If you wander in the backcountry, or even camp in K-Country, you need water. Now, we know people who are happy to drink from streams or lakes in Kananaskis. We are not among them.
While it makes us happy to know the water out there is pretty good, we know critters live, drink, pee and poop near that water. We once watched someone drinking glacial meltwater coming right off a glacier (believing it to be “ultra pure”). Not 50’ above them, a herd of about 20 bighorn sheep were crossing the glacier. We were hiking a few years back in the Threepoint Creek area desperate for water (long story). We saw some lovely streams — with cow tracks in them and cow patties on the banks, because yes, some of K-Country is range cattle country. Speaking from experience, Giardia isn’t a fun thing, and neither are any of the other parasites that can live in water.
Most front country campgrounds in K-Country have potable water, but some do not. Some (Cataract and Etherington jump to mind) offer hand pumped water from cisterns or wells. It’s clearly marked “drink at your own risk”. What do you do for water there?
Or perhaps you know someone who travels to far off exotic lands where drinking the water isn’t wise — even if that destination is just a Mexican beach vacation. Clearly, a portable water treatment tool would be a good thing.
There are basically three categories of treatment: Chemical, Filtering and UV. MEC has an excellent writeup on these systems here.
Chemical Treatment Options
Chemical treatment options are based on either chlorine or iodine. These chemicals kill the bugs in the water but take a few minutes to do so. You could try the chlorine option from Canadian company Pristine for about $20 from MEC. Or there’s Aquatabs, also about $20. Most people shy away from iodine, but that works, too.
Chemicals are easy to use, light, and take up no space. If you have nothing else, they should be in your emergency kit. The biggest complaint with chemical systems is that the water tastes like the chemicals. People especially shy away from consuming too much iodine. But they’re small, portable and they work as a short-term measure, for sure.
Filtering is a very popular solution, especially with backpackers. Unfortunately, filters tend to be bigger and bulky, and can get expensive. Both Katadyne and MSR make pocket filters for a little over $120. They filter about 1 litre per minute. They will filter up to about 2,000 litres before needing a new cartridge (which cost about half the price of the device). With filters, it’s good to get one that goes down to 0.2 microns, which will get rid of viruses. Around K-Country, a 0.5 micron filter is probably adequate.
Filter systems require some kind of hand pump, or way to put pressure on the water such as gravity, to get it though the filter. The biggest issue with filter systems is their size and weight. The Katadyn weighs half a kilo, and the MSR Miniworks is similar. But not all filter systems need the weight of a full size pump.
We always carry an emergency straw filter from Pristine (the “Pioneer”) that you simply stick in water (even a puddle or stream) and suck on it. It will filter 70 liters and has a 0.5 micron filter, so it will get rid of most everything other than viruses, plus it weights practically nothing and cost us just $13 a few years ago. LifeStraw is a 0.2 micron straw filter widely available at the $25 point. These types of filters weigh nothing and take up no space, so are also ideal emergency kit ideas — but not useful for continued use.
Our personal favourite, though, is the UV solution. UV rays kill every protozoa, bacteria and virus that lives, frying their little DNA strands with UV light. UV systems are used in all commercial and city water treatment facilities. The only issue is making sure the water is clean enough that nasties can’t be hiding in particles in the water, so pre-filtering is wise if the water isn’t crystal clear. UV systems for travel are lightweight, cheap to run and operate, and the portable systems are great.
We like the SteriPen, a company now owned by Katadyne. A simple coarse (but adequate) pre-filter attaches to the top of any Nalgene bottle. Some SteriPen set ups come with a special Nalgene bottle, too. The light pen, which runs on 4 AA batteries, takes just 90 seconds to sterilize 1 litre. A single set of the right batteries will treat up to 100 litres. The light bulb lasts about 5,000 litres. The whole set up (including batteries) weighs just 275 g and cost us less than $60 at Canadian Tire a few years back. Ever since Katadyne purchased the company, the prices have gone up to be similar to the less expensive filter systems. We like the portability and light weight of this system, and the way it makes use of water bottles we’re already carrying.
The downside is that the SteriPen is fussy about batteries because the lamp is a power hog. Lithiums work well, and are the most reliable. Rechargeables with more than 2,100 mAh are good, but the pen won’t work at all with the typical low-power rechargeables. A set of fresh alkalines won’t give you more than 20 treatments before not having enough “oomph” to power the lamp.
We used a SteriPen down in the Cataract Creek area of K-Country to treat a LOT of water right out of Etherington and Cataract Creeks. Our primary water source is pictured at the top of this page. In case you didn’t know, you can’t drink the water in the campgrounds down there. Hand pumped from old cisterns, it’s a lovely rust brown colour, and we’re not sure even filtering it would make it taste OK. Both Etherington and Cataract areas are popular equestrian areas, both have range cattle, and both have logging operations upstream.
We have also used the SteriPen as the sole source of water for 6 weeks in Africa. While everyone else on our safari was buying endless bottled water, we were treating tap water everywhere we went, whenever we needed it. Bottled water in Africa isn’t cheap. We felt much better not leaving behind dozens of plastic water bottles in places that don’t recycle them. Believe us, if the SteriPen works in the middle of nowhere Africa, it will work here.