Water. How much to bring, how to carry it…and how it can make you sick.

Water, water, everywhere / Nor any drop to drink

Now, I enjoy Coleridge’s poetry as much as the next fellow, and maybe more than some. But even if reading his Rime of the Ancient Mariner is well down your personal list of merrymaking options, you’ve gotta admit that first line is pretty familiar – and the famous poem evokes the sound and feeling of seafaring adventure as well as any lines ever written:

The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew

The furrow followed free;

We were the first that ever burst

Into that silent sea.

Okay, enough hoity-toity. When I’m on an adventure ride, I need some drops to drink and to cook my legendary campsite meals of powdered something-or-other.

But how many drops of water should you drink?

More. That’s probably the best answer, since most of us simply don’t drink enough.

Opinions vary, but most figures come in around 4 litres per day for an average-sized man exercising in hot conditions. I say “man” because we’re often heavier than women, and one variable that determines intake is body weight. Check out the US Army’s calculations if you want to get really specific for your weight, climate and exercise. According to their algorithm, at 175 pounds, I should drink (or consume in food) 163.25 ounces of water per day, or 4.8 litres, when riding in the desert.

I think their figures are generous: I usually carry 7 litres for a two-day ride from town to town in the desert, with temperatures reaching up to 45 Celsius, and have found that an adequate amount — although it doesn’t leave a lot of margin for error. If I break down or crash, delaying my ability to resupply, I could be in a bit of a pickle.

Does my pee look brown?

You can tell if you’re dehydrated by the colour of your pee, the lighter the better. Clear and copious is the ideal, but it’s difficult to attain when your water supplies are limited. A pale straw colour means you’re doing good.  If it starts to look darker than that, get some water in you.

(Notice how I omitted inserting a photo here? You’re welcome.)

And when should I drink it? (the water, not the pee)

Before you get thirsty.

By the time you feel the need for water, you’ve waited too long. For me, that’s marked by an itchiness in my throat, followed by a headache. Too long.

Drink small amounts of water regularly, up to about a cup (a quarter litre) per hour. Again, you can use the Army’s calculations. I figure they’ve done some pretty extensive field trials, so their numbers should be as accurate as anyone’s.

Drinking from a bottle allows you to monitor your water intake, since most bottles allow you to see precisely how much you’ve consumed; many are even marked in volume units.


But don’t use water bottles.

Since weight is my enemy and space is precious, I don’t carry bottles. Nalgene and other purpose-built water bottles aren’t collapsible when empty, and I don’t want to carry the weight either. Lighter, one-time use water bottles, on the other hand, are flimsy and easily punctured when you fall down go boom. And the research is pretty clear that they degrade with time and heat, possibly leaching nasty chemicals into your drink.

Bag it: carrying water on your adventure ride.

There are many different water systems out there.

I use water bladders. They’re light, collapsible, and some brands are really tough. Their disadvantage I already mentioned: it’s harder to track your intake than it is when you drink from a bottle, so you’ll need to be diligent about monitoring your consumption.

I’ve experimented with bunches of bags. The plastic ones are prone to failure, splitting at the seams or succumbing to cactus thorns, so I carry them only as a backup water carrier. Rolled up in my panniers, they occupy very little space.


For primary water-carrying duties, I’ve settled on MSR water bladders, their “Dromedary” line up. These bags are made of a durable 1000 denier fabric, coated for waterproofing on the inside where the BPA-free lining is safe from abrasion.

And I have never killed one yet. Oh, I tried. But never.


Dromedaries come in various sizes (4, 6 and 10 litres), and I’ve used them all. I usually carry at least a 2 and a 4 litre bladder.

You can purchase a variety of interchangeable accessory kits: 3-in-one caps that let you fill, carefully meter water into a cup or pot, or attach a drinking hose; spigots for quicker pouring; solar shower hoses… The cap size mates up directly with MSR’s extensive series of water purifiers, too, if you’re the pure type.


But there’s always a but…

I’m not too keen on the bite valve design MSR is using now for their drinking hoses. Unlike the older versions of the product, the newer valves don’t come with a shutoff mechanism or a rigid cap to ensure you don’t lose your water when a bite valve is accidentally compressed in your bags or between your bike and the ground. You can see their current design at the bottom right, below, and what I think are some better designs above it.


MSR is correct in saying their valve has a better flow rate than most others, but I’m more concerned about a catastrophic loss of water when I’m a couple days out in the desert.

Lighten up!

DromLite bags are a new series of MSR bladders that are, not surprisingly, lighter than the old ones; they’re apparently even more compressible, too. Whether they are as durable and abrasion resistant as the standard MSR bags only time will tell.

DromLites come in 2, 4 and 6 litre sizes, and I’ve never tried them. Some reviewers say there are problems fitting Dromedary system accessories to the new DromLite bags. I assume MSR will fix any teething pains with their new product – but do your own research.


It’s in the bag.

