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Sipping the Waters: Techniques for Selecting Untreated Backcountry Water for Drinking
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Cat Jasins
(CatJasins) - MLife
Sipping the Waters: Techniques for Selecting Untreated Backcountry Water for Drinking on 09/20/2006 03:44:31 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Sipping the Waters: Techniques for Selecting Untreated Backcountry Water for Drinking

bric brak
(mintaka) - F
sipping the waters on 09/20/2006 05:29:06 MDT Print View

I have found that my friends who have gotten sick in the past were able to drink unfiltered water on current hikes without suffering new symptons.

Edward Ripley-Duggan
(edwardripleyduggan) - F
Backcountry water on 09/20/2006 07:43:18 MDT Print View

Thanks for you excellent article. I hike largely in the Catskills of NY State, where I live (along with the Dacks, and occasionally the Whites of NH). I drink a great deal of untreated water, but I generally follow the source selection rules that you mention, which I've arrived at independently.

I am interested in the comment by the previous poster, because I have heard similar things. To the best of my knowledge I've never had Giardia (and I think I would know)! I have heard that many AT hikers appear to become immune after a couple of bouts. This makes sense, as large populations in the third world drink Giardia-laden water and are also apparently free from its effects, for that infection at least.

Of course, someone who has had the illness is likely to become a carrier, which makes careful disposal of faecal matter paramount.


David Olsen

Locale: Steptoe Butte
Re: Sipping the Waters: Techniques for Selecting Untreated Backcountry Water for Drinking on 09/20/2006 09:19:33 MDT Print View

After reading the authors experience with sheep in the Jarbidge, I would add the old cowboy rule-

"After you get a drink, never ride upstream!"

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
Sipping the Waters on 09/20/2006 09:41:44 MDT Print View

I work in the backcountry, in the North Cascades, for a month at a time. And I almost NEVER treat the water.

I have talked to the rangers there (North Cascades National Park) and they all agree that the water in surface streams is very clean. Lots of snow, lots of rain, lots of flora (as filter), minimal wildlife, steep terrain so little "standing" water.

And - They do NOT get reports of giardia. I found all of this super reassuring.

This is NOT the case in an area like Yellowstone, and I factor that in to my decision making.

The article didn't shy away from personal judgment in a variety of situations. Thanks for treating me like a grown up!

The question I've had is how do you TEACH the judgment to drink untreated water? This article is a good resource.

There are so many products for purifying backcountry water. Yes, these are important (and required) in SOME situations. But, I worry that we are separating ourselves from the natural world. We are the first generation on the planet to ever really concern ourselves with this issue. What could be more natural than drinking when we are thirsty?

What have we lost?

Miguel Arboleda
(butuki) - MLife

Locale: Kanto Plain, Japan
Re: Sipping the Waters on 09/20/2006 10:02:18 MDT Print View

The vast majority of people in the world never treat their water. In some places people get sick, but in most cases people are fine. Part of the problem, I think, is that people have become so protected from the natural world that their bodies no longer develop the immunological protection that would normally form from close interaction with the physical world. Children who never play outdoors don't develop the antibodies to protect them against the most common germs that earlier generations never had a problem with.

No one I know treats their water here in Japan when walking the hills and mountains. I've only gotten sick once, 34 years ago, when I swam in a lake in northern Japan in an area where many deer and brown bear also used the lake. I know of no one else who has gotten sick from drinking wild water here.

Really, these days people are becoming afraid of their own shadows. There should be prudence, of course, but not paranoia.

Tom Clark
(TomClark) - MLife

Locale: East Coast
Giardia in your system on 09/20/2006 10:41:50 MDT Print View

Warren Doyle (founder of ALDHA ) has commented that he had Giardia in his system for many years, but lost it after some period of not sipping the waters. He said that he was very happy to reintroduce it to his body, although the process itself was unpleasant.

A friend of mine from India got sick when he returned home after a few years in the US. Now when he goes home, he doesn't drink the water either.

kevin davidson
(kdesign) - F

Locale: Mythical State of Jefferson
re. sipping the waters in the 3rd world on 09/20/2006 11:22:30 MDT Print View

We are pretty lucky living in the developed world (N.America, Japan, Europe, Australia) when it comes to relatively safe water supplies BUT 5 million people a year in the rest of the world die from waterborne diseases from untreated water and 10s of millions contract waterborne diseases each year.
Furhermore, there are disease organisms in water supplies that the local populations never develop immunities to.

