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Overlanding Water Storage and Planning Guide

Going overlanding means that you’re exploring the farthest reaches of the world with just your vehicle of choice and a camp set up. It’s all about seeing what the world has to offer when you’re relying on nothing but yourself, and that means bringing everything you need with you – including water.

Overlanding water storage is extremely important – we use it to keep us clean, fed, and hydrated for the journey. It’s a good rule of thumb to have at least a gallon of purified water per person per day while overlanding, which can you can store in a variety of portable containers. 

There are a few basics you’ll need to know about packing water for an overlanding trip.

Why Water is So Important

We evolved on a watery planet, so we are watery creatures: the human body is about 60% water. We grow up hearing that we need eight glasses of water every day to function properly, and that’s true – most people need about two liters (half a gallon) of water to be adequately hydrated. What many people don’t know is what that water actually does and why we need so much.

Water in the human body plays a huge part in controlling cell function, keeping cells healthy and functional, which means they can do their jobs of keeping you alive. It helps you digest food by speeding up your metabolism. It also gives you more energy and helps you think more clearly.

You’ll use water for more than drinking, though. Overlanders use water for everything from food preparation in the overland kitchen to cleaning up after a meal to personal hygiene in a portable camping shower

How Much Water Do I Need While Overlanding?

Below we’ll get into the kinds of containers used for overlanding water storage, but first let’s talk about how much water you’ll carry for camping. Water usage varies from person to person, depending on how much you’ll drink (which depends on age, body size, activity level, and climate) and how much water you’ll use for cooking and hygiene.

Overlanding water requirements

A good rule of thumb is to bring 1-2 gallons per person per day when overlanding. Everyone’s different, but about half the water will be for drinking and the other half for cooking and cleaning (both dishes and yourself). Realistically, you’ll want enough water to drink, cook, and bathe comfortably, but not so much that the weight will overburden your vehicle (a gallon of water weighs about eight pounds).

I’d err on the side of bringing more than you’ll think you need on your early trips, until you’ve figured out your needs. Running out of water in the backcountry with no way to refill is no fun and can be dangerous. It’s a good idea to bring some extra emergency excess water stored in a separate container in case something happens to your main water storage.

For reference, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine determined that adequate water water consumption (drinking) in a temperate climate is:

  • 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) a day for women
  • 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) a day for men
  • 7-9 cups (1.6 – 2.1 liters) for children ages 4-13 (According to the European food safety authority)

If you will be traveling in dry regions such as desert, you’ll want to bring extra drinking water. Also, if you are sweating a lot — such as in the desert or due to exertion — you’ll want to make sure you are getting enough electrolytes. Outdoors stores sell electrolyte drink mixes that you can add to water. Mixes for Gatorade and Powerade are often available at grocery stores. Coconut water is another electrolyte-rich drink that is now widely available.

Hydration and Safety

Watch out for signs of dehydration in your expedition party. These include:

  • Extreme thirst
  • Less frequent urination
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion

If someone shows signs of dehydration, make sure they rehydrate by taking frequent sips of water or an electrolyte mix (not guzzling a lot at once).

While staying hydrated is important, drinking too much water too quickly can be dangerous. It’s better do drink consistently throughout the day thank to suddenly guzzle a bunch of water in an attempt to avoid dehydration.

Where to Fill Up

Finding free water is relatively easy, especially in North America. 

There are laws in place in many states that say campsites must have clean running water available to campers at all times. So, if you’re looking to refill, an officially designated campsite is a good place to stop.

On top of this, most national parks will have running water freely available to use. You can find out where the spigot is and if any special rules apply to its use by simply asking. Be sure to respect these rules for use – other campers and overlanders are trying to fill up, too.

Many grocery stores and big-box retailers like Walmart have water refill stations available where you buy by the gallon if all else fails. Most of these places will charge you minimally if you’re bringing your own container to refill.

When you are in the backcountry, you can fill up from natural water sources, such as streams and lakes, but you’ll need a means to filter the water.

However you plan to get your water, it’s important that you do just that – plan. Make sure that you will have reliable water sources along your route and that they will be accessible when you are traveling.

Some water sources dry up during summer. On the flip side, rivers and lakes may freeze up during the winter, so you’ll need a way to harvest and melt ice for water. If you are heading into areas that are managed by a parks authority of some kind, it’s worth checking in with them on what water sources will be viable during your trip.

Water Purification Options

Water filters are a great way to purify water that comes from natural sources.

There are many ways to purify water when you’re camping. Here are some of the simplest and most effective options.

