Sunday, June 19, 2011

Can you drink un-treated water? (video tip)

TIP number 105

Is it water safe to drink water straight from a mountain stream? The answer is an unequivocal sometimes.

Please be aware, drinking un-treated might have serious gastro-consequences. The text book signs and symptoms of Giardia read as follows: “Explosive diarrhea with a foul sulfurous odor.” That sounds gross, right? Knowing what is reliable in the backcountry is critical here, and making an informed decision is a combination of experience and a working knowledge of the hazards.

My pal Phil carries a cute little 500ml plastic juice bottle in his hand during all his mountain travel. It’s never on his back, so it adds zero to the pack weight. When he gets to a trustworthy water source, he fills up and drinks. Nothing to treat, no pumping, no hoses, no boiling, no mixing chemicals, no time waiting for anything. Phil has achieved a sort of mastery when evaluating the safety of water, and this came from years of experience in the backcountry. I’m a little more cautious than Phil, but I regularly drink un-treated water.

I realize I am outside of the perceived norm of camping practices to even suggest that it’s okay to sometimes drink water straight from it’s source. It might even come off as heresy in a world filled with filters, pumps, chemicals and weird glowing ultra violet batteries operated gizmos. These tools serve a purpose, but not all the time. In my opinion, it is entirely appropriate to do what we as humans have done since the dawn of time.

I only drink from springs and very small streams. And I’ve found that a lot of the small little streams are easy to follow uphill to their source, where the water bubbles up out of the ground. This is actually very easy to do, especially with a UL pack. If you are aware, and looking uphill, you’ll quickly gain a good sense of where to find the quality springs. Before drinking directly from any un-treated water source, I run through this simple check-list:


~ Are there any zones above this water source that could impact the quality? (popular camping, mine sites, moose mating grounds, etc)

~ Is this a popular camping zone?

~ Is the water running from an outlet of a lake or pond?

~ Are there any wildlife feces near the water or upstream?

~ Is there a dead elk in the stream?

If I answer NO to all these questions, I happily drink up, most of the time. I’ll add that if I find a spring bubbling straight up from the ground, I will always dip my cup as close as I can to the source.

My advice, carefully factor in all available data before drinking ANY water in the backcountry. For questionable sources, I carry Aqua-Mira, a chlorine based treatment.


Trail Guy said...

Great post Mike...really spot on advice! Also, congrats on becoming a published author!

treeswing said...

Aren't rational and informed decisions the best! Thanks for a reasonable treatment of this topic. Far too many knee-jerk reactions against water discussions going around.

samh said...

I probably need to be paying you royalties given the number of times I've quoted your "Is there a dead elk in the stream" line to people when explaining my rationale for drinking or not drinking untreated water.

Mike Clelland! said...

Sam - I saw a dead dear in a stream yesterday. I didn't have a camera, and - anyway - it was pretty freeakin' gross.

I guess when I say that, i'm asking myself: "Is there anything super obvious that would impact the water?"

The dead elk example is super obvious.

Paul Franken said...

Thanks for this reminder, Mike. It can be really tricky to find safe drinking water when you are in the wilderness. So as much as possible, it pays to be observant of the water source that may be found along the woods. Also, you can always carry some water treatment along with you, if you’re hesitant with regard to the safeness of the water.

Paul Franken @ American Pure Spring Water