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  • A Hiker's Guide to Safe Outdoor Drinking Water

Due to the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of nature, hiking and camping are two extremely popular outdoor activities; however, as with all hobbies there are precautions that must be taken. Being properly prepared for an outdoor excursion is crucial for one's health and safety. A part of being prepared is carrying clean water. Campers and hikers need safe drinking water to stay hydrated; unfortunately, the water in rivers and streams can cause illness. While carrying bottled water is the best solution, it is important that outdoor enthusiasts know what to do in the event that they run out of clean water. Preparing for potential emergencies that may require the use of water from outdoor sources means that a person must not only know how to make water safe, but also understand why it is dangerous as it is.

Water Dangers

There are numerous contaminants that can enter outdoor water sources and make them unsafe to drink. Water can be unsafe even if the contaminants themselves are not readily visible. Because it is constantly in motion, harmful substances in the water may be carried miles away from their source.

- Contamination

Water may become contaminated by any number of sources, such as wild animals. Animals not only drink from water, but they may also become injured and bleed in water or even die while in a stream or river. As a result, the body will eventually begin to decompose in the water which can potentially spread disease. Feces and urine from animals and humans may also contaminate a river or other bodies of water. Bodily waste from humans can be the result of careless campers or hikers, or from failed septic systems, toilets from boats, or from sewers.

- Pollution

Pollution is everywhere, and that includes the water supply. Chemicals and poisons from factories and landfills eventually make their way into the water. Gasoline and oil are also common pollutants, or chemical contaminants, that can enter the water. These may enter the water from oil drums, gas tanks or chemical storage areas.

- Organisms

The water sources that people encounter while camping and/or hiking are also filled with organisms. These organisms may come from other contaminants to the water, such as feces, and include protozoa, viruses, and bacteria. Common protozoa found in untreated water sources include Cryptosporidium, Amoebae and Giardia. Bacteria include salmonella, Campylobacter, E. Coli, and Shigella. Rotavirus, enterovirus, norovirus, hepatitis A are common viruses that make it unsafe to drink water from these sources.

Negative Health Effects of Unsafe Water

When a person drinks water from an unsafe source, he or she is at risk of mild to serious illness. The type of illness is often dependent on the contaminants/organisms that were in the water and the amount and frequency of contaminated water that the individual has consumed. A person may experience problems such as stomach pains, vomiting, fever, and diarrhea. They may also develop serious potentially life threatening diseases such as meningitis or hepatitis.

How to Make Water Safe to Drink

When camping or hiking there are steps to take than can make surface water sources safe to drink. Water from a river or stream can be treated using one of more methods such as filtration, boiling or bleach. Boiling water is often considered the most effective way to kill organisms, viruses, and bacteria that are found in outdoor water. Boil the water rapidly for a full minute at minimum, and up to three minutes at higher altitudes. Not only is this a good way to produce safe drinking water, but it should also be used for brushing one's teeth and cooking, making ice cubes, etc. Disinfection or water purification tablets may also be purchased from sporting goods stores and used to disinfect water for drinking. These typically contain chlorine or iodine which are effective at killing a majority of bacteria and viruses. Tablets are not, however, as effective as boiling and will not kill some of the bacteria nor many of the organisms found in water, such as Giardia. Water filters are also an option when it comes to making water safe to drink, although it is not as effective at removing viruses, bacteria and organisms from water. For maximum effectiveness, the water filtering device should be no greater than one micron absolute or less.

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