A backpacking water filter or purifier allows deep enjoyment on extended trips, despite today’s hostile micro-environment.
When your dry mouth tells you that you are thirsty, you are partially dehydrated. Yet this happens so easily that it’s hard to believe we need to nurse our water bottles so often. That’s why we constantly hear “Drink plenty of fluids!” from sports trainers, doctors, and moms. We need to remind ourselves.
Water bottles and bags are a hiker’s steadfast companion. Water is one of the heaviest items we carry in our pack, yet we can’t wait to find more even before we run out. Running out of water is no fun. There are consequences.
Events can escalate quickly when walking without water in dry, hot conditions. Walking at night through a desert, with daily temperatures around 120º, a hiker has less than 24 hours to get his tail to the next watering hole – or else. In 90º, you’ve got 5 days, and in 50º you’ve got 8 days. This shows how quickly heat can suck the water out of us.
Signs of Dehydration
- Mild – signs of thirst, dry lips, moderately dry mouth.
- Moderate – severely dry mouth, sunken eyes, reluctance of the skin to quickly bounce back when moderately pinched and released.
- Severe – Include signs of moderate dehydration, a rapid and or weak pulse, cold hands and feet, meteoric breathing, blue lips, disorganization and or fatigue.
Electrolytes and Staying Hydrated
Sodium and potassium are most important for sustaining physical activity. Usually we get all the sodium we need from our food, especially packaged foods which are loaded with sodium. When we eat enough of the right fruits and vegetables, we also get enough potassium. But most diets lack sufficient potassium.
Foods rich in potassium include: almonds, bananas, beans, Brussels sprouts, grapefruit, mushrooms, oranges, potatoes, peanut butter and dairy products. Even during extended hikes, our electrolyte levels will be fine if we drink plenty of water and eat lots of whole foods.
Nothing hydrates better or faster than water.
Fruit drinks, milk, and carbonated drinks hydrate very slowly because they contain sugars that impede the water absorption rate.
Drinks containing caffeine or alcohol are diuretics. Diuretics increase urine flow, causing the kidneys to excrete more than the usual amount of sodium, potassium, and water.
Sports drinks like Gatorade don’t hydrate better than water, but they do contain some sodium and potassium which some people feel helps their physical performance. They also help people drink enough if they don’t like to drink large quantities of water.
A good water bottle isn’t hard to find. Hiking water bottles (like Nalgene) can be had for $8 or $9 at outdoor supply stores. They withstand hard knocks, protecting every precious drop, and have wide mouths for easy filling. They’re great.
But a regular plastic soda bottle will do just as well; plus they’re free and omnipresent. They are also very lightweight and tough. An outdoor salesman would scoff, claiming the need to secure your life-giving liquids in a container meant for the job – one that won’t break.
Test a soda bottle yourself. Throw the full container 15 – 20 feet into the air and let it hit the pavement. I’ve done this test. Mine didn’t bust. Then ask yourself when you would need even this much protection.
An item worth allowing yourself to be persuaded by is a collapsible water bottle or bag like the ones that come in hydration packs from companies like Camel or Platypus. These pouches have wide mouths for easy filling, are lightweight, can hold 3 or 4 liters, and fold flat in your bag as they are emptied.
Several daypacks include a hydration system – a water bag held inside the daypack and a plastic tube coming out of the bag and along the shoulder strap for easy access. You can also buy the hydration system separate and put it in any bag you wish.
Finding Water Along the Trail
Staying hydrated for a day hike is easy. Carry a water bottle or water bag and use them every ½ or ¾ hour. 2 liters should keep you happy for an all day outing, more if it’s hot. Experiment to find the right amount for your needs.
Most popular multi-day hikes have known water sources at decent intervals, meaning you won’t have to carry a heavy load of it, or a backpacking water filter. Water is heavy.
- 1 gallon [US] = 3.79 liters
- 1 gallon [US] = 8.35 pounds
- 1 gallon [UK] = 4.55 liters
- 1 gallon [UK] = 10.02 pounds
- 1 liter = 2.20 pounds
- 1 liter = 1 kilogram
Backcountry hiking requires more planning. It’s best to use known wild sources (springs, creeks, lakes, etc.) for water supplies. This means that you want to talk to park rangers or locals who can describe water sources used recently by other hikers.
The next best thing to using known water sources is to depend upon an educated guess. Cow patties and hoof prints, or large black pipes emptying thick green goo, next to a stream should make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
In general, collect your water from wild sources on relatively high ground, away from livestock, dumpsites, or industrial plants.
Some experienced outdoorsmen feel comfortable drinking straight from wild water sources without a backpacking water filter or boiling treatment. They find water sources utilizing maps and their developed skills and determine whether or not they are safe to drink based on their own experience. I’m not one of them. I use a water purifier.
The Frightful Googlebugs
Aaaahhhhhhh….!!!! It’s alive! Waterborne diseases are caused by ingestion and consequential infection by protozoa, bacteria, and viruses. These little ogres are hunting us with Machiavellian shrewdness. They are legion, well trained, and efficient. You may swallow a billion of them, but 5 or 6 can capably colonize your gut.
For some, infection goes unnoticed. They become carriers, obeying the will of the parasite, spreading the disease, but not feeling ill. Others experience plummeting weight loss, vomiting, extreme diarrhea, and dehydration. For most the symptoms are mild and pass in a few weeks without any medical treatment.
The two common spooky microorganisms that hikers need to be concerned with in their backpacking water are Giardia lamblia and Cryptosporidium (commonly called “crypto”).
Backpacking Water Filters, Water Purifiers, and Chemical Treatment
You can treat a wild water sample by bringing it to a rolling boil. Boiling kills all protozoa, bacteria, and viruses (all micro-parasites). But boiling water takes time and uses gas, so it’s an inefficient option. It takes a lot of discipline to boil enough water for your needs as a sole means of treatment.
A backpacking water filter treats protozoa and bacteria but not viruses. Look for a filter specifically designed to remove “pathogenic cysts” with an “absolute pore size” of 1 micron or smaller.
Viruses can be treated by boiling, iodine, or chlorine. An absolute 1 micron filter that also treats with iodine or chlorine is called a purifier. Purifiers effectively quash all the junk – protozoa, bacteria, and viruses.
Backpacking water filters and purifiers can sometimes get stopped up with gunk, so prefilter murky water with a coffee filter. Remember to clean your filter or purifier according to manufacturers’ directions at the end of your hiking vacation.
Chemical treatments, iodine and chlorine, come in tablet form. They kill some, but not all Giardia and Crypto.