Culture

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

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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.