I have spent the last 10 years backpack hunting in some of the driest terrain there is, here in my home state of Arizona. This experience has given me a different perspective on water, compared to many of my friends that backpack hunt in other states. Water is always on my mind. Where water is, how much I'm drinking, and how much I'm using, and how often I need to find and filter it.
When it comes to water in the backcountry, many hunters either take its presence for granted where water is abundant, or they tend to "over-filter" where it's not abundant. Through having to deal with less water being around, I've figured out my own strategies for minimizing the amount of time I need to dedicate to water chores. After all, fewer water runs mean more time for hunting.
Even if you aren't hunting arid areas, I bet you can learn something from my experience hunting where there is more dust than dirt…
VERIFY THE SOURCE
Before I really dive into this, I want to stress something about backcountry hunting in drier climates. It is imperative that you do your research, whether it's by boot or by computer, on water sources in the area you plan on hunting. Arid environments are notorious for proving maps wrong and marked water sources might not actually be there.
On-the-ground scouting to prove out water sources is a great route to go. If that's not possible, try researching backpacking sites with trail reports. These folks lay it all out for you many times. You'll get the feeling of how reliable a water source actually is. If the water you're eyeing isn't mentioned, then all I can say is try to use satellite imagery to the best of your ability and have a backup plan upon a backup plan for water. Don't just glance at a map, see some blue, and assume you'll find water when you get there.
KNOW WHAT YOU NEED
There are very few people I've spoken to that actually know how much water they need per day. Like, truly how much, not a playing-it-safe amount. When there is less water around, you pay more attention to these things. In fact, it's mandatory if you ask me. Being in tune with how much you need could literally mean the difference between getting severely dehydrated or not. And while having too much water is better than having too little water, carrying more water than you need has downsides, too.
In order to best figure this out, keep a log. Even if you're just out on a hiking trip for the day. When you get back to your vehicle, note how much water you used in relation to how many miles or how strenuous the hike was. After a few times, you'll start to see a pattern. Once you have a clear view of what you need, you'll have a better idea of when to get water and how often. This knowledge saves me an immense amount of time in the field.
DON'T EAT YOUR WATER
Of course, your water needs don't stop at drinking. We also use a fair amount of water cooking our dehydrated/freeze-dried meals and making coffee. For instance, if you're using 8 oz of water for coffee, 8 oz for oatmeal, and 16 oz of water for your dinner, that's 32 oz of water you're using aside from the water you're actually drinking. For 3 days you're at 96 oz of water in just breakfast, coffee, and dinner. That's a lot of water use. In areas where water is only available every so often, this will increase your trips to said water source.
To offset that, consider bringing meals that require less water. The old standby of "house" takes 16 oz of water to make. However, something like a dinner from Heather's Choice or Peak Refuel takes 8-10 oz. For breakfast, maybe don't bring something that requires water. Bring a breakfast bar or something. And coffee? I mean, we're not crazy here. Deal with using the 8 oz. and enjoy.
MORE NOW = LESS LATER
Something we do oftentimes in the desert is pack water into areas and stash it. This allows us to have water at the ready upon our arrival and doesn't tie us down to camping near water sources. It's more work upfront but equals less during the hunt. Going this route, you'll completely nix water runs altogether. You'll also save time not having to filter. With that said, this isn't always practical. I use a similar logic in other circumstances.
When packing water ahead of time isn't an option, I'll bring big water bags with me when I do pack in. These water bags will be used to store water at my camp from nearby water sources. So, on top of the 3L bladder in my pack and Nalgene, I'll also carry a separate 6L bag for storing water. Upon my arrival, I'll fill up everything at a water source. This takes time, but it's worth it for the 10L of water I'll have in my possession. That will last me a few days at least, cooking included, and will decrease the frequency of water runs I'm making.
BE EFFICIENT WITH YOUR TIME
I'm sure you've heard the saying "Killing two birds with one stone." As someone who is an utter failure at multitasking, this has never been something that I've had a clear vision for. After many many trips of backpack hunting though, using this logic to minimize water runs works 100%.
Going for a water run takes time, so why don't combine that with a stalk or on your way back from chasing a bugle? You're surely not going to just sit in camp all day. I like to plan a route of how I'm going to move through and hunt certain pieces of country. Doing so, always keeping an eye out for a potential opportunity to grab water along the way. This tactic isn't necessarily going to decrease the number of times you're going for water, but it will definitely decrease those "dedicated water runs." Which in the end just makes better use of your time.
HYDRATION & HUNTING
All of us need water back there and there's no skirting around that. Add in a dry climate, where water isn't around every corner, and you've got yourself a whole different beast. Less water availability doesn't have to mean more water runs though. With the right approach, it can actually mean less. And while this logic was born from many years spent backpack hunting in a dry climate, it's 100% applicable to any backpack hunt anywhere. In the end, fewer water runs mean more time for hunting. I'll drink that down every day of the week.
Josh Kirchner is the author of the book, Becoming a Backpack Hunter, as well as the voice behind Dialed in Hunter, a blog that not only documents his own journey, but provides gear reviews, tips/tactics for western hunting, and encourages other hunters to chase and achieve their goals. Josh is a passionate bowhunter that has been hunting with his family since he was a small boy. When he is not chasing elk, deer, bear, and javelina through the diverse Arizona terrain, he is spending time with his wife, daughter, and two herding dogs.