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Should I Filter My Water on the PCT?

Should I Filter My Water on the PCT?

With the thru-hiking season around the corner and rain and snow still very much part of the PCT landscape, the repeated question around water filtering comes up. When you are out in the middle of nowhere, in the backcountry, getting water from a stream, do you really need to filter that water?

To jump to the conclusion: yes, you need to filter water on the PCT. 

And now a bit more:

Why filtering water in the backcountry?

Despite the very tempting look of a refreshing stream on a warm summer day, the primary source of what gets us sick outdoors are the things we can't see or smell. Water sources might look great but you often don't see the water all the way to the source.

Maybe there is a dead animal a few miles up stream? A fellow camper wasn't great in their LNT practices and went number 2 too close to the water? Even just a day hiker enjoying dipping their feet in the water a bit up stream. All these situations can easily lead to potential water contamination and the inevitable mess in your bowels. 

The main reasons to filter water are around human interaction; the increased number of hikers along the PCT means that water sources can get contaminated easily.

Feet in Water

What happens when you drink contaminated water?

The CDC lists a long list of potential contaminates in water but the main two that tend to be found in the backcountry are Giardia and E. Coli. Giardia is a parasite and E. Coli is a bacteria and when digested, both can cause gastrointestinal problems.

Digesting Giardia or E. Coli doesn't have to mean getting sick; a person can easily be asymptomatic, but if symptoms show up, especially in the backcountry, that can be nasty. Here is what to expect:

  • Diarrhea
  • Gas or flatulence
  • Greasy stool that can float
  • Stomach or abdominal cramps
  • Upset stomach or nausea
  • Dehydration

The real danger for hikers in the last one: dehydration. When having severe diarrhea and a messed up stomach, it is very hard to stay hydrated, let a lone the terrible feeling of needing to urgently dig a cat hole every few minutes to get another liquid mess out from the back end. 

TP mess on the trail

But what about the weight?

Despite the temptation to get to a sub 7 lbs base weight, water filtering gear is worth its weight in gold. Ditching water treatment is a very bad idea for anyone hiking over time. There are alternatives like tablets, but they can be tricky.

Chemical tablets are indeed lighter than filters on the trail, but getting the right reaction time and the perfect ratio is a matter of practice, especially for new hikers. Many times you will be getting to a water source, especially in SoCal, and needing to not just get water for the next leg, but camel up after running out of water a while back. Chemical treating means waiting, and if you are impatient or very thirsty, you can easily get a gastrointestinal illness.

Cameling water at a water hole

Some resources to get you sorted

If you are still stuck in the pump era (which you should ditch by now), have a quick read on what hikers used on the PCT last year for water treating. This is a great post by Halfmile Anywhere.

After you read that, come back here and get a Vecto to match your filter.

Second, make sure you are on top of the PCT Water Report, a great site that is constantly updated thanks to other hikers, and will give the status of water resources.

If you are still not sure how to carry your water, I wrote a post a while back about it, so give it a read. The consensus is that you should have at least 4 liters water capacity for Southern California, and then reducing to 1-3 liters depending on your hiking style. 

PCT sign

Conclusion and a story

To sum it all up: do yourself a favor and filter your water on the PCT. The small weight penalty of a reliable source of drinking water is worth it to make sure you stay healthy on the trail and actually make it thru your hike. 

Getting sick on the trail will probably lead to leaving the trail and a good few days (if not weeks) of not hiking, saying good bye to your trail family or even missing Sierra hiking windows.

Last, a story about my personal experience with a nasty case of Giardia: A long time ago, I hiked along the Andes, young and carefree. I was hiking in Bolivia, getting to a side trail leading from the Andes down to the Youngas. My hiking partner and I left the high mountains for the lush forest, having the most amazing time, until 3-4 days in, when I got terrible cramps and stomach pain. It probably wouldn't have been so bad if we weren't in the middle of a trail on a gorge, hundreds of feet above the river and only more gorge in each direction for a couple of days.

Gilad sick at Bolivia

We made a decision to share my cramped 2 person tent for a few days on a tiny ledge on the trail, with me running to throw up or having the runny bowels off the side of the cliff. Luckily I had antibiotics for such an occasion, but after 3 days of being a mop, not eating and being completely drained, putting my (very heavy) backpack back on to hike out of the gorge was very hard.

