Thursday, April 2, 2015

Water skills on the Arizona Trail

Water was a challenge on the Arizona Trail.  Jan and I developed skills in finding and planning for water, and learned to appreciate water in a new way.   Water sources included natural springs, seeps, streams, and rivers, or man-made tanks, faucets, or troughs.  Water came in all colors and aromas, with algae and cowpies, with floating dead things.  But we drank up.  What choice did we have?
Yes, I'm drinking this water from a cowpie-lined stream.
Finding water

Water Report
The water report for the Arizona Trail, maintained by Fred Gaudet, was our main source of information.  Similar to the Pacific Crest Trail water report for Southern California, it lists mileages, type of water source, and the name and date of the last hiker to report on each source.
Water report for Passage 14.  We were there in March 2015.  Can you believe no one had updated most of them for so long?
Water sources are rated 0-4 for reliability.  If you hike in a dry year, only the 3s and 4s will have water.  Last year my friend Brian (Arizona) said many sources were dry—he hiked for miles without water.  But in a wet year, like we had all the 1s had water.  But I never did trust the 1s and always carried enough water so that if a source rated 1 ended up not having water, I would have enough water to get to the next source. 
Think we should drink this, or go to the next water source?
When we started our hike, most of the water sources on the water report hadn’t been updated for over 6 months!  Even after the southbounders started hiking, the vast majority still hadn’t provided updates.  Perhaps this lack of reporting was because it was a high rain year.  But information about water clarity and flow is useful for other hikers, so please do your part to keep the water report current.   Sending in reports is easy-all you have to do is email Fred at   Special thanks to Fred for maintaining the water report!
Example of a dirt tank.
Word of mouth
We were always really happy to cross northbound backpackers, because they were reliable source of water source information.  Other hikers took the time to explain how the stock tanks and systems of pipes worked, and how the float balls functioned.  We learned which sources to skip because they were really disgusting, and which had clear water.
A natural water source with clear water.
Once we started getting water information from the northbound hikers, Jan and I could carry significantly less water because we knew which sources we could count on.  We we thrilled when other hikers started updating the water report too.  Thank you!

Other information sources
The Grand Enchantment Trail and Sky Islands Traverse both run concurrent with the Arizona Trail for large stretches, and the water source descriptions for these routes are really helpful. 

Topo maps
Water sources including springs and stock tanks are shown on the topo maps I downloaded on my iphone using Gaia GPS.  It was really helpful to have these on my GPS for locating off-trail sources.
Topo maps downloaded onto my smartphone using Gaia GPS show wells, tanks, and springs..
Keeping your eyes peeled
Ephemeral water sources like potholes are not listed.  But you can spot them once you know where to look.  You’ll develop a keen search image for water.  You’ll spot the bright green of cottonwoods from miles away, see the rock formations that tend to gather pothole water, and even start to believe you can smell the scent of water. 
Potential water source?
Water caches

While it is best to use natural water sources, the reality on the Arizona Trail is that there are long stretches without water where caches are important.  There are several established metal, public cache boxes, and people also do their own water caches before they hike, especially in Passages 6, 7 and 14 and 15.
Retrieving water I'd cached before the trip.
The rule of thumb is to never rely on water caches.  Public water caches are unreliable because they could easily and quickly be emptied out by other people.  A good practice is to arrive at the caches with enough water so that you wouldn’t die if they were empty and had to hike to the next water source.
Public water cache.
The three public water caches (called “resupply box” on the databook and water reports)
are all in Passage 14 and 15.  These were at the Florence-Kelvin Road Trailhead, Freeman Road, Tiger Mine Road Trailhead.  These metal containers with locks were located down the trail but close to trailheads.  You can put your own water in the boxes (label them with your name and date), and we also found that there were several gallons available for public use.  Whoever maintains these caches provides an incredible service!