Otherwise, i agree that fears of drinking "wild water" are often overstated. I have a similar approach to Mike when it comes to water in the N. Cascades and there are swaths of the Sierra where I feel I can safely drink untreated water, as well.

Edited by kdesign on 09/20/2006 11:24:42 MDT.

Tom Clark
(TomClark) - MLife

Locale: East Coast
Contradiction? on 09/20/2006 11:23:22 MDT Print View

Can someone clarify what seems to be a contradiction between the two recent articles when discussing tips to find safe water. Tips (A) and (2-5) in the following lists don't completely mesh in my mind. Which is safer (all else being the same) cold, fast-moving water or warmer, still lake water? I understand UV helping to kill microbes in a lake, but the idea of multiple water, animal, and insect sources dumping microbes into a warmer lake that could encourage growth doesn't seem like an advantage.

I would choose getting water from the feeder stream rather than the pond/lake.

From "Backcountry Water Quality":
"Currently working with Lake Tahoe expert and UC Davis professor Charles Goldman, Derlet has several other water quality findings in the Sierra that he also hopes to research:

(A) Lakes are typically ‘cleaner’ than creeks, possibly because the ultraviolet rays of sunlight work better at killing off bacteria in calm waters of a lake than in the tumbling flows of a stream.
(B) Algae growth in the backcountry appears to be getting worse.
Bacteria readings appear higher at the beginning of spring runoff rather than later in the summer when water levels are lower and water qualities thought to be poorer.
(C) Valley air pollution could be contributing to water quality problems in the Sierra Nevada."

From "Sipping the Waters":
"Doc’s Rules for Sipping the Waters
(1) Study the watershed you are in. Know what is there.
(2) Look for water near to its source.
Try to take water from the sideslope streamlets.
(3) Avoid water from the main valley stream.
(4) Look for icy cold water.
(5) Look for fast-moving water.
(6) Study the area for the presence of large animals.
(7) Ascertain whether numbers of elk have recently been in the area.
(8) Avoid waters near beaver ponds or cattle grazing.
(9) When possible drink a test amount before drinking liberally a few days later from those same waters."

Also, when I look at all of the marmot *BEEP* piled up on rocks in the Sierra, I have to wonder how much of that gets washed into streams during snow melt and rain runoff.

Are certain animals considered more harmful (marmots, deer, horses, dogs, humans) given equal volume of *BEEP*? Although humans are encouraged/required to bury their scat, the other animals certainly don't.

Miguel Arboleda
(butuki) - MLife

Locale: Kanto Plain, Japan
Re: sipping the waters in the 3rd world on 09/20/2006 12:57:09 MDT Print View

Kevin, of course you are correct about problems with water supplies in the poorer, populated places of the world. I've traveled all over Asia and seen it with my own eyes (spent some time on Smokey Mountain in the Philippines and journeyed along a few of the absolutely filthy rivers), but we are talking about places for back country walking, are we not? After all people are talking here about water bourne problems in the States mainly, no? A "developed" country. Even in the poor countries the back country is usually clean just like in the "developed" countries, and less prone to the big water bourne dieases. I would never condone drinking untreated wild water in populated places or where it tends to be hot. I mean you can't even eat raw vegetables in such places unless your body is acclimated.

John Davis
(JNDavis) - F

Locale: Isle of Man
Sipping the Waters: Techniques for Selecting Untreated Backcountry Water for Drinking on 09/20/2006 13:23:00 MDT Print View

In the Cairngorms, rivers like the Tarf and Eidart carry peat-stained water which tastes delicious. In the villages, down in the glens, the water is chlorinated and tastes foul. It's a strong argument for getting far into the hills but makes me wonder if we are doing something wrong down in civilisation.

By the way, I lived for two years in the Philippines but only caught amoebic dysentery near the end when I let my guard down at a dinner party. Perhaps chlorinated water isn't so bad after all.