The ounce or two you shed in weight going to these newer bladders probably won’t matter to you – but the fact they come in smaller sizes might. I stuff my 2 litre bag into a gas tank pannier for easily-accessed drinking water throughout the day. But MSR no longer makes a 2 litre Dromedary — the DromLite is your only option for that size.



Along with my 2 litre, I fill a larger bag or two and jam them into the empty spaces in my panniers. When I set up camp, a small carabiner through a grommet or strap allows me to hang these bag from my handlebars, allowing me turn on the spigot one-handed while filling a cup or pot.

Hold on!

Most water bladder drinking hoses include a clip to attach the hose to your backpack or jersey near your thirsty mouth. Useful — but don’t rely on them to hold securely while riding off-road. I know riders who have stopped for a drink only to discover their tasty water nipple bite-valve thingy dragging in the dust beside them. Or, worse yet, torn right off during that single-track romp through the trees.


Similarly, I have personally experienced bite valves actually falling right off the hose and taking most of my water with them. If I’m uncertain, I use a cable tie to secure the valve to the hose. (You can see a blue cable tie in the photo of the various bite valves, above.)

I hate that monkey on my back…

Of course, you’ve seen hydration backpacks. I only use mine if absolutely necessary: I would rather let my motorcycle carry the weight, and, anyways, the backpack interferes with the bag I strap onto the rear fender.


If you do use one, you might be able to substitute a durable MSR bladder for the failure-prone plastic one that comes in many such backpacks.


…but I love that dirty water!

I admit to my impurity.

Er – that is, I don’t use a water purifier.

They’re too bulky – although they are shrinking all the time, and innovations like ultraviolet purification devices are actually remarkably compact.

More importantly, purifiers can break.

Besides, I seldom need to use ground-sourced water, since my fuel range means I’m at a gas station every two or three days anyways. I just fill up my bladders at the sink after I empty my bladder at the…too much information….

On the rare occasions I need to drink water I find in the field, I purify it with Aquatabs. Totally reliable, tiny, and they never break. You won’t even notice you’re carrying them, since enough tablets to treat dozens of litres of water take up no more room than a couple Bandaids.


Feeling hot, hot, hot – and sick?

If you ride in the summer (Umm…isn’t that all of us?) your drinking water gets pretty hot. Whether it’s sloshing around in bottles or bladders, it can easily reach temperatures that bacteria find irresistibly inviting.

But that doesn’t mean drinking the water will make you sick. Potable water from public sources – like that faucet in the gas station bathroom, or the restaurant – is treated with a form of chlorine, which kills existing bacteria in the water, and protects against bacteria that may be introduced to your water later on (backwash, anyone?). If you treat ground water with Aquatabs, you have similar protection.

There is a time limit, however; the protection diminishes with time and exposure to heat. Still, if you’re carrying water for a couple days on your adventure bike, you’ll drink it before that becomes a problem anyways.

So don’t worry about it. Or do. Up to you. I’ve never been sick, even after drinking water more than five days old in temperatures creeping up to nearly 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit).

This water tastes like armpit.

Of course, that old, stale hot water can be difficult to drink. But you need to keep up your intake, remember?

So I add these little guys to my water. They’re cheap, weigh next to nothing, and make a tasty drink when you arrive at your campsite with a big bag o’ hot water. You would likely grimace and pour it down the sink at home – but, hey, this is camping. Therefore yummy.


I don’t recommend the liquid water flavouring products like MiO: not only are they more bulky, but the bottles can burst, and the concentrated syrup leaves concentrated stains and smells when they do. And, in my opinion, they taste even more artificial than the powdered mixes…if that’s possible….

Don’t use any drink mixes directly in your water bladders, either, as they leave a taste behind. Mix up your “Sunrise Classic Orange” in a cup or pot.

What’s your drinking water system for adventure riding?

I bet you’ve got some great tips and products I’ve never used.

Let me know!




2 Replies to “Water. How much to bring, how to carry it…and how it can make you sick.”

  1. This was great. Thanks. I live on Vancouver Island and have made two trips to Arizona New Mexico. I plan to go into Texas in the future as well. I have 650 vstrom. I only venture off road to find camping places away from everybody else. I use a camel back so that I maintain drinking flow. I have been using those collapsible camping bags that most campers use … you know the cheap ones. I will find these ones you refer to now. I like the forward mint idea for the two liter bags. Thanks a lot. You are articulate, informative, and well-researched…. but you should use the Oxford comma. Haha.
    Thanks a bunch

    1. Hi Gary. Thanks for the comment, your feedback, and the suggestions for grammar and mechanics. 😉 I’m always happy to oblige! I’d love to hear about your experience in Texas when you return. I haven’t ridden there yet, but the maps seem to suggest there’s a lot more private land than there is in much of the southwest. I’ve also found Arizona to have more fences and “Keep out” signs than I experience in Utah, Nevada and New Mexico. Err, I mean… Utah, Nevada, and New Mexico. Spring is here, and the riding is coming! Yeah!

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