The water looks good...but don't drink it without purifying first!
One of the keys to staying healthy while enjoying the outdoors is staying hydrated. The semi-arid environment of the Pikes Peak region practically sucks the moisture right out of your body and can lead to dehydration. Worse yet, the effects of altitude sickness — headache, nausea, vomiting and confusion — can be exacerbated by dehydration.
Of course, the obvious solution is to carry water with you while you’re out on the trails. But at around eight-pounds per gallon, water is also the heaviest thing you’ll carry. So how do you stay adequately hydrated while carrying a minimum amount of water? One way is to take advantage of the water around you, but drinking water right out of a creek or pond is dangerous — even deadly — so the real solution is water purification.
The four most common methods of water purification — boiling, filtering, disinfection (chemical treatment) and ultra-violet (UV) light — all have their positives and negatives.
The United States Centers for Disease Control has tested the effectiveness of boiling, filtration and chemicals against the most common contaminants: Protozoa, such as Cryptosporidium and Giardia; Bacteria, such as salmonella, e. coli and others; viruses, such as hepatitis A, norovirus and rotovirus. All of these contaminants share the same symptoms: diarrhea, vomiting, cramps, and general all-around misery. The CDC hasn’t done formal testing of UV light purification, but does offer some guidance in its use.
According to the CDC, the only 100% effective method in killing all of the above contaminants is to boil water for at least three minutes at our elevation. Obviously, boiling can be impractical. You’d need to carry fuel for a fire and a metal container to boil the water in, which isn’t normally carried for a day-hike. If backpacking/camping, you’re likely carrying fuel and metal cookware, but you may not want to use valuable resources to boil water when other methods of purification are available.
When it comes to disinfection, the CDC tested two types of chemicals: Iodine, chlorine and chlorine dioxide, the most popular chemical treatments. These tests proved Iodine and chlorine ineffective against the Cryptosporidium and of limited effectiveness against Giardia. Chlorine Dioxide has limited effectiveness against Cryptosporidium, but is more effective against Giardia than the other two. There are other issues with iodine usage, too; it’s not recommended for use by pregnant women, people with hypersensitivity to Iodine, or for use for more than a few weeks at a time. Some chemical treatments may also change the taste of water.
That brings us to filtration. When done with the proper sized filters, filtration has been found to be effective against Cryptosporidium and Giardia, of only limited effectiveness against bacteria and not at all effective against viruses. Since filtration and disinfection by themselves do not eliminate all contaminants, the CDC recommends doing both when boiling is not an option.
UV light purification, with devices such as the “Steri-pen” and Camelbak’s “All Clear” bottle, has become popular. The CDC has not tested UV light purification systems, but says for UV light to be effective, the water being purified must have low turbidity — cloudiness — and the light must have contact with water for the appropriate amount of time, as specified by the manufacturer. It may be necessary to filter the water, even if just to remove solids that causes turbidity, prior to using the UV light. Running water, such as creeks, waterfalls, etc tend to run clear as opposed to standing water that can be cloudy, so
UV light purification would appear to be most
effective with running water
So what should you use for water purification? I’ve been using a Camelbak All-Clear bottle with a sediment filter and have been happy with it. At least, I haven’t gotten sick.
Happy (safe drinking) Trails!
Bob Falcone is a retired firefighter, photographer, hiker, college instructor and business owner who has lived in Colorado Springs for over 24 years. You can follow him on Twitter (@hikingbob), Facebook (Hiking Bob), Instagram (@HikingBob_CO) or visit his website (Hikingbob.com). E-mail questions, comments, suggestions, etc to Bob: firstname.lastname@example.org.