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7 Tips For Dealing With Contaminated Water In The Backcountry

7 Tips For Dealing With Contaminated Water In The Backcountry

Going for a long hike this summer? Be sure to bring plenty of water! Staying hydrated while hiking is one of the most important things to manage, because dehydration can be incredibly uncomfortable at best, and downright deadly at worst.

The general rule of thumb is that you want to drink at least 1 litre of water ever 2 hours you’re out on the trail. And with water weighing 1 kilogram per litre, that weight can really add up. This in turn can slow you down and potentially injure you if you’re hiking long enough distances. So, what’s the solution?

Well, if you want to put in the miles in the backcountry, you absolutely must know how to filter and purify water. Doing this gives you access to clean water in seconds and can be the difference between survival and potential death! If you’re new to water filtration and purification, you’re in the right spot. By the end of this post, you’ll not only know the dangers of trying to drink unpurified water, but you’ll also know 7 ways to deal with contaminated water in the backcountry. Let’s get started.

Why Purify Water in the Backcountry?

Water being purified in a kettle over a fire in the wild

Remember back in biology class when your teacher was going on and on about microorganisms? Well, it turns out that these can affect you even if you’re not a biologist today! Bacteria and parasites live where there is organic matter in need of getting broken down. Basically, if something needs to be decomposed, you’ll find bacteria and parasites there.

Bacteria and parasites help keep our world clean by disposing of dead material, but they can have some pretty nasty effects on the living as well. Common bacteria and parasites that live in untreated water sources include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Giardia
  • E. Coli
  • Salmonella
  • Cryptosporidium

When you get consume water with these bacteria and parasites in it, you put yourself at risk of getting really sick. While the effects of some bacteria and parasites are faster than others, the end game often involves a hospital stay to resolve the issues.

For a detailed look at your filtration and purification options in the wild, read Filtration vs Purification.

7 Tips for Dealing with Contaminated Water in the Backcountry 

A man drinking from a mountain stream with a straw water filter

Dealing with contaminated water isn’t complex. Follow these easy tips and you’ll be able to go confidently into the outdoors with the peace of mind that you’ll be able to handle any bacteria, protozoa, or parasites that might be swimming around in backcountry water sources.

1. Bring a Water Filter

The easiest way to create safe drinking water in seconds is to use a water filter. The AquaHike Straw Water Filter is a great option because it is lightweight and can easily screw onto the top of any standard sized screw-top water bottle. Simply fill your water bottle up, screw the filter onto the opening, and drink directly from the filter. You can even drink straight from a source. Easy!

2. Bring Something to Boil Water

For water sources that look particularly dirty, be sure to double up on your purification by boiling it. Boiling water helps kill off those nasty bugs that will make you sick. However, it won’t take any of the sediment out of the water, so consider filtering your water first before you boil it so you don’t end up drinking mud soup.

3. Consider Bringing Extra Water Purification Solutions

If you want to be 100% sure that you kill off all of the bacteria or protozoa from your backcountry water source, bring extra water purification solutions. This might include things like iodine drops, water purification tablets, and/or a UV light pen. While it’s not required that you bring each of these, it’s not a bad idea to have something to get your water extra clean in the event you have to drink some nasty water, or you want to have backups in case your filter breaks and you can’t boil the water.

4. Use Moving Water When Ever Possible

The best source to get water from is a river, creek, or stream. These are great for water as the constant flow helps to wash away a lot of the contaminants that exist within standing water. 

5. Scout Your Water Source

While using a moving water source like a river, creek, or stream is a great way to limit your potential exposure to contaminants, it doesn’t mean that you should trust it 100% without doing some scouting first. Go up stream for a while and check to ensure that there aren’t any dead animals or evidence of fecal matter in the water upstream from where you intend to fill up. This will help reduce the risk of picking up a nasty water bug, even after filtering and boiling.

6. Camel Up

Whenever you’re at able to stop for a while at a water source, it’s always a good idea to camel up. Cameling up basically means that you drink as much water as you can before moving on. This is a great strategy, especially when you’re going to hike for a while until your next water source. You’ll get plenty of water right away, which will help you not have to carry as much between stops.

7. Use Common Sense

Remember to think out there. You’re smart! Check for dead things in the water. Look for any signs that might point out that the water sources may be contaminated with chemicals. Scout ahead of your trip by looking at the maps and seeking out advise on the forums/Facebook pages of folks that are hiking where you plan on hiking, so you know what to expect and how to best prepare. You’ve got this!

Final Thoughts 

Alrighty! We’ve gone over a ton of information, so let’s recap. Remember that you must drink at least 1 litre of water for every 2 hours you spend hiking. That number can go up based on the altitude you’re hiking at, the amount of effort you’re exerting, and the environment you’re hiking in (IE, hotter, drier climates will definitely require that you consume more water). 

Treat every backcountry water source you come across as contaminated. You have no way of knowing whether or not bacteria and parasites are swimming around in an otherwise clear water source. 

And if you learned something valuable in this article and want to continually get the best advise on how to not only survive but thrive in the backcountry, be sure to sign up for our newsletter by filling in your name and email below. Never forget that you can avoid getting sick and get clean water outdoors in seconds by following these 7 tips!

To learn more ways to access clean water in the wild, read 7 Ways to Access Clean Water in the Wilderness.

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