Water, water treatment, & the Appalachian Trail

One of the more frequent questions I get about hiking and thru-hiking particular is what do I do for water. Based on some of the looks I get when I tell people that I get my water from streams, lakes, or the occasional puddle, I figured I should go into more detail about water.

Where do you get water?

This depends on many factors; what trail am I hiking, how long I will be out, what environment I am in, and the like. On some trails, like the Appalachian Trail (AT), water is not a huge issue. On the AT, water is very prevalent and easy to find. That being said, I do use an app on my phone that tells me all the sources of water along the AT, and whether it is a reliable source or not, or if it is dry.

By opening my app, it shows me where the water source are located along the trail. Map flags with a full drop are reliable water sources and rarely go dry (not always a given during drought situations), map flags with a half drop are water sources that can and often do, go dry. One of the great things about this particular app is I can tap on a water source, which opens another screen, and user-sourced data tells me the status of a water source as of the last user update.

As one can see from the image, water sources are common along the AT.

You drink what?

When I tell people I get my water from a creek, stream, or the occasional puddle, they cringe. There is a yuck factor for a lot of people when it comes to drinking water from anything other than a tap. What my glib response leaves out is the fact that I treat my water before drinking it.

There are several methods to treat water in the backcountry; filters, chemicals, UV, and boiling it.

I, personally, only have experience with two of the three methods; filters and chemicals. I have never used the ultraviolet light method to treat water, and since it is dependent on having power, it’s not one I would trust on a thru-hike. I have also never boiled water, but in a pinch wouldn’t have a problem using this method. The main reason it’s not too popular is the consumption of stove fuel.

For years I used a pump filter, and it was only recently that I have moved away from that method. The primary reason I moved away from using a pump filter is the weight; pump filters tend to be big and heavy when compared to other methods.

For my AT thru-hike, I have switched to using a Sawyer filter. The switch saved me about 10-ounces over my pump filter and while 10-ounces may not seem like much when walking 2,200 miles it is. Switching to using the Sawyer filter also simplified my water treatment on the trail. Just fill my Smart Water bottle with dirty water, attach the filter, and squeeze; out comes filtered, drinkable water.

Note: if temperatures are expected to drop below freezing, always place your Sawyer filter someplace warm to keep it from freezing. If it freezes, the filter will no longer work.

Anything mechanical can fail, and filters are no exception. My Sawyer could freeze, rendering it useless, or it could clog, or reach the end of its life while in the backcountry. Because filters can fail, I always carry a backup water treatment method. In my case, I carry Potable Aqua, a chemical-based water treatment method.

There are some who only carry chemical water treatment because it is the lightest method available. I, personally, don’t like the flavor this method causes and chemical water treatment doesn’t remove sediments as a physical filter does.

Why I carry a small Smart Water bottle

One of the first questions that come up is why Smart Water bottles? The short answer is they are one of the lightest water bottles out there. Smart Water comes in three sizes; a 700ml, 1L, and a 1.5L and for my AT hike I am carrying a 1L and a 700ml bottle.

There are two reasons I like to carry a smaller bottle. The first is that it has a sports top. Being able to flip the top open and drink comes in handy while on the trail. I can also use the sports top as a back flow for my Sawyer water filter.

The last reason I like the small Smart Water bottle is it is the perfect size to add flavoring too. While I want to drink water, having it as my only drink for months on end and it gets boring. I like to add an energy-based flavoring packet to my water. Not only does this give me some flavoring, but I also get a shot of vitamins at the same time.

About Gerard Saint-Pierre

I'm a long-distance hiker, writer, photographer, environmentalist, & digital nomad. I'm thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail NOBO starting in March to help raise awareness about mental health. Come and follow along as I blog about the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of a thru-hike while battling depression and PTSD.

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