Survival experts always say find water first, then shelter, then food. These blog posts have been a little out of order for one big reason: if you think of backpacking as an exercise in survival, you’re doing it wrong! Backpacking is about enjoying the trip, enjoying the destination, and knowing that you have everything you need to be comfortable on your back.
After reading Part 3, you hopefully know where you’ll be sleeping, now lets figure out how you’re going to get fresh water and prepare your food.
We’ll start with water since that’s arguably the more technical subject. Scroll and look for “The Quick and Dirty” if you just want the bottom line, keep reading The Nuts and Bolts for a complete explanation!
The Quick and Dirty
Buy an inexpensive and light weight Sawyer water filter and the “inline filter” attachment. This is a gravity filter that allows you to filter a ton of water with low maintenance and a decent flow rate. It is also half the price and a quarter the weight of traditional pump filters. I use an old camel back bladder as my dirty water collection bag and fill my Platypus soft water bottles directly.
The Nuts and Bolts
As a rule whenever I go out backpacking or hiking, I always carry a minimum of 2 liters of water when I leave my house, and usually 3 liters. You should never leave your house without water. The fastest way to get yourself into trouble outdoors is to run out of water and become severely dehydrated.
The next step is know where you’ll be refilling your water along the way. Make sure that you plan your route so that there is a guaranteed water source within 5-10 miles of starting out. What do I mean by “guaranteed?” I mean a river, a large creek, or a lake. You need some natural water source that is not seasonal so that it does not dry up in the summer. I have been on a trip where several expected water sources were dry and it was utterly miserable I can tell you.
Now that you have an idea of where you’ll be getting your water, you have to figure out how you’ll be purifying it. As a general rule it’s a really bad idea to drink water that you find outdoors no matter how clean and pure it may look and taste. Even the most pure mountain spring water can harbor cryptosporidium and giardia which will both turn your outdoor vacation into a weekend of squatting in the bushes!
There are several methods available for water purification so we’ll go through each one.
This is the most basic way to make sure water is microbe free. Simply boil the water that you intend to drink for 10 to 15 minutes, cool it and drink it. It’s easy, its basic, and its a pain in the butt. Here’s why: boiling water requires either a wood fire which is time consuming, or extra fuel for your stove which is heavy. Boiling also doesn’t remove dirt, bad tastes, or algae. In general, the only time I boil my water is when I’m melting snow for water during a mountaineering trip.
This is probably the most common way of purifying water. the main types of filters are hand pumps, inline, direct drink, and gravity. Clearly there are a wide variety of filters available and they all work well, so how do you choose? I usually ask myself a few questions:
How much water am I intending to filter? If the answer is “several liters” then I want something with a fairly good flow rate.
How much maintenance and upkeep do I want to mess with? More moving parts means more maintenance down the road.
How much weight am I willing to carry? Most pump filters are several times heavier than their gravity or inline cousins.
What are my water sources like? If my water sources are mud holes, then I want a filter that I can clean in the field with minimal effort since I’ll be doing it often.
Now that we’ve assessed our needs, lets see which filter fits them best.
Many of the “direct drink” filters allow very little flow and are only good for a few mouthfuls of water at a time since they can’t transfer water into a container. They also clog easily, so you can’t use them on muddy or very dirty water without stopping to backflush (blow water backwards through them) every few drinks. The only advantage to these that I can see are that they have no moving parts, and they are very light weight and fairly inexpensive. The only direct drink filter that is widely available is the Lifestraw Personal Water Filter. There are a few others but they are harder to find.
These filters attach to a tube or hose and allow you to drink directly from a hydration bladder while filtering the water as it passes through the tube to your mouth. These are pretty nice if you regularly use a hydration bladder and are not filtering very dirty water. The big downside to these is that they require a hydration bladder to work, and they are SLOW. I hope you’re not thirsty because there’s no such thing as gulping with these.
Bladders are fairly expensive at $30-$40 each and I personally prefer water bottles because they are lighter and there’s no restriction on how fast I can drink out of them, so inline filters don’t work well for me. If you already have a CamelBak or a Platypus bladder then these might be a great choice (but I have a better option if you continue reading). Some great inline filters are made by Sawyer, Platypus, Geigerigg, and CamelBak.
These are the classic backpacking water filters that everyone has used for years. They are rugged, effective, high flow rate, able to screw onto a water bottle, and widely available. They are also very heavy, prone to needing maintenance, have a lot of moving parts, and quite a bit of work since you have to sit there and pump the whole time.
Don’t get me wrong, they are highly effective, and easy to clean (you just have to take them apart and scrub the ceramic filter), and have the highest flow rate of any portable water filter. I just don’t like them because they weigh about 5 times more than my filter of choice (a gravity filter), and I’ve spent too much time making field repairs on cracked gaskets and bad valves. They are also $60-$90 which means that they are the most expensive type of filter by a $20 margin.
In my opinion pump filters are a relic of bygone backpacking years, but they still sell like hotcakes because “it’s what mom and dad used, and it’s what we’ve always used!” If you don’t mind the weight and want one of these behemoths MSR makes the best pump filters on the market.
These are my personal favorite because they have nearly the same flow rate as a pump filter, have no moving parts, are easy to clean, and can filter high volumes of water before ever needing to be cleaned and best of all they only weigh a few ounces! A gravity filter attaches to a dirty water back and the force of gravity pulls the water through the filtering mechanism into your drinking container or clean water bag. You just have to sit and wait. They are essentially the same as an inline filter, but with a larger filter cartridge, higher flow rate, and they don’t require tubing and bladders to work. Sawyer and Platypus make the two best gravity filter systems that I’ve used.
