No…..not THAT waterworld ( terrible Kevin Costner movie).

Water management in the High Sierra mountains and the Utah canyonlands.

Part 1, Water is life

In the desert water is life. (Edward Abbey).
In space no-one can hear you scream (Alien)

One way of thinking about my proposed trip project is along the usual survival/preparedness lines encompassed by the ‘big 4’ thus : shelter, water, fire and food. For this trip we also need to include movement and navigation but we can leave that until later on.
While i’m working on the shelter (includes clothing and sleep system) i must acknowledge that water management will be the most critical element of the canyon exploration hikes and only of second importance in the High Sierra in a normal year. I have previous experience of hiking in the High Sierra in a dry year, and it can be a problem temporarily, but our proposed routes this time all include valleys and lakes most days along with the high mountain sections.    The Utah canyons and desert section is a completely different ball game so that’s got to be our maximum point of potential problem and preparation.
To kick off this section i’m going to copy out a section from my first guide book : “Hiking Grand Staircase-Escalante and the Glen Canyon region (Rod Atkinson & JD Tanner et al)” While a very long section in the guide , this part, which was compiled by local backcountry rangers is the most concise so….

While hiking in desert canyons, most people swaet about 0.5 to 1 quart of water and electrolytes (salts) each and every hour that they are walking in the heat. This fluid/electrolyte loss can even exceed 2 quarts per hour if they are hiking uphill in direct sunlight or during the hottest part of the day. Because the desert air is so dry and hot sweat evaporates instantly, makin it’s loss almost imperceptible. This evaporation allows the body to lose hrat and keep cool. ( Caution : Do not wait until you start feeling thirsty to start replacing fluids and electrolytes. By the time you feel thirsty you are already dehydrated !.
Even mild levels of dehdration cause the body to become approximately 20-30 % less efficient , and this makes hiking a lot less fun. The more dehydrated a person becomes the less efficient the body becomes at walking and cooling . A slight to moderate fluid and electrolyte loss can lead to heat cramps and heat exhaustion (nausea, vomiting, headache, fatigue, fainting). A moderate to large fluid and electrolyte loss can lead to severe heat exhaustion (dizziness, constant nausea and vomiting, shock, kiney failure)and possibly to heatstroke.

A normally hydrated adult should be able to urinate approximately 1 20 3 ounces of light yellow urine every 2 hours. If you are urinating more frequently than this and your urine is clear you may be overhydrating and may need to cut back on your fluid intake. If your urine is dark in colour and/or smells, then you are probably dehydrated and need to drink more frequently. The body can only absorb about 1 quart of fluid per hour, so drink 0.5 to 1 quart of some type of electrolyte replacement drink each and every hour that you are hiking in the heat. Carry your water bottle in your hand and drink small amounts often. Ideally, an average adult should drink 4 quarts of electrolyte replacement drink and 4 quarts of water for every 8 hours of hiking in the heat.

The body uses enormous amounts of energy (food calories) to keep cool in the heat. Eating is the most important defense against exhaustion and water intoxication. Heat reduces the appetite : it seems all the body craves is water. But you must force yourself to eat adequate amounts of food to keep up with the deamns of hiking in a desert canyon. You need to make sure that you eat a lot more than you normally do.
Eating adequate amounts of food also helps guarantee that you replace the electrolytes you are sweating out. If you replace the water, but not the electrolytes, you can develop a a serious and dangerous medical condition known as hyponatremia (water intoxication) that, if left untreated, can lead to seizures and possibly death. Don’t use salt tablets, as they will make you feel nauseous. Instead you need to eat at least two to three times your normal food intake to meet your energy needs while hiking. If you have food, eat it if you have extra food , share it. Eating well helps you hike well. “
No pressure then !

Part 2. Water management in the High Sierra mountains.
In 2001 we made our first hiking trip to the Sierra Nevada mountains of California by going to Yosemite valley, basing ourselves there and going walking from there. In hindsight that was a mistake because Yosemite itself is a deep glacial valley, and to get anywhere near the high country involves something in the order of a 3.000 ft ascent just to get to the valley rim at the easy end. When we went there we started to joke that our 3,000 foot ascent was our ‘walk to work’ every day…we didn’t do that every day though : often it was more !.
For our first ‘easy’ day hike we made a big mistake in that we ended up on a south facing granite slope at mid morning on a warm day in September. Like many visitors we did the usual thing of a relaxed breakfast in the chow hall followed by a bus ride to the trailhead and then a lazy, easy stroll up through the pines, it’s only after that, that the trail breaks out onto a steep granite switchback directly in the sun, that it gets very uncomfortable. We did make it to the top of that route (Yosemite falls i think) but we were overheated and mildly dehydrated when we topped out, i seem to remember sitting in the rock pool at the top continually filtering and drinking water while we made a first brew !.
After that we started to learn several things about hiking there : start early, do our distance and/or ascent early in the day or later on, to simplify and lighten our kit, to hydrate properly and to rest up in shade whenever we could. We also learnt during the longer days and harder carries during the multi-day trips that we lost our appetite just as the rangers in the first section say it happens and it needs managing….smaller and higher calorie snacks seem to be one answer to that problem.

