One Dirty Magazine

TRAIL STOKE: Should Trail Runners Drink Straight From The Mountain?

Yes, I often drink water from streams in the wild. Don’t you?

Brian Metzler September 11th, 2020

TRAIL STOKE: Should Trail Runners Drink Straight From The Mountain?

It was hot. I was thirsty.

Extremely hot. Extremely thirsty.

I had already sucked dry the dual soft flasks mounted in the front of my Ultimate Direction Adventure Vest and was miles to go until I would be in a place to refill. And then, lo and behold, the trail I was running on came across a small, percolating stream.

“When the well’s run dry, we know the worth of water,” Benjamin Franklin once said, though I’m quite sure he wasn’t referring to hydration pack while out on a trail run.

What happened next was a no-brainer. I opened the bottle top of one of the flasks, dipped it into the fast-flowing current and held it there until it was full. And in one fluid motion, I held it up to my parched lips and drank the entire contents in one satisfying motion.

Whooosh! Instant gratification! Gulping down that fresh, cold and presumably clean water was precisely the refreshing burst of liquid-y goodness that I needed to quench my immediate thirst.

“Do you always drink from streams?” my trail running partner asked as I repeated the process. “Aren’t you worried about getting sick? Are you afraid you’ll get Giardia or Crypto or something like that?”

“Do you always drink from streams?” my trail running partner asked as I repeated the process. “Aren’t you worried about getting sick? Are you afraid you’ll get Giardia or Crypto or something like that?”

Yes, I do drink water from streams when I am out on the trails. And, no, I’m not particularly worried about getting sick. But I know many, or most, trail runners are. To each their own.

I don’t drink wild water frequently, but I never hesitate whenever it’s necessary and there is a clean water source. And by “when it’s necessary,” I mean when it’s hot, I’m out of water and plan to be out on the trails for another hour or more. And by “clean water source” I mean a flowing stream without obvious contaminants.

My theory is that it’s better to hydrate in the moment when it’s necessary and avoid a major bonk than to avoid it and deal with a headache or other, much worse dehydration-related ailments later.

And, yes, those other ailments can be horrible. Giardiasis and Cryptosporidiosis are intestinal infections caused by microscopic parasites that can thrive in what appear to be freshwater sources, often related to heavy animal traffic (wildlife or livestock) upstream. There can also be various strains of fecal coliform and other pathogens lurking in the water. Those nasty, impossible things can lead to fatigue, nausea, cramping, gas, bloating, vomiting and, uggh, diarrhea (a word I don’t like speaking, let alone writing). A quick Google search will quickly produce over-the-top graphic phrases about this subject, warning of “crippling cramps” and “explosive diarrhea that could last for months.”

YUCK!

Anyone who has suffered from those maladies knows they’re not pleasant. Fortunately, I’ve never gotten sick from any of the hundreds of times I’ve used a cold mountain stream as a personal aid station for rehydrating on a trail run. But I definitely not cavalier or defiant about it. I tend to drink from streams that are up high (typically above 12,000 feet above sea level) and I distinctly avoid slow-moving creeks, standing water or any place where I know livestock is grazing or there is significant runoff from mine tailings.

Fortunately, I’ve never gotten sick from any of the hundreds of times I’ve used a cold mountain stream as a personal aid station for rehydrating on a trail run. But I definitely not cavalier or defiant about it.

Truth be told, I might have been sick twice from drinking water, but both times were in different countries where water is treated differently. One was clearly a case of Montezuma’s Revenge after I fell a plate of tasty fish tacos and a cold Coke served with ice cubes at a small shop adjacent to the Puerto Vallarta airport. (Beware the ice cubes!) It didn’t hit me until I was back home, fortunately, but let’s just say I spent the first several hours of my return in the closed quarters of a bathroom.

The other time was running up Pico Turquino, the highest mountain in Cuba. We had refilled our bottles from a spigot at a national park camp lodge, mostly because it was the only source of water we could find. In that scenario, I threw up repeatedly for three hours but recovered without problems to run 11 miles the next day. (Though, in hindsight, my ensuing illness might not have been from water I drank, but instead a case of food poisoning from the sandwich made from a recently slaughtered pig at a roadside stand that I was encouraged to eat at the day before.)

But, no, I’ve never once gotten sick from drinking water from open streams. And, yes, I realize I have been extremely lucky and perhaps, as some might say, foolish, too, knowing that thousands of people die every year from drinking contaminated water. There is a chance, too, that I have developed an immunity to Giardia, though that’s a complicated subject to be sure.

The reason I started trail running in the first place was to escape the overcomplicated world and just run free. With all of the other stuff I wear or carry or eat on a long trail run, drinking water from a stream seems feels like an authentic and organic connection to the natural world I can experience out on the trails.

Although I know there are plenty of smart, outdoorsy types and government organizations that recommend otherwise, I tend to trust that the water in the natural world that comes from rain, snowmelt and dewy condensation is probably healthy enough for me to drink. Considering all of the other contaminants I knowingly put into my body on a regular basis—sugar, caffeine, alcohol, artificial colors and flavors and various preservatives in processed foods, to name a few—untreated water seems fairly benign.

