For years, I poked around at the edges of some of these regions, bikepacking and hiking on routes where I knew I’d be able to find water. Gradually, I got a better feel for these landscapes and how what I saw on topo maps and satellite imagery translated to potential for actual water on the ground. And in developing routes for others across arid country like the Western Wildlands Route, the Bears Ears Loops in southern Utah, and the Kofa Refuge Bike Tour in southwest Arizona, I’ve spent a lot of time inventorying potential water sources and talking to locals about water reliability. So I’m excited to finally share some of what I’ve learned here in the form of the step-by-step process I go through when planning out a trip in a desert area unfamiliar to me. I’ll typically venture out on trips like this during cooler winter or shoulder season months that require less water and are less consequential should I run into a problem. I’ll also try to embark on these trips after a storm system has moved through, making finding water a little more likely.
My Process for Water Planning!
- I start by drawing out the route I’d like to ride in the Ride with GPS Route Planner. Usually these trips of mine have some theme or goal – peaks to scramble up along the way, a Joshua tree forest to camp in, an area with unique geology I want to poke around in, etc.
- Mark any towns and facilities along the way that are certain to have water available. During cooler months, water might be turned off in public campgrounds/facilities, so sometimes a few quick phone calls are necessary for verification.
- Next, I scroll along the entirety of the route looking at USGS topographic map scans looking for any potential water source. Often, zooming in and switching to a satellite layer helps with quickly evaluating the likelihood of maybe finding water at that location. Generally, if something looks bone dry in satellite view, I’ll assume there’s no chance I’d actually find water there. I’ll mark each location where I find something that looks potentially promising for water, and then I’ll return to further investigate it in the next step. I’ll also look for potential water sources a few miles off-route.
- Springs – USGS topos have virtually all natural springs marked in arid regions. But many have gone dry during the decades-long drought in the west and some have been sealed with the water piped downslope for livestock. So in my experience, most springs on these topos are unlikely to actually have water. On satellite view, dark green vegetation downslope from the spring is encouraging but rarely a sure sign of water.
- Wells – These often have nearby water tanks or troughs, and water in bigger troughs can usually be seen in satellite imagery. Many wells have been abandoned, however, and empty troughs are never an encouraging sign.
- Windmills – These are ubiquitous across the West to power water wells that feedstock tanks and troughs. Shadows from windmills on satellite imagery are usually quite clear but obviously don’t indicate anything about functionality. Solar panels added to windmills to power electric pumps are encouraging to see on satellite.
- Guzzlers/trick tanks – Typically built by state game departments, these are usually water-catchment systems used to fill troughs for wildlife. These have become more widespread as natural springs have gone dry. Some states even have web-map interfaces that show the locations of trick tanks.
- Tanks/traps/stock ponds/reservoirs – These could be steel tanks, natural bedrock pools, excavated depressions (earthen tanks), etc. Satellite imagery is useful for seeing just what might be found.
- Creeks/rivers – In drier country, streams are more likely to be dry than flowing and some may be inaccessible, so these are far from reliable. But bedrock depressions in streambeds can hold water for longer periods, and some streams do indeed flow for much (or all) of the year.
- Corrals – these often have some sort of water source associated with them.
Now I’ll return to satellite imagery to further investigate the more likely water sources. Switching to Google Earth, I’ll look at a particular potential water source at different times of the year to get a better idea of how often water might be present. I’ll look for stock trails (or even the little brown or black specs that are cattle) on satellite imagery radiating from a possible water source. Well-established stock and game trails are an encouraging sign that water is frequently found there.
I’ll also head over to the new Bikepacking Roots’ interactive map and make use of a few resources included there. You can view high-resolution maps of estimated rainfall received over the past few days or weeks, as well as similar maps that compare monthly or seasonal precipitation received to average. That information helps me make more informed decisions about how likely certain types of water sources are to have water. For example, abundant recent rain means bedrock pools are more likely to have water. Wetter-than-average seasons suggest stock ponds and springs are more likely to have some water. And conversely, exceptionally dry seasons mean that almost every water source could be dry.