In the next trip out there (2003 i think) i learnt to plan our days around better timimg and around water sources….when to take on water for a longer, dryer section and more easily when we were between lakes. The basic trick of that is that we learnt that we needed more available water for a long slog over a high pass, once again, just as the man says : more effort = higher water consumption.
Also, in the Sierra, i had to manage the cleanliness of our drinking water because there is Giardia in many of the streams because there are stock animals out there : my partner can’t take Iodine so our only reliable method was filtration with a high quality 2 stage filter, my choice then being the MSR waterworks which i still own. That time our main water sources were streams and lakes plus one small spring one time : we got to camp and found that spring, filtered up a load of water and by the next morning that spring had dried up (it was a very dry year)
My 2 potential routes in the High Sierra this time both have frequent water sources except for a couple of sections which look ‘high and dry’ over the passes. As with last time i think we can easily cope with carrying a couple of litres each to get us over those sections and then catch up when we are in the lower, valley, sections…..it’s the desert and canyons that present an entirely different challenge.

2.Desert and canyons.
The canyons, open desert and slickrock, all present entirely new problems : from what i have seen there are no reliable water sources in the open desert, sometimes small open pools on the slickrock and than mainly variable in the canyons themselves with sources from springs and seeps plus one reliable river. Water when found has to be regarded as non-potable until filtered (and sometimes strained first)
The opposite side is that rainfall and flash floods can be a hazard in the slot canyons and at least one route will need deep wading….potentially a swim or 2 !.
Once again it’s back to the guidebook.
Although water is responsible for carving Glen canyon and it’s many tributaries, surface water, save for lake Powell and a few modest perennial streams such as the Paria and Escalante rivers, is scarce. Water is the single greatest limiting factor on travel in these high-desert canyons- you must reach a water source each day or carry all you will need until you reach that water source. Some creeks and springs flow all year round, while others flow unpredictably, following favourable conditions of rainfall or snow-melt, or from late autumn to early spring when evaporation is reduced and some springs and streams resurface.

Hikers must always carry water on any trail or route and come prepared with enough water containers to carry a 1 to 2 day supply when necassary. Top off your water containers at every opportunity. Timing your hike to follow wet seasons-such as an early spring or an autumn that follows an active monsoon season-is important to ensure an adequate water supply. Water requirements are based on heat, exertion, time of day and time of year. As a rule, and for a measure of safety hikers should carry at least 1 gallon of water on extended trips away fron known water sources.

> When hiking in the desert, your water supply should be the heaviest items in your pack…..Running out of water in the backcountry of the Glen Canyon is the single biggest mistake you can make < “.

My notes.
Because i think and work in metric units i note that : 1 US gallon = 3.75 Litres.
One fluid ounce (US) = 30 mls (rounded up)
While water quality in the High Sierra is at least visibly clean/clear running, a lot of what i have seen in video’s of water sources in the canyons is anything but. Some water sources are completely unusable (the dirty devil river for example) and/or are highly silt laden, standing water sources will usually have a high ‘biological’ content and the only ‘clean’ water (immediately potable) seems to be that which is dripping out of seeps in the canyon walls. In general i’m assuming that i’m going to have to pre-filter, and then fine-filter everything .

Suggested equipment :

hydration pouch/bag of 1-1.5 litres each.
2 X water bottles of at least 1 litre each. Between us at least 1 large water bag for camp.
1 each reserve/emergency water bag of 1 litre.
Water filter ( MSR waterworks)
Pre-filter…Millbank bag or similar.
Jobs : service MSR filter as i haven’t used it for at least 15 years so i suspect that that the seals and O rings will have peished (i do have an unused cartridge though)
Look into a simple, gravity filter and bags system.

Part 3, Water treatment.

Waterworld 3 : clean water.
I said that this was one of the most important aspects of this trip so here goes with section 3 : a quick look at making water safe to drink.
There are very few places that i can think of where i would drink ‘wild’ water straight at it’s source and without treatment of any kind , around here there are a couple of springs very high on the moor from which i would drink if i really had to but even then the way i tend to use spring water is to boil it for a brew.
Generally though i have to consider that ‘wild’ water isn’t safe to drink and that it needs treatment of some kind first ; having said that i know of several experienced outdoorsmen who will drink from some natural water sources and one of those (Ray Jardine) has talked about adapting to natural water sources as our gut, just like the gut of any animal, can cope with some contaminants : we can cope with and in fact destroy some level of bacteria in water.
For this section i thought i would do a quick rundown of known water contaminants and the various practical methods used to remove them and make the water potable so :