  • Boiling. Boiling your water will kill dangerous bacteria and pathogens. This is especially important if you’re getting your water from a natural source such as rain collection or a river.
  • Simple Filtration. Passing the water through several layers of contaminant-catching material can make it safer to drink, especially if you boil it afterward.
  • Distillation. Distillation is the process of evaporating, collecting, and condensing water to remove contaminants and bacteria at the same time. This can be done super simply with a solar still (which can be made from two bowls, some plastic wrap, and a small rock) or through more sophisticated and higher-volume distillation machinery.
  • Purification Tablets. You can use tablets made with either chlorine or iodine to quickly and safely purify water for personal use. These chemicals kill bacteria and pathogens in the same way that boiling does but do so far more quickly. They’re usually dosed at one pill per quart of water.

You should probably keep multiple purification methods on hand. For instance, you might want to keep iodine tablets on hand if you usually boil, just in case you need water quickly.

Water Storage Solutions for Overlanding

Water storage is going to depend on the length of your overlanding trip and the size of your vehicle. Most larger vehicles like RVs and truck campers have built-in water storage tanks, so we’ll focus on containers for vehicles that aren’t pre-equipped.

Water Cans

Jerrycan Jeep bumper
Jerrycans, such as this military surplus can, have long been used for water storage on expeditions

Water cans are a great option for storing water on overland trips, as they are relatively inexpensive, durable and portable. Most water containers for camping will hold between two and seven gallons and are made of plastic. Be sure to check the quality of the plastic it’s made of, though – it should be thick and food-grade, meaning there’s no BPA to taint the water. Jerrycans since World War II by the military and expedition experts to bring water into the backcountry.

There are many aftermarket jerrycan mounts for vehicles, which makes it easy to find a place for them on an overland rig. The company Scepter makes Jerrycans appropriate for water use that are fairly easy to find online. More recently, companies such as Rotopax, have started making modernized, modular fuel and water storage cans and mounting systems. Their water container set ups are versatile and functional, but they tend to cost more than other water storage cans.

Reliance Aqua-Tainers

Reliance, a manufacturer based in Canada, is another company that makes durable water containers that are popular among overlanders and van-life types.

Their 7-gallon Aqua-Tainer water cans are shaped like a cube and a good size to fit in many storage areas in vehicles and expedition trailers. As a side note, they also make a handy portable toilet for camping also.

Collapsible Water Containers

Collapsible or camping water containers are particularly good for small vehicle trips, as they’re a great way to save space and weight after you’ve emptied them. One of the best features of collapsible containers is that they’re easy to stow when not in use, so won’t take up a lot of room in a crowded garage or camping gear box.

The most common collapsible water containers are made of BPA-free, food-grade polyethylene, a typically clear plastic that resembles a plastic milk carton, but much tougher. Reliance and GSI Outdoors both make durable containers.

GSI Outdoors Folding Water Cube
Folding water cube from GSI Outdoors

More recently, manufacturers have started making water containers out of various kinds of plastic-coated laminated fabrics like those used for lightweight backpacking sleeping pads. This fabrics are durable, lightweight and typically fold down more tightly than the collapsible containers made of only plastic.

On the down side, they tend to be smaller in size (and hence inadequate for the amounts of water needed on longer expedition) and more costly. Still, they may be worth looking at as add ons to carry water around camp or for shorter side trips.

Large Water Tanks

If you’re traveling in a larger vehicle or going on a particularly long trip, you’ll want to consider getting a water tank. These are usually also made of thick plastic and can hold anywhere from 10 to more than 45 gallons of water at a time. Consider getting a water container with a spout pre-attached for easy access to your water.

Large water tank from Front Runner
Large water tanks such as this Universal water tank from Front Runner Outfitters allow you to carry larger volumes of water.

Some companies may water tanks that can fit into many different types of vehicles. Front Runner Outfitters, for instance, makes 10-, 13-, and 17-gallon plastic tanks for holding potable water.

The caveat to using a large water tank in your vehicle is that large volumes of water will increase your cargo weight dramatically. You’ll need to balance your water stores and usage with the capacity of your vehicle to handle the weight and the need to carry other cargo, such as passengers, camping gear, recovery equipment and other gear.

Conclusion

Overlanding should be a thrilling experience, but it should also be a safe one. It’s incredibly important to keep clean water on hand when you’re overlanding so that you can stay hydrated and clean throughout your entire trip.

Before you set out on your next adventure, make sure that your water supply is clean and ready to go.