Camping Tips

How to Carry 3 Gallons of Water

Heading out to a backpacking trip will take you away from the city, get off the grid, and enjoy the sights and sounds of the wilderness. However, going into the wild can lead to some logistical problems such as having no running water or reliable water sources. In this scenario whats the best way to pack three gallons of water?

The best way to carry 3 gallons or 11 liters of water in your pack so that you are balanced is to have a 3 liter hydration bladder and either four 2 liter flexible water bags or three 2 liter flexible water bags and two 1 liter bottles. Storing your water this way will allow you to evenly distribute the weight in your pack and be comfortable.

Carrying three gallons of water is a ton of weight, with each gallon being 8.3 pounds, that is more than 24 pounds of weight. You’ll also be carrying your camping gear and food. I went on a backpacking trip deep into Joshua Tree where we had to carry 3 gallons of water. There’s a lot of things I could have done better so I wasn’t straining the whole trip.

Below we will cover recommended water bladder, water bags, and bottles so that you can easily pack them. We will also cover the best ways to pack them so you are comfortable. Lastly we will go over adjustments you can make during your trip so that you are balanced and continue you to be comfortable.

What Should I use to Carry My Water?

person carrying heavy backpack

Hydration Bladder

The first way to carry about 30 percent of your water is with a 3 liter hydration bladder. This bladder should be stored in the hydration sleeve area of your pack. If your pack does not have an area then you want it up against your back. This will give you a center of gravity to start from so your water is balanced.

With water bladders you want a large enough reservoir that has a tight seal and a way to drink the water. You should get one with a detachable hose for easy cleaning and easy access to your water. You also want to get a water bladder that doesn’t have a plastic or rubber taste because no one wants nasty tasting water.

Our favorite water bladder for this purpose is the Platypus Big Zip EVO Reservoir. This bladder holds 3 liters of water. It has a slide lock to keep the water in that opens left and right for easy access. There is also a nice high mount disconnect so that you have a shorter hose to reach out to your shoulder area for easy drinking. I’ve used this bladder for many trips with no leak issues. After returning home from a trip it is easy to clean with the wider opening at the top.

Platypus Big Zip EVO Reservoir on Amazon

Flexible Water Bags

The way you should carry a majority of your water is with flexible water bags. You should get flexible water bags because they pack really easily. You can lay them down or stand them up in your pack. They will likely fit in most areas of a pack. The nice thing about them is they are malleable so as you pack your other backpacking goods they will slightly mold around them.

If you tried to use a 2 liter soda bottle or any other big plastic bottle of water, you would have a much more difficult time to pack your things as those take up large space and aren’t as flexible. On my Joshua Tree trip I just stuffed the generic gallon jugs of water in my pack and it was a pain to pack everything else in the pack. With these flexible water packs you can shift around the water bags and your gear so that you have a balanced center of gravity. With jugs of water its more awkward to move them around so you can feel slightly off balance.

Platypus Platy 2-Liter Flexible Water Bottle on Amazon


The third choice for carrying your three gallons of water is to store around 2 liters in tall 1 liter bottles. You can get those tall 1 liter smart bottles. They are slim and pack really well into the outer side pockets of most packs. Storing them on the outside saves space so you have room to pack your other backpacking items. This also helps with having your weight distribution remain balanced with one bottle on each side. Another great benefit is the ease of access to these bottles. You can start by drinking from these bottles first and refill them as you go.

1 Liter SmartWater 6 Pack on Amazon

Whats the best way to pack the water?

The main idea is that you want to have a balanced center of gravity. With this much weight in your pack you can easily become unbalanced. Any kind of scrambling or a slip on the trail can spell disaster. The first strategy you can do is pack the water in the middle of your pack. First off you have the water in the main hydration bladder against your back. Then pack your sleeping bag at the bottom and any clothes. On top of that place all of the flexible water bags. A majority of the water weight should remain in the middle of your pack. Then all your food and cooking gear goes on top.

Packing all of the water weight in the middle is one of the most common ways to distribute the weight. As you lean left or right you feel all of the weight in the middle. You want to avoid being top heavy or bottom heavy. If you are top heavy and you try to lean too far to one side as you are walking you can easily tip over. Or if you have too much weight at the bottom the pack can go one way as you go the other, thus knocking you off balance.

If you have external water bottles make sure they are equally as full. Now that you know the best way to pack the water, you will likely experience a lot of discomfort from carrying this much weight. There are a few adjustments you can do.

Pack Adjustments to Stay Comfortable Carrying 3 Gallons

two large backpacks on the ground

Top Straps

The packs on straps help you distribute which part of your body is doing the heavy lifting. You should be switching back and forth during your trip so each area of your body gets equal rest. Since you are carrying so much weight you should try to have the top straps of your pack pulled so that the weight of your pack is close to your body. This will help you with having good balance so that the weight if your pack isn’t bouncing all over the place.

You can also adjust your shoulder straps to add more weight to your shoulders or less. Be sure to give your shoulders some time to relax throughout your trip.

Waist Strap

You should also be adjusting your waist strap as you go. If you want your shoulders to get a break then tighten your waist strap. This will pull the center of the wait closer to your waist so that your lower body is carrying more of the weight. Continuing to adjust during your trip is very important so that you don’t overburden your shoulders or your legs.

Ultralight Osprey Exos Backpacks on Amazon

Moving Water Around

As you drink more water during your trip then you will slowly be carrying less and less weight. This also means that you can become unbalanced or experience discomfort in different areas. Since you have the waters in the flexible water bags you have the option to move the water around. Make adjustments to where the water bags are stored so that you feel more comfortable.

As you drink more water you can stop every few hours and fill the main 3 liter water bladder with water from the water bags. This will continue to keep more weight against your back where its easier to carry the weight. This will help take weight off your shoulders or waist.

Final Thoughts

Backpacking into arid environments can teleport you to majestic views, unforgettable sights, and wonderful memories. The challenge of carrying all of your water to adjust to the dry conditions can create a lifetime of painful memories too. Carrying three gallons of water can be done with a hydration bladder and a few water bags.

Once you got that out of the way the rest of the journey remains. Remember to adjust your pack and weight as you go so that you are comfortable and able to relax during your backpacking trip. These mindful adjustments will make a world of difference when you’re on mile 8 with 40+ pounds of weight on your back. Enjoy your upcoming backpacking trip!

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