Some people cache their own water in areas besides the metal boxes, either by leaving it near trailheads or burying their water jugs.  If you do this, please label your bottles with your name and expected date of use, and clean up your caches after your hike.  Follow leave no trace and either pack out your bottles or pick them up quickly after your hike!
Digging up my water cache.
Packing out the empties.
Cattle troughs and stock tanks
When there are no natural water sources, ranches use wells and windmills to bring water to the surface for their cattle.  Backpackers can get water from these sources too, as long as they are respectful and take only what they need.   
Climbing the ladder of a stock tank... get water strait from the pipe.
At troughs, we'd follow the pipes to the water source to see if we could find cleaner water.
I was apprehensive when we saw these signs at the trailheads warning us about taking water on private property, but we were told we could get water as long as we only took what we needed and followed good Leave No Trace practices.
These signs are meant to remind hikers to be respectful.
Water management
Carrying larger quantities of water required a different system than what I’ve used on trails where I only have to carry a liter or two.  With so much water, you could easily get confused which water is clean and which is dirty. Water processing efficiency also needs to be considered, and it all must be able to fit into your pack. 
My water system- 2 L dirty bag, water scoop, two clean bags, sawyer squeeze and aquamira.
I have higher capacity for clean water and only one 2 L bottle for dirty water.  We frequently filled up with clean water for long water carries, like when we headed out from a trailhead, town, or cache. 
Filling up with water at a spigot.
I drink most of my water from my platypus hose, so I carry two 3 Liter platypus bottles, and usually only fill them partially full.  As I empty one, I can easily switch out to the other.

Powered drink mixes masks the taste of gross water sources.  A gatorade bottle has a slightly larger opening for mixing drink powders.  When I used my sawyer squeeze, it was much easier to squeeze water into the gatorade bottle and it didn’t tip over.  Then I would pour the filtered water from the gatorade bottle into the platypus 3 liter bottles (with their small openings, and soft sides, they were more difficult to squeeze into.)

Water purification
A prefilter in the water scoop gets the floaties and chunks out, and helped prevent the water filter from clogging up.
Did you bring your pre-filter?
For really fowl water, I treated with both a sawyer squeeze and aquamira drops.  I switched from the sawyer mini to the regular sized sawyer for this trip after finding that the mini clogged easily and the flow was slow.
Scooping water from a shallow source.

Time spent developing water skills pays off.  Finding and carrying water on Arizona Trail is challenging, but it's worth it to traverse these incredible landscapes.  We really learned to appreciate that “water is life. 

Precious water down a wash.
For more information

Fred Gaudet's Water Report
Grand Enchantment Trail's Water Charts


  1. Water is life is so true, I really liked this blog, downloading Fred Gaudets water report is very critical and drawing attention that every hiker should do thier part to help keep it updated.

    1. Hi Don-

      I was shocked that so few people updated the water report. It made it really tough for us at first because while I'd heard it was a high water year, I didn't have the experience to know if I could trust the 1's or not. In retrospect, I could have carried much less water in the beginning if only I'd have been more sure about those sources. Definitely a learning experience.

      I sure hope more people spread the word about the importance of keeping the water report updated. I just check it, and see that other hikers are starting to update it now, which is great.

      Again, thanks for commenting!

  2. Thank you once again for your detailed blog post. I definitely have a greater appreciation for water availability and at the same time learned that poor quality water is an acceptable option when treated properly. The skills we gained are invaluable and will forever live in my tool chest.

    1. My standards for drinkable water will never be the same. Can't believe the water sources we drank from, and never got sick!

      The cool think about having better water skills is that now I feel more capable of doing even more challenging trails. It's liberating to know I can carry 8-10 L of water and not have it kill me.

  3. Thank you for your detailed account of water know-how on the AZT. My partner and I are set to hike in two short days and we've been caching water for ourselves, mostly in the southern section. We both thru-hiked the PCT in 2012 and we fortunate enough to have ample water caches and trail angels. There were also plenty of cholocate-milk-like sources, and pink sea monkey water. It's amazing what you'll drink, and it gives you a whole new appreciation for clean plentiful water. Thank you again for your info. We're at:

  4. Glad it was helpful! Haha about the chocolate milk sources. I had one this weekend that was frothy with cow slobber. Amazing what we drink for sure. :)

    Good luck out there and be safe!