Planning water needs for a multi-day, desert river trip can be daunting. Group size, trip duration, and type of watercraft all contribute to the complexity. Hopefully the guidelines listed below will address your concerns.
You should plan a gallon of water per person per day of your trip. This guideline is meant as the amount of water consumed by each person daily to prevent health issues. The dry desert climate and intense sun conditions create an ideal environment for dehydration.
For shorter canoe trips (4-5 days) we suggest one 5 or 6 gallon water jug per person. This ensures you have adequate drinking water for your trip. Rigid water containers hold up better than collapsible containers to the rigors of desert travel.
For longer canoe trips (7+ days) we suggest one 5 or 6 gallon water container per person and extra water jugs as space allows. Any additional water will need to be settled and purified from the river.
For all smaller watercraft river trips (kayaks, SUPs, packarafts) we suggest using 2-gallon collapsible water containers and purified river water. We recommend the more durable dromedary bags made by MSR, or similar. Commonly acquired translucent water jugs do not stand up well to the desert environment.
Settling River Water
The Green and Colorado Rivers are very silty (think chocolate milk). Before purification, river water should be settled to remove as much sediment as possible. Plan to bring a few 5-gallon buckets or collapsible rubber buckets for water settling. Upon arrival in camp, simply fill your buckets with river water first and the sediment can settle while you are setting up camp or out exploring. River water is settled by allowing it to sit undisturbed for several hours. Water to be purified is then carefully removed from the top, leaving sediments behind. Water can also be more efficiently settled using alum. Watch the video from our friends at The Southwest Backpacker for more details: Settling silty water with alum
Water Purification Methods
There are two types of water purification: filtration and treatment. Filtration works by physically removing the organisms that cause illness using a micron screen. Filters work reasonably well once the silt has been settled. However, due to the silty nature of our rivers, any filtration system brought should be completely field serviceable.
Water treatment is where the disease-causing organisms in the water are eliminated instead of removed. The easiest, most common treatment method is boiling. Carefully pour settled river water into your cooking pot without agitating the sediment at the bottom of bucket and bring to a rolling boil for at least one minute. You can also treat river water with a variety of chemicals or tablets that are commercially available. These treatments work but often leave an undesirable aftertaste and require specific dosages and wait times depending on water temperature. A final treatment option is to use ultraviolet light to eliminate organisms. SteriPen is the most common brand, but these are costly and typically don’t work well in silty water applications.
More information on water purification can be found through the National Park Service here: Two Ways to Purify Water
- Fruit juices, seltzer water, or other non-alcoholic beverages may be used to supplement your daily water needs. Alcoholic drinks deplete water from your body. In fact, alcohol consumption without increased water intake can lead to serious dehydration.
- Another way to conserve potable water is to use settled river water when boiling water for hot drinks, pasta, or other meals. Simply bring the water to a rolling boil for at least one minute prior to adding additional ingredients. Settled river water can also be used for dishes as long as the final rinse is treated with a cap full of household bleach for disinfection.
- Water is most easily transported in lightweight plastic containers. Rigid containers are sturdier and less prone to leakage. Clear, collapsible water containers do not stand up to the rigors of desert travel. We rent 6.5 gallon water containers. They can be found here: Rental Rates