I’ve been working on packing smarter for camping trips. My recent experiences camping out of a whitewater boat forced me to buy a smaller one−person tent, a more compressible air mattress, and rethink my meals. My new Sterling Donalson Illusion sea kayak is also low volume but I can get a few days worth of gear in if I pack carefully. Since my trips are usually not very long, I avoid the high−sodium dehydrated meals and try to bring food I would normally eat at home, but repackaged for convenience. I’ll put each meal into a 1 quart Ziplok freezer bag, for instance. With couscous or oatmeal I’ll just add boiling water to the bag and let it sit for a few minutes, then eat it out of the bag with a long spoon. If you hold the bag under your clothes or put it in your pocket, it makes a great hand warmer. Just be sure the seal is tight otherwise you’ll be picking oatmeal out of the pockets of your fleece jacket the rest of the day. I know that from experience.
Packing water adds a lot of weight and space, so now I try to bring less and use natural sources. On our recent trip to the Broken Group, Ricardo and I planned our route around being able to replenish our water supply from natural sources along the way. Our guidebook mentioned a waterfall on Gibralter Island, which turned out to be a mossy wall with water dripping down its face into a tiny puddle. The water had a bit of greenish tinge to it, even after filtering. Another source we found was on Effingham Island. The chart showed a lake that emptied via a stream into the southern shore. The inlet was protected, but surrounded by a boulder beach. Fortunately, the stream was easy to find, and again I found a wet slimy cliff similar to the one on Gibralter Island.
I have been using the Lifesaver bottle, which filters down to 15 nanometers. It filters out all microorganisms including viruses. In comparison, the classic Katadyn filter, which I have also used in the past, filters down to 0.2 microns, or 200 nanometers, so organisms like hepatitis A, hepatitis E, enterovirus, rotovirus and Norwalk agent can still get through. I’ve been told that if you use the Katadyn, you should still treat or boil your water for a couple minutes if you want to be sure it’s safe. Other people have told me that they don’t and haven’t had any problems.
The Lifesaver is bulkier than the Katadyn but can be used as a storage container. The construction feels less durable. The nanotech filter is replaceable and should be changed every three years. The filters don’t come cheap. Katadyn is a trusted brand and their silver−ceramic filters have proven themselves in extreme conditions and even come with a 20−year warranty. If I wanted a filter to use in the post−apocalyptic world, after civilization has collapsed and we’ve been overrun by zombies, I would definitely choose a Katadyn for its durability. For occasional camping, international travel, and general preparedness for any Katrina−like events, I prefer the convenience and absolute safety of the Lifesaver.
There is also the option of not treating water at all. One physician says he regularly drinks untreated wild water while hiking, but is very careful about choosing the source. He basically only drinks very close to the source, where he can actually see a snow bank melting into a small, cold alpine stream, for instance. He looks carefully for any sign of mammal excrement around it. During his expedition along Vancouver Island’s northwest coast in a skin−on−frame kayak, primitive skills expert Kiliii Yu drank untreated water. He said since the area was remote, there was low likelihood of contamination. However, he had made it a practice to drink untreated water regularly, every couple months or so, to keep his gastrointestinal tract accustomed to it. Perhaps he developed immunity to waterborne pathogens over time?
Why risk drinking water untreated? Some people say there is a sense of spiritual connectedness to Nature you get from lying belly down on the ground and sipping it straight out of a stream. Back in the 1970s, I used to do it all the time while hiking with friends and we never got sick. It tasted smooth and sweet. I guess it’s like the thrill you get from walking in the forest barefoot or skinny dipping. We didn't know any better back then and I really don’t recommend drinking untreated water now except in emergencies. For one thing, it's possible to be infected with Giardia and become an asymptomatic carrier, which might not be a nice thing for your friends and family.
For a brief review of water−borne pathogens and methods of water treatment in the wilderness, see this article in Wilderness Medicine. The organism most likely to be the culprit is the parasite Giardia lamblia. Giardia is carried by mammals including beaver, muskrat, dogs, and cattle, and reaches the water via fecal contamination. Beaver were traditionally thought to be the source so any waterborne gastroenteritis used to be called “Beaver Fever” whether it was caused by Giardia or not.
Although we like to blame wild animals for waterborne illness, studies show that beavers were not infected until humans started living upstream from them, which suggests that humans were the original source of Giardia and beavers and other mammals were subsequently contaminated by human sewage. Giardiasis can be transmitted person-to-person via poor hygiene, food and sexual transmission as well. If you get Giardia, it could have just as easily have come from the dirty hands of the campmates who handled your food as well as of from than the water you drank. Giardia is endemic in developing countries, especially the tropics and subtropics, where 20−30% of the population will have it. The prevalence ranges from 2−7% in developed countries but can be as high as 20% among children in day care centers.
A friend of mine had a severe Giardia infection that had gone undiagnosed for weeks. She suffered from abdominal cramping, lethargy, anorexia, and had lost 20 pounds. She underwent a battery of tests, and even underwent an upper endoscopy looking for stomach cancer! She was bedridden and on intravenous fluids for a couple days before it was finally diagnosed. Diarrhea was only prominent in the beginning of her illness. She suspects she may have gotten it while tubing on a river in eastern Washington, possibly from the water that collected on the lip of a beer can that was immersed in the water to keep it cool. Who knows if that was really the source, but it is true that Giardia is highly infectious: ingesting as few as 10 cysts can make you ill. Makes you want to think twice about rolling on those rivers just for the fun of it, huh?
For a very inspirational talk and amazing demonstration of the Lifesaver bottle by inventor Michael Pritchard, see the video of the presentation he gave at TED in 2009 below.