Edited by JNDavis on 09/20/2006 13:25:52 MDT.

David Bonn
(david_bonn) - F

Locale: North Cascades
Re: Sipping the Waters: Techniques for Selecting Untreated Backcountry Water for Drinking on 09/20/2006 14:52:08 MDT Print View

Great article.

As another denizen of the North Cascades, I'll second Mr. Clelland's comments about drinking the water here. And since cattle and sheep aren't being ran in the east-slope wildernesses (Pasayten and Lake-Chelan Sawtooth) anymore I'm less worried about waterborne pathogens there too.

I'd add another consideration: the presence of other hikers. If you are in a popular hiking area and (for whatever policy reason) there aren't privies or toilets, I'd trust the water in that area considerably less. I'd also be a little worried about how those toilets are sited, but usually that is done very well. My observation is that people will go far, far out of their way to use privies.

On a similar point, I'm also real fussy about sharing food that might have been handled by another hiker, and am fussy about keeping my hands clean before and during a meal too. It isn't that I don't know where someone's hands have been. I do know. What I don't know is if they know how to wash their hands.

Victor Karpenko
(Viktor) - MLife

Locale: Northern California
Did he really have Giardia? on 09/21/2006 00:13:16 MDT Print View

“Trouble hit about three days later. Hiking along, my friend began to complain of stomach pains, which grew worse through the afternoon. Then the illness hit full force, and within hours we were both incapacitated.”

According to NOLS Wilderness First Aid, the incubation period fro ingestion to onset of infection is one to three weeks.

The CDC states, “Symptoms of giardiasis normally begin 1 to 2 weeks (average 7 days) after becoming infected.”

John S.
(jshann) - F
Risk versus benefit on 09/21/2006 08:03:01 MDT Print View

A few points of debate below:

The good doctors principles for finding safe drinking water seem largely impractical for those persons visiting an area that do not have the time or resources to go to the extent of the rules given. Also, for the most part, the doc has IMMEDIATE access to FREE health care in the event he becomes ill..upon return when many of the cases become symptomatic. Nobody else has those combined benefits. Appropriate water treatment is the best insurance for the majority. Chlorine dioxide tablets are my staple everywhere and always.

John Shannon, M.D.

Edited by jshann on 09/21/2006 11:38:37 MDT.

Sunny Waller
(dancer) - M

Locale: Southeast USA
Re: Risk versus benefit on 09/21/2006 08:30:46 MDT Print View

Yes girdia does show up later but thats not the only way you can get sick from bad water. Some stuff hits fast and hard (or should I say loose :)
How many times have you quickly gotten sick from something you ate or drank and went running for the bathroom? The woods is a terrible place to be when your system goes south. Several of us got sick in the backcountry one fourth of july..we all drove seperatly and met out on the trail...we did not share any food-not even trail mix..It was a very difficult hike back out to the cars. Fortunatly there were lots of bushes. Later several of us got very ill and were treated for Girdia. We discovered that we had all drank a batch of untreated water-we had a new person who did not know to use the filter. We were camped at a VERY popular campsite. To this day I carry immodium and I treat and collect my own water. Once was enough for me.

NOTE: I live and hike in the Southeast..that does make a difference..smaller spaces..lots more bears..ect ect ect...not a bad a place as Dr J writes about in his article..but it is different :)

Edited by dancer on 09/21/2006 08:38:32 MDT.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Did he really have Giardia? on 09/22/2006 05:02:25 MDT Print View

Victor wrote:
> “Trouble hit about three days later. Hiking along, my friend began to complain of stomach pains, which grew worse through the afternoon. Then the illness hit full force, and within hours we were both incapacitated.”

> According to NOLS Wilderness First Aid, the incubation period fro ingestion to onset of infection is one to three weeks.

> The CDC states, “Symptoms of giardiasis normally begin 1 to 2 weeks (average 7 days) after becoming infected.”

