Earlier this year, I signed up to do an 11-day wilderness hike for charity. I knew I would have no access to fresh, clean, purified water along the way. From the very beginning, I knew I would need to be mindful of my water consumption, and I had to develop a strategy to ensure regular, timely access to water that was safe to drink and cook with.
As any hiker is aware, access to fresh water is a considerable problem for distance treks such as the one I was planning. Humans require more seven liters of water per day to meet their basic needs, and even more in hot climates or in circumstances where they are expending excessive energy such as with hiking. However, water is heavy, which is a significant challenge on a long-distance hiking trip where backpack weight and space is an essential consideration.
The First Day
The first day of the hike was also the first day I encountered the reality of the challenge that lay before me: I had at least ten days ahead of me on the trail, and exactly one liter of purified water carried with me in my metal hiking water bottle.
It became obvious within the first hour that the liter of water I carried with me would not last an entire day or even an entire morning. Judging from the amount of sweat that was pouring off my forehead, neck, and back as I climbed onward up the trail, I wasn’t even sure if it would last me an hour.
As I moved farther along the trail, I noticed I begun subconsciously rationing my water intake. Though I increasingly felt thirst, there was not a drop of water in sight. I had to be mindful of my consumption.
By midday, I was down to my last few sips of water. Feeling desperate, I began to wonder if I should have brought more water with me despite the weight it would have taken up in my backpack.
Thankfully, I didn’t have much time to harbor regrets. Over the next hill, I found a swift-flowing stream, perfect for refilling my water supply. Using my water filter and the water filtration tablets I carried with me, I filtered the water, filled the bottle, and savored the first few sips. Overcome in my enjoyment of the cool water, I sat down next to the stream and drank an entire bottleful before refilling and once again continuing on my way.
The second and third days, I continued much as I had on the first: rationing my water consumption, drinking lots when I had access to rivers and streams, and trying to focus on the trail rather than when I would be able to have my next drink.
At this juncture, it makes sense to mention my process for ensuring the water I was drinking was clean and pure enough for human consumption. This process involved two parts.
First, I would run the water through a portable water filter system I brought with me specifically for this purpose. This filter works effortlessly via gravity to produce a consistent and reliable source of fresh water, and it served me well throughout my hiking trip.
After filtration, I treated the water I was drinking with water purification tablets. These tablets kill water-borne bacteria, viruses, or protozoa, thereby preventing them from entering your body via the gastrointestinal tract and causing harm. This can prevent illnesses that cause vomiting, diarrhea, and other unpleasant or even life-threatening symptoms.
Major concerns arise with drinking unpurified, unfiltered water while camping or hiking. These include parasite-borne illnesses such as giardia, E. coli, and cryptosporidium. With my system of water purification using both filters and tablets, I thankfully managed to avoid these for the duration of my journey.
Over the first few days of my hike, I found I became conscious of every activity I normally used water for in my daily life. Showers were a luxury the trail did not offer—at least, not yet. Laundry was a near-impossible prospect for most of the first week I was hiking.
I began to marvel at the technology I had taken for granted throughout my home. I kept thinking how amazing it was I could instantly have drinkable hot or cold water whenever I wanted it, 24 hours a day, from the comfort and privacy of my own kitchen. Same with the bathroom: What a luxury to be able to soak in a hot bath at the end of a long workday! Such luxuries are not afforded in the backcountry.
On this third day on the trail, I noticed halfway through the day I was beginning to show a few signs of dehydration. I felt occasionally tired and dizzy, I had a headache, and my mouth felt dry more than usual. Thankfully, I recognized these early signs of dehydration and increased my water intake accordingly.
As any hiker will tell you, hydration is essential to staying healthy on the trail. This is doubly so for the strenuous exercise of multi-day hiking trips such as this one.
On the fourth day of my trek, I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a waterfall. I seized this opportunity to indulge myself in a long shower and rinse off the many days of grime, sweat, and trail mud. I don’t think I have had a shower so heavenly before or since.
Taking advantage of natural water features such as waterfalls, streams, lakes, and rivers was essential to maintaining my health, hydration, and sanity on a long trail hike such as this.
Also, on my fourth day on the trail, I replaced the filter for my water filtration system. Thankfully, the system is easy to maintain and requires little maintenance other than replacing the filter.
