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Author: Mark Mazour
It is a simple fact; we require water for survival. Maintaining proper hydration is not only healthy, but will give you more energy and allow your muscles to recover more quickly from strenuous exercise. But, how can you be sure that the water is safe enough to drink?
Picture the scene. You're hiking alongside a stream rushing down the mountain. You're thirsty from packing up a long trail and can feel the cool mist of the 33-degree water hitting your legs. The water looks so clear and perfect that you just want to dip in a cup and take a drink.
This water is straight from the snowmelt and has to be as pure as water can be, right? WRONG! The clear water that you think is perfect for drinking is the same water that the wildlife in the area and the packhorses up the trail think is a perfect latrine. Therefore, most of the water around you may contain parasites with nice Latin names like Giardia Lamblia or Cryptosporidium. These little parasites with big names can translate into literally "explosive" gastrointestinal problems for you. Also, as remote areas become more populated, bacteria and agricultural chemicals are beginning to enter the water supply and can cause further problems.
I have personally witnessed a fellow camper with a bacterial infection from drinking bad water, and it didn't look like he was having too much fun. It started with stomach cramps strong enough to make him double over followed by an onslaught of severe diarrhea, for further enjoyment. For some it lasts only a couple of days, but others develop complications that last for months. I don't know about you, but that doesn't sound like a fun way to remember a trip.
It is a simple fact; we require water for survival. Maintaining proper hydration is not only healthy, but will give you more energy and allow your muscles to recover more quickly from strenuous exercise. One of the best pieces of advice I was given was to drink water regularly and not wait until I was thirsty before taking a drink. But, how can you be sure that the water is safe enough to drink?
Boiling has been the traditional way to treat water. The drawback is that this method requires a lot of time and fuel. Opinions vary on how long you should boil, but three to five minutes is often recommended. Boiling just a gallon or two of water could result in you having to pack a lot of extra stove fuel. Boiling does a good job of killing parasites and bacteria, but it does not neutralize any chemicals or improve the taste.
The next water treatment choice is the time-honored use of Iodine tablets. The benefit of Iodine is that it is very packable (a small pill bottle) and easy to use. However, you can easily tell the "iodine hikers" out there, as their water bottles turn yellow from the iodine. Besides the coloring, unless you let it sit for several hours, the water often has a taste that makes you unsure of how badly you want a drink.
This has now changed with recent advancements in iodine treatment kits. Potable Aqua has a two part water treatment kit that includes their P.A. Plus, which removes the yellow color and much of the iodine taste.
Besides being a health problem for some people (for instance those with Thyroid conditions), the main drawback of Iodine is, though it is effective on Giardia, it is iffy at best at killing Cryptosporidium. While Crypto has only been around since 1993, it has the same gut wrenching symptoms as Giardia and is not on my list of fun things to experience.
Iodine still has a place in everyone's pack though, as the small tablets make for a handy method of emergency purification, should your filter clog, you feel lazy, or if you are unable to boil water.
Drinking Water Tablets are the convenient and sure way to be completely safe when hiking, fishing or hunting in the backcountry. Katadyn Micropur tablets are the only EPA registered purification tablets on the market, and they produce fresh tasting water that is very pleasant to the palate. Tablets can be carried without adding significant additional weight, and they’re always ready to use. Each Micropur tablet treats up to one liter of water, eliminating all microorganisms. These tablets are effective against viruses, bacteria, giardia and cryptosporidium. Tablets come in a bottle of 30, are compact, lightweight and easy to stow into even the most remote locations.
Filters, Microfilters, and Purifiers
In the old days, filters were heavy, cumbersome and difficult to pack. Those days are gone. Now, there is a complete line of small, hand held filters and purifiers that can handle a lot of water, and still easily fit in your pack. After seeing a buddy handling the ill effects of Giardia, you can bet I will always have room for my microfilter.
Before we go any farther, we need to get a full understanding of what the terms "filter", "microfilter" and "purifier" actually mean. See the chart at the left for a full description of each classification.
Filter: The technical classification of a filter is 1.0 to 4.0 microns. What this means is that the filter will take out most of what you can see, and it will remove Giardia. If you go with a filter on the tight end of the scale, at 1.0 microns, it will also remove Cyptosporidium and small parasitic eggs and larva. In remote areas, with clear water and little human activity, filters will usually do fine and keep you from intestinal horror.
