Backcountry Water Treatment

The water tumbling along in a clear-flowing mountain stream could be some of the cleanest, purest water on earth. Or it may carry a stray microscopic pest that, if it finds its way into your intestines, could leave you weak, nauseous, cramped, bloated or vulnerable to diarrhea and vomiting for weeks.

It’s a fact of modern wilderness life: Any backcountry water source, no matter how high or remote, is susceptible to contamination due to unsanitary practices of the creatures that visit it from birds and bears to possums and humans. Experienced wilderness travelers recognize the need to play it safe with backcountry water and thus treat every drop before they drink.

Water treatment methods include:

  • Water Filters: The most convenient method of water treatment is a lightweight filtration system consisting of a pump and filter material capable of trapping Giardia. Though somewhat expensive, the filtration system is an increasingly popular alternative. Read the label to see if the filter is effective against Giardia.
  • Iodine Tablets: Far cheaper than filtration, iodine tablets are easy to use, lightweight, and take up hardly any space in a pack. Iodine pill treatment can take 20 minutes or longer, and the pill’s effectiveness is lessened in cold or murky water. Read the label to see if the manufacturer guarantees the tablet’s effectiveness against Giardia, and follow directions for use. Chemical treatment can give a mild unpleasant taste to the water. If desired, add powdered, flavored drink mix to the water to improve the taste. (Note: Iodine can have unwanted health consequences, especially in people with thyroid disease and pregnant women.)
  • Chlorine Treatment: Household bleach can be used to disinfect water. The recommended treatment: Add four drops of bleach (sodium hypochlorite) per quart and let stand for 30 minutes before drinking. Chemical treatment can impart an unpleasant taste to water.
  • Boiling Water: Keep water at a boil for at least one minute (up to five minutes at high altitudes). Boiling water is a reliable method of destroying Giardia.

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