One day me and my dad went on a hiking and fishing trip in the woods. It was remote area in the Georgia mountains. We probably hiked for at least an hour or so before arriving at the spot where we wanted to fish along the river. As we were getting ready to go trout fishing I was getting rather thirsty. So I had decided to try and drink some of the water from the river since it was moving water I thought it would be safe to drink. I put my stuff down and proceed to walk to the river’s edge to get in to get a drink of the nice cool refreshing water.
That is when my dad saw what I was about to do and yelled at me to stop. I just gave him a puzzled look and said “It is safe dad, it is moving water.” And that is when he told me that even moving water can contain bacteria that can make me sick. It is safe to say from that day forward I never did try to drink water out of a river even if it was moving.
Fresh, clear, and fast-moving water is a multi-sensory experience for the weary backpacker. The sound of water rushing over softball-sized rocks, the moist smell of cool air hovering above the stream, and the feel of water running trickling down your back as you squeeze it out of a soaked handkerchief brings a much needed infusion of energy and stamina back to your body.
But, for all of it’s benefits, you must be careful consuming it. Yes, even in the most remote areas of the country, waterborne illnesses can thrive and dangerously derail your time in the woods.
Giardia and Cryptosporidium are two of the more common protozoan parasites that cause significant gastrointestinal illnesses that can be fatal. There are others as well.
What I did not think of back then was that many of these enter the water supply through fecal matter of people or animals. Others can enter through decaying animals that are in contact with the water source. Waterborne illnesses can be contracted by drinking contaminated water.
What’s Up Stream?
Many people mistakenly believe that fast-moving water is safe to drink, that bacteria and protozoa cannot exist in areas where the current is swift.
Many people assume that fast moving water is safe water. The answer is yes and no. While if I had to choose between water that is not moving and moving water, I would easily choose the moving water over the puddle or lake that barley moves. Yet your are not completely in the safe, bacteria and parasites still can live in this water. A few thousand years ago our bodies could handle these parasites and bacteria better. Now however our immune system has lost the ability to fight off some of these bacteria and or parasites.
What’s upstream from your vantage point?
Just beyond the bend maybe a wide watering hole used by all sorts of wild or domesticated animals that have no qualms about pooping in the same water that they drink. Or perhaps there is a half-rotted, diseased and decaying former member of the herd laying half in the watering hole.
Neither of these bode well for you.
It’s Best to Purify
In a pinch, facing dehydration, I’d drink the unpurified water. I’d try to get as close to the source of the water as possible, following it upstream to where it bubbles out of the ground or emerges from a rocks. I’d shy away from areas where there are lots of animal tracks and slow, stagnant-looking water. Cold water is also less likely to be infected with problematic parasites.
But it’s best to purify the water. Boiling or killing the parasites with iodine tablets or ultraviolet light works well. Filtering with a high-quality filter is another way to prevent intestinal discomfort.
Fast-moving water certainly decreases your chances of becoming infected with a waterborne pathogen, but it’s not a sure thing. When it doubt, purify.