Before heading out for a hike or a weekend of camping you should always consider sources of drinking water.
Many public and private campgrounds in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand provide treated drinking water or high-quality well water that is monitored regularly and can be used with confidence. In less accessible recreation areas and may developing countries, treated water is rarely available.
Ensuring access to quality drinking water, or the ability to treat water, is a vital aspect of planning any trip or adventure and planning should be in place before you shoulder the pack or secure the canoe to the roof-rack.
The most important parts of your plan should focus on locating possible sources of both drinking water and potentiall sources of contamination, both microbiological and chemical, and choosing a water treatment system.
Planning for Drinking Water
Plan out the type of trip or adventure you are planning, whether hiking / trekking, backpacking, canoing or skiing, the number of days you will be gone and the number of people in your party.
You should plan to consume two to four litres of water per person per day during any reasonably intense or highly intense activity. Boost your needs to four to six litres in hot weather, at altitude, or if you are carrying a heavy pack.
When car camping or day hiking, you could bring water from home in a clean container, but a long day trip, or overnight excursion into the backcountry, makes this impossible because of the weight—one litre of water has a mass of one kilogram (2.2 pounds).
Tap into Available Knowledge
Consult guidebooks, local health and environmental agencies and local knowledge such as climbing clubs that may be able to tell you about water sources in recreation areas, along popular trails or in huts and at campgrounds.
Look at current topographical maps covering your trip area and identify possible water sources such as lakes, ponds, sink holes, springs, streams, rivers, snow packs and glaciers in the areas where you are going.
Next, look for potential sources of microbiological and chemical contamination. These include towns, cities and areas with agricultural, ranching or industrial activity. Pay attention to natural sources of contamination such as salt flats. Look for small subdivisions, campgrounds, backcountry huts, outhouses, golf courses, oil well heads, landfill sites and other sites of human activity that might leach fertilizer, heavy metals, and microbiological contaminants into groundwater or lakes and streams. Mark these sites on your map so you can avoid drinking water downstream from them.
In the United Kingdom, Ordinance Survey (OS) maps are particualry detailed and show current and often historic farms and industrial areas in popualr walking areas.
If necessary to augment your research or resolve questions, consult your municipal, regional, provincial / state or national government department responsible for the environment and inquire about the water quality in the areas where you are heading. Most provincial and state agencies in North America have extensive information on the impact of human activity and natural phenomena on water quality in their jurisdictions.
Based on your research, carefully mark the best sources of water on your map to ensure the purest possible water. The basic rule is that water flows downhill so generally speaking the higher the elevation the purer the water and upstream of any potential source of contamination is always better than downstream.
Springs or alpine streams drain smaller areas of land and are preferable to rivers because it is easier to assess the quality of the drainage basin. When possible, avoid all water sources from drainages with agricultural (including golf courses), industrial or urban activity.
On Your Trip
When entering parks or recreational areas, ask available staff about water quality and possible sources of contamination and if travelling on private land ask the landowner or farmers.
Once you are actually out in the wilds, avoid localized sources of contamination. As you travel take stock of the terrain. Look for animal or human faeces including cow pies, dead animals, evidence of past industrial activity such as mining or logging, and other sources of contamination not obvious from your maps.
Always strive to select water from the highest quality source. Take water upstream of bridges, campsites, parking lots, out-houses, boat ramps, backcountry huts and hiking trails. Keep in mind that even a high alpine stream can be a source of serious microbiological risk if you draw water directly below a leaking outhouse tucked away in the bushes.
When drawing water from a stream or river, choose a location free from mud or suspended particles where the water is running quickly and is not pooled or stagnant looking.
When drawing from lakes and ponds, take water off the top because many chemicals and heavy metals and most microbiological organisms tend to become highly concentrated in mud and bottom sediment over time. Research shows that bottom sediments can contain 100–1,000 times as many microorganisms as surface water, and sunlight plays an important role in destroying microorganisms near the surface.
Since you can’t see, smell or taste microbiological contaminants or many chemical and elemental contaminants, clear clean looking water may not necessarily be safe. However, the appearance, smell and taste can help in assessing quality when you have no other option.
If water quality is questionable look for clarity, which indicates fewer suspended particles and compounds. Look for natural or unnatural oily substances on the surface visible as a purplish film. Smell the water for sulfur, petroleum, fertilizer or other objectionable odours. While not all bad odours indicate poor water quality, they can be a good indication that something is not right, and drinking stinky water, even if it is harmless, is hardly enjoyable so choose a different source if possible.
Avoid any water source with an agal bloom indicated by a green, yellow-brown or red scum on the surface. The phytoplankton that produces the bloom can be in in concentrations of billions of cells per litre of water and can give off dangerous toxins. Furthermore, blooms are usually the result of an abundance of phosphorus and thus indicate potentially high levels of fertilizer contamination.