Unfiltered water

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    Philip Tschersich
    BPL Member


    Locale: Kodiak Alaska

    Most of my trips are conducted in areas with high animal presence (Sitka blacktail deer, mountain goats, brown bears, foxes, beavers, birds and birds and birds, etc.), but very little human presence. If I’m down at sea level and have to collect water out of a relatively stagnant source, I will filter. But probably 90% of the water I drink in the backcountry I don’t bother. I find flowing streams in the alpine, or small, clear seeps mid-mountain or at sea level, and just drink to my heart’s content. I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and only once in that time did I have an episode of G.I. distress that I could even loosely tie back to a backcountry trip (I had symptoms compatible with a Campylobacter infection for about a week a bit after a trip, though I was never tested). I think it would be interesting to get tested for an endemic case of Giardia, because I’ve heard that some folks are simply carriers but remain asymptomatic.

    It’s hard to believe that I haven’t been exposed to all sorts of stuff at this point, especially after working on the Alaska Peninsula for 10 years where we simply drank straight out of rivers downstream of hundreds of thousands of decaying salmon and every manner of critter doing its business in the watershed. Or the time we were a bucketing our drinking water out the a river below what we thought was a sod clod from a collapsed river bank that turned out to be a dead moose calf. And on and on and on. Three decades of barely trying to avoid significant bacterial and parasitic loads.

    It just kind of leaves me wondering how critical filtering water actually is (at least in my area of Alaska)? I’ve heard plenty of descriptions of Giardia reported elsewhere that make it sound pretty horrific and nothing that I would actually want to experience, but I know so many people that live and work here in Kodiak that have never treated water at their field camps or at their remote salmon fishing sites, etc., and accounts of them getting sick are basically nonexistent in my experience.

    P.S. I am prepared for the tongue-lashing I’m about to receive from the urban-dwelling “better safe than sorry” scolds, *wink*.

    BPL Member


    Locale: Colorado

    Congrats, sounds like you’ve figured out a system that works for you.

    Todd T
    BPL Member


    Locale: Pacific Northwest

    I used to do that…well I did it for a summer in Colorado.  Never got sick, but had a friend who did.  He was down for a good while and lost more body weight than his thin frame really should have handled.

    Anyway, I eventually decided it’s worth the minor inconvenience of filtering to hopefully avoid that kind of misery.  And in a lot of places these days, with wilderness crowding like it is and the crowds unprepared to eliminate in a sanitary way, I might even be more worried about human contamination than critter crud.

    Oh, and shame on you!  Shame, shame!  :-)

    Paul Wagner
    BPL Member


    Locale: Wine Country

    Your mileage may vary. Nobody can answer this question for you, and any answer for you needs to take into account where you are hiking.

    I do most of my hiking in the Sierra in California. I filter 95% of the water I drink there.

    Jerry Adams
    BPL Member


    Locale: Oregon and Washington

    I’m like Phillip except maybe I filter 50% of the time.  No need to filter alpine water.

    But, it’s so easy to filter that I’m probably being foolish

    Sort of like wearing a mask when a public place to prevent covid infection.  It’s so easy it would be foolish not to.  That’s one I learned the hard way.  Slept for two days then minor coughing and hacking for a week.  I’d rather endure the nuisance of wearing a mask.

    Steve S
    BPL Member


    I and a friend filtered and still filter as little as possible, for over 50 years now. Streams from untrailed drainages or which are spring-fed from high snowfields seem pretty safe. She finally got Giardia — but it had to be from a local restaurant because she hadn’t been on a trail in the previous month+. I still follow the rule that humans stay on trails and popular routes, so know the providence of thy nectar. Doesn’t help with restaurants.



    Locale: The Cascades

    I once drank some untreated water (no idea where it came from) from a water buffalo in the Saudi desert during a Bright Star exercise. Spent two days with IVs in my arm while pretty much staying on a bedpan in the middle of the desert in a GP large med tent. Perhaps the least fun I’ve ever had, other than marriage of course.

    I treat pretty much all my water now. (and stay single…. :-)

    Bruce Tolley
    BPL Member


    Locale: San Francisco Bay Area

    “Giardia from a restaurant…”  wow.

    I wonder if one of the food handlers had been into the backcountry recently and forgot to wash their hands while prepping your friend’s food.

    W I S N E R !


    I have been hiking in the Sierra for over 20 years. I have only filtered for about half of that time. My first handful of years out I was convinced by experts that the water was poison and I would die if I licked an untreated drop. Then the contrarian in me wanted to dispel that fear so I stopped filtering for about 10 years. Nothing bad happened. I started filtering again in the last ~5 because I am told that I am an adult and that I should be more “prudent”. I will still occasionally stick my face in a spring and guzzle because it feels so good to feel like an animal. I have some completely unscientific, irrational, and pseudo-spiritual ideas about drinking untreated water that I highly doubt will impress the engineers and scientists on this site.


