By Jane Marshall

Diarrhea. Nausea. Vomiting. Cramping. Fatigue. And all from a sip of stream water. Microscopic ‘bugs’ live in even the most pristine alpine water bodies. This post is about what those bugs are, how to avoid them, and how to take care of yourself if you accidentally get sick from contaminated water.

First, a little anecdote of personal experience.

I was trekking in the Nepal Himalayas. The peaks around me rose high and mighty. I pulled out my Nalgene bottle and filled it from a gurgling stream. I waited the prescribed 30 minutes for my Aquatab to treat my water, then I took 2 big gulps. I stopped short – something was wrong. The water didn’t have the mild chlorine taste produced by the tablets. Sh!t. I’d been chatting with my friends and forgot to put the pill in.

Someone using a gravity water filter to fill a water bottle.

Within days I became ill. We were staying in a guest house attached to a traditional Himalayan home. Stone walls, cows in the courtyard, and communal bathrooms. I woke to an unpleasant feeling in my gut and within minutes was quivering over the squat toilet. Repeat. Many times.

Luckily I had imodium. It worked at first, but the symptoms returned so I took a strong antibiotic prescribed at a travel consultation at my local Pharmacy in Canmore. Yet even after I flew back to Canada, I knew something was still off. My stomach cramped when I ate. My energy was low.

A stool sample (sorry, a little personal) confirmed I had Beaver Fever (Giardiasis). This little parasite is transferred by fecal matter. The water I drank in Nepal was contaminated, likely by yaks, cows, monkeys or sheep. I was treated with an antibiotic called Flagyl, and I took probiotics as well. Alberta Health even called me to give me information and to ensure I didn’t spread this contagious parasite.

I learned a lot from that call. I’ll share some highlights with you:

  • Beaver Fever is spread when tiny amounts of fecal matter enter your food and water and you ingest them.
  • If someone with Giardiasis doesn’t wash their hands properly after going to the bathroom and makes you food, you can get it.
  • If you gulp lake water when swimming, you can get it.
  • If your dishes have a drop of contaminated water on them and then you eat, you can get it.
  • When you have it, you should not go swimming or in hot tubs.
  • Read Alberta Health Services’ information about Giardia here and if you are suffering, seek medical attention.

Another parasite in Alberta is Cryptosporidium.

Both live in your intestines. Both suck. Here’s how to avoid getting them.

A group of hikers standing next to a stream.

First, read Evan Wishloff’s post about water treatment options here. Evan explains the differences between filters, purifiers, chemical treatment, and UV treatments.

Next, you should realize one method is not better than another. Your approach should be area specific. Filters don’t kill viruses. Purification tablets don’t kill parasites as effectively – parasites take longer to die, and often a higher dose of chemical is needed. To be really safe, a combination method is best. Filter first, then kill viruses with purification tablets. Especially when traveling in regions with high human and animal populations.

A simple and extremely effective way to treat water is to boil it. Boiling kills or inactivates viruses, bacteria, protozoa and other pathogens. How long? 1 minute at a full, rolling boil will do the trick, according to the CDC (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention). You may still have to/want to filter your water first if there’s glacial silt or sediment in it. And once, I even found tiny red swimmers after filling my water bottle at a glacial tarn in the Kananaskis. I opted against Aquatabs and resolved to buy a filter attachment for my water bottle for my next hike.

Here’s the CDC’s complete list on how to treat water:

Making Water Safe

The staff at Breathe Outdoors can help you. Go talk with them. Tell them where your adventure is taking you. Treatment methods will vary depending on whether you’re heading to a high alpine environment or a distant country. Then choose the filter or purifying method best suited to your group size, location, and activity

Stay healthy out there!