Tuesday, April 5, 2011

lessons learned #4: the importance of water

If you're out in the desert and you're a big guy who sweats a lot, water is no laughing matter. My 2008 walk started off easy: it took me from the US/Canada border down the cool, rainy, western spine of Washington State, where water was never an issue. My path then broke eastward from Portland, Oregon along the south side of the Columbia River to Umatilla and Irrigon, then hopped back up into Washington to end at Walla Walla. Right about the time I hit The Dalles, Oregon, the greenery abandoned me and the world became brown. I had left the Cascades behind and had entered the high desert, land of rocks and mountaintop windmill farms. Even from a slowpoke walker's perspective, the change was rather sudden.

Many of those days in the high desert saw temperatures over 90 degrees. On one particularly bad day, it was nearly 110 degrees out and I almost ran out of water about eight miles before Arlington, the town in which I had planned to stop. The sun's constant glare was withering, and I could feel myself slowing down. Rest breaks came more and more frequently, especially as my water supply dwindled (I used just about three gallons' worth), and in the end, a state policeman rolled up, told me I looked "bad," and gave me an eight-mile ride the rest of the way to Arlington. My knee was killing me; my mouth was dry by the time Officer O'Neill pulled up alongside me, and while I was still far from collapsing, I must have looked as if I were shambling like a zombie. My voice was husky, and I had begun to make bets with myself as to how many more miles I could do before needing to stop again. I ended up staying in Arlington for a week. That was probably the closest I had ever come to dying of thirst. Nature is an ass-kicker.

You've heard countless times that we humans beings are composed mostly of water. Evolutionarily speaking, our salty blood attests to the fact that we each carry a measure of the warm ocean, that cradle of life, inside us. This ocean needs to be maintained: lose too much water and salt through your sweat, and you may find yourself staring into the maw of heat exhaustion. On the day that Officer O'Neill showed up, I was edging dangerously close to that state. I still think I could have made the final eight miles on my own, but it would have been evening by the time I'd arrived, and my leg would have been useless.

So the lesson is obvious: in the desert, you've got no choice but to carry plenty of water, which means you've got no choice but to carry a lot of extra weight. I had a large CamelBak system with me, plus two large Nalgene bottles; my total capacity was close to three gallons. This turned out not to be enough for the twenty miles I walked in nearly 110-degree heat. Now imagine the same situation, but with no police officer pulling up, and no Columbia River close by if things got desperate.

The three primary practical issues related to water are carriage, storage, and potability. Carriage and storage are obviously related, but aren't exactly the same thing. Carriage is more a question of where you place your water physically on your person: do you hang it off your backpack? Do you hold a small bottle in your hands for those quick sips? Are you dragging your water behind you somehow? Basically: where are you putting all that water? Storage refers specifically to the containers used: will you be storing your water in milk jugs, camp canteens, Nalgene bottles, CamelBak drinking systems, or something else? These questions are more important than they may seem at first blush. When you're tired after ten or fifteen miles, regularly removing your 50- or 60-pound backpack to get at your water becomes a real logistical problem. Easy access while walking is important.

Potability, as a survival issue, subdivides into filtration and purification. As with carriage and storage, filtration and purification are related concepts, but not exactly the same. You always want to drink water that's been purified; it's not as important that water be completely filtered. A little grit won't harm you the way bacteria can. A good filter can take out a lot of that grit and can even work a little purification magic, but it won't necessarily kill every beastie that's in the water.

Which brings us back to storage. I made a discovery while walking along the high desert: if you filter some river water and put it in your translucent Nalgene bottles, you're creating a bacteria factory. The greenhouse effect ensures that the bacteria have plenty of light and warmth to go with their water, and in the space of an hour, the water in your bottles will be pretty much undrinkable. For me, this discovery took on a humorous cast: normally, when you're in a food-poisoning situation, one of the things you want to do is poop. On the day I realized that I was being attacked by my own water, I hadn't eaten for two or three days, so there was nothing for me to poop out. The consumption of some water didn't change that fact. It was a strange feeling, wanting to poop and yet having nothing to offer Mother Earth. I was, in fact, thankful that events went that way: I was able to recover from my queasiness once I had realized what was going on, all without suffering the consequences of diarrhea while on the road. That, friends, could have been disastrous.

The Katadyn filtration system that I had bought in Portland, Oregon served me well, as far as filtration goes. But as the above anecdote shows, purification is a whole different animal. It's probably not as much of an issue in the winter, when even the microorganisms are less active, but in situations of abundant light and warmth, something more than just filtration needs to be done. Two of the suggestions I received during that walk were (1) get a SteriPEN, and (2) buy purification tablets.

I'm going to avoid SteriPENs for reasons cited in a previous post: for your own safety, stay far away from any product about which no clearly positive opinion has emerged. SteriPENs are good in theory-- they emit UV rays that blast the genetic structure of microorganisms-- but customer and professional reviews note a few problems with them. First, there's the fact that the SteriPEN's effectiveness is limited if the water is even remotely cloudy. This has been a common complaint among hikers. Another is that the pen's battery isn't always the most reliable, which can mean flickering-- another crimp on effectiveness. Then, of course, there's the fact that the SteriPEN uses batteries at all, which brings us back to the power issue discussed in a previous post. Just how many different types of power source should I be lugging along with me?

Purification tablets (iodine and chlorine are the most popular) are probably the way I'll go. As Jason suggested in this long-ago comment, it's better to mix some Kool-Aid into the water (although this presents its own set of problems!) to blunt the foul taste of the purification process. I'll probably have some powdered flavoring on me for just that purpose. Purification tablets have been around forever; I used them when hiking in Switzerland years ago. They're cheap, they're light, and they don't need batteries. Coupled with good filtration, such tablets will get me through the walk.

On a somewhat sillier note, I'm also thinking of pinning a flag to my backpack that says something like, "NO RIDE NEEDED, BUT WATER WELCOME." Roadside charity would certainly save me from dipping too deeply into my own water supply. I'm also hoping that, if I build up enough of a following on Twitter, there'll be plenty of folks along the way who might zip out to my location and offer me an ice-cold bottle. God knows that, by Mile 15, water is something you think about constantly, desert conditions or no.



Lorianne said...

Have you considered walking with a cart like this one? It would make it easier to carry water & other supplies without worrying about the weight of a pack on your knees.

Kevin Kim said...

Strangely enough, we're having a discussion about this in a different thread. That's the very sort of cart that the other commenter was suggesting. For me, the problem is arm swing: I'd rather have my arms free and, especially going uphill, I'd rather be pulling than pushing. A lightweight rig like that, maybe with only two wheels, plus a harness to strap it on to me, would be ideal. And the rig would have to be collapsible, if possible, so that I could carry it inside (or attached to the outside) of my backpack.

There will be parts of the ADT, I've discovered, that aren't wheel-friendly, which is why I'm going to need a rig that collapses. I had originally thought that the ADT was bike-able for its entire length, but the ADT Society's FAQ page set me straight on that score.

Lorianne said...

Ah, yes. A cart wouldn't work on a trail, just on roads. The fellow who used this rig pretty much stuck on roads, I think.