Episode #4 of the course Beginning Backpacking by Alice Morgan
Being able to find and purify water is an important skill in the backcountry. Without water, you won’t be able to keep yourself hydrated or cook many of your meals. Unfortunately, most of the water you’ll encounter while backpacking is contaminated with microorganisms. Without taking steps to decontaminate your drinking supply, you’ll find yourself with a bad case of vomiting and diarrhea at best. Some microorganisms can even cause death.
Water Requirement for the Body
When you backpack, your body needs more than it would at home. You lose water through sweating, breathing, and going to the bathroom. If you don’t stay adequately hydrated, you can find yourself the victim of some unpleasant medical emergencies. (We’ll talk about a few in Lesson 9). As a good rule of thumb, drink about one and a half to two and a half liters every day during fall and spring trips. In the summer, aim for two and half to three and half liters. The winter will require even more water. Try to drink three and half or more liters during cold weather trips.
The best water sources are clear and fast moving. Ideally, you’ll be able to collect water directly from a small cascade on the edge of a running stream. Less ideal is a slow-moving or still puddle of muddy water. Still water can be drunk safety, but you’ll need to take extra precautions to be sure it is thoroughly purified.
Water Treatment Methods
There are several different methods you can use to treat water, including: boiling, chemical purification, ultraviolet light, and filtration. Let’s start with boiling.
Boiling water is one of the best ways to kill any microorganisms that may be floating around in backcountry water sources. Allow your collected water to reach a rolling boil for about a minute, and the heat will quickly kill anything living. The boiling method is great for meals, because you don’t have to purify cooking water separately. However, boiling can burn through fuel quickly if you’re also using it to purify your drinking water.
Chemical purification is a popular water treatment method. There are two schools of thought on chemical treatment: iodine-based additives or chlorine-based additives. Not everyone can use iodine. Some people are allergic or have incompatible medical conditions. Chlorine treatments are good alternatives for iodine-incompatible people who prefer chemical methods. Both types of chemicals are effective, though each has a certain set of microorganisms it is more effective against. Before you commit to a certain brand of chemical treatment, know the types of microorganisms found in the water and read the manufacturer’s instructions carefully.
Filtration is another popular water treatment method. Filters work by utilizing a fine screen that allows water to pass through into your water bottle but keeps microorganisms out. Filters come in three sizes. A regular filter will prevent large microorganisms like giardia from passing through, microfilters will keep out smaller creatures like salmonella, and purifiers will keep out everything.
Lastly, some backpackers use ultraviolet light to purify water. UV-filtration devices deliver a dose of ultraviolet light that kills all types of microorganisms. The only downside to this method is that UV purifiers don’t perform well with murky water. They can also be fragile. If you decide to use UV light, consider bringing along another type of purification as a back up.
That’s it for water. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about trip planning.
Chapter 4 of The Backpacker’s Field Manual: A Comprehensive Guide to Mastering Backcountry Skills by Rick Curtis
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