The moral of the story is: filter your water. Don't be like me.

Rain Protection Alternatives To Waterproofs

Rain Protection Alternatives To Waterproofs

Now that the rainy is season is fully upon us, I hope you have had a chance to go hiking in the rain or are planning on going soon—it is a great way to enjoy the outdoors! The big problem with hiking in the rain is that at some point you will get wet. It might take 2, 3 or 8 hours, but if you spend long enough outdoors in the rain, getting in wet is inevitable. You can "arm" yourself with as many waterproof garments as you wish: jacket, pants, boots, gloves, the lot, but at some point you will still get wet. The biggest issue with many waterproof garments is that despite the fact that they are considered breathable, you will sweat in them, given enough exertion. If you are new to the world of waterproofs, you should start with this waterproofs 101 post.

five people hiking on a cloudy day

So we now have a predicament: getting soaked while hiking in the rain can be very dangerous; on the other hand, wearing your wp/b (waterproof & breathable) jacket and pants almost guarantees a chilling sweat that can be almost as dangerous. So what to do? Well, there are other solutions that can keep you mainly dry and are actually very breathable, though you will get a bit wet from both rain and sweat (but not nearly as much as in the traditional wp/b clothing). In this category are two main items: umbrellas and ponchos (or capes). Personally, I have never used an umbrella for hiking but am a big poncho user, so I'd like to give a bit of insight into these wp/b alternatives.

a person in a blue poncho walking on a dirt road by a corn field

First, a few issues to consider

Wet feet

Hiking with wet feet is a big controversy that I won't go into now, but the gist of it is this: waterproof footwear is bound to leak at one point or another in wet conditions. If it doesn't leak, it traps so much heat and sweat inside the shoe that you might as well have just gotten your feet wet. 

Due to those reasons, many hikers opt for light mesh trail shoes that allow water in the shoe, but will dry quickly.

If you choose the alternatives below without using waterproof shoes, you will need to accept hiking with wet feet.

feet in running shoes in a large puddle

Wind

The place where a "proper" jacket and wp/b pants excel is when dealing with wind. They hug and hold well in any conditions. They also protect you from wind chill.

It is pretty obvious that if you are going to be in very windy conditions, you should probably stick to a more traditional system of a wp/b jacket and maybe also pants.

two people wearing cold weather clothing under an umbrella

Poncho

This is my favorite waterproof garment and what has been my go to solution for a couple of years now. I find it to be the best balance between rain protection and breathability, especially when it is also a pack cover.

Ponchos are essentially big sheets of waterproof fabric with a hole for the head, a hood and the ability to keep them somewhat closed. They are rectangular in shape, where the narrow part is draped over the shoulders and the length is used to cover the front and back. Many of the more dedicated hiking ponchos can also be used as an emergency shelter.

There are cheap, simple and light ponchos out in the market but those tend to be seen as disposable items which are both functionally and environmentally inefficient. Good hiking and backpacking ponchos tend to be made from SiNylon or Dyneema; I prefer SilNylon, as it is nicer to handle. 

The biggest issue with ponchos is when the weather gets really nasty: windy and heavy; or when the trail is more challenging and you need your hands more. For those conditions, a rain jacket and pants that add warmth and wind protection tend to be the best solution.

Bottom Line: the poncho is a great solution for shoulder seasons or potential rain in summer, especially as it can also be used as an emergency shelter in a pinch.

Rain Cape (vs Poncho)

Slightly different than the poncho, a rain cape has a more closed structure and doesn't open to a full rectangular sheet (or tarp). This kind of structure means that capes offer better protection compared to ponchos, but have less breathability. This is a great option if you are usually hiking in colder and wetter conditions.

Umbrella

The ultimate WP/B kit: full air flow all around with good protection for your head, and sometimes body. Umbrellas do offer great protection; they can also double as heat protection in very hot, desert conditions (when made from reflective fabrics) and can be used as an emergency pole (for stream crossings, shelters, etc).

person with umbrella sanding near waterfall

When it comes to umbrellas, investing in a high quality, hiking or golf (yes, golf) specific umbrella will make a world of difference: lighter materials, stronger components and construction, small pack size, etc. You can find really good ones by Euro Schirm, Montbell, Liteflex and others.

Umbrellas do have two, pretty big, drawbacks: they are absolutely useless in windy conditions, even the very good ones, as you get sideways wind; and you need to hold them. Similar to a poncho, in windy conditions or when hands are needed, umbrellas tend to be a poor choice.

There is, though, a solution to one of these issues: strapping your umbrella to the backpack shoulder strap offers a really convenient solution for non windy conditions. Section Hiker has a good little guide for that.

Bottom Line: when hiking in mild yet rainy conditions on a good trail the umbrella is the ultimate solution, especially as a potential moving shade.

person walking in snow with umbrella

Rain Skirt

Rain skirts (or kilts...) are a great solution to avoid waterproof pants while allowing for better leg protection. They can be easily combined with a jacket, poncho or an umbrella for dry hips and waist. The same limits that a poncho or a cape might have are true here, too: in windy conditions skirts can end up blowing all over, not covering you at all. Another issue can come up in winter conditions or when delicate footwork is needed: you can't really see your feet.

On the other hand, skirts can be opened up, just like ponchos, and be used as a ground sheet or a very small and improvised shelter.

Bottom Line: Great addition to increase rain protection to a poncho system while maintaining breathability in non-windy conditions.

What Should You Choose

As always when it comes to hiking and gear, there is no one, definite, answer. Conditions will forever be the main factor around what gear to take; stick to common sense and experiment to see what works for you. As a bonus, here is an extra tip from my poncho usage experience: use a wind jacket underneath for anything but summer conditions; they really help boost that system while being highly breathable.

So, what are you using for rain protection?

Hiking Boots Or Trail Shoes?

Hiking Boots Or Trail Shoes?

I remember when I first decided I no longer wanted to hike with boots: my wife and I had been walking the Offa’s Dyke national trail for a week, proceeding at a leisurely pace with our heavy packs and our walking boots when on the 7th day my knees flared up, getting fully inflamed. I had not done anything special besides hiking, which I had done many times before and I usually walk for miles in my daily routine, so it made no sense! When I got home I went back to my regular shoes (Inov-8 Tarroc 330) and my knees felt great – that was my aha! moment. That was when I decided to start my transition from hiking boots to trail shoes, or at least try it out and see what would happen.

Over the years I have become a true advocate for trail shoes for any kind of hiking and backpacking. To be honest, unless I'm doing some major yard work, I never wear boots. But is it right for you? Let's check it out:

A brief history of footwear development

Footwear has been with us for a very long time, filling two main functions: skin protection from sharp objects and insulation in cold conditions. The latter meant that footwear was more common in colder, often mountainous, areas, while in warmer and wetter areas people just walked barefoot. In desert environments, where sand can become very hot, the use of soft thong-sandals has been used for ages.

Until roughly the 15th century, all footwear was soft soled to allow the best foot movement. The introduction of heels, the idea of height as a measure of power and stiff soles were introduced across Europe in the 15th century. Many cultures continued walking (and running) barefoot and a few still do today, at times using nothing but a thin hide sole to protect the skin.

The move to stiff soled footwear created foot issues and reduced foot strength, leading to health issues that required the introduction of orthopaedic support items such as insoles, arch supports and heel holders. Modern shoes are very highly engineered, leading to increased support and comfort while reducing the natural foot and leg strength.

Boots were originally used to protect more of the leg while walking to prevent scrapes and bruises from brush, rocks and snow (more insulation). When those soft boots were used for more vertical climbs, the soles were found to be too soft to allow a “kick in” to snow, so stiffer boots that provide greater traction were developed. Those boots originally had soft tops, but the need to increase foot protection and the danger of heel rolling (from the stiff sole) required stiffening the upper, too. We ended up with very stiff and strong boots for climbing in winter conditions and which have trickled down to other outdoors activities.

