Happy Halloween 2018! We asked you to send us stories about the worst of the worst water you have ever had to filter and drink for our Hydration Horror Stories contest. You sent us some terrifying tales of contamination and dehydration. Here are our three "favorites". We'll publish "honorable" mentions on Friday, so keep your eyes peeled for some more horrifying water stories. Since these stories did not come with images, we've added some for extra disgust.
Our winner will receive a 3L Vecto.
Years ago, I was in a Boy Scout troop that spent a lot of time learning survival techniques. On one particular outing we were learning about different water filtration systems and so we set out hiking through the woods a few miles from our lodge and found a small stream. We learned about bleach, boiling, and a bunch of other ways to make raw water potable. We all commented and complained that the water tasted foul but the scoutmaster chalked it up to it being a small, slow-moving stream. After about an hour of testing different techniques and drinking the now-potable water, one of the other scouts said a floaty in his water was moving, open closer inspection, it was a maggot. Immediately we dumped out water bottles, packed up our supplies, and snuffed our fire before heading upstream to faster-moving water. After a few minutes, our scoutmaster, who was in the lead, literally gasped and pointed to a dead, bloating deer carcass tangled up in some rocks and logs. After most of us gagged and yelled at the scoutmaster, it was the perfect example of why we should filter our water! I’ll never forget that day and to my knowledge, no one ever got sick! Filter your water!!
As many of you may know, Southern California, where I live, is in the middle of a severe drought. My brother, on the other hand, lives in Georgia, where water literally just falls from the sky and just sits by the side of the road doing absolutely nothing of worth. (I hear some people call these things "rivers" or "ponds.") My scary story isn't just about the nasty water that I had to drink, but also about a complete lack of water that nearly ruined an entire hiking experience.
Anyways, we meet up regularly and take turns hiking the PCT and the AT but we both have completely different hiking styles. He's used to being able to refill his water pretty much every other mile on the trail and pounds his water away, whereas I camel it up and train myself to go the long distances without drinking between water sources that the PCT in Southern California is known for. Enter our PCT hike earlier this year. We were only planning on being on the trail for a couple of weeks and were physically ready for anything that came our way. I've got the home-field advantage here, so I'm doing fine on the entire hike. The only problem is my brother is completely NOT in shape this time around and is 100% not acclimated to desert weather at all. He quickly drinks ALL of his water every day and spends hours at a time miserable and in need of a refresh.
One day we have an especially long stretch between water sources and he's already drunk all of his water with 15+ miles to go. He keeps telling me he can push through it, but I know it's a bunch of tough talk, so I give him a liter of my water. Then another liter. Then I filter the reserved water I was carrying in my Vecto and give most of it to him. Then I'm down to a single 1-liter bottle to last me the 15 or so miles between our previous water source and the next refill spot, of which I share a couple of gulps with a poor girl who's water bladder was punctured by a nail at about mile 10.
My brother is starting to lose his voice. I can see white salt streams on the side of his face. He's getting dizzy and light headed at about mile 15. I work crazy hours at a summer job and had a heat stroke a couple of years ago. I know the signs and can tell he's very close to having one himself. Knowing just how awful having a heat stroke felt, compounded with the dangers of being out in the middle of nowhere turned what should have been an easy day on the trail into one of the most terrifying events of my life. Between looking ahead for the trail and keeping an extra eye on him, it was nearly impossible for me to hike. My stress levels were through the roof and I was pretty much miserable.
We get to mile 15 of the day and read on our GPS that there's POSSIBLY a small water source about 1 mile off of the trail. There's no visible marker for the water source, just a message saying "go about a mile West and keep an ear open."
Anyone who's done the PCT will be familiar with the first 700 miles of hit-and-miss water availability, which just happens to occur at the start when nobody is prepared for it. As we hunkered down at Somethingoranother Creek we couldn't help but notice one group of people after another stumble into the creek, hoping to get themselves a refill, only to be utterly crestfallen upon discovering what a "creek" is in Southern California (read: bone dry for at least the past couple of years). Worst of all? Our meals all needed water to re-hydrate so even if we toughed it up water-wise, we still had empty bellies, 4-5 miles to go before a guaranteed water supply and a pretty sizable hill before we were out of the woods.
Considering I was still feeling pretty good (proper conditioning for the win!), I decided to collect as many empty water bottles from as many exhausted hikers as I could before heading down the random dirt path, hoping for water.
I passed the mile mark, then decided to go a bit further. After finding nothing 1.5 miles off the trail, I decide to head back. By the grace of God, though, the wind dropped down at the most perfect time and I hear a faint trickle coming from down the dried up creek to my right. Jumping down I see it! Water! Flowing at the smallest trickle imaginable, but it was still WATER!
I start hiking towards the water, only to see that there's now a little forest of poison ivy between me and my prize. No big deal, I think to myself, I'm not allergic to poison ivy...I hope (turns out I'm not. Not a single sight of a rash anywhere on me!). I get by the water and then see an army of mosquitos flying around. (Remember I'm a San Diego kid. I MAYBE average 3 mosquito bites a year, so any more than 5 mosquitoes in one place is a literal army!)
