Water is a critical resource when hiking the western deserts. We made trips into Utah and Nevada a year before we attempted to hike across those states and buried the water we would need the following August. August was not our favorite month to cross the deserts, but we felt we could adapt to the heat and not have to hike in snowfields of the Rockies and Sierra.
As we planned the spacing of our water drops we knew whatever points we chose we would end up finding our water at the wrong time of day. That meant carrying water throughout some days. That was preferable to not having any water, but we felt we could handle a lack of water also. We found we could hike on minimal water and feel uncomfortable but still safe.
Spacing of the Water Drops
The guide that we printed off the American Discovery Trail website does not include water locations. Water is not a problem as we walk through towns. We are guessing that water should be available from DE through early CO without carrying too much or for long distances.
As we approach Utah towns get sparse and the chances of finding ground water are nil. We drove along much of the ADT in Utah and found a few small seeps but nothing we want to rely on. We knew that Cottrells (the first people to backpack the ADT) had water support by car in Utah and Nevada from ADT personnel who made water drops. They marked the drops with gps coordinates for the Cottrells to locate and pick up. We used those coordinates and the vehicle access points as a basis for our caches. We spread the water drops a bit because we believe we will hike more miles per day.
Desert Survivors suggests that each person needs a gallon a day on the desert. Our tally of water on previous hikes indicates that a gallon each per day is adequate for us for drinking and cooking. We know that we can hike 20 miles a day, so we figure we need at least two gallons of water buried every 20 miles along the trail. To give ourselves a margin, we buried three gallons in the long waterless stretches and plan on 25 mile days (Nevada’s mountains have ground water. The dry valleys between ranges are very flat and smooth so we know those are fast miles. The same is true for stretches of Utah.)
Kokopelli’s Trail that begins in CO and continues to Moab, UT is a single track, steep mountain bike trail of 150 waterless miles. We contacted a mountain bike shuttle service in Moab and asked if he would “shuttle” water for us. He was interested in the job said that he would keep the cost to us down because he would enjoy caching water using his dirt bike. We ended up using an internet contact to cache water on the Kokopelli Trail. His water caching technique was great and we learned from his marking methods.
Ray Jardine suggests cooking a meal wherever water is obtained in order to avoid carrying the extra heavy weight and then carrying the remaining water as you continue to hike. No water is wasted when we cook. We use only enough water to re-hydrate our food. We follow the microwave amount of water for mac&cheese. After eating, we scrape the pot and bowls clean, then add a small amount of water to rinse, and then drink the rinse water. The dishes are clean and we have not wasted any water.
Marking the water drops
The one gallon per person per day for drinking and cooking seemed is a good rule of thumb – IF you are VERY well hydrated when you leave town. We used 20 miles between drops because we knew we could hike more than 20 mile days. Our packs are ultra light (smaller loads mean less sweat and more miles per day) and we begin hiking before the sun is actually up and after it sets (cooler hiking times and less water demands). No water was used for bathing because of the work needed to carry it. Our food was chosen for meals that required little water for preparation and menus that would not make us thirsty (chili makes me want to drink lots). We drank the water used to clean the pot or bowls.
Each of our caches contained two or three gallons. We bought two kinds of water bottles in local stores. One kind had large side dimples and a screw top and the other had a snap-on lid after the seal was torn off. Both leaked small amounts of water as they froze and thawed over the winter. The water stayed fresh tasting and was uncontaminated in either bottle. The bottles of water stay cool and clean in the soil, but sunlight quickly makes the plastic become brittle and break.
The amount of two or three gallons per cache was adequate but we wished we had spaced them out differently. We were hiking more that the planned 20 miles per day so we were arriving at caches earlier than the planned dinnertime. We then drank all that we could drink and then carried the rest. In retrospect, we think that a gallon every ten miles would work better for two reasons: We would have to carry less from every cache. If a cache were destroyed or unfindable, as happened, then we would not have had to walk so far on minimal water. A few times we had to adjust our eating habits. If we were low on water we would eat a lunch in the evening and cook our dinner when we arrived at the next water cache.
To mark the water cache we tried to choose a location that had a visible locator like a very large rock or a distinctive tree or a road sign or even an obvious drainage ditch. These areas are not well traveled, but we did not want to do anything that would make an “explorer” curious so we then moved away from the locator (rock, tree, sign), buried the gallon jugs standing up, covering them with 1″ of dusty soil, and placing a marker above. A marker could be a few flat stones, a half buried beer bottle, or animal bones. At each cache we marked a gps waypoint so we could use the gps for “distance to” plus the visual locator and the marker at the actual cache. The gps alone was not accurate enough to find the water. And a year after we buried the caches all the sagebrush looked alike.
For further insurance we wrote our names and date that we expected to use the water on each bottle.
ATV’ers vandalized one of our caches. The location was visible from the road and we used a dozen rocks to cover the bottles. I guess both were just too obvious. The rocks were moved exposing only the tops of the bottles, which were then stabbed with a pen or screwdriver so the water evaporated and the remaining half-gallon was contaminated with insects and silt. We filtered and used the remaining water but we were then very short of water until we got to Needles Outpost. So we suggest writing on TOP of the bottle so ownership is immediately visible if exposed.
The cache that we couldn’t find was in Nevada desert at a dirt road junction. There were absolutely no locators in the sage and the junction itself was not defined clearly enough for us to find the marker in the sagebrush.
We carried out all our empties by cutting a slit in one bottle and sliding pieces of the other cut up bottles into it. These we strapped the bottle on the outside of our packs.