How to find clean backcountry drinking water

Stef Zisovska
Fast-running water
Fast-running water

Being able to drink water directly from a natural source without any purification is something that is about as natural as you can get. Having a handful of clean, pure and fresh water from a spring while you’re hiking on a hot day is something no purifying tablets can offer you. But it sounds dangerous because we’ve all heard the warnings regarding the threat to our health from drinking dirty water.

However, with the right tips and preparation, your stay in the wilderness can be rewarding. Here are some general principles on sipping natural water from the source.

Get water close to its source

Avoid ponds
Avoid ponds

The most important aspect of finding uncontaminated water is to sip from the source or very close to it. If you find a river or a spring while hiking, start walking up its course until you reach the higher points, where there is very little, if any, human movement. The higher you climb, the cleaner the water you’ll find. There are also less chance of animal contamination of the water if you climb to a higher elevation.

Check if the water is cold

Test the water with your hand and make sure it’s cold. The colder it is, the closer to the source it is. If the water didn’t travel too far from the source to the point where you are, it’s likely it’s still quite good for drinking.

Look for fast-moving water

Fast-running water
Fast-running water

Standing water is usually full of bacteria and pathogens from the animals, so always look for a fast-moving water that runs through stones. If possible, choose the smallest stream,  not wider than 4-5 feet. If you sip from a bigger river, then be sure it’s a fast one and high in the mountains.

Drink naturally filtered water

Drinking water from a small streamlet surrounded by lots of vegetation is also a safe thing to do. But again, it needs to be fast running and cold water that runs through and is filtered by moss or a similar plant. Look for a stream that has very thick brush growing either side of it, meaning that animals have less access to the water. The moss helps clean all the minerals, dirt, and small bits of debris out of the water. Also, you can find a pure drinking water that comes from seeps. A seep is a narrow crack in a rock wall that allows water to come to the surface. Often you can see a vertical moss garden on a flat rock that filters the water coming out from the crack. This water usually travels through hundreds of feet of sandstone and is likely extremely pure.

Avoid large mammals

Before you start drinking from a streamlet that has all of the above-mentioned qualities, make sure there are no big animals near. If you spot an elk or a deer, then that water is no good. After you find the perfect looking stream, don’t start sipping right away, walk around first and see if there are or have been any large mammals near. Another animal you should be aware of is the beaver.

May not be the best source of water
May not be the best source of water

If you go hiking in Colorado or Wyoming, you’ll run into plenty of beaver dams in the upper part of the stream you might have thought was perfect for sipping. Avoid drinking that water and go higher than the beaver lodge. Cattle walking around a hiking area is a common thing to see as well. Unlike the elk and the deer that roam around for miles, such livestock is concentrated mostly at a single watershed.

Now you know how to find clean drinking water in the backcountry if there’s nothing else available. Always be careful and look around for any possible contaminators. Good luck!

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stef-zisovska is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival