OPINION: Why Water Filters are Dumb

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Silt to cup on the Paria River

A recent set of pro and con articles about the need to filter water in the backcountry got me thinking, and reflecting on my own habits over 40+ years of off the radar travel. It may not rise to the pro-choice/pro-life level of hot-button emotion, but for those of us who routinely go off-grid, it is a daily issue, one with ramifications for gear and hygiene, for our health and our pocket book. For me, it is also a quality of backcountry life issue.

I remember, and it doesn’t seem that long ago, when it was common practice to get down on my belly next to a stream and drink deep. No boiling, no tablets, no expensive hassle with filtering. Just put your face in and guzzle. There is something lovely and pure and free about that memory, and the state of wilderness that it implies. I miss that.

Somewhere in the late ’70s or early ’80s, that image started to disappear. Ever since, there has been a gathering campaign focused on water borne illnesses like giardia, and a crescendo of strategies – filter bottles, pills, gravity filters, pumps – to combat the scourge of tainted water, driven to a large extent by that capitalist zeal so ready to seize on the opportunity to make a buck.

These days, it isn’t uncommon to see someone arduously pumping water through a filter from a stream 10 feet away from its snowfield source. Really, has it come to that? For many, it is standard procedure to treat all water, from every single source, as a matter of course.

A recent article titled “Actually, Backpackers, You Don’t Need to Filter Stream Water” by Ethan Linck, in Slate, argues that the need to always filter water is over-blown and based on very thin scientific evidence. Linck suggests that the occurrence of water-borne pathogens in lakes and streams is far lower than we’d think, that the studies documenting contaminated water are themselves contaminated by lack of evidence, and that the culprit for most intestinal distress in the backcountry can be more reliably traced to poor hand-washing hygiene after using the bathroom. So much for all that “beaver-fever” talk, for the hundreds of dollars spent on water filters, and for the time and effort spent laboring to pump and filter every drop of water consumed on a trip.

Predictably, a counter-article soon appeared in Outside. Wes Siler wrote “Actually, Slate, You Really Should Filter Your Water.” Siler takes Linck to task for also using thin and outdated evidence, and argues that it isn’t that expensive or arduous to boil water or use tablets, even if you don’t want to buy a filter. Why not err on the side of caution, Siler writes. Sure, you should do better at washing hands, but you should filter, too, and be safe.

Whenever I get into a conversation about this someone invariably says, “Yeah, I’ve had giardia twice and it really sucks.” End of topic.

By the same token, I’ve spoken to people who have spent decades in the backcountry using judgment about when to treat water and when not to bother, and have never had problems. A long-distance hiker I spoke to admitted that he rarely treats his water. “I’m hiking along ridge lines mostly,” he said. “I’ll treat once in a while when I am forced to drink from a highly suspect source, like a stock water tank.”

Here’s my take and my experience: I paddled canoes across Canada twice and never took a water filter. In settled country, I got my water from small side tributaries or springs. In the Far North, I drank straight from rivers and lakes. Interestingly, many remote communities in the north pull water right out of the lakes and only filter out sediment. I kayaked the Canadian shoreline of Lake Superior and didn’t filter the lake water. We avoided gathering water near communities, but otherwise, we drank it straight. On more settled trips, or where there is a lot of sediment and agriculture, I either bring jugs of water from home or treat the water. On hikes I bring a filter, use it about half of the time, but don’t bother in high country near the source.

On one memorable, very thirsty morning in the Grand Canyon on a hike where we had run out of water a day earlier, I drank straight out of the Colorado River, and man, it tasted good.

Bottom line, I’ve never been sick with anything like giardia. Mark it up to intestinal fortitude, or to blind luck, or to an overly hyped practice that supports a multi-million dollar outdoor industry. But that’s my history.

Maybe you’re one of the people who doesn’t like to take any chances, ever, with something like giardia. Maybe you’ve incorporated filtering water into your outdoor routine to such an extent that you don’t even think about it. Maybe you don’t mind supporting outdoor industries to the tune of hundreds of dollars based on a sketchy premise. In the end, do what makes you feel right and safe.

Me, I still relish every opportunity to lie down on my belly, plunge my face into the clear stream or mirror-like lake, and drink to my heart’s content.


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The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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