Water Water Everywhere but Treat Before You Drink!

Hiking soaring mountains, camping near crystal blue lakes, and enjoying a meal under a green canopy of trees are staples of the Maine outdoor experience. One thing that is easy to take for granted when surrounded by the soaring majesty of natural beauty is your own health and safety.

Backpacking can be physically demanding; when engaged in strenuous physical activity it is important to stay hydrated. Like any other kind of intense exercise, you need water to keep your muscles limber, balance your body fluids, and replace what you lose through perspiration. A good rule of thumb, according to L.L. Bean Outdoors Online, is to carry three quarts of water for each hiker, per day.

If you happen to be camping, and expect to be gone for more than a couple of days, it can be difficult and impractical to transport all of the water you need for the duration. Maine has abundant natural sources of water nearly everywhere you might go. You may be tempted to replace your water from a babbling brook or fromĀ a lake. However, doing so may put you in contact with harmful pathogens.

Surface waters can be contaminated with parasites, viruses, and bacteria. In Maine, people have been known to contract Backcountry diarrhea; a common name for illnesses such as Giardia and Cryptosporidiosis. Giardia is known to cause severe diarrhea, gas, severe abdominal cramps, dehydration, and nausea. Cryptosporidiosis is also known for similar symptoms but can also cause fever and weight loss. The parasite that causes it, Cryptosporidium, is also known for being highly resistant to chlorine treatments, like bleach. Other pathogens are attributed to backcountry diarrhea including E. Coli. If left untreated these illnesses can be life threatening and are also a source of great discomfort while traveling in the back country.

Before drinking water from the trail there are a few simple things you can do to protect yourself:


The oldest and most time tested method for treating water from the outdoors is to boil it before you drink it. Extreme heat will kill most any pathogen and boiling water is easy with a camp fire and some common cook ware. Heat the water until you have a brisk rolling boil and cool before drinking.

Chemical Treatments

Chemicals can be used to sanitize water as well. Bleach and Iodine are the most common chemicals to use. When treating water with bleach, which is a chlorine compound, add two drops of bleach per quart of water and stir for 15 minutes before drinking. Iodine can be purchased in dissolving tablets like Polar Pure: one of these tablets can treat 1 quart of water after being allowed to dissolve for 15 minutes.

CAUTION: Only use chemical treatments in recommended ammounts. Bleach and Iodine can be toxic in large quantities.

CAUTION: Chemical treatments aren’t perfect. As stated above Cryptosporidium is highly resistant to chlorine based treatments.


Currently, there are a wide variety of sanitizing water filters available for outdoor recreation. Some of the more common designs include bag filters and small hand pump filters. These filters allow you to refill water bottles and canteens from natural sources while excluding harmful microorganisms. This is one of the most convenient ways to refill water on the run or just before leaving camp in the morning.

Taking a few simple precautions is all that is needed to keep yourself and your friends safe when enjoying the beauty of the Maine Wilderness.

This Post Written and Prepared by Dylan Cookson: AmeriCorps Member and MCC Volunteer and Outreach Corrdinator

Contributions to the article made by:

  • Krista Rogers: MCC Community Leader and Environmental Steward Program Coordinator

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