My personal setup is a Sawyer Squeeze filter with a Sawyer Inline Adaptor ($5) which allows me to attach my Sawyer onto my old disused CamelBak bladder and hang it in a tree or bush, and run a tube down to my clean water bottle. The only big issue with these types of filters is that you need a wide-mouth water bag to go with them (hence the CamelBak), because the squeeze bags they come with are totally inadequate for scooping water from a river or stream.
Chemical and UV
These are the lightest weight and cheapest by miles, but they have huge disadvantages. The chemicals (such as iodine tablets or Aquamira) usually taste pretty bad, and I don’t fully trust the UV pens to kill everything (though that’s not backed up by any data, other than my extensive experience working with radiation). They also do not filter anything so unless you’re starting with pretty clear water these are pretty much unusable unless you’re ok with drinking foul tasting microbe free mud-water. I would stay away from these options unless you are an ultalight nut, are on the tightest budget possible, or have no other options.
In summary, I prefer gravity filters because they allow for the most volume of water for the price and the weight. Inline filters would be my second choice and I absolutely never recommend a pump filter to anyone.
Alright so what about cooking our food?
Stoves and Cookware
The Quick and Dirty
Buy a canister stove such as a Primus or a Brunton. The fuel is more expensive long term, but you can’t beat the speed, efficiency, or low weight. It’s also helpful to make a wind screen out of a double layer of heavy duty aluminum foil. This will prevent the wind from stealing your heat and stealing your fuel. Buy any lightweight aluminum or titanium pot you like. If it can hold water it’ll work as a pot. Look for cheap plastic cutlery and dishes at Walmart or target, the lighter the better.
The Nuts and Bolts
I’m going to keep this section a little lighter and less wordy since the diversity of camping stoves is so high and this post is getting long already. There’s 4 main types of fuel that are used while backpacking: wood, alcohol, butane/propane mix, and white gas. Wood is obviously just cooking over a camp fire or wood burning backpacking stove (yes that’s a thing, and no I won’t discuss them because they are gimmicky and impractical). There’s more of an art to cooking over a wood fire than an actual method, and I’ve never really mastered it so I’ll focus my advice on backpacking stoves.
The lightest and cheapest backpacking stoves are alcohol burners. There’s an excellent article on making your own stove from a cat food can by Andrew Skurka (he’s a backpacking god, really just read everything he has to say and ignore me).
The advantages of alcohol are that it’s cheap, widely available, easy to make your own stove, and the lightest of ultralight.
The disadvantages are that it’s an invisible flame making accidents easier, a cooler flame so it takes longer to cook with, you can’t regulate your temperature, its more susceptible to wind stealing your heat, you can’t really put it out until you’re out of fuel, and it doesn’t work well at high altitude.
I frequently use Andrew’s stove when summer backpacking and love it, but I wouldn’t recommend it to absolute beginners because it take a bit more skill to use effectively.
Butane Propane Mix (aka Canister Stoves)
These are what I would recommend to total beginners. I have a Primus canister stove that I use for everything from boiling my homebrew beer starters to mountaineering on Mt. Adams. They are dead simple, just screw the stove onto the canister, turn on the gas and click the starter or apply flame. That’s it!
The only real disadvantages I’ve found are that the fuel is expensive (~$15/pop) and not refillable so you just have to buy a new canister when you run out, and they sit up pretty tall when there’s a pot on them so they can be tippy and you need a tall wind screen. Their affordability, lightness, and foolproof simplicity makes them my best recommendation for beginners.
These are similar to the pump filters in my book. They are an old favorite because it’s what everyone uses and has always used. They have several moving parts, are prone to leaks and broken seals, a slightly steeper learning curve (though they are pretty simple), and are the heaviest and most expensive of these options.
That being said, I won’t carry anything else to high-altitude because they are pressurized and have the hottest flame giving you the fastest boil time, and allow you to melt snow the fastest. The MSR Whisperlight and the Jetboil are the best options that I’ve used.
Your choice of pots is simple, get something light and get something cheap which usually means aluminum. A 1 liter pot in the best and most versatile option in my opinion, and it can double as a frying pan. The choice of pots its not critical which is why I’m not putting much thought into it. If it holds water, is made of metal, and doesn’t weigh a ton it’s a good choice!
Ok so now you’ve got a heat source all lined up, what are you going to eat?
I won’t discuss food recipes here because that’s a book by itself. I will say that freeze dried meals like Mountain House and Alpine Foods, while relatively expensive are the easiest and lightest option for beginners to use. Just boil water on your choice of stoves and pour it in, that’s it!
The general goal of backpacking food is to get the most amount of calories from the least amount of weight. Some of the best foods for this are chocolate, sunflower seeds, nuts, ghee (clarified butted), regular butter, and olive oil (but it’s difficult to pack without leaking!). Oatmeal, ramen noodles, instant rice sides, and tuna packets are also good choices. I recommend looking on Pintrest for other creative ideas for backpacking food. There’s a million of them!
As for bowls and utensils, go to walmart and get the cheapest plastic ones you can find. Even disposable dishes and cutlery work very well.
I hope this has been helpful and that you continue reading in part 5 when I discuss backpacks, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and trekking poles! If you have any questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
Until next time, thanks for reading!