Water: to Treat or Not to Treat?

Fresh mountain stream?  Yeah, I would drink that.

Fresh mountain stream? Yeah, I would drink that.

Water treatment is a much argued about topic among hikers.  What treatment method is best?  How much does it weigh?  Does it kill all the bacteria?  This post isn’t going to be an exhaustive list of every method there is for treating water.  I’m only going to discuss my personal opinion on water treatment.

So what method did I use to treat my water during my thru-hike?  The truth is, I didn’t treat my water during my hike.  Not once.  I didn’t get sick from the water either.  What are the benefits to not treating water, you ask?

  • Save weight.  Water filters can weigh over 10 ounces.  Unless you have a hiking partner who you’re sharing gear with, it might not be worth the extra weight.
  • Save money.  UV lights and water filters can cost anywhere from $70 to $300.  Even if you go with Aqua Mira or Potable Water, you’ll still spend $10 to $15 every few weeks.
  • Save time.  You can just put your bottle under the stream, fill up, and drink.  You don’t have to sit there and filter it or wait 30 minutes for your chemical treatment to work.

If you absolutely want to treat your water, and you’re reading this because you want to know more about treatment methods, I apologize.  Check out these useful articles by Wild Backpacker or REI.

How do you decide which water sources are safe to drink out of?  Well, it’s impossible to say for sure, just by looking at a source.  But try to follow these guidelines to be safer.

  • Be picky about your sources.  There’s plenty of water along the trail.  You don’t have to drink out of every source.
  • Don’t drink water by major roads.  You don’t know what’s in the runoff.
  • Don’t drink out of ponds or still water.
  • Don’t drink any water that’s by a cow pasture.
  • Springs that run straight out of the mountain are a good way to go.
  • Fast moving streams are also good sources.

I carried a small bottle of iodine tablets with me just in case I was desperate for water and the source was questionable.  Iodine tablets taste disgusting though, so I was never desperate enough to use them.

I did several section hikes prior to my thru-hike.  During that time, I had a UV light to sterilize my water.  While this method was fast and easy, I was ultimately unhappy with it.  After maybe a combined 20 days of hiking, my Steripen stopped working.  I don’t think that it’s very well suited for long-distance hikes, and it might work better for weekend trips.

The main fear among hikers as far as not treating water goes, is getting the giardia parasite.  Giardia comes from animal or human feces and causes uncontrollable diarrhea.  Studies have found that many water treatment methods aren’t 100% effective in killing the giardia parasite, however.

Make note that water sources are plentiful on the AT.  On other trails, this may not be the case.  Do research ahead of time.  If you’re hiking a trail where water is scarce, you might want to bring a treatment method.

Do you have a preferred method of water treatment?  How do you feel about not treating water in the backcountry?

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5 thoughts on “Water: to Treat or Not to Treat?

  1. I would think the water towards the top of mtns. would be ok, but the further down you go it seems it would be questionable. Great Post!

  2. Water filters don’t have to weigh so much. Sawyer has several filters that don’t weigh anything near 10 oz. Check out http://www.sawyer.com/water.html there is the Sawyer Squeeze (which I carry), Sawyer Mini, and the Sawyer 3 Way Water Filter all under 5 oz. Also Iodine should be used with cation, those with Thyroid issues can have them made worse or triggered by too much iodine.

  3. I treated questionable sources on my thru hike, but used common sense (like you listed) most of the time.

    What did you do when there aren’t any desirable sources? I’m thinking of stretches in PA/NJ, or a shelter in Maine where the water source was a beaver dam. 🙂

    • I had a 3 liter platypus that was very inconvenient to fit into my pack. A lot of days, I would just fill it up all the way in the morning and it would last all day. I didn’t really drink more than 3 liters unless it was over 90 degrees.

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