Clean drinking water is essential out on the trail. Since hikers need so much water to stay hydrated while they’re hiking in the backcountry and standard plastic water bottles are cumbersome and don’t adhere to the Leave No Trace principles, it’s better and more convenient to pack a reusable water bottle that hikers can refill while they hike.
Of course, depending on water fountains and faucets is bound to leave hikers thirsty if they are trekking deep in the backcountry. For true versatility, hikers should train themselves to identify potable water sources. To be really safe, they should also know how to test a water source for things that won’t be visible to the naked eye but can cause lots of harm if ingested in large enough quantities.
Some spring water will have a high enough flow rate that minerals from the rocks it passes through don’t fall out of suspension. If the water remains underground for a long enough time, plant species and algae that have grown in it will likely perish. However, manmade pollutants and bacteria won’t die from lack of sunlight, so testing spring water is really important to avoid illness.
Water containing Escherichia Coli, or E. coli, can cause a wide range of symptoms in humans who consume it. Nausea, stomach cramps, diarrhea, fever, and vomiting can all be caused by certain strains of E. coli. The presence of E. coli also indicates a strong likelihood of other harmful bacteria such as cryptosporidium, norovirus, shigella, and giardia, each of which is very dangerous for human consumption. E. coli is a coliform that is already present in humans, but certain strains of it can be harmful and possibly even fatal, which is why treating spring water on the hiking trail is so important.
Natural springs are easy to understand but it does require some research to understand how they work in order to understand what can be wrong with them. Some springs have a yellow or tannish color or brackish appearance due to their immediate surroundings, while others flow completely clear and taste so fresh that it seems impossible any coliforms could be present. This common misconception frequently leads to illness for hikers who put too much trust into seemingly clean water sources. Bacteria testing and other measurements for things like alkalinity and pH, or ionization, are quick solutions and bringing along the right water filter or another treatment system can save lots of strife from waterborne illnesses.
Read on through this comprehensive guide to freshwater springs and how to test them and treat them to quench your thirst on the next backcountry hiking trip.
What to test for in spring water
If you want to test a possible water source, there are tons and tons of different levels and contents you can scan for. Municipal water is often put through dozens of kinds of bacteria testing and water treatment up to 100 times a month per regulations. Bottled water companies don’t have to test as much or as often and about 1 in 4 companies are simply repackaging municipal water. Many people who are able to do so have dug a private well near their house to avoid having to rely on large corporations or the public water supply for their drinking water. Having access to spring water right that regularly is doubtless great, but obviously not a feasible solution for everybody.
There are consumer-grade water treatment options and water testing kits that are available on Amazon and likely in a hardware store in your area. Whether you’re out on the trail or testing a private well, a water analysis should focus on a few certain things to ensure the drinking water produced is healthy and free of volatile organic compounds and coliform bacteria. Here are a few things to test for in your drinking water source:
- Alkalinity: This is a property of water that determines its ability to neutralize acidic compounds. If drinking water has enough chemicals such as carbonates, bicarbonates, and hydroxides, then it will have enough alkalinity and will not taste acidic. This is good news for organisms that live in larger bodies of water like lakes since their water environment won’t change suddenly due to the introduction of acidic rain or runoff. It’s also good news for hikers who are stopping to refill their drinking water; low alkalinity in spring water means it can be corrosive and harmful to drink.
- pH or ionization: These two terms sometimes cause some confusion due to the expansion of the meaning of ionization in recent years. Anyone who went through a science class or has ever had to take care of a pool likely knows the term ‘pH’ even if the meaning has been forgotten. Essentially, pH is a measure of the activity of the hydrogen ion and indicates whether the water is ‘hard’ or ‘soft,’ which in turn lets hikers know whether its susceptible to absorbing metallic ions from the rocks it passes. Common elements leached into spring water that has a low pH are iron, manganese, copper, lead, and zinc. Other elements that come from manmade sources are more harmful.
- Total dissolved solids, or TDS: As the name implies, this is a measurement of the number of compounds and other materials that are dissolved in spring water. These are generally inorganic chemicals such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, bicarbonates, chlorides, and sulfates. Drinking water with a high TDS is an indication that the pH is off or that the water source has low alkalinity and has likely absorbed harmful compounds from its surroundings. This is generally the first test that should be performed on a water source since its main purpose is an indicator for the other two important areas already mentioned.
- Total coliform bacteria: This is the most important test that should be performed on every water source. As discussed earlier, coliform bacteria is already found in humans. It’s specifically located in the intestinal tract, as it is with many other warm-blooded mammals. What this means is that water containing high concentrations of coliform bacteria has come into contact with the product of those intestinal tracts, i.e. fecal matter. It can also be found in soil and in some insects, all of which are common in natural water sources like rivers, streams, and springs. This kind of bacteria is what leads to waterborne illness and can seriously affect long term health. Hikers afflicted by a waterborne disease might face a sudden end to their hiking adventure.
Nitrates in drinking water
Both private water sources and spring water should be tested for nitrates that can lead to serious health problems. One of the worst effects of high nitrate consumption is methemoglobinemia, or ‘blue baby syndrome,’ a disease in which nitrite bonds to the oxygen molecules in an infant’s red blood cells, leading to depleted oxygen levels and potentially leading to suffocation.
The risk decreases outside of infancy, but hikers planning to trek through backcountry that’s near agricultural centers should take special care to test and treat their drinking water to make sure it isn’t contaminated with nitrates.
