About Water

Water, in all its manifestations and forms, pervades most aspects of hiking the Appalachian Trail. For starters, the Appalachian Mountains themselves have been carved by water. Long ago (a geologist can tell you how profoundly long ago) the Appalachians were massive, like the geologically youthful Himalayas today. Numerous forces and continental collisions have twisted and pushed and broken the mountains into shape, but no force of nature has shaped them as much a water. Day after day, year after year, century after century, millennium after millennium, and thousands upon thousands of millennia, water has worked the mountains like a potter on a wheel. The evolution of plant and animal species (all dependent on water) has worked itself onto the surface of the mountains like a green glaze. A hiker will witness the indefatigably powerful force of water falling from the sky, steaming from their own breath, freezing in the rocks, and trickling out of flooded bootprints. The hiker must drink this force to survive.

This world shaping substance that wears down the mountains is so central to every day life on the trail (and earth) it is easy to overlook it. A hiker may so often wake up having to urinate. The hiker stands or squats in the cold rain in the dark morning woods– a misery– but hears the pattering of fluids on the leaves, and the harmony of the waters of the human body and the immortal sky make a happy music. Maybe, like your author, this hypothetical hiker has set aside a liter of water for morning coffee and oatmeal. The hiker breaks camp, but not before hydrating and planning out how and where to get water. Water is (usually) easy to find along the Appalachian Trail. The challenge is rendering that water as safe as possible to drink. The daily business of finding water sources and treating or filtering (or not) is a common subject of conversation among hikers, and people have strong preferences for how they do  what I call “the water chore.”

Treating or filtering water is necessary because of a normally occurring waterborne microscopic organism that lives in the guts of mammals called Giardia. Wherever there are farm animals or deer or moose upstream, there is Giardia. If you get Giardia you will have chronic diarrhea for weeks. The indignities of such a condition become a vital matter when they lead to dehydration. Just as not drinking water can kill you, drinking bad water can kill you too. If you suspect you have Giardia, get off trail and see a doctor immediately. Don’t be like a certain kilt clad German I knew who shat himself for weeks before going to the hospital. One the strangest “zero” days I ever had was hitchhiking with said German to a rural regional hospital. It was never my plan to hitchhike in the rural American south with a European man in a skirt (which is what a hiking kilt is to old men staring from old pickup trucks). There are other organic and inorganic things you may want removed from your water. But Giardia ain’t nothing to mess with! I should add (for the sake of humor and international diplomacy) that it is hilarious listening to a German cursing and shitting himself in the woods. (“Nein! Nein! Nein! Nein!”)

            Most of the hikers I encountered in 2011 and 2014 were treating their water with a popular chemical kit. Though such a water treatment system is effective against Giardia, I think such treated water tastes nasty. Plus it doesn’t filter particulate matter. I prefer my water without bits of leaf and moss in it.  Many hikers disagree with me on this matter and claim you get used to drinking a chemical dump with grit in it. (“Hike your own hike” and all that). Some old school AT hikers, and dirtbaggers (especially poor hikers that use found or absurdly cheap materials to hike) will put a drop of chlorine bleach in a liter of water. While this is an effective temporary water treatment strategy in emergencies (appropriate for refugees in a chaotic war zone, for example) it is, potentially, toxic. My wife, a toxicologist, has made me pledge not to drink such water, even though I think it tastes “zippy.”

Some people, like farm people who grow up on well water may be able to tolerate Giardia and can drink untreated water. I know someone like this. She hiked the triple crown without treating water– she’s a crazy ultra light hiker. Carrying chemicals or a filter adds weight, but the chore of collecting and treating/filtering is an even greater pain in the rear, day after day when you’re trying to make miles. Some days you just want to cram your stuff in the pack and Go! Go! Go! But wait, stop your initiative and pull out your chemical kit or filter and, wait for it… wait for it… wait for it..! Sooner or later many hikers roll the dice and drink some appetizing looking spring water untreated. (See Nantahala National Forest). Getting away with rolling the dice leads inevitably to rolling the dice again. Sooner or later the odds get you. Every year otherwise well prepared hikers are forced off trail by gastrointestinal distress caused by waterborne illness. This all too common occurrence should encourage us all to critically consider our choices and practices concerning drinking water. If you get the runs something fierce and your new hiker trash friends hike on without you, you’ll have to drag yourself and your poop stained pants out of the lonely woods. Be advised.

I carry a hand pumped MSR water filter. In a world with sterilizing wands of light and other technologies, the low end priced MSR filter is old bulky technology– but durable. I have stuck its square rough filter into a clay red mud puddle I dug into a dry Pennsylvania creek bed and (tediously) pumped clear drinking water. Good creek water comes out clear of any particulate matter. I love spring water that tastes better than what is so often sold in stores as “spring water.” My MSR filter is a worthless device if it is not back flushed every dozen liters. I take care to sanitize my hands before pumping water with it. Many cases of Giardia are transferred hand to mouth, which makes all that carrying of a filter an exercise in futility. Mind your hands and rubbing your eyes and mouth around water sources. The water chore requires careful attention to protocol because you are essentially doing bio lab work out of a back pack in the wilderness. The better you follow your protocol, the more likely you will get desirable results.

It helps me to remember that the human body is just another water filter. The body only seems separate from the water cycle and atmospheric moisture. In reality, water is entering and leaving our body all day. We drink, sweat and urinate. It rains and snows and we collect it and drink it. The air becomes dry and we scratch for want of lotion. Water pervades our being, because we are water, mostly. We are water mixed with mud with a spark of mystical electricity running through it. Even our nemesis Giardia is just another kind of body floating dependently in water. So are the birds and the bears and the rhododendrons. Bending over a noisy creek, listening to water splash over rocks, on a foggy, cloudy day, the sky and the mountain may seem to bleed together. That is because water is the blood of the earth. Thinking this way, the water chore becomes the water ritual.

Better than crapping your pants.


Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

What Do You Think?