For the past several weeks I’ve been grading the choices I made during my recent John Muir Trail thru-hike. Thus far I’ve scored a “D” for my sleeping bag, a “B” for my sleeping pad, an “A” for my stove, and a “B” for my tent. Next item: how I purified water.
For those of you who may be new to the Sierra Nevada, here’s the good news: the water tastes great. It tastes so good that when I returned home I had trouble drinking water from my tap—which had seemed perfectly adequate just a few weeks earlier.
It also tends to be clean. Most hikers who have spent a significant amount of time on the John Muir Trail have run into people who claim to rarely purify their water before drinking. I’ve drunk untreated water on occasion and have never gotten sick, but I still don’t recommend it.
I’ve used the same water purification system for every one of my extended hikes through the Sierra: a SteriPen Classic.
The Steripen has a lot going for it. It is light, never needs to be back-washed or cleaned (unlike most filters), and is effective against the flagellated protozoa known as giardia. (If you are going to get sick in the Sierra from the water, it will probably be from giardia.)
It’s also effective against the smallest of the “bugs” that can make you sick, viruses.
It works by subjecting the various microorganisms to ultraviolet light. The UV rays do not necessarily “kill” the bugs, but it does prevent them from multiplying in your gut, which is just as good.
The Steripen I carried has some disadvantages. My nineteen days of hiking required a total of twelve lithium AA batteries, which adds to your pack weight. I also needed to carry some sort of container to hold one liter of water (the maximum amount it can treat at a time). I choose a Nalgene bottle, which, again, added to my weight.
The other disadvantage is that the Steripen is as fragile as any device consisting primarily of electronics and glass. In fact, on my 2009 thru-hike, mine stopped working after the first few days. I didn’t purify water a single time during the remaining two weeks, and never got sick (proving absolutely nothing, I should quickly add).
One of the hikers I met on this year’s thru-hike (thanks, Dale!) had what may be a better idea. It was certainly lighter.
He took the filter off a Sawyer Squeeze and mounted it to the end of the supply hose on the bladder he carried. He would fill the bladder with untreated water, and simply suck the water through the filter. It was light, small, and effective against everything except viruses. It seemed like an elegant solution, particularly if you are like me and are fond of bladders.
My technique for purifying water was fine, but by adopting the filter-at-the-end-of-the-bladder-hose strategy I could have shaved off another eight to twelve ounces. That will probably be my approach next time.
My grade: B
Good hiking, Ray