The Freedom and Burden of Dry Camping for Thru-Hikers

Dry camping offers solitude but requires more prep and heavy water carries. Tips for assessing your skills, conserving water, and preparing food can make it an enriching experience.

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Josh Koop

I live with my wife and daughter in Katy, Texas and my local trail is the Lone Star Hiking Trail which is an amazing way to experience the Sam Houston National Park!

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It’s a beautiful day and you’re out hiking on the beautiful trail, but you’re looking to start camp. Many times hikers will make camp right near a ready supply of water so they have water to eat dinner, breakfast, and sometimes coffee, so what is dry camping?

While this has many alternate names for thru-hiking, this will mean a campsite that has no access directly to running water, normally meaning that water is miles out from the actual camp spot, making water vital to carry in and to make the trek out the next morning.

In the end for this type of camp to work well, you will want to drink as much as you can at the water source, wherever it is, then you would want to carry in as much water as you believe you need to manage the end through the start of the day to the next source.

What is Dry Camping?

Many have heard about dry camping about RV travel when there aren’t hookups, but this also exists for thru-hiking and choosing a campsite, so what does “dry campsite” mean?

For hikers this means a campsite with no readily available water source. This can mean longer or more often heavier water carries to bring enough water to camp for the evening dinner, and morning breakfast, along with drinking before hiking to the next water source to refill.

Now that you get what it is we can take a longer look into what the overall benefits and drawbacks can be to stopping at a dry camp and why some people prefer to use them and others try hard to avoid them.

The Allure of Dry Camping for Thru-Hikers

As with any camping spot there can be an array of benefits and drawbacks to any choice, though with dry sites you do have more danger you may be exposed to since you are a long distance from water which is exceedingly important to survival over anything else!

The Advantages of Limited Water Access

There are advantages to camping farther away from a water source, there are nearly always fewer overall camps meaning more quiet and private space and there is less restrictiveness as the sites are not pre-determined in most cases.

Fewer People and More Private

Due to there not being water instantly available you will find many will not stop to stay where you are, they will continue to move on giving you a better chance to have less noisy camps giving you far more privacy.

Less Restrictive

Since this is typically not a pre-defined campsite there is less focus on picking this or that site and more towards choosing a space that will work and not damage the ecosystem but allow you some peace and quiet.

The Challenges of Limited Water Access

As there are benefits there are negatives to a dry camp away from a water source, they tend to be far more work to set up camp due to lack of consistently used campsites and you can have significant weight in water carries over distance.

More Work and Care Required

You won’t have a campsite, you will need to work and clean up the site from the rocks, sticks, and other things that could damage your tent and other gear. Additionally, you need to be more careful with fire and you have to manage personal waste (LNT) in a smart way.

Heavy Water Carries

A dry camp means you have to carry much more water for dinner, breakfast, and coffee which can lead to a heavier pack. This is significant as it adds weight to your hips and shoulders so be sure this will work with how you manage the load!

For many this can mean three liters (around 6.5lbs) or more in additional weight to carry for camp, this is in addition to many choosing to camel up at the water source so that they won’t drink anything they carry until camp has been set.

The Basics of Dry Camping

Dry camping itself isn’t difficult and it doesn’t mean you need to stealth camp in a dark damp hole in the wall. Dry camping is just choosing a camping spot that is located a long distance from any water source than preferred in most cases.

Is Dry Camping Safe?

There is nothing inherently unsafe about dry camping areas, you just need to have brought enough water to make it through the time where you won’t have access to free water.

If you don’t bring enough water you could face issues with having to hike to the next water source without water or similar concerns which are not smart and can become dangerous as you never know if water exists in the next source.

Can You Dry Camp Anywhere?

Technically you can camp anywhere that is allowed on the trail, since many trails have rules in particular sections you should make sure you have clear guidance prior to any campsite set up.

3 Tips for Dry Camping

There are some tips to help you manage water use for a dry camp to be more enjoyable and sustainable, hopefully, these will help you think before staying at a dry camp to be prepared.

Assess & Adjust Your Plan

It is important to know your skills, know the land in general, and know the limits of your gear. This will give you a good clue as to your readiness and ability to go with a limited amount of water.

The other part is to understand the amount of water you have and how much you need to drink, how much is needed for food, how much to clean up anything from containers to clothing, and how much will be needed to get you to the next water source.

If you know these facts then you will know whether you can stop at this camp or if it is better for you to hike onto the next camp and water source.

Being Mindful of Every Drop

Really the most important concept is to understand the implications of dry camping and conserve water when possible to make sure you are able to make the next source safely.

The core of this will be to understand how many liters you can carry at max capacity, I typically carry two 1L water bottles but also have a 3L Hydrapak that I can use to bulk filter water.

This means my max carry would be 5L of water. Preferably you would want to reach camp with 5L of water still carried to maximize your ability to drink, eat, and clean while at the campsite.

Make sure to consider little water uses also like brushing your teeth as they all consume water when you have no source to refill from.

Preparing Food and Water at the Source

One way to carry more water would be to prepare food at the water source before heading to camp which would allow food to be cooked and water for the food and to drink to be consumed.

For myself, this is what I do as I prefer to cold soak my food which is simple to do at the water source as it is typically 30 minutes to an hour before the food would be ready to eat so you can start it and then leave hiking while food prepares itself.

Finding Freedom in Dry Camping

Dry camping is a great way to get away from the crowds and have some peace.

It’s also a more restrictive experience, as you are not confined to pre-determined campsites you can need to do a lot of prep work before camp can be set up.

However, with a little bit of work, you can set up camp anywhere and enjoy the benefits of nature which many may choose to skip just to have access to quick water sources.

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