1. Cloudy water/visibly dirty. In the past, even with a water filter available, i have always avoided cloudy/murky, visibly dirty water and always tried to start off with visually clear water ; for my potential canyons trip this may not be possible and i may then have to deal with this.
‘Muddy’ water in the canyons is usually due to fine suspended sand and clay particles which, given time and lack of movement, will settle out but which will quickly block the kind of filter which i have at the moment : my MSR waterworks filter being based on a ceramic column which water is driven through under pressure.
One old technique is to collect as much water as possible in a tall container and simply let the fine particles settle out over time and then take the cleaner water from the top of the new water column. That seems to be a common technique among the river-runners (rafters) on the big rivers of the Colarado and it’s tributaries.
A quicker technique is to run the water through a coarse , ‘simple’ filter ; something like a Millbank bag or modern equivalent. Iv’e had one for years as part of my teaching kit, never used it in anger so i dug it out today and gave it a clean. The idea is very simply to let the water run through a dense , closely woven canvas cloth….mine looks a bit like a big canvas sock !.
Some hikers in the canyons use a much more tech version of that with a 2 bag system and a full bacterial filter between them, that relies on ‘head’ between the top or dirty water bag and the filter. The ones i have seen seem to use something like the Sawyer mini filter which can then be made up into DIY systems as it’s only the filter that is the critical component. When used with dirty/silty water the filter will clog and they often come with a large syringe to back-wash/flush them through.
For processing large amounts of water with minimal effort that’s a useful technique except that you need some way of hanging the top bag, it being a gravity system.
2. Biological contaminants.
This is the largest group and surprisingly the easiet to deal with as all of the protozoans/amoeba (like Giardia), the bacteria ( Eg the faecal coliforms) and most of the viruses are killed well below the boiling point of water and/or can be taken out with fine filtration but which are variably destroyed by the conventional chemicals (Chlorine and Iodine).
Locally (Dartmoor) the likely bacterial contaminants are going to be from the gut of ruminants and sadly from ‘poo of dog’. The higher and nearer the spring source usually the better.
My normal practice as iv’e already said is to simply collect and boil that water, when i have a campfire available i’ll happily boil spring water and stream water even knowing that there are both cows, dogs etc upstrream. Of note, there is absolutely no need to boil water for 5 minutes which is something oft stated, all that needs to be done is to bring water to a rolling boil although it does make the water a lot more pleasant to drink to re-oxygenate it afterwards.
Just as a quick reference : Giardia is killed at about 65 degrees centigrade but can be resistant to Chlorine. In the outdoors only Iodine is thought to be reliable.
Most bacteria are killed (simply cooked) by 80 C, from memory only Crptosporidium and One of the extremophile Clostridia survives much beyond that so a rolling boil is plenty heat enough. Just as a quick note i’m not aware of Clostridium being a normal water-borne organism.
Bacteria can be removed by filtration but only when the filter material has a pore size smaller than the organism , from memory once again most bacteria are in the range 0.2 to 10 microns, the ceramic element in my filter is said to be 0.3 microns absolute.
3. Salts and alkali’s.
I’m not dealing with seawater here , that can be made potable with high pressure, reverse osmosis flltration systems (watermakers), rather i’m thinking about the water sources in the USA south west that contain high levels of dissolved salts and often alkali’s. One place that we visited (Mono lake) is extremely salty and alkaline due to the water within it seeping up through salt bearing and alkaline clays. Some well known rivers and springs are strongly ‘salty’ and or alkaline ; the Dirty Devil river being one. I’m not planning on going there, nor to any of the known sources where the water is simply not potable or treatable by normal means.
4. Heavy metals.
In my immediate locality there can still be arsenic in the groundwater and the bed of many rivers in Cornwall are said to be still highly contaninated so my normal practice is simply not to use anything downhill or downstream of one of the quarry spoilheaps. Some areas of soil around here are known to be contaminated with arsenic….with the remains of a mine essentially next door that’s why i only grow food plants in deep/raised beds.
In the USA south west, below some formations , there will be both toxic selenium and even isotopes of uranium…one of the clay layers (the Chinle formation) bearing carnotite which is the uranium bearing mineral.

Iv’e done long trips in the High Sierra using filtration as our primary method of producing potable water, just to add that my partner can’t tolerate Iodine, and we also used the same technique during canoe trips when we didn’t have a camp fire going. On this proposed trip i intend to take our MSR Waterworks filter and use that once again. From expeience it’s reliable, just a bit slow when we need to make lots of water..still it’s a quite pleasant job to sit at a stream and filter up some water.
For this trip though iv’e got to be able to deal with silt, mud and sand in the water so i’m also going to take a Millbank bag as a pre filter. I’m thinking about buying a gravity/2 bag system and that has it’s advantages although one benefit of the MSR filter is that water can be pumped up from a very small and shallow source that would even be difficult to scoop water out from.
I’m not planning to take any form of Iodine or Chlorine based water treatment chemicals on this trip.
Locally , and with now doing longer walks, i’m going to increase the amount of clean drinking water back up to either 1.5 or 2 litres but continue to use spring water for brews. When i start to get out there the worst problem will be finding clean water on the coast path….all of that is usually downstream of agriculture, notably lots of cows. Funnily enough it’s the south-west coast path which gives us the best training ground around here for being the warmest and often dryest environment plus lots of ascents and descents : that comes in as part of the training section though so i’ll leave that aside for now.
Next section : a look at the water kit so far.


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