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Sip or Gulp, Bag or Bottle - Which Water Containers are Best for You?

by Liz Wheelan

You would think choosing how to carry your water during a hike would be simple. It used to be you just filled the old canteen and hung it from your external pack. Now you have several other options. A recent comment by someone in a beginning backpack class highlighted the need for a refresher article on the important issues you should consider when deciding how to haul your most precious outdoor equipment – your water.

Let's begin by saying which container to use is a matter of personal preference. You should use whichever one is going to work best for you to drink as much water as needed while on trail. Generally, the lighter the container the better as long as it's reliable enough to do it's job. Product names referred to in this article are for comparison or informational purposes. If you're on an outing with the Dallas Sierra Club we do not require, disallow or endorse any particular type or brand of container. We just require that you have a sufficient supply of water appropriate for the activity.

There are generally four types of water containers most popular for hiking:

  • Collapsible – made of soft, bendable BPA free plastic by Nalgene, Platypus and others
  • Hard Plastic – such as Nalgene which are BPA free, dependable and leak proof, also Gatorade bottles.
  • Reservoir – such as a Camelbak. For many outdoor enthusiasts this is the easiest way to access water while on trail. Just be aware of potential need for replacement/extra parts such as the bite valve, how best to keep it clean, water treatment and if needed, prepare for effects of outdoor temperatures on the hose.
  • Stainless Steel (food-grade) – for those not wanting anything plastic these are durable, lightweight and leak proof (if not a flip top), made by REI, Kleen Kanteen and many others.

So, with those choices in mind, here is a condensed version of thoughts offered by many of your outings leaders after years of trial and error:

A few TIPS about carrying water:

  • Use whichever container is easiest for you – then you'll be likely to drink more.
  • Hydrate well beginning a few days before your hike.
  • Start simple – it's perfectly OK to save money by using a few Gatorade or similar type bottles (hard plastic/secure lid). Then as you hike more often you'll get a better idea of any other containers you may want to purchase.
  • Always take more water than you think you'll need, especially on hot days and if you're unsure if there will be any places to get more along the way.
  • Different containers work better for different activities (day hiking, backpacking, paddling, etc).
  • A combination of different types of containers often works best for multi-day trips.
  • Take at least one extra container (unbreakable and leak proof is best) so you always have a backup (of container and of water).
  • Multiple smaller containers are usually better than one large one, both for ease of use, in case of a leak and also for weight distribution in a backpack. Don't rely on all your water in one container!
  • When possible confirm if and where there may be water sources available during your hike, and know whether or not that water is potable.
  • Always be aware of the amount and frequency of your water consumption and that of anyone you're responsible for while on trail. You can do this visually if using a bottle, or if using a reservoir we suggest adding a liter or other set amount at planned intervals so you have a way to monitor the consumption and supply).
  • Be aware of any foods you're taking that are higher in sodium. They may make you thirstier and wanting to drink more water than usual.

A few considerations when deciding which containers are right for you:

Accessibility – the easier your water is to reach, the more often you'll take time to drink. Many newer packs are designed for use with reservoir systems which are very easy but the outside pockets can be hard to reach and may need the help of a trail buddy to use. If available, side pouch attachments made to hold water bottles can work well.

Durability – any bag/pouch type container (soft sided) is more vulnerable to leaking. If using pouch style, be sure to bring duct tape or Platypus band aid (yes, they make them for these "critters"). We'd recommend always taking at least one durable plastic bottle.

Ease of use – while drinking on trail, for cooking in camp, to filter and if needed, in various first aid situations.

Expense – bottles and pouches are a lesser, one time cost compared to a reservoir system that costs more upfront and has parts that need to be maintained and/or replaced.

Length of trip – how much water do you need to haul, weight distribution in pack

Mouth of container – do you need a certain mouth size (of container, not yours!) for compatibility w/ water filter if needed.

Sanitation – BPA free bottles can be washed on trail or go in a dishwasher. Soft sided and reservoir style containers (and their parts) are a bit harder to wash because there are more parts and they are harder to dry. Be sure to read and follow the instructions for care and use of reservoir and its parts so it is sure to be completely clean and free of deposits.

Timing - do you prefer brief trail stops and drinking more at a time from a bottle, or would you rather sip more frequently less at a time but more frequently from a hose?

So next time you're enjoying the outdoors, watch what water containers others use and ask them what they think. There are always new, better, lighter options popping up on the market. Or you may just decide to pull that Gatorade bottle from your recycling after all. However you carry it – just remember to drink!!!

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