The re-introduction of barefoot, minimal and natural footwear practices in the last decade have seen the return of softer, better gripping soles and less cushioning. I won’t go into a full lecture about minimal and natural footwear, but will mention the below to give context to choosing trail shoes:

  • Stiff soles don’t allow foot roll and can cause unnatural foot and joint movement
  • High boots reduce calf strength, increasing the chances of shin splits
  • High differential (between the heel and the forefoot; the higher it is the higher the heel is) enables a heel stroke that can be very damaging for joints and increases the risk of Plantar fasciitis

If you want to learn more about natural movement, the internet is exploding with information. I’m a big fan of that approach as I have learned it allows me to move better, over longer distances, with less injuries. This is not to say it is the best way for you, but just how I see things. Minimal footwear is very controversial, but even if without choosing the full “minimal experience” there are benefits of using shoes over heavy boots.

Key differences between trail shoes and hiking boots

Sole and stiffness

A sole here will refer to the outer sole, mid sole and insole. The claims below are generalizations for the simplicity of the discussion; there are other options out there.

Boots offer stiff, thick soles that are graded B0 to B3 in stiffness level; the soles are graded to match crampons that hold a corresponding grade (0-3) for their intended use. The lower the grade, the softer the sole, intended for flatter surfaces where foot roll is important, while a B3 boot offers no foot roll but allows a climber to easily “kick in” to the ice with crampons and side step on higher gradient slopes. Trail shoes offer very soft soles that allow high foot roll for easy, fast movement; some shoes offer a full or half shanks the are very stiff towards the heel and get softer towards the front. Those shanks allow forward foot roll while preventing lateral roll and damage to the ankle and the tendons in the foot.

Hiking boots tend to have thick lugs for better traction in muddy conditions and on rock edges. Trail shoes usually have smaller lugs, though some shoes are more aimed at muddy conditions and offer soles that are almost like cleats – but those tend to be very uncomfortable on hard packed surfaces.

Most modern hiking boots offer various density mid soles to increase comfort, sometimes using multiple layers where the top layer is soft for immediate foot comfort while the lower sections are stiffer for load bearing. Trail shoes, in many ways, offer very similar construction, but in lower densities, aiming to carry lighter loads but which are also more comfortable without a load (backpack).

Upper and liners

The upper part of boots are usually made from leather or a mix of leather and textile for increased breathability. The purpose of an all-leather upper is to offer more robust and protective construction for a longer lasting boot compared to trail shoes. It is very rare to find leather uppers in trail shoes, as the need for breathability is greater than the need for foot protection and durability. Trail shoes are usually all mesh with some protection in the front and back using a rubber rand.

The use of waterproof liners is very common with hiking boots, whether all leather or leather and textile. The waterproof liners can be made using any of the big brands (Gore, eVent etc) or in house and are meant to offer the wearer water protection from the outside while moving sweat and heat to the lip of the boot to be “dumped” out. Trail shoes are usually not waterproof, being made of breathable mesh to allow heat and sweat to move out easily. When trail shoes are waterproof, it is using the same technology as boots.

Modern footwear in general (at least active footwear) tends to have a double layer of mesh (when it is used) with some foam in between for some protection and insulation. In boots, that foam is usually ticker and stiffer compared to trail shoes for increased protection, insulation and durability.

Weight

Probably the biggest difference between hiking boots and trail shoes and the main reason such a change is needed is that all that extra protection, durability and stiffness come with a weight price tag: boots are much heavier. The old saying is that a pound (450g) on your feet is the equivalent of 5 (2.25kg) pounds on your back, so those boots are a real punishment.

Most hiking boots are heavy (2+ kg), while trail shoes can easily be under 500g for a pair. Based on that general  difference and the old saying, when choosing trail shoes over boots we are cutting about 6.5-7kg off our backs – this a big change.

The big downside of this weight cut is durability: you can expect a good pair of hiking boots to last thousands of miles, staying with the usual walker for years and years. Trail shoes, on the other hand, will last 500-1000 miles (at best), sometimes even less for the lighter ones. This is very frustrating, but when it comes to enjoying a trip, it is worth it!

 

So, did I convince you that trail shoes are great or are you still a firm believer in solid and secure boots? The transition is easy but I know many hikers and backpackers that love their boots, no matter what, and it does work for them. Lets me know in the comments what is your preference.