Water Everywhere, But Not A Drop To Drink

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You've hiked several miles near treeline, the sun crushes you with heat from above, you're nearly out of water, and you reach a crossroads. Should you drink the crystal-clear water pouring from a stream up ahead? There's no time to boil or purify — a gulp from the source isn't so bad, right?

The obvious advice is not to drink the water, unless you want to spend the next couple backcountry days horking out both ends. But new research published in the journal Wilderness Medicine indicates that wild water is potentially grosser than we've ever imagined: Aside from drinking, it's much easier than previously thought to contract water-borne pathogens from wilderness water through swimming, contact, or even inhaling aerosolized water (i.e., mist from a waterfall).

The article notes simple exposure to the water increases the likelihood you'll catch a nasty bug — meaning kayakers and other watersports participants are at higher risk than previously thought. Aside from avoiding entering the water after a heavy rainfall (when pathogens from feces and soil can run into a stream), there's not too much the water-borne can do to limit exposure.

If you do get a bit of Montezuma's revenge from drinking the water, the article has a handy diagnostic chart to help you figure out what particular bug might be making you feel so horrible.

Of course, wilderness water drinkers have lots of choices for purification. Check out our tutorial video for a refresher on the perils of wilderness water and how to treat it. Your stomach will thank you.

— Ted Alvarez

Wild Water Everywhere, But Is It Safe to Drink (or Play in)? (Wilderness Medicine)