The Making of a Thru-Hiker, Part 4: Water?!

Hiking & Backpacking


Gail enjoying a little bubbly before the PCT.

My friend Lise vowed to airlift in champagne to me while I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. “You can’t possibly go six months without champagne,” she said. “I won’t stand for it.”

“I’ll just have to make do,” I said.

“Make do? You mean like with prosecco or cava?”

I was hard pressed to explain that our trail beverages would be water, water, and water. If my husband, Porter, and I were lucky. If water was in too short supply, we risked thirst, dehydration, and possibly death.

Carry enough water to make it to the next source.

I knew I was in trouble when Peanut, the volunteer who drove us from San Diego to the PCT’s southern terminus on the border between Mexico and California, handed us five gallons of water.

“How will we carry all that?” I asked as he and Porter transferred it into our water bottles and soft-sided water bags.

“It’s twenty miles to the next water,” Peanut said. “In this hundred-degree heat, you’ll each need a quart an hour each plus some for cooking and cleaning.”

How much water you actually need varies by person, exertion level, temperature, and your cooking method. Porter and I drank as much as we could, then loaded thirteen quarts into our packs. We made it on that to our next source, the Lake Morena campground.

Don’t sit on your water.

One day, when we stopped for lunch, I threw down my pack and sat on it to eat my sandwich.

“You burst your bladder!” Porter said of the puddle spreading across the sand.

Sure enough, I’d blown the stopper off the largest soft-sided water bottle I carried.  Water we needed for drinking now soaked the inside of my pack, clothes and all. Try not to do that.

Filter or purify your water, and sometimes do both.

Some water sources are so silty or filled with debris you should filter it. One way is with a pump filter, although they can be heavy and slow. Another is with a gravity filter, but you need something, like a tree, to hang it from, unless you’re willing to hold your arm up in the air for a while. Both pump and gravity filters can clog, although the best of them have a backwashing feature to clean them. We prefer a gravity filter with a backwashing feature, such as the Platypus gravity filter, or the Sawyer Squeeze water filter adapted to be a gravity filter by attaching to a water bag.

For water sources clear enough to purify without filtering first, we used Aquamira water treatment drops. We measured out the two parts of the solution, mixed them together, waited five minutes for the chemical reaction, poured it into our water bottle, and waited twenty minutes to drink it. But now chlorine dioxide tablets are available to drop into your bottle of water and wait twenty minutes to drink. Some people prefer the SteriPEN Ultra ultraviolet water purifier. It’s lightweight, but uses batteries, so make sure to keep the batteries charged.

Plan your hiking mileage from water source to source.

Gail posing next to the water cache stocked by "trail angels" on the PCT.

Gail posing next to the water cache stocked by “trail angels” on the PCT.

Much of a thru-hiker’s day on the Pacific Crest Trail is focused on water: finding it, filtering and purifying it, and carrying it. It’s great to camp near a water source when available, whether a creek, lake, or spring. On some long waterless stretches, volunteers, called trail angels, leave gallons of water at trailside water caches for hikers. For other stretches, such as the forty miles across the western edge of the Mojave Desert, you have to carry what you’ll need in the hundred-degree heat. Thru-hikers share water info up and down the trail. Although water sources vary by season and weather, guidebooks, particularly the Pacific Crest Trail Data Book by Benedict “Gentle Ben” Go, give the mileage between sources, to help you plan.

I came to appreciate water so much while hiking the PCT that I never missed imbibing anything else. Although once in a while, standing on a rocky mountaintop in the remote wilderness, my heart leapt at the sound of an airplane.

“That must be Lise,” I’d say, “flying in with my airdrop of champagne.”

Last modified: December 12, 2013

20 Responses to :
The Making of a Thru-Hiker, Part 4: Water?!

  1. Vikki says:

    I loved your book, Gail, because I know you and I know what you write is all true! You are truly a girlie girl and a tough, brave woman as well. You captured that in your writing. I was stressed out being with you on the trail and elated at your successes! Re confirmed for me that I don’t want to hike the trail…I’ve already been there and done that, thanks to your book. Btw, nice lamp!

    1. Gail Storey says:

      Vikki, I want everyone to know that the lamp in my champagne photo is yours–that was one heck of a photo op! ;-D

  2. Reed says:

    I really enjoyed your book as it was full of spirit and smart humor. You described your experience so well I often felt sympathetic exhaustion…..but recovered quickly.

    1. Gail Storey says:

      Reed, thanks, I often felt exhaustion followed by sympathetic recovery myself! ;-D

  3. Elisabeth Hyde says:

    I loved the article, Gail — I felt like I was listening to I Promise Not To Suffer all over again. This is a great blend of humor and good factual information. I personally think the Trail Angels should start bringing champagne. Or kegs.

    1. Gail Storey says:

      Elisabeth, yes, both–champagne for thru-hikers on a beer budget! LOL!

  4. Reading this impressed me all over again–that you took on such a daunting adventure, that you survived (and thrived), and that you recount the experience with such entertaining and enlightening flair.

    1. Gail Storey says:

      Thank you, Marian, high compliments from a writer and adventurer like you!

  5. tpajevic says:

    I just love how you’re able to keep your sense of humor, no matter what. No idea what your next book’s going to be on, Gail, but I can’t wait to read it!

    1. Gail Storey says:

      Tanja, yes, my motto is ROTFLMAO!

  6. susanenfield123 says:

    Love your light touch—the outdoors for everybody!

  7. Gail Storey says:

    Susan, yes, and everybody for the outdoors!

  8. Andrea Meyer says:

    Gail – I love your hilarious stories combined with great advice. Lovely ending to your article!

    1. Gail Storey says:

      Thanks, Andrea, and you’re a font of humor and great advice yourself!

  9. Lise Liddell says:

    I am a Gail Storey fanatic, but I got that way by reading her first novel long before I ever met her – so nothing I say is biased, dammit. I am the crazy person who pronounced that I would not have Gail living without champagne for 6 months while she went on some lunatic-type trek through hell. Turns out the champagne shortage was the least of her hardships while hiking the Pacific Coast Trail, but what she gained from the experience was an even greater understanding of the the toughness and tenderness of life than she already had. If you haven’t read, “I Promise Not to Suffer,” do so this instant. You can hike, laugh, cry and bitch your way along the trail without the hardship of champagne deprivation.

    1. Gail Storey says:

      Lise, what would I ever do without you in my life, with your amazing joie de vivre and talents for friendship and music?! Everyone–I cherish all of Lise Liddell’s CDs–she writes her own songs and has a gorgeous voice. I highly recommend you check them out, you’ll find them stunningly beautiful and unlike anything you’ve heard before.

  10. Brenda Liebling-Goldberg says:

    After reading this post, I’m more in awe than ever. It’s clear to me now that your grand adventure required not only meticulous planning and unbelievable fortitude, but terrific arm muscles as well!

    1. gaildstorey says:

      Brenda, thank heaven I now get to use my arm muscles to lift magnums of champagne!

  11. Sue Wang says:

    Full of helpful tips and product rec’s. Wonderful. It makes me anxious to worry about water…before and after drinking, let along carrying it. The best advice is, don’t sit on your bladder/water. Champagne on this trip might just fix everything and nothing. 😉

  12. Thanks for the post Gail! As always both informational and entertaining!

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