    Jerry Adams
    BPL Member


    Locale: Oregon and Washington

    I’m impressed you would drink out of a spring like an animal

    I’m going to have to try that

    BPL Member


    Locale: Northern California

    I grew up hiking and fishing in the North Cascades–grandpa had a huge cabin in Stehekin (it’s still there). Plus I did trail work for three summers. Never filtered. When I first went to the Sierra and was told to filter water, I just laughed. Soon I started filtering religiously however. Anyway, I’ve never had giardia. 35 years hiking in the Sierra, filtering all that time. worth it. Especially now, with a Steripen: so simple.

    BPL Member


    Locale: Puget Sound

    I’ve never filtered, I’ve never worn a mask and I’ve never been sick from those choices. Freedom of choice is good. Freedoms from complexity are priceless. My backwoods experience run similar to the lines of Philip.

    Ben W
    BPL Member


    You could save time on meals by eating raw meats too.  Just a thought.  I mean, the science behind why you shouldn’t is probably all made up by city dwellers anyway, right?






    Mark Wetherington
    BPL Member


    Locale: Western Montana

    ” I will still occasionally stick my face in a spring and guzzle because it feels so good to feel like an animal.”

    I seldom do this, but when I do I enjoy it immensely. Glad I’m not the only one! I’ve also been know to push my face into particularly lush and soft moss (“face moss” as pointed out to me by an eccentric USFS biologist in Kentucky). Pretty great feeling, too.

    I filter or treat my water around maybe 90% of the time but don’t usually bother if it’s a high mountain spring or obvious snow melt.

    Alexander S
    BPL Member


    I finally stopped filtering just everything years ago.

    I now filter all lake water, most river water, almost no higher altitude melt run off and never any spring water.

    Mina Loomis
    BPL Member


    Locale: Central Texas

    “I wonder if one of the food handlers had been into the backcountry recently and forgot to wash their hands while prepping your friend’s food.”

    Back when my grown-up kids were in day care, they had a work-trade arrangement that involved us parents getting training to help out once a week.  It was explained at that time that one of the highest likelihoods of getting giardiasis was from changing diapers at a day care.  So, much hand washing!

    No “backcountry” needed.

    Sweden Survival
    BPL Member


    Locale: Sweden

    In Sweden I do drink most water unfiltered. I do try to figure out were it comes from, little risk assessment and also taste and smell it. I have never been sick, not even when drinking water out of a big lake. But on long hikes I don’t wanna get sick of course so I do follow “cook your water” or filter with Saywer ;)


    Jon Solomon
    BPL Member


    Locale: Lyon/Taipei

    In the Pyrenees and the Alps I generally haven’t used a filter unless livestock are present. But I always bring either a filter or tabs, or both, and increasingly make it a habit to filter.
    Growing up in the NE United States filters didn’t even exist and we never heard of anybody ever having a problem (Green Mountains, White Mountains, Adirondacks, Appalaichans). I take it that now the situation is totally different.
    In Taiwan filters aren’t necessary for running water at altitude but on a lot of routes at altitude the only water available comes from stagnant pools. There, treatment is a must.

    David Thomas
    BPL Member


    Locale: North Woods. Far North.

    I’ve moved from almost 100% everywhere to about 50-50 depending on time and place.  More remote, more alpine, more sunlight and I treat less often.  I’ve used my SteriPen more for tap water in developing countries in the last 6 years than in the backcountry.

    But I am also swayed by my companion’s preferences.  If they’re more comfortable if we treat everything, things go better with uniform practices, especially when you’re married to the hiking companion.

    All that said, I’m not getting any younger (I believe this is also true for Philip).  My immune system isn’t as vigorous as it was decades ago and I notice that around town with sniffles and sneezes.  So I may shift back to more water treatment in the next decade.

    Tom K
    BPL Member


    For me whether to treat water is a lot like the old real estate maxim:  Location, location, location.  Most of the time in the remote areas I frequented in 47 seasons of Sierra backpacking I drank the water untreated.  Enroute from trail heads, it was dependent on assessing the water sources and their surroundings.  More often than not I would end up treating my water on the first day and after that not bothering.  I only got sick once in all those years, down in LeConte Canyon, from drinking untreated water from a feeder creek that I thought looked safe.  Horse manure turned out to be present upstream, as I learned later that evening to my dismay.  A roaring case of the runs ensued, but fortunately it was a bacterial infection and responded well to Bactrim, an all purpose antibiotic I carried for a variety of contingencies.  YMMV but I think it is only prudent to pay close attention to your sources when you are days away from the nearest TH.

    John S.
    BPL Member


    I always treat water (lately sawyer mini and steripen) since I don’t want to play runs-roulette. Chronic giardiasis would not be fun either.

    Ken Larson
    BPL Member


    Locale: Western Michigan

    Some Risk Takers fair well, while others ……

    An ounce of PREVENTION is worth much MISERY!


    BPL Member


    Not filtering water is like not wearing your seatbelt.  It’s not a problem until it is.

    W I S N E R !


    Be U.W.A.R.E. (TM)

    (Unfiltered Water Abuse Resistance Education)


    John Vance
    BPL Member


    Locale: Intermountain West

    Like some others have stated I am about 50/50 for drinking water.  Depends primarily on location.   I don’t filter/treat water used for cooking and I don’t bring it to a rolling boil.   Much of what goes into my water bottle is crusty corn snow spring, summer, and fall, as I load up on passes and hike mostly off trail.

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