Nitrates occur naturally but not at levels that would cause harm to pregnant or nursing women or infants. Inorganic chemicals in industrial fertilizers and animal manures used in agricultural watersheds and not taken up by crops can leach into spring water via underground pathways.
Lawn fertilizers and on-site septic systems like those found near many campgrounds can also cause high nitrate levels, so test spring water even if it’s found near civilization.
Heavy metals in drinking water
Similarly to nitrates, heavy metals and arsenic compounds are one of the leading causes of illness in humans who rely on water sources contaminated with them. All sorts of water sources are regularly studied and measured to ensure that they are not absorbing heavy metals from poor water treatment, pipeline corrosion, or other shortfalls.
The same attitude should be taken by hikers who want to take a drink of spring water. Environmental factors and lead to the leaching of heavy metals into drinking water in areas where any kind of human industrial activity has occurred. This doesn’t necessarily have to be large factories or production centers, but can also come from municipal water pipes and similar relatively smaller human industrial equipment.
Repeated consumption of even low doses of arsenic and heavy metals in drinking water has been found to lead to respiratory problems in both children and adults as well as in cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancers of the skin, bladder, and lung. Anyone who hikes regularly should make sure to pack a water testing kit and a highly effective treatment system if they plan to rely on spring water to stay hydrated, especially nearer to urban areas where heavy metals are more likely to be present.
How to test the quality of spring water
There are two methods of water testing that can work for well water, spring water, and bottled water alike. One of them consists of visual tests and a few other sensory estimations and should only be used in the most dire of situations when drinking water is in great need and scarce. The other involved the use of a water testing kit and can reveal much more information about a water source.
Hikers at a campsite or planning to be near a given water source for longer periods of time should definitely test a water source before imbibing. Of course, if the water isn’t silty or brackish and looks clear enough to drink, hikers are known to simply pass it through an effective filter than treats against coliform bacteria and heavy metals. You can also boil water, but remember that softer water with low alkalinity can taste acidic even after it’s heated up. Many a hiker has had a morning cup of coffee ruined by strange-tasting spring water!
Water testing kits come in a few different types. One of the most famous, the WaterSafe Well Water Test Kit, is manufactured in test strips that are submerged in a sample of the target drinking water and change color to indicate the alkalinity, pH, or presence of unwanted minerals and inorganic chemicals in the water source. SafeWater also manufactures other tests that specifically target bacteria, pesticides, and lead.
Bear in mind that this type of water testing kit is only for testing; the strips themselves won’t do anything but indicate the presence of bacteria, pesticides, and lead. They aren’t meant to treat anything. For that, you’ll want a water treatment system.
Steps to test water quality in the backcountry
Gather a small sample of the spring water in a cup or other piece of equipment dedicated to this purpose. Many water testing kits come with vials, but any small receptacle will work. Try not to use your reusable water bottle, since the whole point of water testing is not to contaminate it with harmful water.
Dip a test strip into the water and let it rest there for a minute or two. There should be a key or color-coded results list included with the water treatment kit. Wait to see what the results are and try to match the shade of the test strip as well as you can with the key given in the kit.
That’s all! It’s a very simple process that can save lots of pain and misery by avoiding digestive sickness and even more serious illnesses over time.
How to treat spring water
Once you have the results of the water testing kit, you’ll need to have some kind of water treatment handy. There are a few kinds of water filters specifically built for hikers, campers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. Trail runners will prefer models that operate by hand pump and can quickly be dipped into a trailside river or spring to refill a water bottle and keep moving in a matter of minutes.
Hikers who tend to take multi-day excursions and prefer to treat drinking water in large quantities rather than trek back and forth between a campsite and a water source should try a more heavy-duty water purification system that works with gravity. Large models can treat several gallons at one time.
Boiling water might get rid of most of the harmful bacteria, but it won’t get rid of inorganic material that gives the drinking water a brackish appearance. Filtration systems are usually seamlessly integrated into water treatment tools most often favored by hikers, campers, and backpackers.
Most operate by simply placing the filter or filtration system into the water source and either pumping a hand pump to direct water into a water bottle or filling up a reservoir and then hanging it from a tree limb to let gravity direct it through a filter that can remove debris and harmful bacteria at the same time. Cleaning them is usually just a matter of pushing water backward through the filter to remove debris and washing with soap and water after coming in off the hiking trail.
Testing spring water out in the backcountry is a really easy process and it can be helpful not only to avoid some pretty nasty illnesses but also to keep track of what kind of elements are finding their way into your body for any other purposes.
If you have a private well that you drink from regularly, you can keep up a regular testing schedule and be able to prove that nearby industrial activity has led to harmful leaching into your water supply, for example. Hikers in the backcountry would do well to test their drinking water before ingesting any at all, especially to measure for the presence of coliform bacteria from plants, insects, and soil.
Taste and some other aesthetic effects can stem from water sources with a high pH or alkalinity that’s too low. Marks from material in hard water can look unappetizing and add an acidic taste to food and beverages prepared with water from that source. Even hot beverages like coffee that require boiling the water first will still likely taste strange if the water source is acidic enough.
The right water testing kit paired with the most convenient water treatment apparatus can prevent illness and keep hikers and campers out in the backcountry as long as they originally planned to stay there. Boiling water can be cumbersome, while most water filters and filtration systems have benefitted from years of development and become tailor-made to the demands of hikers and other backcountry trekkers. Enjoy a cold, fresh, and healthy drink of water whenever you please on your next hiking trip now that you know how to test spring water!
Bonus tip: Curious what these tests look like? Watch these hikers in the U.K. test spring water for alkalinity, TDS, and pH/ionization!