Wednesday, March 2, 2011

How much do we REALLY need to worry about Water Quality? [Guest Post]

Today I’ve invited a guest blogger, Peter Flanigan, from ADKinLA to write about the most unpleasant and most common of backcounty buggies, Giardia. Peter moved to the west coast only 4 months ago saying goodbye to his home state of New York (they have giardia there too). Since then he's already logged 50 miles on the dusty southern California trails and counting. On his blog he chronicles his hikes, adventures, and prods at conventional wisdom. You can find Peter on twitter @adkinla

When I first started hiking seriously, one of the things that became obvious (other than me eating too many Twinkies before starting said hike) was that water = weight. Water is heavy in the pack and while it quenches my thirst, I also look forward to drinking it simply to lessen the load as the hike goes on.

So what options do you have if you don’t want to haul water all over the wilderness? Well, Mother Nature did put streams and lakes all over California for your thirsty needs. However, with streams comes the fever of the beaver. No, I don’t mean an undying love of felt, but Giardia. A nasty little cyst-based bugger in water due to the “leavings” of animals and humans.

How fresh is the cool water in this sierra stream?

To avoid Giardia, a lot of people use water filtration units. They can cost $80-$120 and can be incorporated into your pack. Of course, the weight is an issue but they can process a lot of water in a short amount of time. Another way to solve the weight issue is to invest in a steripen. These tend to run around $50-$100 and are super lightweight. Steripens work with UV rays and if they are good enough to power Superman, they should be good enough to clean your water. The downside is they are small and take a longer amount of time to process less water (which can be infuriating if you want your Astronaut Ice Cream NOW!).

This also brings up an interesting point, SHOULD you be worried about The Beave in your water? The answer might surprise you as it is a decided “maybe”. Clearly this affliction is an issue, there are even online support groups for it! But how much of one? One study says not much.

Looking at the Sierra Nevada, Giardia “cysts were found at only 18 (43 percent) of the high-use sites and at 5 (19 percent) of the low-use sites.” High use sites are places with high probability of human fecal contamination (I wonder how they assessed the “probability”). Contrast that to San Francisco and Los Angeles, which, at the time, had higher concentrations of cysts than almost all the natural streams tested. Conditions can change over the years since that study was conducted but it does give one pause about whether drinking out of a stream is an automatic horror story waiting to be written.

If you want to see an updated study, I suggest you check out this link HERE which thoroughly jumps up and down on the theory that Giardia is everywhere and no stream is safe. It goes on for pages and pages but is a great read to any outdoor hiker contemplating that frosty-cool-lip-smacking stream.

I am not here on this wonderfully blissful blog to tell you to throw out your filtration devices and burn your steripens but just to say that the odds aren’t THAT stacked against you if you dip your hands in the agua.

Of course, the ultimate way to enjoy the outdoors is to drink a beverage WHILE in water. That should solve all these pesky Giardia problems. (BB- Nice swim trunks Peter!)


  1. I think a half pound to a pound of pack weight is worth it for piece of mind when it comes to drinking water... If pack weight truly a concern Aquamira Water Purifier Tablets should sold that.

  2. I've heard of many veteran backpackers who are willing to use unfiltered water provided they are above 10,000 and the rational is solid. If human and animal waste is the problem - there is very little of it on those headwater streams.

    Personally, I pump, always. I don't care to take those risks or play the odds but I appreciate ADKinLA's counter point.

  3. I usually carry AquaMira drops, but rarely use them...only in areas where contamination is obvious. I would rather wait for a better water source than risk it even with treatment. I haven't got sick yet (knock on wood)!

  4. I haven't used the tablets much due to the iodine taste that some leave but am actively exploring the steripen. I am not doing through hikes anytime soon so I am just packing my water but if in a jam and need to use location specific water I think a steripen will do.

    I am all about peace of mind and will probably get a device soon but as with most things in life, my guest post is merely pointing out that this is not a black and white issue and that you can possibly, maybe, somewhat drink that stream water.

  5. @John - How do the Aquamira drops effect the flavor? I have yet to try them.

  6. Ha ha, "Astronaut Ice Cream NOW!"

    I have no reference for adding to the discussion but I had to tell you that I really enjoyed your post!

  7. @Brie, thanks! Glad you enjoyed it and remember, when you think Giardia think ADKinLA, wait, that didn't come out right.

  8. The down side to a steripen is the water must be clear to work, any discoloration or floating stuff means it is less likely to work. This means you should be carrying something to filter it anyway such as a bandanna or coffee filters. They are great for traveling to countries where sterilizing the water at the restaurant is usually a good idea or in an area with lots of very clear water.