Water - The Vital Bodily Fluid

Water is life when traveling in the Grand Canyon backcountry.  If you have never traveled in a desert environment you don't realize how abundant water generally is in most other places.  Water planning in these situations usually involves bringing along a couple of one liter containers and stopping to fill them when they become empty.  Not so in the Canyon.  You will quickly become aware that the availability of water becomes central to everything you do.  How much do I have?  Where is the next source?  Is that source likely to have water when I get there?  How much do I need to take to get there?  How much more do I need to take if I get there and there's no water?  What are the options for another source if the planned source is dry. 

The bottom line is that if don't have enough of it and can't get somewhere that does before significant dehydration sets in, you will die.  Water is the single most important thing on any trip you'll take into the Canyon... Next to oxygen of course, which fortunately is very abundant in the Canyon, although you may end up wondering about that during the hike out.

Water Sources

Knowing where your next dependable source of water is located is critical to trip planning.  The quality of your research can become a life or death matter. 

Water sources in the Canyon are typically defined by the terms, "Perennial" or "Seasonal".  "Perennial" implies a highly dependable source of water that can be expected to be present all year long.  "Seasonal" implies that is may not be there at all depending on various factors.  Things like wet winters, recent precipitation, increased usage affecting aquifers, changing geological conditions, among others.

Most trail descriptions in Grand Canyon hiking guides and NPS information sheets include some discussion related to water availability.  Confirming the presence of water, as close as possible to your time of departure, is extremely important if you are planning on using water from seasonal sources.  This type of information can be obtained by calling the Park's Backcountry Information Center.  They can be reached at (928) 638-7375, Monday through Friday, between 1 and 5 p.m., except on federal holidays.  Another great source of current information is the Grand Canyon Hikers and Backpackers Association (GCHBA).  Information is available to members via their website (http://www.gchba.org).  A GCHBA members forum is available through a Yahoo Group (Grand_Canyon_Hikers).  Posts to the forum requesting latest water information is the best source we've found for current info...  Actually, any current info related to the Grand Canyon backcountry.  Trailhead access, trail conditions, clarifying directions, and pretty much anything else. 

Warning, Disclaimer, Hey... Look at this...  No, REALLY READ THIS:  Grand Canyon water sources and this spreadsheet information are highly dynamic.  It is your responsibility as a user to confirm the presence of water before setting out on any trip that intends to rely on any "Seasonal" water source.      

An Excel file has been developed capturing Grand Canyon water source information from a large variety of resources.  Click here to download a copy of the file:  Grand Canyon Water Sources

Water Planning

So, how much water is enough? It is the amount required to get you safely to the next confirmed water source. Your water plan needs to consider the 5 C's:  Consumption, Cooking, Cleaning, Cache and Carry.

  • Consumption:
    • Plan on consuming 0.5 – 1 quart (liter) of water for every hour you are walking in the heat.
    • This would be at least 4 quarts (liters) for every 8 hours when hiking in the heat.  But, this is a minimum.  You may find that personally you need more to stay feeling good.
    • The Miles per Gallon Method -- How far will a gallon of water take you in the Canyon?
      • In high heat conditions - Plan on 4 mpg.
      • In cooler temps - 10 mpg is reasonable.
    • In-camp consumption:  Don't forget to consider the amount of water that will be consumed while in camp if "dry-camping" (i.e., camping in an area without a nearby water source). 
      • Two liters is not an unreasonable amount to get you through an afternoon in camp that through the next morning before hitting the trail again. 
      • Requirements will however vary.  Temperature and individual physiology will affect personal needs.
  • Cooking:  If you will be dry-camping you will need to calculate the amount of water required to rehydrate meals.
  • Cleaning:  Again, if dry-camping some amount of water may be required for clean-up.  Strategic meal planning can however minimize the amount.
  • Caches:  In some cases advanced planning for a dry-camp on the hike out will be required to avoid carrying large amounts of water over long distances.  A water cache is simply a supply that is dropped off with the intention of picking it up on the way out. 
    • If you are planning to cache water, simply determine the amount required to get you out or to the next water source; taking into account the considerations outlined above.
    • We have never encountered a situation where other hikers or animals have interfered with a water cache.  It is however advisable to place the cache out of sight and in a location with suitable landmarks that will help you locate it later. 
    • Identifying the cache by marking containers with a name and pick-up date is a good idea.
    • Never abandon a cache!  If you pack it in and end up not needing it for some reason, you should at least empty the containers and pack them out.
  • Carry:  Consider the water load that you will need to carry as part of your packing and pack volume selection.  Also too, consider whether or not you'll need to carry extra water volume mid-trip, perhaps for a dry-camp.  If that will be the case, you'll need to plan on bringing the extra containers necessary for that load.
Sources of water for replenishing your daily supply is a pivotal element of trip planning.  The Excel file noted above and trail description literature are good materials to begin that process.  Here are a few other things to consider as part of that planning:
  • Campsite Proximity to a Water Source: Obviously, planning to camp at a location where a water source is nearby simplifies water planning logistics.  No need in this case to calculate volumes to be carried to a dry-camp. 
  • Seasonal Water Sources as a Campsite Destination:  Redundant with the warnings above, ensure you have recent information regarding the status of these sources, and always have a Plan B, C and D.  Your water plan should include knowledge as to where the next closest water sources are and what it might take to reach them.  This info can become critical should you find the water source dry.
  • Water Source Locations:  Again seemingly obvious, but water sources in the Canyon are not always immediately obvious. Often times the Canyon does not give up those secrets easily.  Once you are in the general area of the water source, some amount of searching may be required to locate it.  And, don't underestimate the amount of searching that it might take.  One key giveaway to keep in mind is greenery.  Generally, the water source, no matter how small, will support an increased amount of vegetation.  So, looking for patches of green that seem out of place with their surroundings is a good tip off that water is nearby.   
  • Water Sources En Route:  Know where all available water sources are along your planned route and take advantage of them along the way.  There is no sense carrying 4 liters of water to start your day, if you know that 2 liters will get you to the next reliable source of water en route to your day's final destination.  Plan for breaks at these sources and tank up while there.