I prepared all my cooked foods for this hike using water that had been filtered and purified as well as boiled. This includes the water I used to make oatmeal and coffee, as well as rehydrated meals for dinner. Though many would view this approach to camp cooking as overzealous, I don’t think it is possible to be too careful when it comes to staying healthy on the trail.
On my fifth day on the trail, I realized I could no longer tolerate the sweat, grime, and bacteria that had come to live on my hiking clothes. Worst of all were my socks. Crunchy in the bottom of my backpack with the sweat they had accumulated over my first days of hiking. In an act of pure frustration, I set up camp next to a lake early one day and washed my clothes in the lake.
Hung up in the branches of nearby trees, my socks and other clothing were dry by early the next morning, though they lacked the smell of clean laundry I have become spoiled by with my laundry machine at home. Satisfied for the moment, I continued my trek.
Water, water everywhere—and not a drop to drink! The sixth day marked the halfway point in my trail hike. It was also my most frustrating day on the trail, in terms of access to water. The campsite I chose for the previous night was warm and sheltered by trees, though there were no lakes or rivers nearby from which I could drink.
It was nearly four hours down the trail that day by the time I found a small pond. However, the water was still and covered in a green, algae-like substance, and I was apprehensive of drinking it. Instead, I chose to conserve the last few sips of water I had and continue in hopes of finding a healthier-looking water source.
Thankfully, it was only a mile or two down the trail I heard the rushing waters of a nearby river. Success! I purified my water and continued the journey down the trail.
After one week on the trail, I was dreaming of the waterfall shower I had taken just days before. I knew it was unlikely I would encounter another waterfall along this section of trail. My prayers were answered in short order—not by a waterfall, but by rain. It poured for a large part of my seventh day hiking.
Usually, hikers avoid hiking during rainy days and seasons. However, given the scorching heat of the past two days and my overall desperation for a shower, I very much appreciated the downpour.
I was too apprehensive to drink the rainwater, though it would have been easy to collect. I was surprised to learn after getting off the trail that collected rainwater is cleaner and safer to drink than much of the naturally occurring still water found in the outdoors. With the use of water purification tablets and filters, it is highly unlikely that drinking rainwater would have made me sick. These lessons will serve me well for my next outdoor hiking trek.
My eighth day on the trail, I am ashamed to say, was the first one where I meticulously tracked my water intake. On this day, I hiked 11 miles and drank 133 ounces of water. This amount is equivalent to just under four liters of water.
As I hiked, I would try to drink more water directly at its source. For example, each time I stopped to refill at a river or stream, I would drink approximately half a liter. Meanwhile, I would take occasional sips as I hiked, and again at night, once I had set up camp for the evening.
Usually, I would also attempt to drink a liter of water each morning. This allowed me to stay hydrated and not require stops as frequently, and I think it was a successful strategy throughout my trek.
The ninth day of trekking was memorable for one reason above all: the heat. The temperatures of this day of my hike reached a shocking 97 degrees Fahrenheit, and I was desperate to beat the heat and cool off.
I distinctly remember thinking I would trade just about anything I had for a few ice cubes. Unfortunately for me, there are no freezers out in the middle of the wilderness, and certainly no ice to be seen during the hot summer months. Instead of water with ice, the best I could do was dive into a nearby lake to cool off.
I noticed I was even thirstier than usual. No doubt this is related to an increase in sweating and imperceptible heat loss in the heat of summer temperatures. On days like this, I was more thankful than ever to have a portable water filter to supply me with fresh water when I needed it.
The last full day on the trail was filled with eager anticipation a cold shower. The memory of my shower under the waterfall had long since washed away, and there were no lakes nearby in which I could take a quick swim.
When I first began this hike, I thought a restricted supply of potable water would be the most difficult part of the entire journey. I was surprised to find this was not the case and that, between the water filter and the purification tablets, I had a fast and convenient supply of drinking water. The challenge, I found, was living without a shower or other bathing facilities for days.
This challenge was made especially difficult because I was hiking in the summer heat and generating additional body heat through exercise. I am sure that winter hikers are less challenged in this regard.
Last Day on the Trail
The last day was the most highly anticipated of all my days of hiking. Never again would I take for granted having access to water at the simple twist of a tap.
That first shower after coming off the trail was an experience I will not soon forget. And, as much as I enjoyed the pure and clean water from my water filter, I also enjoyed being able to go back to drinking water directly from the kitchen tap.