This Article is About
drinking water
wilderness hike
bacteria viruses
contour lines
harmful bacteria
unfamiliar places
How To Treat Your Drinking Water While Hiking
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Gone are the days when a man could kneel and drink straight from a river without worry. In the modern age, no source of surface water is safe to drink without treatment. This is why all water found must first be treated before it can be consumed. When venturing out into Mother Nature during a wilderness hike, one of the challenges that will always be faced is the challenge of finding a good water source.

While it is a good idea to carry a map or GPS even in familiar territory, a good topographic map becomes a very valuable tool for finding water when backpacking in unfamiliar places. National Geographic produces a series of contour maps for all the National Parks, but if you need a map for somewhere else and a local ranger station can't be of assistance, then the USGS maps may be the only option. Regardless of where it comes from, the map's contour lines will help to locate possible water sources. Low-lying depressions may hold water as well, but it is always best to avoid stagnant water unless there is absolutely no other alternative to be found.

Today, though, all water found in the backcountry must be purified in one way or another prior to drinking to avoid taking in harmful bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. Many of these microorganisms that can be found living in untreated water, such as giardia and cryptosporidium, and can cause abdominal pain and diarrhea if ingested. Loss of fluid from diarrhea can worsen an already dismal situation by leaving a trekker increasingly dehydrated. Severe dehydration will lead to death, and for this reason, water must always be treated. This can be done in a variety of ways.

Boiling water is the most certain way to kill all of the microorganisms that may be present. Boiling above 185° F for only a few minutes will kill all pathogens. Once a rolling boil has been reached, it is sure that the water is free of any pathogens and, once cool, will be safe to drink. However, water boils at a lower temperature at higher elevations (above 6,562 feet according to the Center for Disease Control). Trekkers should compensate for this when attempting to purify water at higher elevations by boiling the water for a longer period. Treatment by boiling, however, does require time, both for the boiling and cooling, and some sort of heat source, whether it is a wood fire or a portable camp stove. Extra fuel translates into extra pack weight, so it is important to plan fuel supplies accordingly if this is the method that will be used for purifying the drinking water.

The water can be chemically treated with iodine or chlorine tablets or by adding 5-10 drops of liquid bleach per half gallon (depending on the coldness and cloudiness of the water). Chemical treatment tablets must be used before the expiration date has been reached or else they become ineffective, so if in doubt, they should be thrown away and replaced. As with liquid bleach, water temperature can also influence their effectiveness with very cold water requiring additional time and chemical treatment before it can be deemed safe for drinking. Iodine tablets are known for the distinctive smell and taste that they leave in the water. It may not be the most appealing liquid to ever pass over the lips, but it is safe to drink. If the taste is too offensive, there are also flavor neutralizer tablets that can be added to the water once enough time has passed to allow the iodine to work. The neutralizers usually take effect within a few minutes.

Filtering, while also not perfect, will make the water drinkable rather quickly. There are a variety of backpacking water filters made to fit different purposes. Hand pump filters are the most common type of portable water filters used in trekking; they are used to pump water directly from the water source into a container. They are simple to use but may require a little priming depending on the model, and care must be used when filtering water in near freezing temperatures. For base camps, the gravity filter uses gravity to push water through a filter without the need for manual pumping and works similar to a common water dispenser. Bottle filters have a filters housed within the same bottle used for drinking. Squeezing the bottle or sucking on the straw will force the water through its filter, but these have limitations. Bottle filters can filter out large protozoa and sediment but typically do not filter out bacteria and viruses. If this type of filter will be used, it is imperative that its limitations be known beforehand.

Most filters do not have pore sizes small enough to filter out viruses, which are under 0.1 micron in size, so to be absolutely sure that the water is safe to drink, it is best to combine two methods of purification. Combining a filtration system with boiling or chemical treatment will insure that the water is completely potable.


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