As I work through that process, I’ll mark each water source as less likely to have water, more likely, etc. And at this point, I’ll also verify that each of these water sources are on public lands (TopoFusion, CalTopo, or Gaia GPS are useful for this step). If any are on private land, I’ll mark them as such and just keep them in mind for absolute emergency situations.
Then I’ll figuratively step back, look at the bigger route, plan out an itinerary, and see if there seem to be enough absolutely reliable or likely water sources dispersed along the way. If not, I’ll look further afield and consider altering that section of the route. I’ll never put all my reliance on a single potential water source, so I’ll have back-ups and back-ups to my back-ups, and a plan for how much extra water to carry and where to head off route should I run into a serious water situation. In building the itinerary, it’s also important to put careful thought into the terrain, likelihood of sandy/slower riding, weather forecasts, etc. to estimate just how much water will be needed for any particular section of the route.
If I’m not confident about particularly critical water sources, I’ll dig around on the internet (or reach out to friends in the region). Hiking and 4×4 websites can have helpful information in some cases.
Also, is caching water a possibility or necessity? In some places, this might be a crucial piece of the puzzle. If you do cache water, be discrete with the cache, and be sure to always pack out whatever the water was in. Some land managers also forbid caches of any sort.
Finally, I’ll make sure I’ve got the necessary water-carrying capacity and means to treat that water. That will often be 2.5 gallons or more, but I often will only ride with full capacity for short periods of any trip. I’ll usually bring a water filter and chlorine dioxide tablets or Aqua Mira as a backup means of treating water.
It’s important to know how to make the murkiest, mankiest, muddiest, most shitful (sometimes literally) water drinkable. Don’t destroy your filter with thick brown water – it’s unlikely you’re carrying a spare. And consider carrying alum powder if expecting to really murky water along the way (see instructions for settling process below)
I can’t in good faith pen a how-to article like this without repeatedly stressing the importance of a few things. Always have a backup plan for where to find water if there’s none where you had expected (or optimistically hoped) it would be. Always have a backup to your backup plan. Always carry much more water than you think you’ll need. Know the fastest ways to bail off your route to reach the closest main road or community should you end up in a dangerous situation. Know that every desert region is different – just because you are confident you can find water in one doesn’t mean you’ll be successful in another. And think twice and a third time about whether or not it’s a reasonable undertaking to venture out into unknown (or known!) desert locales based on the weather forecast and your own experience.
Also, backcountry travelers in much of the West often place a strong reliance on stock watering infrastructure on public lands. This infrastructure is generally paid for and constructed by the rancher who holds grazing leases for the area. If you’re using water from such infrastructure, always leave every gate as you found it, don’t mess with waterline valves, don’t spook any livestock, and don’t camp within a quarter mile of any water sources (in fact, in some states, doing so is illegal).
Deserts are absolutely magical places to experience on bikes, and they’re also one of the most unforgiving environments on our planet. Plan carefully, adventure wisely, and you’ll be duly rewarded with unforgettable experiences. Happy water hunting!
Instructions For Dealing With Silty Water – Magic With Alum Powder
In some parts of the world, you’re often stuck filling your bottles with thick, brown, sandpaper-like water. It’s not appetizing, it’s not even close to clear, and it probably will crunch between your teeth. This sort of water will kill your filter and is too cloudy for a UV device to work. But never fear (or refuse to drink what looks like chocolate milk but is nowhere near as refreshing)! You can pre-filter this water through a bandana, or you can get really crafty and carry along some alum powder. Alum is a white powder used in the process of dying fabrics, and conveniently, it’s available in the spice section of most larger grocery stores. But alum has a little-known trick up its sleeve – it is incredibly effective at helping settle silt and clay particles out of water.
Mix up a few ounces of clean and ideally warm water with ~1 tablespoon of alum, allow it to dissolve as much as possible, and then add that solution to 1 gallon of your brown water. Within 20 minutes, the alum powder will have bound to the sediment and caused it to sink to the bottom, yielding astoundingly clear water. Now you can carefully pour off or scoop out the clear water and treat/filter it for drinking. Carrying a small collapsible bucket or a crushed plastic gallon jug works well for the settling process.
Have questions or suggested additions to this list? Drop ’em in the comments!