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written by Kelly Bauer

The number one item you will need in the backcountry is undoubtedly water. The amount of water you need will vary on temperature, altitude and your daily physical output. Depending on the person, a hiker may want 3-4 liters a day not including cooking water. Each liter of water weighs 2.2 lbs so carrying enough for a multi-day trip can add up quickly.Water supplies do exist in nature in the form of streams, rivers and lakes, but although the water may look clear and clean it may not be safe to drink from directly. Fortunately, there are a variety of methods for treating water found on the trail. The primary methods of treatment include: boiling, chemical treatment, exposure to ultraviolet light and water filters.

Why treat our water?

Giardiasis is the most common and widespread water disease and is caused by microscopic parasitic cysts called giardia. No surface water is guaranteed to be unaffected by these cysts, including clear mountain streams. Giardia can survive in freezing water for months and then be rewarmed by the lining of our intestines. According to the Mayo Clinic*, symptoms include: diarrhea, malaise, abdominal cramps, flatulence and nausea. The onset ranges from one to three weeks after exposure but without medical testing it can be difficult to diagnose due to the wide range of symptoms.

Cryptosporidium is the next villain to be on the watch for. Like giardia, it is a microscopic cyst with the same transmission method and many of the same symptoms. According to the Center for Disease Control**, symptoms usually last one to two weeks for individuals with healthy immune systems.

How to treat your water:

Water Purification- It is important to note that purification kills both bacteria and protozoa such as giardia and cryptosporidium, as well as viruses.

  1. Boiling: Boiling water kills heat sensitive microorganisms such as giardia and cryptosporidium. Once the water reaches a rolling boil it is safe to drink. The downside to boiling is the amount of time it takes and the consumption of fuel. The length of time it takes to boil your water will vary based on your altitude, wind, temperature and the relative amount of fuel in your fuel canister. Several of the top backpacking stoves will boil one liter of water in 2-5 minutes. Jetboil recommends planning to boil 10 liters of water with a standard 100 gram fuel canister. In cold weather or if melting snow, expect to boil only six liters with the same amount of fuel.
  2. Chemical Treatment: There are a variety of chemical treatments available to purify water. Place the recommended number of tablets or drops into your water vessel and wait the directed amount of time. Be sure to take water clarity into consideration when looking at the recommended amount of time. Generally, the dirtier and colder the water, the longer you should wait. If you are adding drink mixes to flavor your water, wait until after the water has been purified.
  3. UV Light: Purifiers that use ultraviolet light are usually hand-held and placed directly in the water container. Advantages to this system include lightweight construction and quick treatment time. They do require an electrical charge so batteries or a solar powered charging source should be used to ensure power throughout your trip.

It is important to note that although each of the above mentioned methods for treating water will make your water safe to drink if used correctly, they will not remove visible particulates from your water. Often these methods are used in conjunction with a pre-filter to strain out any unwanted debris.

Water Filtration- Water filters are a standard method of water treatment in the backcountry. Filters come in a variety of shapes and sizes with easy attachments for filtering into your water bottle, bladder or even your personal hydration system.

Water filters are usually made of a ceramic core or a pleated, hollow fiberglass filter. Some of these filters also have an activated carbon core, a super porous substance that absorbs and neutralizes pollutants including those that affect the taste and odor of the water. Water filters have the added advantage of being lightweight, fast and easy to repair in the field.

The downside to water filters is that they will not remove viruses. Normally, viruses are not a prime concern in our corner of North America but while traveling in developing countries or areas with high population density and poor water treatment facilities a purification method such as chemical tablets or drops is recommended. Additionally, many residents of the Northwest and beyond are stocking up on purification treatments in preparation for a natural or man-made disaster, during which our drinking supply could become compromised

Water will be your most important survival factor in the backcountry. Dehydration and water-born illness can severely affect your ability to safely make and execute important decisions for you and your group. Make sure you are adequately prepared for whatever conditions you may encounter.

For more information on water filters please stop by the store, or attend our upcoming event on water treatment featuring representatives from Katadyn and MSR who will talk about the importance of treating water and some of the newest products available to you. The event will take place on Friday, March 18th at 6:00pm at the Salem Summit.


*Mayo Clinic: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/giardia-infection/basics/definition/con-20024686

** CDC: http://www.cdc.gov/parasites/crypto/