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Bad Water in the Red Desert
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Wyatt Hanks

Locale: Red Desert
Bad Water in the Red Desert on 09/19/2009 00:09:13 MDT Print View

Backpacking noob here:
I'm trying to reduce the amount of water I have to carry in my trips throughout the Red Desert in Southwest Wyoming. I do plan on caching when possible, but the fact is, there are already tons of water supplies all over the desert. Ponds, springs, streams, puddles, etc. I'd prefer to just carry a filter and plan trips to hit these spots, HOWEVER, I know that a significant amount of the water in the area is highly alkali or saline - but not all of it.


1. Is there any simple, lightweight way to test whether its salty or not (to a drinkable level)? Something like how ph strips work? Even some of the fast moving streams supposedly carry leached salts, but I think they might possibly be ok when its mostly snow runoff? Some rainwater puddles might be ok, but then othertimes they might have sucked the alkali minerals out of the dirt. How do I tell?

2. Will salt water mess up a filter like a Hiker Pro, etc? I know it won't make saltwater ok to drink, but I figure if I can get the nasty stuff out, then I can at least sip it to see if its worth drinking?

3. Most of these treasured desert water sources are going to be highly used by deer, elk, antelope, feral horses, and cattle. If it does turn out to be fresh enough water to drink, can I trust that the filter is going to get the bad stuff out? I'm sure theres alot of bad stuff in there...

Charles Grier
(Rincon) - M

Locale: Desert Southwest
Bad Water in the Red Desert on 09/19/2009 08:05:36 MDT Print View

A filter will not remove alkali from water any more than it will remove sodium chloride but it shouldn't hurt the filter. A filter will remove bacteria and protozoa spores from alkaline water.

Mostly, you can tell whether water is consumable by the taste. Most of the alkali you will encounter is either calcium carbonate or sodium carbonate; neither is toxic in modest amounts but both taste terrible, a bitter taste that is unmistakable. In general, water with a lot of dissolved salts of any kind have one sort of flavor or another. So, if the water tastes bitter or really salty, then don't drink it.

Actually, humans can drink a reasonable amount of alkaline water without causing serious internal problems, the taste is worse than the effects. Unless one consumes huge quantities of alkaline water, the worst effect would be diarrhea of one degree or another. The name "Sweetwater" shows up on a lot of maps of the west including SW Wyoming; the names were given by the pioneers who had to deal with a lot of water than was not "sweet". They drank it anyway and survived.

pH test strips would be a good way to distinguish between really bad water and that that is just lousy tasting. You can get pH test strips or test kits at any store that sells tropical fish. I would not be inclined to drink water that is much over pH 9 to perhaps 10. Really alkaline water will be between 12 and 14.

Edited by Rincon on 09/19/2009 08:06:59 MDT.

Wyatt Hanks

Locale: Red Desert
Thanks! on 09/19/2009 12:24:01 MDT Print View

Thats exactly what I needed to know. Some of my hiking will be around the Sweetwater River (Oregon Trail), but mostly around Bitter Creek, which killed many a pioneer who got sick from drinking too much of it since it was the only water source along most of the Overland Trail.

I think I'll just plan on testing any water source I come to with strips and a taste test (after being filtered). Then I can take note of the good spots and plan on taking less water next time I'm through there.

Christopher Plesko
(Pivvay) - F

Locale: Rocky Mountains
bad water in the red desert on 10/19/2009 15:36:49 MDT Print View

Try it out yet? How'd it work? Which filter are you using?

Kimberly Wersal
(kwersal) - MLife

Locale: Western Colorado
Re: bad water in the red desert on 10/19/2009 22:06:19 MDT Print View

Yick! I just had some of that water last weekend-- filtered from a small, beautifully clear pool in Utah. Unfortunately, I used it to make dinner (Thai peanut beef noodles) and coffee BEFORE I realized how incredibly nasty tasting it was. Ate it anyway AND drank a fair bit (hold nose and chug) because it was too late and dark to make the hike down to the river. Didn't make me sick at all. Yet. It's been a couple of days, so I think it didn't cause any harm.

Wyatt Hanks

Locale: Red Desert
re: tried it yet? on 10/21/2009 08:33:40 MDT Print View

Havent been out yet, unfortunately. And winter's just about here, so priorities are changing. This place is way too miserable to hike in the winter and I'll be boiling snow anyway.

I use a hiker pro.