Tuesday, July 01, 2014

To Treat and Not to Treat, Water That is...

Water purification trailside is one of the many concerns hikers face when planning a long distance hike.  A water-borne illness can wreck havoc with a hike and at times had forced hikers to discontinue their trek. I recall a reunion with  two southbounders back in Massachusetts who I originally met in Maine. One of them contracted the dreaded “beaver fever “ in Vermont and was still battling it with weakness and fatigue, despite antibiotic treatment.  As taken from the USGS site : “Waterborne pathogens are disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and protozoans that are transmitted to people when they consume untreated or inadequately treated water. Two protozoans in the news today are Giardia and Cryptosporidium. Their consumption can lead to severe problems of the digestive system, which can be life-threatening to the very young, very old, or those with damaged immune systems.”

There are several methods one can use when it comes to water and hiking:

  • Do nothing. I know of a few in this class who merely take their cup, dip it into the stream, and drink it straight. I have only done this once myself. I was in Pennsylvania at Peters Mountain shelter, and as anyone can tell you, the journey to the water source is quite an ordeal – like a 300 step ordeal. By the time I got there, I was so hot and thirsty, I filled my cup with the water raging cut of the pipe and drank it straight. But I also knew that above the source, there was nothing that could contaminate it. So I was fairly sure I would be fine, and I was. In the Smokies I was also without purification and did ok. But in many cases you are rolling the dice with regards to picking up diseases. And one thing's for sure, relentless diarrhea is no fun on a hike! 

  • Chemical treatments such a Aqua Mira, Polar Pure, iodine tablets or even straight iodine or bleach via droppers.  Long ago I used iodine and still have bottles tainted by the color. Nothing is worse in my opinion than the taste of iodine. Aqua Mira had been the choice on all my hikes until I found the Sawyer this past year (see below). On the website it states: 
“Chlorine dioxide, a well established disinfectant is the active ingredient in Aquamira® Water Treatment Drops. Chlorine dioxide is iodine and chlorine free. The unique formula works by releasing nascent oxygen, a highly active form of oxygen, which is a strong oxidant and a powerful germicidal agent. Chlorine dioxide has been used by municipal water treatment plants to kill a variety of waterborne pathogens since the late 1940s. Unlike free chlorine (familiar as household bleach) or other halogen chemicals (such as iodine), chlorine dioxide does not create potentially harmful by-products. “

I had no issues with using Aqua Mira for 4,000 miles of trail. It was easy to use, left very little aftertaste (unless you use too much) and provided effective treatment in that I suffered no water-borne illness.  The only time I showed care with it was in highly infective waters such as beaver ponds and pasturelands, of which I did not use or take water sources from it. It is readily available along the trail, and nearly all outfitters carry it. my main issue - I can taste a bit of the chemical in the water.
  • Other treatment by the use of simple bleach, filtering and steripens. I have also used both filters and steripens. This site, Hiking Website.com has a good overview of these various methods  There are many filters out there, though prices can vary. Unfortunately more than once after a few weeks of use, I have seen fellow hikers struggling to pump water out of clogged systems, gravity systems slowed down to trickles (or like me, when I dropped a ceramic filter and it smashed),  or dealing with parts breaking in mid hike (my son had this happen to him after only a few weeks of use). While they do deliver potable water instantly the moment you pump, I feel some of the concerns of  breakage and clogging can outweigh the advantages. SteriPENS tend to run heavy with the batteries they use, and can also eat through batteries. They use UV light to destroy pathogens, and for short hiking durations can be quite. For long trips, I am not sold on their durability.  Many hikers have to take Aqua Mira or other purification pills as a back-up to these devices, and then you have extra weight in your pack. So why not just take one type of purification you know will not fail you?  Kind of the way I look at it.
  • The treatment hikers are using most often esp on the AT. Sawyer Squeeze Filter System.
    This newfangled system delivers treated water up to .1 micron (which means just about everything but viruses) by using a squeeze system through a filter. It comes in two sizes - the mini and regular size. I have seen hikers attach the mini squeeze to their drink tubes and drink right through it. I happen t use the regular size, squeezing water into my water bottles. This system appears to function well, providing water fairly quickly, but there are a few issues. Main thing is the bags that come with the system are not sturdy enough for prolonged use. After about 6 weeks of use, my large 64 oz bag just split apart at the top, rendering it useless. Also, if you tighten the filter too tight to the bag containing the dirty water, you can easily split the "washer" of the filter, breaking it. You must tighten it gently.    
          On a side note, I also am very picky where I get my water. Maps are crucial for this, to tell you where the sources come from.  If I see an overly cloudy water, for example, I will not use Aqua Mira. For water, it is important not only to carry the purification, but to carry maps and up to date guides as well to make sure you know where the sources are and where they are coming from (like upstream cow pastures and beaver ponds).  
Good water is essential not only to your health but to the success of your hike.


mackenzie said...

I recently found your blog and have been enjoying reading your archives.

I always treat water, and like the Katadyn Hiker Pro. While it's certainly heavier than using tabs or steripen, I like being able to plop the filter end in even the smallest pools of water and be able to treat without any scooping/stirring up the pool.

One interesting note- in "Long Distance Hiking- Lessons from the Appalachian Trail" I am fascinated by his finding that comparing those who treated their water to those that didn't, the same percentage of hikers got sick.

Granted, that data is from the 90s. I will still treat my water- but it's an interesting note.

Ann S. said...

Hi Blissful: I am Ann, the lady in Central Maryland who hopes to meet you someday. I continue to read your blogs. I also gave your hiking blog address to fiftysense.com, a website for "older" hikers, as someone on there was asking for advice on long-distance hiking. (I get it on facebook). I use Aqua-Mira myself, by the way. I did do my first overnight backpacking trip in a year last month. Turned out well, but I felt pressure due to the early sunset time.

Hope you have a great Christmas; perhaps we'll meet next year. Keep on with these great blogs!! Sincerely, Ann S.

Lauralee Bliss said...

Thanks for visiting, MacKenzie. And Ann, I know we need to get together and hike some of SNP! Thanks for coming by :)

zoompal said...

I'm all for treating..its not worth the possibilities...

zoompal said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mike Green said...

The more I read about thru-hiking, the more people I discover who don't treat their water. I've been hesitant to ditch my filter because I love having my water instantly ready to drink. I'm thinking 2012 may be the year I make the leap to Aqua Mira.

natdalton said...

What I great blog! I am curious if you would rather use tablets or some sort of hiking water filter? I am pretty new to this whole hiking thing and I was curious of what your thoughts were.