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M Backcountry Water Quality: Technologies, Trends and Paranoia?

by Ron Silflow & Ryan Jordan

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Article Summary:

Are you thirsting for knowledge of how to minimize the chance of consuming pathogenic organisms during your next hike? Want to know the slickest technologic product to slip in your backpack to neutralize an onslaught of organisms determined to turn a pleasant trip into an intestinal uproar? Perhaps you picture tablets and filters as your shield and sword. What can it hurt to treat your water source, right? Well, in reality, the two most dangerous sources of pathogenic organisms you may encounter in the backcountry are 1) your left hand, and 2) your right hand.

All backcountry users need to drink water. The primary question on all our minds should be, "Is this source of water safe to drink?" Certainly, with all the effective water filtering and treatment technologies available, we can give ourselves peace of mind by minimizing the fear of the dreaded waterborne illnesses. But is it right to treat every source of water as if it was contaminated? Should treatment be the default action, or can education allow better discernment of when and when not to treat? More importantly, even if we do treat, are we still missing a key component to maximize our protection strategies?

The purpose of this article is to review the current attitudes and practices that backcountry users have toward water quality. Most importantly, we wish to examine these attitudes and practices by asking whether they are based on anecdote or evidence. Has paranoia been the driving force behind the development of water treatment technologies?

Nobody wants to guess wrongly about whether or not to treat their water. Nobody wants to flirt with intestinal fireworks that can range from mild to severe by consuming pathogenic organisms in their drinking water. But neither should anyone wish to react with paranoia to a perceived problem and miss the multitude of other sources and causes of bowel disorders during a backcountry visit.

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