Never forget clean water

“Fifty-three!” I could not believe it. I knew it was hot. After all it was Oman’s Wahiba Sands, and I was on a camel. I had never seen my outdoor watch read 53° Celsius before, but even I could read the number.

“Is that a problem?” Mohammed replied, unperturbed. He was on another camel beside me, as we followed our 130-kilometre route across the desert.

As a Bedouin, Mohammed had been raised in the heat, in a land where water was a scarcity. A temperature of 53° might have horrified me, but to a desert Arab it was nothing.

I tried to keep it simple. “Proteins coagulate if body temperature reaches 42.3°,” I explained. “Air temperature is different. We can handle 110° for a few minutes, maybe a sauna, but then we are in trouble.”

My swollen tongue and cracked lips showed that I had finished my last water. We were following Mohammed’s navigational instinct and heading to a desert well somewhere to our south. I had no idea if the well contained water.

In the event, we reached the well two hours later. We were lucky, as it had sufficient water, but the desert had brought fluid balance into focus. Camels may keep going for up to seven months before drinking but humans are different. At best we can survive a week without liquid. Our bodies are roughly 60% water, with ladies having less than men. For adult males, the daily intake should be 3.7 litres. Females require a litre less.

The normal colour of urine (courtesy Dmitry Gladkov)

Different parts of the body carry different quantities of water. Teeth, for example, are 10% water, bones 25%, while brain, kidneys, heart, and lungs are up to 85%. Muscles carry more water than is found in fat. It is why, when we become dehydrated, we feel wobbly and our concentration wanders. By the time we experience thirst, our body water has already gone down 2-3%. Most of us urinate four times daily, and our wee should be light yellow. If we urinate less, or should the colour of our wee darken, it is a sign of dehydration, and we should rapidly correct it.

When out mountain walking, water balance is critical. It is natural to sweat between 0.5 and 1.5 litres hourly. It is how the body maintains a constant temperature.

Many get it wrong. Records from the USA’s Grand Canyon show that 8.7% of rescue callouts are caused by heat-related illness, and 25% of victims are clinically dehydrated.

Walkers so often focus on food and clothing, with water being an afterthought. My first action, if I feel wobbly on the hills, is to take a drink, not munch a Mars Bar. I normally carry two litres of fluid in my pack, especially in summer.

I am not an enthusiast for hydration bladders, although realise they are popular. I have accidentally punctured too many with crampons and have frequently found mould inside the drinking tube. Bacteria have been found in used bottles, so cleanliness and disinfection are essential. My preference is a one-litre Nalgene bottle. Its broad screw-top prevents it from leaking, it is easy to fill, simple to wash, and I have yet to puncture one by accident.

Enthusiasts for drinking water from mountain streams should think carefully. Although a water source may look clean, it cannot always be trusted.

Bacterial contamination is common, even in the high mountains. It is not only humans that pollute mountain water, but wildlife, too. Deer, sheep, weasels, fox, and plenty more besides. Mountain walkers, and thirsty animals, may be equally attracted to the same babbling brook.

It is important to sterilise drinking water in the wild, and there are several ways of achieving it. Chlorine dioxide is a hot favourite – one tablet per litre, occasionally two, wait for 30 minutes, and then start drinking. Boiled water, suitably cooled, is an alternative. Ultraviolet light from a special pen is also effective and takes 90 seconds to sterilise one litre of water. One pen can handle 8000 litres. Then there is filtering and purification. Filters remove waterborne protozoa and bacteria, but not viruses. Water purifiers are designed to remove the lot.

Whatever method is chosen, humans are not camels. In the mountains, indeed anywhere, it is essential to remain hydrated. Mankind depends on clean water, but it is not always available.

Remember, however scenic that gurgling mountain stream, you can be sure there are plenty of unseen bugs waiting for their moment.


When you are thinking about water

Carry sufficient water for your needs.

I work on one litre in winter, two in summer. I will normally carry a one-litre Nalgene bottle filled to the top and an empty, but folded, one-litre Platypus as a spare.

My favoured water bottles are:

If you take water from the wild, you should sterilise it. Here are a few ideas:

TABLETS:

ULTRAVIOLET LIGHT:

FILTRATION:

  • MSR MiniWorks EX water filter
    Filters 1 litre/minute and screws onto Nalgene water bottle. Good for 2000 litres
    Weight: 414g
    Price: £89.47 (Scandinavian Outdoor)

PURIFICATION:

  • MSR Guardian purifier
    Filters 2.5 litres/minute. Compatible with most wide-mouth water bottles. Good for >10,000 litres
    Weight: 490g
    Price: £329.99 (Ellis Brigham)

My favourite shops for water essentials are:

Further information:

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Richard Villar

Travel writer, doctor & international mountain leader

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