There is one simple truth to the debate on whether or not to treat your water; if you don’t you are risking spending your trip with intestinal distress. Whether you are drinking from a crystal clear stream or a brackish pond, it is important to safeguard yourself from micro-organisms and viruses. A variety of pathogens can live in even the most clean looking water. Giardia, Cryptosporidium, and a host of other diarrhea and nausea causing parasites have made some of our most pristine wild places home. The good news is that there are many ways to protect yourself against these:
Boiling your drinking water used to be the standard. While it is true that boiling your water for three or more minutes will kill any organic contaminates that could make you sick, this will burn excess fuel. Boiling also will not do anything for other pollutants such as herbicides and pesticides. Bringing your water to a rapid boil and keeping it there for three to five minutes is a good backup to other methods, however, so it’s worth mentioning here.
Filtering your water is a good method of providing safe drinking water without the taste or potential hazards of chemicals. With our MSR micro-filters, the water is pumped through a ceramic and carbon cartridge removing bacteria, cysts, and protozoa. The carbon core removes chemicals and pesticides. Ceramic filters offer several advantages. You can scrub off the outer surface of the ceramic. This exposes a new layer, providing essentially a new filter should it become clogged. The element would need to be replaced after several scrubbings as the ceramic eventually wears down. The downside of ceramic filters is that they clog quicker than other materials due to decreased surface area on the cartridge. They are also heavier than other materials, and when outside the filter housing they are fragile.
Katadyn utilizes a glass fiber and carbon cartridge which removes the same contaminants as ceramic while being lighter and not fragile at all. The material the water passes through with these filters is pleated, providing a filter that will not clog as quickly. However, once these pleats do become clogged from use, you must replace the filter element. These filters may be more suited towards shorter trips. One important note: the pores of these and most other micro-filters are too large for viruses; however this is of minimal concern within most developed countries. Making sure you have a backup either by boiling or other ways of purifying water is always a good idea, whether viruses are a threat or not.
Purifying water is a sure way of having safe water. While filtering will remove most pathogens excluding viruses, purifying your water kills or inactivates all bacteria, cysts, and viruses. Unfortunately, the methods listed below will not remove sediment or chemicals, but depending on conditions this may not be a concern. Typically, most purifying methods fall into one of two categories- you’re either using chemicals or exposing the water to ultraviolet light.
There are myriad options for chemical disinfection. Potable Aqua is a popular type of iodine treatment. These are tablets that you simply drop into your water. Wait thirty minutes, and enjoy your water. Simple. One important note on iodine is that it will not deactivate Cryptosporidium cysts. Iodine also has a strong taste, although that can be somewhat neutralized with the addition of P.A. Plus, an additional tablet that is available through the same company. Iodine has also been shown to pose a health risk to some groups of people, making this product more of an emergency item rather than a primary method of treating your water. These tablets are literally smaller than an aspirin, so you can always have a few in your pack.
Another popular and compact choice is Katadyn’s Micropur tabs. These tablets are chlorine based, giving the user a more palatable bottle of water. Unlike Potable Aqua these do deactivate Cryptosporidium cysts. However, in extremely murky and cold water the wait time is increased up to four hours to inactivate these.
Available from MSR is the Miox purifying system. This instrument actually makes a mixed oxidant solution using salt and electrically charged water. By dumping this solution into your water you deactivate all bacteria, viruses and cysts with wait times comparable to Micropur tabs. This would be an ideal product for groups or extended outings, providing you don’t mind chemical treatments.
If you aren’t comfortable with chemical treatments, UV light poses no health risks, imparts no taste, and has almost no wait time. For those opposed to ingesting chemical laced water, this and boiling may be the only options for use in the backcountry. The SteriPen purifier uses UV light to disrupt the DNA of microbes, making them unable to reproduce and make you sick. Simply stick the wand into your water, push a button, stir for a short time, and you have safe drinking water. While this product does weigh considerably more than tablets, it is about half the weight of most filters. As with any device that relies on batteries and could malfunction, be sure to have a backup. Steripen has attempted to remove the chance that your batteries will fail with a solar panel charging system.
The method you choose may be dependent on the duration of a trip, your unique needs, or the size of your group. Any time you’re unsure of water conditions, grab a filter. Going fast and light? Maybe tablets are the way to go. Leading a group trip? The Miox is a great choice. Is easy your style? The Steripen would be an excellent option. Whether you put a tablet in it, pump it, zap it, or boil it, treating your water in some way will keep you out of the privy and on the trail.
About the author: Will Cornett has been a Rock/Creek employee for years. He currently serves as a manager with a focus on staff training. His passions include backpacking, hiking and climbing. When he’s not at our downtown Chattanooga location, you can find Will backpacking in the Smokies or bouldering at nearby hotspots like The Stone Fort. This photo shows Will hiking near a snow-covered Siler’s Bald on the Appalachian Trail.