From water sourcing to purifying treatments, learn the tips to stay hydrated and healthy on your next outdoor adventure.
A beautiful part of being Outward Bound is being removed from our daily comforts. When there isn’t a tap with running water fifteen feet away at all times, suddenly, something as simple as drinking water requires much more planning and knowledge. Below is your guide to water sourcing, purification and hydration while outdoors.
How Much Water Should I Drink?
On Outward Bound expeditions, I tell students to aim for six full liters of water per day since we are active around 12 hours day. It’s a lofty goal, but one full bottle over breakfast and one over dinner leaves you with four liters to consume during the day. Anything less than three liters consumed over a full day of exercise can lead to dehydration. Those symptoms include headaches, muscle soreness, lethargy, nausea and more. Not only does dehydration bring about discomfort but it can pose a major risk while recreating outdoors. If you’re engaging in a day activity and not an overnight expedition, six liters might be a bit much. A good rule of thumb is to have one liter of water for every 2-3 hours of physical exertion.
Sourcing Water and Why to Purify
If there is a sink or spigot with potable water available, this should be your first choice. Not all water is initially potable, safe to drink, so if that option exists, take it. When in the backcountry, all water must be purified. This is because there are parasites and bacteria in water that can make you very sick. One of the most common examples is Giardia, a parasite that lives in the intestines and can cause weeks of diarrhea. It can cause a person to have to leave the field and even be hospitalized if it worsens.
In addition to purifying, we can mitigate the risk of getting sick from water by choosing good sources. Actively flowing creeks and drainages are a great option, while standing water such as a pond or puddle is less desirable. Further motivation is that mountain springs and creeks are often naturally the best tasting water—it’s what bottled water claims and wishes it was!
Three Ways to Purify Water
The water must be at a rolling boil for a full minute to be considered as safe to drink or eat. If you are cooking in water sourced from the backcountry, it still must have that full minute of a rolling boil.
Pro: There is no chemical taste.
Con: It takes a lot of fuel and time.
Many different brands and styles of filters exist. Sawyer, Katadyn and MSR are three of the most popular brands for filters. When choosing a filter, it’s important to consider your group size. On Outward Bound courses, we often use a gravity filtration system from MSR that can filter 10 liters of water in one go, but you probably don’t need that if you’re on a solo backpacking trip. Find the size that works well for you!
Pro: This method usually tastes the best and doesn’t require any fuel resources.
Con: Filtering water takes the longest amount of time. If you are trying to cover big miles or have long days, it can be a bummer to be forced to stop at a creek for 45 minutes and filter. An additional con to consider is that water filters need field maintenance, such as the occasional backflush, to ensure that they are functioning as fast and effective as possible. If you use a filter, be sure that you are prepared to maintain it.
Aqua Mira and Potable Aqua are the two most popular chemical purifiers. Iodine tablets or drops of bleach (1 drop per liter) also work. It is important to take into account that there is a waiting period after using chemical purification until the water is safe to drink. Different methods have different instructions, but generally it’s 30 minutes. I would not recommend using chemical purifiers if you are spending a whole season in the field, as long-term use of these chemicals is not beneficial. For a shorter trip, this method can often be the easiest.
Pro: Using chemicals is the quickest of the three methods and you can do it on the go.
Con: The chemicals can leave a bad taste similar to that of a swimming pool, also there is the waiting period.
- Electrolyte additives help you retain the water that you drink and stay hydrated better. Flavor packets make water more desirable, and in my experience, result in drinking more throughout the day.
- Caffeine dehydrates you! That 24 ounces of coffee you had this morning doesn’t count toward your six liter water goal.
- Set mini hydration goals. Think to yourself “I’m determined to finish this bottle before I leave camp this morning.” A broad and unmeasurable goal such as “I want to stay hydrated on this trip” is too easy to drop by the wayside.
The process of water sourcing and purification grounds you in the truths of what is essential in life. Humans need to hydrate, and with proper knowledge and preparation, this chore can become a pleasant ritual. Water that you had to work for brings about the tastiest and most appreciated sips—there’s a life metaphor in there, I’m sure.
About the Author
Addie Hurwitz is a field Instructor for the North Carolina Outward Bound School, primarily out of Table Rock base camp. Addie has a degree in Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management from Penn State University. She loves working in experiential education and takes similar joy from studying its academic side. When not on a course, Addie is likely skiing or traveling.
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