Our bodies are made up of 75% water, thus the effects of dehydration are fast and debilitating. Although you can survive without water for a number of days, you will do it with lethargy, a headache, joint pains and muscle cramps. Thus, water should be of constant concern, both in the city and in the woods. Fortunately, water also covers over 75% of the planet, so finding it is usually not difficult. Finding clean, safe water while travelling can be more problematic however.
The EPA estimates that 90% of the world fresh water is unsafe to drink without treatment. The World Health Organization sites waterborne gastrointestinal infections as the cause of 80% of all disease; killing 50,000 people daily. There are dozens of ways water can become contaminated; the most likely being agricultural and industrial run off. Although water can be invisibly contaminated, quite often you can judge water though a variety of factors.
Foam: If the shores have foam, leave it alone. Water does not foam. If there is foam present in the water, it indicates heavy contamination. Do not drink it. Even though you may be tempted to, especially if it is miles to the next clean source and you are running low but remember that intestinal illness is a much greater dehydrator than a few miles walking and foam can even indicate industrial runoff, and god only knows what that stuff will do to you.
Stagnant Water: Sitting water is generally a bad idea to drink. Stagnant pools are collection points for everything that can possibly be washed into them, Since the only way for these pools to empty is through evaporation, a contaminated pool remains contaminated for years on end, and actually becomes more contaminated as less and less water remains.
Agricultural Runoff: If there is a pasture on the water front anywhere up stream, use great caution, and preferably avoid drinking it. Most intestinal diseases are spread through feces, which spreads easily through the ground during rain.
Industrial Runoff: Mining pollutes ground water with a variety of chemicals, as do a great number of industrial practices. (Flouride is a byproduct of aluminum production). Avoid water down hill from mining and industrial areas, since poisons like cyanide, arsenic and things Iâ€™m too freaked out about to look up can be present.
Alkalis: In some areas, springs can have a dangerously high alkaline content drawn from leeching through minerals in the ground. Fortunately, Alkali tainted water is bitter and leaves a long after taste in the mouth, so it is pretty easily identified.
Tannic Acid: Tannic acid lends a brown color to water, although by itself, it is not toxic, even in large quantities. I looks like watered down soda pop and is caused by water leeching the tannic acid from trees like cedar.
Giardia: Not so affectionately known as Beaver Fever due to the myth that beaver droppings spread the infection, Giardia is a protozoan that rose to prominence during the 1980s due to heightened numbers of infection among backpackers and campers. Some speculate that this protozoa has been with us for eons, but a combination of day to day sterility and use of antibiotics have weakened our natural immunities to it. The increase of agricultural meadowland along watersheds has also contributed to an increase in infections since it is spread through fecal matter.
Crypto: Cryptosporadium is another protozoan responsible for diuretic distress and is the most common cause of everyday diarrhea. Neither iodine nor chorine will kill it, although it is susceptible to boiling and filtering, but only if you are using a 1 micron or smaller filter. Most ceramic hiking filters will filter crypto. Fortunately, once you get crypto, you will have a slight immunity to it that gradually builds.
E. Coli: Not much of a problem in pristine mountains, E. Coli is found in shallow groundwater sources contaminated with animal waste.
Caffeine , Carbon Dioxide, Corn Syrup and Coloring: Soda pop is poison. It melts your teeth, dehydrates you and is produced by some pretty despicable multinationals. While I use soda cans to make stoves, I won’t even pick up a used coca-cola can for fear that somebody might think I actually support the bastards.
Boiling: Boiling is one of the safest methods of treating water, although it will not remove chemical pollutants. Boiling can also be used with other forms of treatment to just to be sure. It makes the water taste flat, but that can be remedied by pouring it from one container to another a few times, which also speeds the cooling process.
Iodine: One of the most common methods of treating water, iodine kills giardia and many other waterborne diseases, but it is unable to kill crypto due to a protective cyst around the organism. Iodine collects in the body over any period of use, so it is not recommended for constant use and this is why the public water system does not use it for purification. Iodine leaves a bad taste in the water which can be neutralized with a small bit of ascorbic acid (Powdered vitamin C (Citric Acid) works too). Before adding flavor neutralizers, make sure the iodine has had at least fifteen to twenty minutes to purify the water, thirty of the water is cold. Iodine tablets are sold under the brand names Portable Aqua and Polar Pure and for a few bucks more you can get an additional bottle of PA plus, ascorbic acid tablets that neutralize the taste of the iodine. Iodine looses its effectiveness once exposed to air, so once you open a bottle try to use it in a few weeks or buy a new bottle. It is also discourages for anyone with a thyroid condition, and those allergic to shellfish, since shellfish allergies are often caused by the iodine they contain.