Drink Up!

Again, redundant to earlier content on the site, but it cannot be overstated...  You need to focus on ensuring that you are consuming water all along the way.  If the thought occurs to you and maybe you're wondering if you should take a sip... Take a sip.  Here are a few things to keep in mind: 

  • Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink.  If you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated.
  • Have a mental hydration plan...  "I'll consume a liter by destination X."
  • Monitor consumption.  Difficult to do with bladder hydration systems, but CamelBak now has a flow-meter that can help with that... If you're careful not to accidentally reset them while taking your pack on or off. Some folks are now using a multiple bottle strategy instead of a bladder.  That is, a number of smaller bottles to facilitate gauging consumption against your plan.
  • Monitor results:  Urine color is a great way to do that.  A healthy, hydrated adult typically urinates every 2 hours, producing a volume of 1 to 2 ounces.  Under normal conditions, urine should be clear to slightly yellow in color.  If your urine is yellow or darker yellow and/or has a strong odor, it is a sign of dehydration and an indicator that you are not taking in adequate amounts of fluids.  If urination is more frequent than once every couple of hours, it could be a sign of over-hydration.  If this begins to happen, be sure you are eating plenty of food to avoid developing hyponatremia.

Mix it Up

Sometimes drinking nothing but water gets a bit boring.  It can even get downright unpalatable if your water source is off-taste due to staleness or mineral content.  The addition of drink mixes (e.g., Gookinaid®, Gatorade®, CamelBak®, Nuun®, Crystal Light®, iced tea, coffee, hot chocolate, soup broths) can create a welcome change of pace.  Any tricks to encourage consumption of fluids are good.

Environment and Water Needs

In general the higher the temperature the greater your water consumption needs to be. If you are active or exposed to the hot rays of the sun you may need upwards of a gallon of water per day to stay to healthy.

Perhaps surprisingly, very cold environments can be as dry as the driest desert. This is because cold air cannot hold much moisture. This cold dry air serves to dehydrate your body with every breath you take. Cold dry air can also rob your body of moisture via loss from exposed skin. This is one reason why your lips may be prone to chapping. So during cold weather even though you may not be sweating nearly as much as when you are in a hot environment you may still easily become severely dehydrated without even realizing the danger you are in.

Wind can also play a role in the amount of water you need to take in. A dry wind on exposed flesh can suck the water right out of a person. Indeed, the remains of mummified animals and even people are often found in desert regions, their bodies totally dried out.

Effects of Going Without Water

Although two thirds of the human body by weight is composed of water, this water is needed for circulation and other bodily processes including respiration and converting food to energy. If you are losing more water than you are taking in, dehydration will occur.

It has been shown that if you lose just 2.5% of your body weight from water loss, you will loose 25% of your efficiency. For a 175 pound man that is only about two quarts of water. As the survivor dehydrates, his blood becomes thicker and loses volume. This causes the heart to work harder and circulation of blood to be less efficient. In a survival situation, loosing a full one quarter of your physical and mental abilities due to dehydration could mean the end of your life. Bottom line: drink plenty of fluids whether you feel thirsty or not so that you stay a peak efficiency.

Survival Times without Water

Ill health, exposure to the elements, shock, and panic can reduce your survival time in any situation. An important additional consideration is whether or not to eat food when there may be an inadequate supply of water. Certainly foods that contain a high proportion of water, such many kinds of fruits and berries may actually aid the survivor in providing water. Meat, dry and salty foods should be avoided as they require water from your body for processing and will serve to dehydrate you further.

The survivor who is in good health, who uses his head, and rations whatever water is at hand may expect to be able to survive according to the following chart. Of course, there are many factors to be considered, so your mileage may vary:

How Long Can You Live Without Water?
Max Daily Temperature Number of Days in the Shade
No Water 1 Quart
.95 Liter
2 Quarts
1.90 Liters
4 Quarts
3.79 Liters
10 Quarts
9.46 Liters
20 Quarts
18.93 Liters
120 F / 48.9 C 2 days 2 2 2.5 3 4.5
110 F / 43.3 C 3 3 3.5 4 5 7
100 F / 37.8 C 5 5.5 6 7 9.5 13.5
90 F / 32.2 C 7 8 9 10.5 15 23
80 F / 26.7 C 9 10 11 13 19 29
70 F / 21.1 C 10 11 12 14 20.5 32
60 F / 15.6 C 10 11 12 14 21 32
50 F / 10.0 C 10 11 12 14.5 21 32


Recovering From Dehydration

The good news is you can lose as much as 10% of your body weight through dehydration and suffer no long term ill effects. Simply by drinking several quarts of water you will be restored in a very short time. However, a survivor who has lost this much water from his body will probably not be in a position to find water.

In cool temperatures, a loss of 25% of your body weight in water will probably mean the end. If the temperature is over 90 degrees Fahrenheit, you may not make it even at the 15% dehydration level.