I was recently remembering a time, back when I was a teen, when I went fishing in the Rocky Mountains and came across one of the most beautiful streams I’d ever seen. My brother-in-law and I were fishing for trout in the streams and beaver ponds near the Continental Divide in July, but aside from our fishing gear we didn’t have much in the way of gear or supplies.
The sun was out, and we were working pretty hard in terms of bushwhacking and fording various creeks.
One particular stream stood out. It was crystal clear, somewhat deep, and the stream bed was lined with blood-red rocks. It’s an image seared into my memory, one that likely won’t fade until I lose my mental faculties.
It looked so good. And I was thirsty. Lacking a water bottle or any other source of clean water, I threw caution to the wind, knelt down and drank deeply out of one of the most pristine stretches of water I’d ever seen.
I consider myself pretty lucky. Why? Because I didn’t get sick.
In the industrialized world, our bodies have become accustomed to clean, treated water. Natural water sources, like streams, are contaminated with various microbes. Even the purest of rivers will have their fair share of microscopic organisms that may disagree with your digestive system.
Nothing can ruin a trip faster than a bad case of gastro-intestinal illness. It can make you miserable, and in more extreme circumstances, it can be dangerous.
So what do you do? It sounds like a simple question: Just bring your own water, dummy! That’s the warning that should have been given to me. But the problem of water in the backcountry is a little bigger than just having a couple 16-ounce water bottles in your backpack.
If you’re really out in the bush, or if you get lost, there’s a good chance you can exhaust the water supply you brought in from civilization. And you’ve probably heard warnings about how long the body can go without food versus how long you can live without water. After three days of dehydration, you’re basically done for.
In an extreme circumstance, you take water pretty much any way you can get it, even if that means putting yourself at risk of illness. But a little preparation can go a long way in helping you get the amount of water you need and do it safely. Some ideas:
Iodine drops. This is an easy, lightweight way to help purify water on the spot. This generally won’t help you in terms of purifying water for cooking or providing water for large groups. But in a pinch, this is a good way to go. Iodine purification kits can be found cheap at just about any outdoors shop.
Boil your water. If you have a stove with you or if you can build a fire, you can put natural water or snow in a pot, get it boiling for a few minutes, then let it cool. The heat will kill microbes that can make you sick. To do this, though, will require a good heat source and a pot. So this may not be workable in some circumstances.
Manual water filters. This is the best alternative, in my opinion. You can get water filters that operate with a pump (like my MSR Miniworks, about $85) or others that operate like a squeeze bottle (Katydyn makes a good version of this, $45). My filter screws into the top of a Nalgene bottle, and I like it because you can filter as much as you need. This is ideal when you need to supply a lot of water for drinking and cooking, like when you’re with a group. Thirty minutes by a water source can net you gallons of pure water. The squeeze bottles are good for scooping up water on the fly and sipping as you go, like when you’re hiking or otherwise on the move.
In survival situations, you may not have any choice but to drink what’s available. Keep in mind that natural water sources, like those in lakes and streams, will have decomposing matter (dead plants and animals) in them as well as animal droppings. So while you might see people in survival TV shows slurping away from a stream or pond, what you’re not seeing are the antibiotics they have to take afterwards. If you’re forced to drink unfiltered water in the wild, a visit to the doctor might not be a bad idea when you get home.