Sunday, April 15, 2007

Drinking untreated water

Until about 20 years ago, I routinely drank untreated water from streams on trails. On many hikes, I would take only a pint water bottle and fill it along the trail as I went. On some hikes that was a problem, I would run out of water before I found more, but I was younger then and better able to withstand dehydration. On hikes in areas without water I would carry water but still enjoyed drinking from clear, fast moving streams. Then I started hearing more recommendations to treat water before drinking it, both official and word of mouth. For the western US where I hike the primary issue was giardiasis and there was emphasis that it could infect clear, fast moving water. So I started bringing water with me or treating it, chemically or boiling it. It was a pain but an acquaintance got giardiasis and was miserable for weeks. I hadn't had any trouble but did not want to chance infection.

In the last couple of years, the USENET group rec.backcountry has had recurring discussions about the safety of water in the backcountry of the western US. Various posters have quoted sources which indicate that giardia are not that common and the risk of drinking water from moving sources is slight. Also that the larger risk of giardiasis is from poor hygiene and contamination by companions. I've thought about this but concluded that the downside of treating my water or carrying extra is slight and I prefer to lower my risks of water-borne illness. On the other hand, if I ran out of water on a hike and got thirsty, I would drink what appeared to be clean water rather than get dehydrated.

A couple of years ago in Yellowstone NP, I met 4 guys backcountry hiking on a warm, very dry afternoon. They initially asked me where the nearest restroom was (probably back where you started the trail). After talking further I found they needed water, it was good they clarified this because I might have directed them to a pit toliet. I could have spared some water but it would not have gone far amoung the 4 of them. Instead I gave them my bottle of iodine water purifier and suggested they read the directions. Since we were standing by a small lake with streams flowing into the lake, there was plenty of available water. I'm not sure how to weigh the risk of drinking untreated water in YNP backcountry with the discomfort and risk of dehydration, clearly it is better to be prepared. Still, I probably would have found a clean-appearing creek and filled my water bottles.


At 16/4/07 13:38, Blogger wyldthang said...

Hi! me too, when I was growing up. Add in there swimming in lakes and swallowing water. "I believe" (of course I could be wrong!) that some folks, if introduced young, can tolerate giardia(Just like people in third world countries can tolerate water we can't). Of course you have to throw your own makeup into the mix. I've never had symptoms, that I've know of. I still drink from springs, fast moving crashing water. I don't drink straight when I know there are a lot of people using the area--although you could bushwhack back up a stream a ways, most people stick to the trail.

Or maybe I just can't resist the taste of sweet cold mountain water on a long hike!!

PS, I've heard too that a lot of what is assumed as being sick from giardia is really from bad personal hygeine.

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