What is one thing that you can’t live without? Water. H2O. It sounds simple – two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen. This simple compound makes up two-thirds of the earth’s surface, 75% of the human body, and without it, we would only survive a few days. Bikepacking can put you in some pretty hairy situations if you don’t do your research and plan ahead for water resupply. Being prepared with a water purifying technique to protect you from parasites and other pathogenic microorganisms is paramount to your health, and possibly survival, on the trail. We will dig into the pros and cons of 4 lightweight ways to purify water while bikepacking with the help of Norb DeKerchove, Smoke ‘n’ Fire route creator and Bikepackers Magazine contributor.
The age-old way of purifying water is to boil it. According to the United States EPA, you must bring water to a boiling point of 212 °F and let it roll for one minute to kill all of the bacteria and make it safe for consumption. The required boiling time increases to three minutes at altitudes above one mile (5,280 ft / 2,000 m). While this method is fool proof, as nothing can survive in the water after reaching that temperature, there are a few reasons why boiling water is not the most efficient for bikepacking. This may be a great way to purify water while at camp on a recreational bikepacking trip, however, there are many bikepack racers who choose not to bring stoves during races to save weight, especially if they know there are ample resupply points with foot and potable water handy. At whatever speed you are traveling, and for whatever purpose, taking out a stove to boil water in the middle of the day, and letting it cool prior to drinking it can be very time consuming. In order to boil enough water to fill up a 3 liter bladder, you would need to carry a very large pot, or boil water multiple times in a small mug or pot. This is not the most efficient way to purify your water while bikepacking, but a great method if you’re in a pinch.
There are many lightweight water filters on the market these days, and it seems to be a rather popular method for purifying. For the purposes of this article we will share some of Norb’s experiences with using a Sawyer Mini Filter on the Arizona Trail Race. “For the Arizona Trail Race in 2015 I wanted to try the Sawyer Mini Filter. I thought having a real filtration system would be a good idea, since water sources are sketchy on the AZT and my research said I would be sourcing primarily from tanks and other non-moving water sources, ripe for floaties and unmentionables. During my preparation I discovered I did not like how long it took to fill a 1 liter bladder through standard small mouth bottle cap size threaded hole. What I did was cut the bottom out of the bladder so I could ‘scoop’ water and then used a clip to tie it off and squeeze the liter of water through the filter. Water does not flow quickly out of the filter so actually filling a 3 Liter hydration bladder took some time. And the bladder you use to scoop and contain water will always be a contaminated bladder to carry around. Overall the filter is simple and easy to use. There is even a big arrow on the filter pointing to the direction of the flow so when you’re completely knackered and can’t think, at least you have a chance. Plus, with no moving parts or batteries to contend with, it is a bulletproof solution in the backcountry. There is even a straw attachment so you can immediately quench your thirst directly from a water source.” While filters are great for use in the backcountry, they can be bulky to carry around and pack, and they also take a considerable amount of time and effort to use.
Purification tablets are without-a-doubt the most lightweight water treatment option of the 4 listed here. They are reliable, easy to use, and most require around 30 minutes to process. There are many types of tabs to use including iodine tablets and chlorine dioxide tablets. Below are Norb’s thoughts on his experience using the MSR Aquatabs (chlorine dioxide) for the Colorado Trail Race a couple of years ago. “In 2014 I decided to use the MSR Aquatabs for the Colorado Trail Race. I wanted to go as light as possible and I knew the water would be clear and clean in the Colorado high country, with few particulates. MSR Aquatabs are a fast and effective treatment against microorganisms and claim to kill 99.9999% of bacteria in just 30 minutes. It really can’t be any easier, simply drop one tab per liter into your water bottle or hydration bladder and wait 30 minutes and drink without fear (NOTE: Not effective against Cryptosporidium). The downside, which is minimal, is that the tabs do alter the taste of the water slightly, and if your dosage is too high, it’ll taste like a swimming pool. I typically add electrolyte drops so some of the chlorinated metallic taste does come from electrolyte and tab mixture. And again, if the water has particulates you won’t get rid of those unless you filter the water with your bandana or another form of filter or fabric. The tabs take up no space, are super convenient to use, and weigh next to nothing. I keep them in my zippered hipbelt pocket if I’m wearing a pack, or in my gas tank on the top tube if riding without a pack.” There are other tablets on the market which have a longer processing time of 4 hours, such as Aquamira and Katadyn Micropur, which are effective against Cryptosporidium. Iodine tablets are also widely used, however, they are not effective against Cryptosporidium, they taste funny, and discolor everything they contact – including your water vessels.
As with all water purification methods, there is no absolutely fool-proof way to treat your water. The SteriPEN is another option that has served Norb well, however, there are a few glaring cons that could put you in a tough situation in the while traveling off the grid. “I used a SteriPEN for a number of year’s bikepacking and used one on the Tour Divide in 2011. It is super light, easy to use and very dependable. It’s powered by a couple CR123 batteries and battery life has never been an issue. For the TD I carried an extra set of batteries just in case, but never did need to replace the batteries. Ultraviolet light has long been proven to be an effective way to kill pathogens, plus it doesn’t leave any nasty taste in your mouth. However there are a couple potential downsides. First of all you need to use a wide mouth water bottle and if you’re purifying 3 liters for your hydration bladder, you need to purify one liter at a time. Not a huge deal, because I always carry a bottle to mix Via in, or other powdered drinks. In bright sunlight it is really hard to see the green ‘good to go’ light, which indicates the unit is on and mission accomplished. And, if the water is muddy, murky or full of silt, the UV light does not penetrate and becomes less effective in killing organisms. Although it has never happened, it does have a lamp that if you happen to be dazed and confused and drop it on the rocks, or step on it, you’re going to break the UV lamp. Overall, the SteriPEN is a fine device for purifying water and has been a loyal friend on many bikepacking adventures. It doesn’t take the chunks out, but the UV light does destroy microorganisms and is a useful tool.”
While there are many options for purifying water, these are the 4 most common. It is worth noting that toxic water sources are different than contaminated water sources. Toxic water sources contain contamination from sources like pesticide runoffs, direct dumping or indirect leaching, mine tailings, and so on. Boiling, filtering, or chemically treating water can remove or kill microorganisms, but they will not remove chemical toxins.