I bet if you ask 10 people how you prevent “waterborne” illness nine would say treat, filter, and/or boil the water. Guess what, they would be right. However, what if we change the question a bit. How do we prevent backcountry gastrointestinal illness? Now, what do you think?
If we look at gastrointestinal diseases contracted in the backcountry, we don’t have good consensus that it’s from the water you drink. In the journal “Wilderness and Environmental Medicine”, Thomas R. Welch, MD has written about this issue. Welch indicates there is a lack of scientific study supporting wilderness water contamination and illness. He writes: “…no studies suggest that North American wilderness waters are a source of bacterial enteritis”. (1) But a “lack” of science does not equal a lack of causality.
Ray Brooks, a Forester, disagrees and thinks water contamination is an issue. (2) You can read his article here. He cites a comprehensive article in the popular publication “Backpacker” What’s in The Water, by Mark Jenkins. The article quotes Chuck Hibler of Colorado State University “In one of our studies we had over 10,000 samples from streams all across America, from Alaska to Arizona, and we didn’t find one without Giardia.” Now one may argue that the samples amounts were not high enough to cause harm or that some people are “immune” to the various bugs and this reduces the actual numbers of infective contacts. But who cares, purify anyway.
Another likely reason you get sick in the woods
You see it in every public restroom you go to, there’s a reason for it, it’s a public health issue. You see a sign similar to the one below:
In a survey done it was shown that 62% of men and 40% of women don’t wash their hands after using the restroom. (3) There are data to suggest that the nasty stuff picked up in a restroom can be spread throughout an office in two hours. Soiled hands are the number 1 way we spread illness. Can you imagine how fast this can happen in a group of 4?
So the solution is simple; wash. Not in a stream, but clean yourself with antibacterial gel.
Keep these situations in mind of when to clean: (4)
- You have touched surfaces after someone you know is sick/contaminated
- You have or think you might have blood, pee, poop, vomit, spit, snot or other body fluids on your hands
- Before and after using the bathroom or helping a child use the bathroom
Here are some tips on how to “wash” in your camp: (4)
- Take off your jewelry so your wrists and fingers are clear
- Use a dime sized amount of gel in the palm of one hand and spread the gel over all hand surfaces of both hands
- Rub all surfaces including backs of hands, between fingers, under fingernails, and wrists
- Rub your hands together until your hands are dry which takes about 10-30 seconds
- After cleaning your hands 5-10 times with hand sanitizers you can wash your hands with warm water to remove the buildup of emollients.
Just one more tip, “dry” or “wipe” your hands with a different towel or bandana than you use for drying dishes.
Treating your water is great, and should be done. What we also know is that proper hygiene equals good health. So the next time you are out in the woods, don’t forget the antibacterial gel. Remember Mom was right, wash your hands!
Backwoods wanderer with a passion for backpacking, hiking, kayaking, and exploring the wilds of the Catskills and Adirondacks in New York. A Catskill 3500 Club Member and Adirondack Forty-Sixer. Climbed Mount Rainier. Professionally an Exercise Physiologist.