Microfilter: The microfilter is a step up, with a filtering system from 0.2 to 1.0-micron pore sizes. On the tight end of the scale, at 0.2 microns, microfiltrs will not only remove most microorganisms, but they will also remove bacteria such as Salmonella and the dreaded E Coli that we read about so much in the news.
I have found that in the United States and Canada, a microfilter of 1.0 micron or less will take care of most of the goodies that can cause you discomfort, with the exception of viruses. However, if you plan on traveling to less developed countries or have strong fears of viruses and bacteria, a purifier may be the best bet.
Purifier: Although many people mistakenly call their filter a purifier, a true purifier filters down to 0.004 microns and usually adds iodine to destroy viruses. What this means is very, very clean water. A purifier usually comes with a heavier price tag, but it also comes with the benefit of filtering out everything mentioned above plus it removes viruses such as Hepatitis A, Polio, and Norwalk. If travel to a third world country is in your future, invest in a purifier now and have the piece of mind that all the water you drink is as healthy, if not healthier than that out of the tap at home.
Filter Buyer's Guide
When looking for a water filter or purifier, you first need to decide where and how often you will use it. Filters are offered in many sizes, models, and prices to fit you and your budget. Usually, this is based on how long the filter will last and pore size. Some smaller, less expensive filters are perfect for day trips and occasional use, as the filters only last for several hundred quarts.
Also, be sure to look at the output rate. One of the first filters I bought worked great, but it took forever to filter a quart of water. It required some serious preplanning to filter enough water for dinner. Some smaller filters may take a lot of time to filter 1 quart while some larger models can filter hundreds of gallons at a rate of one quart per minute or greater.
Another thing to look for is a good pre-filter. These foam or mesh devices are field cleanable, filter out all the large solid particles and help keep your expensive inner cartridge from expiring too soon. Set up properly the cartridge can work on the microorganisms, and the pre-filter can handle the mud, sand, and silt. Good pre-filter maintenance is the secret to getting the longest life out of your filter. Take a look below at some of the quality filters on the market.
Safewater Anywhere™ Filter Bottle
These filters are perfect for individual use. While their capacity is not the highest, they are definitely the easiest to use - no pumps, tubes, or floats to break down or get lost. All you do is fill it up and drink. A 2.0-micron filter takes care of most of your needs, and the pre-filter keeps your primary filter clean. I have used the Safewater Anywhere filter in the field and find they are just the thing for shorter trips or day hikes from a base camp. Then you can save the most weight and leave the big filter at camp.
Exstream Purifier Bottles
Like the Safewater filters, these purifiers work great for individual use. These bottles are the first on the market to use EPA-registered personal water purification systems. Their effective purification system is due to the three-component Virtu-Stat® cartridge located on the inside cap. This system effectively removes over 99.9% of waterborn cysts and protozoa such as Giardia and Cryptosporidium, as well as 99.99% of waterborn viruses/ The personal size works great for small backpacking trips, day hikes and bike treks. The purification level is perfect for travel out of country. Each filter cartridge treats 26 gallons of water, plenty for a long haul. The Exstream Purifiers are available in a 34-ounce bottle or a 26-ounce size, perfect for biking.
PUR portable outdoor water systems are the largest selling brand worldwide. This is due to their simple, easy operation and their full product line that covers anything you might need. I have personally filtered a lot of water through several PUR filters, and I am a happy camper. They performed flawlessly and had little to no maintenance, compared to other filters. The best compliment I can give PUR filters is that they will be the only filters I will ever have in my pack. Enough said.
Another handy feature is that all models have an adapter to fit the mouth of popular Nalgene® water bottles. This really comes in handy if you are filtering at streamside by yourself. Take my word for it. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to hold a bottle upright, working the filter and then spilling a full quart of water that took several minutes to get. With the adapters, you can even knock the bottle over and not lose any of that nice clean water.
Even though you have filtered or treated your water, at times some unpleasant taste may remain. I always pack along some sweetened drink mixes to add to the water. The sugar-free ones are very lightweight and usually flavor two quarts at a time. They come in many varieties, and you can enjoy lemonade, fruit drinks, or even iced tea.