The only real way to verify that your water is safe to drink is to treat it. And the effort it takes to treat water is minor compared to the complications of illness.
Demystifying the nasty bug that’s responsible for beaver fever.
Brown, silty streams, tea-colored rivulets, even clear, ice-cold lakes—any backcountry water source can serve up a cocktail of contaminants. But not everything that’s present in an undeveloped water source is necessarily harmful, and only some things pose an immediate threat to your health. In fact, it’s impractical and unnecessary to remove everything, all the time. So, in terms of backcountry water treatment, when is water considered safe to drink?
Originally published on February 12, 2015. Viruses take the cake as tiniest of the waterborne disease-causing microorganisms—smaller than both protozoa and bacteria. These nasty little bugs are also the least understood by scientists, and cause the greatest range of symptoms across infected individuals. The good new is, in North American backcountries, viruses are typically considered much less of a concern than the other pathogenic threats.
Bacteria are everywhere—on you, in you, in the soil, and yes, even in the wilderness’ cool, refreshing water sources. In fact harmless species of these single-cell organisms exist naturally in the backcountry’s rivers and pools. But humans and animals can carry harmful bacteria as well, and spread these pathogens to the water, making it risky if you happen to drink from the wrong place at the wrong time. Some of these bacteria are the same notorious headline grabbers associated with foodborne outbreaks or epidemics after natural disasters. We’ll discuss those and others, but first a few general facts.
Research backcountry water treatment and you’re sure to be warned about cryptosporidium or “crypto.” And for good reason. This microscopic protozoan parasite is one of the most common causes of waterborne disease in humans in the United States. Like the parasite giardia, crypto is found in water sources worldwide, and affects individuals differently. Fortunately, the disease it causes is rarely life-threatening in healthy adults. In fact, some 80% of the U.S. population has had cryptosporidiosis at some time, according to the FDA. Still, its symptoms are nasty enough that you’ll want to take strides to avoid it on your next backpacking trip.
Earlier this year, we gave you a behind-the-scenes look into the world of MSR’s on-site water research lab in this article. The microbiology lab was established in 1997 and has been dedicated to quality control, as well as researching, developing and testing water treatment solutions for outdoor users, the U.S. military and citizens in developing nations ever since. Recently, The Gear Institute stopped by to take a tour of the facility and find out why we go through such thorough testing on our water treatment devices. You can read all that The Gear Institute learned here.
After a long day trekking in the backcountry, that idyllic, trickling stream may look extremely tempting, but a cool sip isn’t worth the risk of ingesting waterborne contaminants. The best way to greatly minimize the risks of infection is by treating backcountry water with a filtration or purification system (more on that later), but you should also educate yourself about the wilderness water contaminants that pose immediate threats to your health, and the backcountry “zones” in which you are more likely to encounter them.
In 1991, MSR took the plunge into water products to answer the needs of backcountry travelers for more user-friendly and trustworthy solutions to gathering safe drinking water. One of these initial offerings was the MSR Dromedary™ Beverage Bag, a rugged, collapsible bag to tote your water as you roamed. The other was the now-legendary WaterWorks Total Filtration System—a highly engineered pump filter that was more effective and so easy to use it changed how people filtered water. Today, the MSR MiniWorks EX Microfilter is its evolutionary descendent and remains the world’s favorite backcountry filter for its plain and simple workhorse reliability.