a little thirsty, but ok.
Finding Reliable Water Sources
I’ve said a few times to make sure a source is reliable before, well, relying on it. But how are you supposed to know? It’s all too easy to see that blue blob on the map and expect an oasis, only to be met with a parched empty lakebed when you arrive.
Check route descriptions and RideWithGPS tracks for details from the route designers, if you’re following an established route. Look for recent posts in the comments or on Facebook pages dedicated to the route, or seek out information intended for other types of land users like hikers or campers.
Factor in time of year and seasonal precipitation. Late summer and early fall are the driest, once snow has melted completely from the high country but new precipitation hasn’t yet fallen. After particularly dry winters / low snow years, water sources can dry up much faster than usual.
Use reliable maps, but even then, use caution. Good topographic maps often mark year-round rivers with solid blue lines, while seasonal streams marked with dashed lines shouldn’t be trusted after spring unless you have more information. Climates are changing fast these days and so-called reliable sources might still be dry.
Whatever you do, DON’T rely on the blue shading on Google Maps and other road-focused map sources, because it’s often inaccurate. Google Maps’ satellite view can be helpful for checking whether a source looks like a big river or a tiny creek, but just because it was flowing when the satellite image was taken doesn’t mean it’ll be flowing at the time of your ride.
Take note of elevation differences on your topo map. It might look like the river is right next to the trail, but in steep areas that could mean a treacherous scramble or even a steep cliff. Look for crossings or feeder streams, or places where the topography is more gradual, to make sure you can actually reach nearby water.
Ask locally before starting. The folks at the diner or gas station will know if it’s been a dry year in the area, and whether the river is running high or low.
Tips for Bikepacking in Hot Weather
If you’ll be riding dry areas in toasty weather, carrying enough water can be a real challenge. Here are some tips to help you safely stretch your water supply a little further.
In dry hot weather, cover your mouth with a scarf or buff, or suck on hard candies. This helps reduce that parched feeling you get from too much hot air blowing into your mouth, which can drive you to drink more water than you actually need.
Consider insulated water bottles. Yes they weigh more, but a mouthful of hot water offers little relief on a scorching hot day.
“Camel up” at every source (drink a liter as you’re refilling your bottles). Water you drink while filling up is valuable hydration that you don’t need to carry anywhere.
Replenish electrolytes. As mentioned above, we lose electrolytes along with water when we sweat. In normal conditions our snacks and meals are enough to balance out the loss, but if we’re drinking a ton of water things can get out of balance. Try a sports drink or electrolyte tablets (I personally like Nuun and SaltSticks because they’re not full of sugar), or load up on salty snacks.
Monitor the color of your pee. If it’s dark, you’re not drinking enough water. If you’re not peeing, you’re definitely not drinking enough water.
I’ve used these tips to navigate dry desert bikepacking routes in central Oregon and northern Nevada, as well as the Sahara Desert in Egypt and Sudan. Bikepacking in super hot weather is never easy, but it can be done safely if you keep an eye on your water plan.
More Bikepacking Resources
I hope this detailed post has demystified the process of estimating water capacity for bikepacking. As a lover of deserts and remote places, I have a lot of appreciation for the importance of careful water planning, and I think it’s an important topic for all new bikepackers to understand.
If you’re looking for more bikepacking goodies, check out these other related posts:
- 9 ways to carry water on a bike
- Where to carry your tent while bikepacking
- How to charge electronics while bikepacking
Or, visit the full bikepacking resources page here.
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