Filtering water may not be the answer to most backcountry illnesses

Went to the backwoods and ended up with a case of the runs? You probably blamed the water. But according to some medical and wilderness professionals, it is poor personal hygiene, not unsafe water, that usually bedevils the bowels of wilderness backpackers. Medical researcher and avid outdoorsnik Bob Derlet has tested water at 100 sites in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains for giardia, cryptosporidium, and other microbes that can cause intestinal illness and diarrhea. Derlet’s findings suggest that water in the High Sierra is actually quite safe to drink in many areas long thought to be contaminated with the micro-critters. While most would call this good news, Derlet’s position is considered controversial because it contradicts long-established health directives about treating water before drinking it — and also because water pumps, filtration systems, and chemical treatments reap big profits for the outdoor-products industry. But making smart choices about water sources — and avid use of soap — may be just as effective as fancy filters at keeping regular folks, uh, regular in the wild.