Chlorine: Forget it. Chlorine is one of the least effective methods of cleansing water, although it has the benefit of not leaving behind a chemical after taste. Chlorine bleach is suggested for use during emergencies where municipal water systems have been compromised.
Water Filters: I love mine. I have drank from murky green horse troughs, yielding crisp clean water and not gotten sick. Filters can pricy and some people doubt their usefulness to weight ratio, however while completing Ranger school, I had the chance to drink swamp water, filtered through a t-shirt and treated with extra strength (and extra tasty) iodine tablets. To this day I refuse to drink “Superfoods” or other macrobiotic “green protein” drinks because of that one “opportunity” If you opt to buy a filter, do not go cheap, make sure the filter has a filtration level of less than 2 microns, as anything higher will neither eliminate Giardia nor crypto.
Aquamira: The aquamira system consists of two bottles, one containing Chlorine Dioxide (not really chlorine) and food grade phosphoric acid. By pre-mixing the two and adding it to water, it oxygenates the water, killing any biological contaminants. It requires a 30 minute wait, but leaves no foul taste and is supposedly more effective than either iodine or chlorine.
It is said that 64 ounces a day is a good amount of water to consume. However, this does not mean you should go tramping off into the woods with two 32 ounce bottles, since you will also need water for cooking and cleaning.
Water Bottles: These can be as simple as recycled soda bottles, which have the benefit of being collapsible when empty, or as complex as varnished aluminum sig bottles. I personally carry two wide mouth lexan plastic bottles which screw directly onto the bottom of my water filter. I also carry a rolled up two liter bottle in the bottom of my pack for use at camp or to carry additional water in dry locales. I also occasionally will carry a half liter water bottle which I use to drink from while walking because I can carry it in my pocket.
Water Bags: Water bags are no good for carrying water, since they slosh and shift weight, but they are great for storing water. A number of hikers recommend using one just for camp, to prevent constantly running for more water. It is also a simple matter to turn a water bag into a camp shower by buying a second cap, which you use a hot pin to make holes in.
Hydration Bladders: Dromedary bags are most commonly referred to by the brand name Camelbak. hydration bladders are incorporated into most modern, high-end backpacks. I have considered modifying my ruck sack to accommodate one but the price, difficulty in cleaning and threat of a puncture turn me off to the idea. There are useful however, and I know many people who swear by them and the convenience of having a straw draped over your shoulder does encourage good drinking habits. I personally use a Platypus due to the simplicity of their design.
Collapseable Jugs: Skip em. They are great for car camping, but are difficult to carry, puncture easily, and after getting folded up a few dozen times they WILL break open. I carried one for fourteen days. I used it at camp for five, and then carried the broken piece of plastic for nine days just to throw it out.
I advocate always carrying a map, which is the best way to find water, although hiking an extra mile to a dry creek bed in the middle of summer can be disappointing. Look for downhill valleys which channel water, abrupt changes in vegetation, willow trees are notorious for growing by springs and lakes as is cottonwood in drier regions. Large flocks of quail, rockdoves and other foraging birds can indicate a water source nearby. In arid or desert regions look for shocks of green vegetation, which indicate a source or at least shallow groundwater, which can be dug for. If you have to dig more than a foot, give up and try someplace else. In the desert, look for reflections, but this can be tricky, as what seems to be a reflection of water could simply be a mirage.
Water is everywhere, thankfully and it is not hard to gather water in the woods. However, should you find yourself without, there are a number of tricks to collect water.
- Put a plastic bag around tree branches and tie it off. The moisture from the tree will condense in the bag over a few hours, yielding a few sips of water.
- Dig a hole, deep enough to place your water bottle into and a foot or two wide. Lay a plastic sheet (tarps and space blankets work) over the hole, and put a small rock in the middle, directly over your water bottle. The day time heat will cause water to evaporate, which will collect on the tarp, running down and gradually dripping into your water bottle. If you are in a true survival situation, you should also know that this method will allegedly distill urine into drinkable water.
- Rain. God I love rain water. Clean, fresh and easy to collect. If a storm is coming I will often leave my cookpot and a water bottle out and open in a clearing, even if Iâ€™m camped out near a river. I donâ€™t however do this in or near cities as I feel (Maybe Iâ€™m wrong) that even the air is dirty there.
- Dew Mopping: Use a piece of cloth early in the morning to wipe dew from the landscape and then wring it into a cup. Donâ€™t gather dew from poisonous plants though. This is actually a pretty effective way to acquire water. You should still treat water gathered in this matter.