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Glass Half Full

You run out of water on a long, hot dayhike. You find a full water bottle trailside, and also find a clear running stream. Drink from the stream, drink from the bottle, or abstain?

Question:

You run out of water on a long, hot dayhike. You find a full water bottle trailside, and also find a clear running stream. Drink from the stream, drink from the bottle, or abstain?

Submitted by - Tom - Altadena, CA

Answer:

Your question overflows with relativity: Since it’s a day hike, you’re probably not that far from water, so why risk a drink from questionable sources? On the other hand, if you’re feeling weak from thirst, a drink might be worth the relative risk. Generally speaking, running streams are relatively more risky than deep pools. In deep pools, germs tend to sink to at least several inches below the surface. In streams the germs are tossed all around. There’s a good chance the water in the bottle is relatively safe, if you assume the missing owner disinfected the water. Give the mouth of the bottle a thorough wipe first and let it dry in case the last drinker was packing some nasty oral germs. And next time pack more water for your day hike.

1 Comment

  1. Kurt

    Some of these comments are eye-opening to me. I’ve hiked in Colorado for 40 years and have never seen or heard of a water cache. You can’t “drive up ahead” on our trails and leave anything.

    Since the question is hypothetical, readers can bring their own assumptions (and everyone did, including some snarky “shoulda been better prepared, sucker” comments). One obvious assumption: he didn’t have a filter or he wouldn’t even be asking this question, right?

    I had a similar scenario once, where I ran out of water and became dizzy and shaky. It was surprisingly hot and I was alone on a dangerous shelf trail with several miles to go. I came across some water coming from a crack in the cliff and decided it should be safe from animal contamination. I drank maybe a quart and continued on without problem, but I worried for a couple weeks about possible bugs!

    In this fictional scenario, I assume the dayhiker also finds himself in danger of being unable to return safely to the trailhead (we don’t know if it’s one mile or ten miles). And with all due respect to Buck, I’ve always heard that a fast-moving clear stream is better than a pond.

    However, I would assume no one leaves a water bottle full of dirty water! And in Colorado, at least, my fellow hikers do not appear to be harboring deadly diseases: they look pretty healthy. So I would assume that bottle is just like the one I carry: full of clean water. It was probably lost and the owner has no idea where he left it. Even so, he’s not going to hike 10 miles to retrieve a $5 bottle.

    We don’t know how big the bottle was. I’m thinking “bottle” means a Nalgene liter bottle, not a “container” holding several gallons. If I dropped my Nalgene, it would certainly have drinkable water. So I would assume this bottle has much safer water than a stream full of giardia. But if it smelled or tasted or looked bad, I’d take my chances with the fast-moving stream. Either way, I agree with those who suggest carrying out the bottle so it is not left as litter.

    That said, if you’re not in Colorado’s pristine high country and you run out of water…you’re on your own, my friend!

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