Ignoring the ivy and the bloodsuckers I look down at the water...and see a putrid brown puddle of filth no more than a couple of inches around. I've honestly always been lucky with my hikes, and even though I filter my water I've never come across any nasty water I've had to drink. But this stuff was like soup; dead bugs floated all around it, rotten vegetation and it was maybe two inches deep, so every time I moved the surface it stirred up all the mud at the bottom and the water ended up looking like coffee.
Undeterred I got my and my brother's AMAZING CNOC VECTO reservoirs and started scooping and filtering through my Sawyer Squeeze. I filter my first liter of water and it comes through crystal clear. Then I chug the entire bottle. It was heavenly.
I don't recall the exact amount of water I filtered, but it must have been around three gallons. For as much water as that is, the Vecto made the entire process easy peasy. I filtered clean water into whatever clean water bottles people gave me and put dirty water into whatever dirty bottles were given to me. Then I headed back.
Feeling better personally, I was still filled with dread for my brother. Again, I knew how insufferable heat strokes were, and I also knew that he could have already potentially had one (sometimes when you dehydrate it takes a while for your body to realize just how screwed it actually is), so I double-timed the roughly .75 miles back to where everyone was and dropped off the water.
My brother ended up being more or less OK. Getting some water and food into his belly reinvigorated his spirits and he pretty much just needed to take it easy the next day. Luckily, both of our Vectos were filled to the brim with that nasty, putrid water, just waiting to be filtered so we can get back on the trail first thing the next morning.
In 2016 I went on a backpacking trip for three weeks in northern Arizona. While most of the trek took place in the bottom of two canyons, ripe with beautiful creeks, springs, and deep-red sandstone walls, connecting the two locations took a few days of overland travel. And that's where things got a little nasty.
For the first week and a half, we had been walking up West Clear Creek, a gorgeous and diverse area at the bottom of the canyon with an incredible riparian ecosystem full of crawdads and sycamores and prickly pears. The frequent sightings of massive poison ivy bushes (sometimes multiple feet in height) were not going to stop us from enjoying the natural wonder of the canyon. Boulder hopping, pack swimming, clear and freezing cold water.
To avoid a dangerous slot canyon section in the middle of the canyon during monsoon season, we scrambled up the side and popped out in the flat surrounding high desert terrain. With a mix of forest service road walking and route finding, we ended up in the hills surrounded by cacti and alligator juniper trees so big I couldn't believe my eyes.
However, now, out of the rushing creek bed, there were no streams, no springs, no water nearby. Except for what would be the saving grace of the section: cattle tanks. For those of you who don't know, cattle tanks aren't actually tanks of water, they are "ponds" dug into the ground to collect rainwater during the wet season, allowing for ranchers to graze their cattle in these waterless and sun-exposed areas. Some have more water than others, but, oh, do they have water in them. Just not the kind you'd ever think of drinking, even on the hottest, driest days.
Cows shit. And cows shit a lot, with no need for regard of location. And this, of course, includes their watering hole.
Cow tank number one was okay, the water was mostly clear(ish) and not much dung surrounded the edges. Cow tank number two, on the other hand, was a whole different story. We set up camp first, wind blowing the tarps every which way, nothing by open blue skies above dotted with fluffy white clouds. Picturesque. Even the cow tank looked nice, from afar.
A close up of the water would have been enough to make some gag. Green, slimy-looking, algae-ridden. Even difficult to access because of the hoof stomped mud around the sides. And chunks and chunks of floating green shit. Literal shit. Full patties, clumps, and small particle filled the tank, a sad depression in the earth, though certainly, it would bring joy to the heart of a bovine in the desert.
Did I mention we were not using filter systems? Well, we were not. Iodine has been the method of purification that far and remained our only option then. There was nothing I could do to stop it from coming into the bottle. Even with a bandana over the mouth, particles still found a way into my Nalgene. Even worse than the obvious chunks of cow crap in the bottle was the snails. Tiny little ones, impossible to make out in the water but once in my bottle they clung to the sides of the plastic.
A little shake of the bottle sent them swirling, zooming around until they found the sides again and stuck there. It took three tires to fill a one Nalgene without snails in it. Of course, the poop particles stayed. Then, finally snail free, even the iodine couldn't completely get rid the taste of poop-water. It just tasted like iodine and poo juice.
The only way to make drinking this stuff bearable was obscene quantities of Gatorade's drink mix (which used up almost a full weeks worth of it during these three days of cow tank drinking.) Still, whenever I drank the stuff, it just mixed the three flavors together, Gatorade, iodine drops, poop, into one drink. I tried to gulp it with my else closed until I was finally used to it enough, in my mind and my taste buds.
Two years later I have yet to drink from a worse water source and have developed a superpower whilst in the backcountry - I can drink from just about any source. Nothing compares and it served me well on the PCT this year when sources weren't ideal. I just kept telling myself, it could be so much worse.
Wow, Jackson. In the desert, you do what you gotta doo doo. We hope you have a water filter now because we're sending you a 3L Vecto to collect water from all the questionable sources.