Drinking and Filtering Water in the Backcountry

Mountains 025One of the most common misconceptions when you are out in the woods is that the water is safe to drink. Far from society, we assume the water can’t possibly be polluted. Nothing is farther from the truth. What we have to keep in mind is that animals use the streams, lakes, and ponds as drinking water and even as a bathroom. Also, humans frequently pollute the areas by using the water to swim, bathe, brush their teeth, dispose of garbage, and yes…even use the bathroom.

Something else to consider that most visitors do not know is that the smokies are the most polluted national park in the nation. With the park receiving nearly 10 million visitors each year, the pollution from cars alone is staggering. There are often periods of acid rain within the national park. Now, i’m not trying to alarm you here. If it starts to rain you aren’t going to melt like the wicked witch. But that acid rain and other pollution in the air has a major effect on the water supply. There are several places in the park where park rangers and scientists are studying dead fish all over the waterways. If the water is killing the fish, it can’t be good for us to drink straight from the source.

There are brave souls that drink straight from nature. Honestly, many times nothing will happen. But i’m not willing to take the chance. Some will end up with flu-like symptoms that will persist for days or end up with a stomach bug that will have you running into the woods to go to the bathroom over and over. It’s simply not worth it to me to take the chance when on the trails. But fear not. There are many options so that you can safely drink the water. Probably the easiest solution is iodine tablets. These are available at any hiking store and at many retailers. This chemical solution kills the bacteria that could harm you and makes the water safe to drink. The main drawbacks to these is you have to wait until the little tablet has done its job before you drink the water, it has a very distinctive (and many would say unpleasant) taste, and it doesn’t tend to dissolve and work well in very cold temperatures. Still, I always keep at least a couple of tablets in my first aid kit. The other main option is some kind of filter. These water filters have a pump so you can suck up the water from the stream, filter it through the carbon-based membrane, and pump the water into your bottle or water bag. I like this option the best and it has worked well for me. There are many different brands available with what seems like an endless set of features. I use the Kataydn Hiker Pro Filter. It is simple, works well, and the parts have stood up over repeated use. The drawbacks with using a pump filter are that parts can break (leaving you without clean water), you will have to pump many, many times to get clean water, and you will have to replace the cartridge occasionally. Still, I like the taste of the water far better than using the iodine tablets. They do sell models that run on batteries so you don’t have to pump, but I would stay away from these. Batteries die, and they add extra weight to your pack that you don’t really need.

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