And, OK, I know it is easy enough to carry a Katadyn bottle-top filter or a LifeStraw or SteriPen to greatly lessen the chances of catching a waterborne bug. Sometimes I do—if I remember to pack one of those gizmos—but mostly I don’t worry about it too much because I actually enjoy the pure and primal feeling of drinking from streams. That all might sound naïve and foolhardy, but as I said, I don’t drink from streams frequently—only twice this summer—and it’s always only when I have to.

(OK, time out! You might be reading along wondering if I’m making a case not to wear a mask amid the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m not at all. While ignoring informed advice for the sake of the self-indulgent personal freedom to drink from a stream and not wear a mask in public sound similar, I wear a mask in public because it protects those around me. Drinking water from a stream doesn’t impact those around me, except for allowing me to keep up on a long trail run.)

The reason I started trail running in the first place was to escape the overcomplicated world and just run free. With all of the other stuff I wear or carry or eat on a long trail run, drinking water from a stream seems feels like an authentic and organic connection to the natural world I can experience out on the trails.

 

Brian Metzler was the founding editor of Trail Runner magazine and now serves as a contributing editor and columnist.

 

               
   
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Amit
Amit
18 days ago

Just seems Immature, unnecessary and not wise playing with your health. Just carry a filter with your running gear if you think you’ll run out of water. Simple.

Niclas Brundell
Niclas Brundell
16 days ago
Reply to  Amit

It’s not as dangerous as people think. I’ve gone thousands of kilometers without filtering

Kristina
Kristina
18 days ago

Drinking straight from mountain streams gets you the most delicious water you can find. I’ve refilled my bottles a couple times in the past and been totally fine.
Flash back a few weeks, I ran the timberline trail on the hottest weekend of the year. I didn’t have a filter, and I’ve been fine drinking water straight all these previous times, so I didn’t think much of it. What I didn’t take into account is that I would be drinking about 7 liters of this unfiltered water over a few hours versus the half a liter I would do at most on other occasions.
Long story short, I got giardia and had a pretty rough few days.
Yet my first run back in the mountains after this my brain saw the streams and thought “ooh that looks yummy” and had to talk myself out of drinking it.

Jeff
Jeff
18 days ago
Reply to  Kristina

I’m 50 and have been running, hiking, backpacking in the sierra my whole life. As a kid we never filtered, just dipped our sierra cups into the stream. Convienient to not have to carry water. By the 90’s it was recomended to filter so we did. When I started doing long adventure runs I went back to usully not filtering because the water looks so great in the high sierra and usually is. Long story shortened, I got giardia twice from sources above 10,000 feet that looked good. Now I figure I lost my privilage of drinking straight from the steam, plus the modern filters are light and easy to use.

Steve Flint
Steve Flint
18 days ago

I often drink from the fast moving river high up in the Olympics and I’ve never had a problem. I stay away from slow moving or lake water. A friend of mine also drinks regularly from fast running water in the mountains and never had a problem. Steve

EJBTRI
EJBTRI
18 days ago

Unfortunately the article describes a dangerous and foolish practice. As an experienced user of the backcountry for more than 50 years I have seen numerous cases of waterborne illnesses but never suffered myself due to easily taken preventive measures. Readers should always take the necessary precautions

Phil
Phil
18 days ago
Reply to  EJBTRI

The trail running community isn’t what I thought it was.

Dane
Dane
18 days ago

skid mark on new friend’s sheet while down from living at loon lake in sierra and drinking beautiful local water. so unfortunate.

Michael D
Michael D
18 days ago

This is obnoxious. You’re literally inviting illness.

You’re a huge cavalier until you’re begging for medical help at your local hospital.

I can’t believe a reputable magazine would publish this crap.

Michelle Peacock
Michelle Peacock
18 days ago

I’m 63 and have been climbing, backpacking and running in the mountains since I was 13 and have always drank/drunk (??) water directly from the streams. One has to use common sense of course, standing water is a big no. Hiking/running down stream from a pasture where cattle graze also a big no to drinking directly out of the stream or anywhere near a designated camp ground with a lot of people. But you know I also drink water directly out of my hose – my husband and I laugh about starting a company to sell bottled water: “Lab approved hose water” with a photo of our Labrador Retriever on the front. Never had a problem and actually don’t know anyone who has after all these years.
Michelle

Michelle Peacock
Michelle Peacock
18 days ago

YAY!! Brian Metzler!!!

Tee
Tee
18 days ago

Yes I agree having just completed 400 miles backpacking in Wyoming and never using a filter in my 50 years of backpacking. Be smart the wilderness water is much healthier and safe than your tap water. Don’t drink around cattle,pastures, still water or where people cross the trail. Look for water or springs that are filtered throughout the ground and high snowmelt and you should be ok!

