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Avoiding Waterborne Diseases and Illness

One of the most worrisome dangers for somebody in an outdoor self-reliance situation is contracting a waterborne disease. Drinking enough water is, of course, a fundamental aspect of staying alive in the woods—and anywhere else—and much of your activities in a wilderness emergency will revolve around finding freshwater sources. Any gurgling creek, mountain lake, or desert pothole, however, represents a potential risk of waterborne diseases.

Remember, the last thing you want to be nailed with during a wilderness emergency is an intestinal illness. Beyond the basic unpleasantness; diarrhea, vomiting, and other typical symptoms resulting from a waterborne disease can leave you dangerously weakened and—significantly—dehydrated. A condition that would be an inconvenience at home can be life-threateningly debilitating in the backwoods.

Some outdoors-people swear by the purity of certain remote wilderness water sources—and, truthfully, you could likely drink untreated water from such sites and be just fine. The possibility of waterborne diseases or illness, however, is always there, and anyone seriously concerned with maximizing survivability doesn’t take such chances.


Many waterborne diseases start with pathogens. The pathogens that affect human beings ultimately stem from the intestinal tracts of animals and include other people. Fecal material can easily enter streams—directly deposited, so to speak, or washed in by precipitation and runoff—and can then introduce protozoa, bacteria, and viruses into the drainage. A creek edge apparently free of animal droppings doesn’t mean they don’t exist a half-mile upstream.


One of the most widespread sources of waterborne diseases in the United States is the protozoan—a single-celled organism—called Giardia. Some estimate every body of water in the country contains the pathogen, which can survive cold temperatures for months at a time. Giardia can promote severe intestinal upheaval, including diarrhea and vomiting, which can last for weeks or longer. Cryptosporidium is another protozoan that can produce similar ailments, and is particularly dangerous for those with hampered immune conditions.

Bacteria and viruses can also cause uncomfortable, even dangerous intestinal symptoms. Notable bacteria species include E. coli and Salmonella; cholera is also in the list of waterborne diseases that, nonetheless, are rare in the U.S. Potentially threatening viruses in water supplies include hepatitis A and Norwalk virus.

In addition, water can be contaminated with toxins, as from industrial or agricultural pollution—sources that may or may not be particularly relevant in the backcountry. Blue-green algae, however, can secrete dangerous toxins, so avoid a waterway suffering from an algal bloom.


To avoid waterborne diseases you should always treat or boil water in the backcountry—even the most crystal-clear and pristine-looking.

Boiling water is generally an effective method for rendering it free of waterborne diseases and pathogens. Recommendations differ somewhat on the length of time required to adequately treat the water; the National Park Service, for example, suggests boiling for one minute at sea level and an extra minute for every 1,000 feet above it. Others contend that simply allowing water to reach a full boil gives enough time to eliminate most harmful pathogens that cause waterborne diseases.

Our Canteen Cooking Set—which includes a stove and stainless steel canteen and cup—offers a handy portable water-boiling setup. It’s easy enough to pack with your other survival gear.

While boiling is the most straightforward and foolproof approach to disinfecting water, other methods include using a backcountry water filter or purifier, or purifying tablets, as of iodine or chlorine. Your average filter may be effective for removing bacteria and protozoa, but not viruses, which are more properly removed with a purifier.

Indeed, it’s always a good idea to carry more than one water-treatment system with you in the wilderness so you have a backup in case your primary one fails, or if you’re dealing with particularly discouraging-looking water. If you have the option, select the clearest supply you can; avoid, if possible, drawing water shortly after a heavy rainfall, which can heighten pathogen concentrations via runoff.

Making sure you’re drinking safe, uncontaminated water is as essential as any other tenet of wilderness self-reliance—more important, even, than toting that trusty survival knife. Boil or treat any water source you utilize in the backcountry and you’ll greatly lessen the chance of being saddled with a disruptive and dangerous waterborne disease or illness. Don’t take chances.

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