Dry camping is a valuable skill to have, and it just takes a couple of extra steps to ensure a safe and enjoyable trip. I've done most of my backpacking in the deserts of Arizona and often prefer it for several reasons: it gives me more options for exploration and campsites, I enjoy sleeping with the wide views of ridgelines, peaks, and open country rather than in canyons, and it reduces the impact on wildlife at water sources. There are often less bugs, as well.
Tips and Tricks for Your Next Dry Camping Trip
Below are some tips and tricks I've learned along the way while dry camping. However, the one thing I will not cover in this article is telling you how much water to carry; that is a very personal thing that also depends on local conditions. Before you go, make sure to have a baseline idea of your water consumption habits for hiking and camp so you can plan for how many liters you'll need to carry.
The Two Types of Dry Camping–and a reason to stay light!
There are two kinds of dry camping scenarios:
- Water along the way: There's a water source along the route, but you camp away from it. This is the more common scenario; there's water "x" miles into the hike, but not necessarily where you'll be spending the night.
- Haul it all: No water sources available and you start out with all the water you'll use for the duration of the backpacking trip. This type of trip is a little trickier because you're totally dependent on what's in your pack.
Regardless of which type of dry camping you're doing–but especially for "haul it all"–having a lightweight base weight is helpful because of the added weight of water. Water weighs 2.2 pounds a liter, or 8.34 pounds a gallon. Add that on top of your food and gear and things get heavy quickly. The most I've carried is 22 pounds of water. It is definitely cumbersome at first, but the good news is that the pack gets lighter as you drink.
Containers and Water Management for Dry Camping
- Careful water management is crucial. One spill can be the difference between life and death in some cases. In terms of carrying capacity, ask yourself: How many liters will you need, and how many containers will you need to carry it all? Plan to have water for drinking during the day, at camp, and until your next water source (or back to the car), plus a little extra in case of emergency or injury.
- Multiple containers guard against losing all your water in the case of a tear or hole in the container. This also helps spread the weight around in your pack.
- When packing, keep the containers close to the center of gravity near your back.
- Inspect all water containers at home before use, and double-check that they are properly closed before placing in the pack.
- I use 2-liter Platypus bags in addition to my 3-liter Hydrapack hydration bladder so that the bags can be rolled up and stored to save space once empty.
- If using bottles in pockets, make sure to secure them properly on your pack. Water bottles flying down a cliff is not only not Leave No Trace, but you lose the carrying capacity, as well as what's inside.
- Keep an eye on your bottle caps. Loss of a cap means loss of carrying capacity.
- If using a hydration hose, make sure it has a shutoff valve and be very careful not to set your pack down on an open hose, which can drain your hydration pack.
- Take care when transferring water between containers to avoid spills.
- When taking water bags and bladders out at camp, make sure to avoid abrasive rocks or anything that could cause a puncture.
Food and Beverages for Dry Camping
- Drink the water you're hauling around! People get in trouble because they ration and don't drink. Keep yourself hydrated.
- Make sure to be replacing electrolytes by either eating salty snacks or drinking sports drinks, gels, gummies, or salt tablets. Drinking too much water without electrolyte replacement can lead to hyponatremia, which can be life-threatening.
- Mix it up with other beverages: bring a couple liters of coconut water or some juice.
- Since you're bringing all your water, it doesn't matter if your meals are dehydrated. I like to bring boil-in-a-bag Indian meals.
Campsite Selection When Dry Camping
- One of the best parts of dry camping is that there are many opportunities for campsites. Some of my favorite camps of all have been on top of desert peaks where I had to haul all my water for the trip.
- Camping away from water assures you will not be interfering with wildlife's access to those sources.
- Observe Leave No Trace practices by camping on durable surfaces, using existing campsites, and minimizing impact to vegetation.
Safety and Planning if Dry Camping
- Know where your water sources are on route and research bailout spots or other options for water sources.
- When you find water, take it even if it's dirty or not a great source and swap it for better water if you find it. Too many rescues (especially in the desert) have happened because hikers passed up water that looked "icky."
- Pay attention to navigation; mistakes use up precious time, and, therefore, water.
- Know your pace and time allotted for the amount of water you have, but carry a bit extra in case of emergency or injury.
- Injury or illness can slow you down unexpectedly. Ask yourself: Do you have the water to manage it? For example: a sprained ankle = more time and more water.
- Delay start time or plan to leave your water source in the afternoon to shorten the amount of time carrying a heavy load of water.
Enjoy Your Next Dry Camping Trip
When planning your next dry camping trip, remember that another possibility on some routes may be to cache water at a spot on your hike out, or put a cache out before you start your hike at a road crossing or other access. Make sure to research local rules and regulations on placement and labeling before you go on your trip.
Some of my favorite trips have required dry camping. I'm thankful for the peaks, plateaus, and ridges that I've been able to call home for the evening as a result. I hope you will, too.