Safe Water: Clearly, An Important Subject

When travelling in other countries or backpacking in the wilds, clean, safe, drinking water is likely to be the most important thing on your agenda. Let’s take a look at our options and the best way to stay safe.

MSR Ceramic Water Filter. This equipment only filters.

MSR Ceramic Water Filter. This equipment only filters.

If you are in a country that is volatile, economically poor or where the quality of the tap water is dubious, the purchase of bottled water is the best option. In these environments the water is normally very cheap, but you’ll need to take a few precautions to be safe. I know that this may seem over the top but it only takes a minute and as these countries often have a poor health service, it’s wise not to fall foul through being lazy.

Buying Bottled Water

  • Look at the label and only buy bottled water from a known supplier.
  • Check that the seal is intact on all containers.
  • Swap any containers that have unusual marks.
  • Check that the water level on all identical containers is exactly the same. The filling process is automated and extremely consistent; a difference in level can mean tampering.
  • Squeeze the bottles hard to make sure that they have not been tampered with in any other way (hypodermic needle etc).

If you are wilderness backpacking you will need to supply your own water; as mentioned in a previous article, good navigation plays a large role in finding safe water at the right time. If at all possible, try to find good, safe water that you don’t need to treat with chemicals; remember, you will be consuming large quantities, this also means large quantities of chemicals.

Finding Good Clean Water

Generally, in many countries, if you are above habitation, much of the danger disappears. Look for a fast flowing, cascading stream with a steep, rocky bed. Walk upstream for 100m to check for contamination such as dead animals or recent human presence. Check also that the area is not being farmed in any way as fertilizers and treatments can be serious contaminants. If all is well and the water is clear take a mouthful and check for taste; providing there is no metallic taste or odours the water should be safe to drink.

The Treatments

We have to understand the terminology here. There are Water Filters, Water chemical Purifiers and Water Filter/Chemical Purifiers. Filtering alone will not remove all dangers, purifying alone may not remove all dangers; however, filter/purifiers provide the safest result. Boiling is another option and falls into the natural purifier category. Let’s take a look at the problem in a little more depth. In this context, purifying generally refers to ‘disinfecting’.

The Threats

  • Dirty water or turbidity. This can be tackled easily with a ‘Millbank Bag’; this is just a finely woven canvas bag that you fill with water and catch what trickles out.
  •  Chemical contaminants. These are normally found running off agricultural land and unless extremely excessive present the wilderness backpacker with little problems.
  •  Parasites. Tapeworms, embryonic roundworms, cryptosporidium, protozoa including giardia and amoebae. All these are relatively large and can be removed by
    mechanical filtration.  They can also be neutralised by chemical disinfection; however, cryptosporidium can be quite resilient toward chlorine and iodine. Boiling will deal with this entire group.
  •  Viruses. These are small and are responsible for diseases like polio and hepatitis A&E; Practical filtering will not save you from these but chemical disinfectants or boiling will deal with the problem.
  • Bacteria. These babies can cause you real problems, diarrhoea, e.coli, dysentery to name the more common ones. They are, like viruses, impractical to filter out but can be dealt with by chemical disinfection or boiling.

The Solutions

  •  Filtration. Mechanical filtration systems are small and can be carried easily.
  •  Disinfection using chemicals. Chlorine & iodine generally deal with most things.
  •  Boiling. Only a ‘rolling boil’ for around four minutes is required.
  • Ultraviolet treatment. This is a relatively new concept for the wilderness backpacker. The unit is battery powered and emits a UV light that doesn’t kill the little ‘beasties’ but modifies their DNA in a way to stop them reproducing. That way your body can deal with them in the normal way and doesn’t get swamped. Although I am not against progress, I can’t help feeling that relying on equipment such as this entirely is not wise; always take a metal container to boil water in.

The Popular Chemicals

  • Chlorine. Chlorine normally comes in tablet and liquid form. The quantity is dependent on strength and level of disinfection required. Chlorine is regarded as safe to use over extended periods and is generally safe for all users. Follow manufacturer’s instructions in all cases.
  • Iodine. Iodine normally comes in tablet and liquid form, again the quantity is dependent on strength and level of disinfection required. Iodine disinfection should not be used for extended periods continuously and should not be used at all for anyone with a thyroid problem or pregnant women. Follow manufacturer’s instructions in all cases. Iodine resin beads are also used in some purifiers, the water being passed through these.

It’s worth noting that the treatment time for both chemicals should be extended with water below 10 deg. Centigrade.

A Strict Routine

Look on your water treatment as a complete routine, not just putting the chemicals in and shaking it up. The routine I use is below and I haven’t had a serious waterborne infection in 35 years; it may be luck but I’d like to think it’s this routine that keeps me safe.

  • Navigate to the best supply possible under the circumstances.
  •  Find the clearest water to treat. Particles shield the ‘nasties’ from the chemicals, restricting their effectiveness.
  •  Only ever put water in your water containers. Never mix drinks in them.
  • When you have filled the container and put in the chemical, shake it up but leave the top loose so that the chemical enters the threaded area of the container. This area is often overlooked and may contaminate the disinfected water as it leaves the container.
  • Never leave the top of your drinking container off for longer than necessary.
  • Under normal circumstances use two 1 litre containers so that you can treat 1 litre and use 1litre.
  • Don’t forget to wash any fruit, leaves food and the suchlike in treated water. Also never brush your teeth with untreated water; this is a common mistake that leaves you exposed.

Although this is a fairly basic introduction it should offer a reasonable amount of help to the less experienced traveller/wilderness backpacker. Potable water is extremely important to humans and rarely gets the attention it deserves.

Take care and safe travelling.

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