DRC
DRC
18 days ago

Kind of an irresponsible anecdotal evidence in the article. Soft flask filter is 30 bucks on amazon. Salomon has filter heads that fit into their flasks. Better than Giardia. Or just be better prepared. You should carry enough water to have it on the way back not run out 3/4 through. That’s how we do it in the military too. And Ultralight hiking people know that an easy way to save weight is carry a filter. So if you know where a stream is, it’s a way to not bring as much. Hope this helps

Zack
Zack
18 days ago

Sure, I often drive with no seatbelt, ride my motorcycle with no helmet, leave ticks on until they fall off, hike through scree on the side of a mountain in cowboy boots and no trekking poles, inhale sneezes from others, eat mushrooms I am not sure of, walk on bridges with loose boards, because heck, nothing’s happened to me yet.

Atsuko Ohtake
Atsuko Ohtake
18 days ago
Reply to  Zack

hahaha!!!:)

Parker
Parker
18 days ago

This has a *most interesting man in the world* tone to it. “I don’t always drink water from the wild but when I do I choose 12,000 ft mountain stream.” Good for him, although it’s kind of ridiculous to be bragging about drinking water that could possibly make you sick. For the rest of us earthlings who live closer to sea level with polluted water sources, that will never be an option.

Tom Diegel
18 days ago
Reply to  Parker

Maybe you should do an article examining why people get so righteous and indignant regarding their beliefs about other people’s actions that don’t affect anyone else. It seems there are lots of topics – even about something as simple as trail running – that elicit that strong reaction.

Zack
Zack
17 days ago
Reply to  Tom Diegel

It’s not being righteous or indignant. It does affect others, like the other hikers that have to turn around and drag your ass back to the trailhead, the first responders, the infectious disease doc that has to leave other patients, your family, your employer, and all the people that have to share your health care costs, to name a few. If you think you can run out of water, just carry a six ounce straw, dude, and especially don’t encourage stupid behavior in a trail running mag.

Brent
Brent
17 days ago

Plenty of things I’d do if the situation demanded it: hitchhike, use a sock as toilet paper, or drink wild water…. but none of these things is my Plan A or even Plan B

Beckster
Beckster
17 days ago

Never drink.from.streams. I once did and got a kidney e.coli infection. Hospitalised for 5 days and extremely painful.

Dean R
Dean R
17 days ago

In addition to the other refutations already made below concerning the easily refutable statements in this article, it also perpetuates the idea that the sources of giardia are primarily (the article implies exclusively) “wildlife or livestock”. Patently false. Even in backcountry water sources, humans have been identified as a significant vector of the disease. Dog-loving trail runners can also take some blame – dogs can carry the disease, even if they do not display symptoms. For both humans and dogs, when in the backcountry, poop far from water, bury your waste, don’t wash your hands in a stream after defecating, and carry hand sanitizer on your runs to avoid…..well….the runs.

Eric Haenschen
Eric Haenschen
17 days ago
Reply to  Dean R

Don’t you dare dig holes on the side of mountain trails. That may be fine for you flat-landers. Doing that in fragile soils results in an unnecessary impact that lasts for years. Pack it out. Carrying on to the trail inside your colon is the same as if you brought it in your pack. I use biodegradable dog poop bags. If that’s gross to you, don’t use mountain trails.

Brian Miller
Brian M
17 days ago

I think the bigger point to this article is about relative risk assessment. Some of us find it irresponsible to expose ourselves to any known risk, others feel that it is on a sliding scale of risk and that other factors (i.e. dehydration, etc) may have become bigger risks. Yet others may feel that a little risky behavior feels fun and liberating. As he mentions in the article, any risky behavior that unwittingly exposes others to a higher level of risk is not socially responsible. There will be no end to this debate, but I thank Brian for taking the risk to discuss debatable topics.

Michael
Michael
17 days ago

Goofiest thing I’ve read all week. Hope your luck continues to hold.

Rob
Rob
16 days ago

I love this and totally agree. Nothing beats the feeling of chugging ice cold water straight from the source. I always feel a bit nervous about it, but suspect that anxiety is the product of having seen too many advertisements from the likes of Dasani and Fiji water.

Niclas Brundell
Niclas Brundell
16 days ago

I’ve ran and hikes thousands of kilometers without filtering water. I’ve been fine too

Ray Mainer
Ray Mainer
16 days ago

Most diarhea is caused by bad food and bad sanitation. I have drunk a lot of untreated water not gotten sick. The danger is hyped by those selling water purification devices.

TheWoodsman
TheWoodsman
15 days ago

I admit I occasionally dip, but it’s so easy to carry a Befree Softflask in place of a non-filtered softflask- why would you? Or a tiny dropper bottle of pre-mixed Aquamira isn’t a bad thing to have. 7 drops per soft flask, wait 15 minutes and you’re good.

Darren
Darren
14 days ago

Mountain stream way up high, probably ok when needed but still dicey. Micro plastics, pharmaceuticals, herbicides, pesticides, VOCs in most city water, dicier. And this is why bottled water is a bigger industry than beer and soda…

Austin
Austin
13 days ago

Buncha Karens on here real mad about someone doing something that doesn’t affect them.

Chris Barnes
Chris Barnes
13 days ago

Here in Tasmania Australia I regularly drink from the mountains fast moving streams. Be it hiking or trail running. I also carry my life straw in case I need to drink from a tepid dirty water source. Each to their own. That natural resource tastes amazing

 
 

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