I have to agree with Victor. I doubt it was Giardia. My reasons:
* My understanding is that the form of Giardia which sheep can carry is not the G lamblia which affects humans.
* It takes time for the Giardia protozoa to multiply up in your gut to the level where they can be detected. The normal incubation period is usually 10 days, not four.
* Giardia lamblia does not suddenly cause you to become incapacitated in the time quoted, of less than one day. You may rumble a bit, but for TWO people to be simultaneously affected to that extreme - nope.
* However, something like a rotavirus will affect two people exactly like this, about 24 hours after drinking contaminated water. I KNOW! There are other vectors possible, but my money is on this one.


Mary Simpson
(maryphyl) - F
Untreated Water on 09/22/2006 12:16:08 MDT Print View

I hike almost exclusively in the Grand Canyon or on the Mogollon Rim in Northern Arizona. I have never treated any of my water and I have never been sick in 30 years of hiking here. A local doctor made this recommendation--the bugs you do not want are mostly on the bottom or on the surface of the water. I clear off the surface just before dunking a bottle and make sure I don't get any from the top or the bottom. I try to be aware of the source and have chosen to boil water a few times when I felt it was questionable.

Bruce Tolley

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Never been sick on 09/23/2006 14:55:30 MDT Print View

This thread seems to have overlooked some of the science involved: namely that not all those exposed get infected and not all those infected show symptoms. But those infected do become vectors.

Just because someone has never been sick does not mean 1) that they have not been exposed and 2) that they have not been infected.

Bottom line: different folks have different risk profiles. If you hike in backcountry frequented by other humans, the risk of water borne disease is not zero. Solo hikers of course make the decision for themselves and this article offers sound advice on how to reduce the risk of exposure. Those of us who are leading groups, need to consider the risk to the whole group especially the young and those with possibly compromised immune systems. And there are other organisms in water like crypto that can do more harm than giardia.

Derek Douville
(avaktar) - F
Light filtration on 10/17/2006 02:14:57 MDT Print View

Cryptosporidium gives me the creeps, and in undeveloped lands like South America or China, even viruses can be floating around. I prefer to be safe and enjoy my vacation, rather than spend it building tolerance to a bacteria.

In developed countries (such as the US or Canada), when there is plenty of time to investigate a water source according to all of the mentioned techniques, the water may very well be safe. But these days with innovations such as the SteriPen (90 seconds/L) or the MIOX purification system (30 mins for 95% and 4 hours for 99.9%), water can be treated without disrupting the taste, and with very little effort.

I was recently hiking in Sunol Wilderness, California, at 1200+ feet, but the normal water channels are quite dry at this time of year (mid-October). The only water available was still water, and the cattle manure was plentiful and very close to all water sources. In this situation, a proper filter and purification system is essential, and the park rangers require this gear for backpackers who intend on camping.

I understand the desire and pleasure to take from the natural land, but this advice should be offset by common sense and preparedness - have some form of purification available for emergencies.

Frank Ramos
(frprovis) - F
backcountry water dangers on 11/09/2007 22:01:16 MST Print View

Well, well, well. Just as I predicted last year, helminthes are starting to become a problem in Europe. Read this frightening news:

Foxes in Munich causing echinococcosis

This could happen in the US too, since these echinococcosis worms are also present in North America (wolves in the arctic) and can be carried by any canine, including foxes, coyotes, wolves and dogs.

I notice that McNett has introduced the Aquamira Frontier Pro Filter, which appears to be exactly what I was looking for last year. Namely, something that filters worms and other large parasites but isn't so fine as to clog easily. I'll be using this on future trips.

Incidentally, there is no reason to get too worried about cow manure near the water. Cow manure is loaded with bacteria but adult humans with a strong immune system are normally capable of shaking off most bacteria infections with ease (assuming you get enough sleep and food and aren't otherwise stressed out). I routinely drink from streams with cow and horse nearby and never get sick. Typhoid and hep A are pretty serious bacterial infections, but these don't exist in the North America or European backcountry.

Viruses are species specific, so they are only a problem if there are humans around, and the humans in North America and Europe are not carrying dangerous viruses (such as polio). The viruses they are carrying (Rotaviruses and Norwalk) are easily shaken off by a healthy adult.

Giardia and crypto are also easily shaken off by a healthy adult. Amoebic dysentery and various other Third World parasites are a serious problem, but these don't exist in North America or Europe backcountry.