"Is it ok to drink the water directly from streams?".
Good question. This is usually discussed in the context of rocky mountain areas like the Lake District, Snowdonia and Scotland where things are relatively simple, and people seldom talk about other areas which may have different considerations and problems. For us generally, drinking water is the single biggest headache of backpacking.
Before any consideration of collecting and drinking water, it is essential to understand the importance of hygiene. Some of the tales people tell of drinking untreated water in the wild and becoming ill are nothing to do with the water, they are the result of poor hygiene. Some people don't take enough care about this: when you do a wild toilet, you must wash your hands thoroughly afterwards - with soap, not just water. Rinsing hands with water alone is not enough. Many hills are liberally sprinkled with sheep droppings, and in such areas the same consideration should apply, e.g. after inserting the tent pegs and before handling food and water bottles.
We never treat collected water in any way. Period.
We never boil the water either, in fact in the summer months we don't even carry a pan and stove. People worry too much.
There are various types of water treatment available including chemical purification tablets, mechanical filters and UV devices. We have never used the chemical or UV systems. We have a mechanical Katadyn filter but never take it now, it's in the attic somewhere gathering dust and kept in reserve on the offchance of doing a low-level route where there might be no other feasible way to get water. Click the icon right for a page describing the Katadyn.
Springs are generally the best water source in any area and can be used even at low levels, except where they emerge near old mine workings due to possible contaminants. The main problem is knowing where the reliable ones are, especially in summer. People make broad statements about the abundance of springs in mountains which imply that you are never very far from one and don't need to carry much water, as if they occurred with the frequency of bus stops. This is not true in our experience and even if it was merely an exagerration, the information is useless unless we know where they are in advance. With a planned route and schedule we always allow some time for collecting water based on a study of the map, but we could be searching for springs for ages and still not find one. The springs marked on the map are not always reliable either, as we have sometimes passed a whole group of them with not a drop of usable water between them.
When good springs are found the water is usually excellent - cool, clear and just how all water should be.
In almost all cases on high and mid level routes we rely on streams for water. For each trip we study the map and circle one, and ideally two or more, stream sources that don't involve a long detour or descent, preferably near the end of each day. The contours give a clue to the chances of success: a steeply incised cleft suggests that the water must at some time flow well and swiftly, whereas a streamlet that cuts the contours at right angles has not formed a significant cleft and is less likely to be flowing in summer. An area of small tributaries that join into one stream is often a good bet. A further clue might be the size of the stream lower down. Recognising likely sources becomes easier with experience but it may still be necessary to descend further than envisaged.
In all cases we collect the water as near to the source as feasible and check the stream gulley a bit further up for possible contaminants. Large streams may have short side tributaries which are sometimes better as they have less opportunity to pick up discolouration, from peaty ground for example. Streams that issue from tarns are not a good choice due to the risk of human contamination, especially in popular areas, but we have sometimes used them in little frequented regions.
In rocky mountain areas, stream water should be almost as good as a spring but the situation in other regions is variable.
In predominantly heather moorland areas the ground is drained slowly and the water is stained by the peat. The colour is usually quite pale near the source and is not really a problem, being only a psychological barrier, but a few people have reported that the acidic nature of peat can upset a very delicate stomach. In summer the water tends to be warmer than a typical rocky stream which makes it seem more unpalatable. Adding flavouring such as crystals of an isotonic energy mix can help here but we don't usually bother.
Reedy streams on rough grassy hills are a mixed bag. Some give very good water, but some retain a reedy tang even though crystal clear, and again flavouring can help. We have never had any problems with any of these, though we obviously avoid any that taste distinctly bad.
The best water source we have found outside rocky mountains is forests, especially conifer plantations, which was somewhat surprising. These are often planted on steep hillsides to aid logging, and the fast flowing streamlets can yield superb cool clear water even when the surrounding region is baked peat moorland. The vast majority have the added advantage of being livestock-free.
Tarns are definitely not recommended in popular areas due to the risk of human contamination, especially the well known pitches such as Sprinkling Tarn and Angle Tarn in the Lake District. An inflow stream to a tarn is fine but we collect water well up from the entry point. In little frequented areas we have collected direct from a tarn on rare occasions when there was no feasible alternative in the time available.
On low-level routes, accessible springs are very rare and streams generally run through inhabited land and livestock pasture. On these walks we normally buy water. Some public conveniences have drinking water taps specifically labelled as such. Some have taps that are not labelled but the water is under mains pressure - we have used these several times.
Outdoor shops sell a variety of tough proprietary water bottles which are claimed to have various advantages for use on the hill but in our experience, these are solutions to problems that don't exist. The extra toughness means extra weight, and we have never found any need for it. We have used the standard 500ml supermarket spring water bottles for years and never had a problem, and they are very light at 19g. In subzero winter temperatures they must be protected and we put them along the inside edge of the sleeping bags.
We use these to collect extra water for the pitch. They are flexible and press flat very easily, but can also stand upright on a stable base. They are taste-free and can be frozen or filled with hot water, and we use the conventional plastic screw cap to avoid freezing up in winter. Push-pull tops are also available and the containers come in several sizes, we find the 2l size most convenient.
They are much lighter and more versatile than rugged proprietary bottles and this very low weight and bulk make them an excellent choice for backpacking. Although the mouth is small, the flat shape when empty makes it easier to fill from small streams than a rigid bottle.
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