The other day I was looking at pictures of waterfalls, and one of them showed people enjoying the spray as it hit their faces. It made me wonder if it would be safe to drink. So I did some research and decided to share my findings.
Waterfall water is not safe to drink because it is often contaminated with pollutants, including harmful parasites or bacteria that enter the water from upstream. Unless you are positive the waterfall is spring-fed, it’s best to err on the side of caution and purify the water by boiling or some other means.
I recommend that hikers should carry water purification tablets like these, found on Amazon, in their pack, just in case. Having drinkable water is one of the most important things to have if a person gets stranded in the wilderness.
If you want to know more about more reasons that “unvetted” water should be avoided without purification, as well as tips for how to filter it, please read on.
Why Unknown Waterfalls are Unsafe to Drink From
First off, there is a common myth that moving water is safe to drink. While it’s certainly often cleaner than stagnant water, there is no guarantee that something upstream has not added harmful contaminants.
When we look at a waterfall, we may only be able to see the beauty of the free and fast-flowing water, but what we do not see is what lies upstream or around the next bend. It could be a watering hole where both domestic and wild animals come to drink.
This gives the parasites or bacteria in their bodies a good chance to enter the water when they produce waste. When we drink this water, harmful bacteria or parasites may enter our bodies and cause us to get sick.
Common Illnesses Related to Untreated Water
Here are a few things that you could be subjected to if you drank waterfall water untreated:
- Giardia (Giardiasis)
- Bilharzia (Parasitic Worms)
- Cryptosporidium (Crypto)
These can cause serious stomach illnesses, which can last between two to six weeks (or in some cases even longer). The treatment for these requires the use of some very aggressive drugs.
Symptoms: Gas, Diarrhoea, greasy stools, stomach and abdominal cramps, dehydration, nausea, and vomiting. Less Common Symptoms: itchy skin, hives, swelling of eyes and joints.
Illness duration: 1 -2 weeks or sometimes longer
Symptoms do not manifest themselves until after about a month of the person getting infected and can be very extremely painful. Symptoms are caused by a reaction to the eggs of the worms and not the worms themselves.
Symptoms: Itching, rash, fever, chills, cough, muscle aches.
Illness duration: Unfortunately, this one is particularly nasty as the disease can still affect an infected person even after years as the eggs travel to the bladder, intestines, liver, and lungs.
Crypto is not just a digital currency. It is a parasitic protozoan that is commonly found in water that animals have been bathing in or drinking out of. Basically, it is often found in animal intestines and thus their feces.
Symptoms: Watery diarrhea, stomach cramps or pain, dehydration, nausea, and vomiting. In some individuals, infection in such patients can lead to chronic illnesses.
Illness duration: Symptoms last between a few days to up to 4 weeks
Dysentery is a bacterial infection that causes inflammation of the intestines. It is one of the more common waterborne illnesses.
Symptoms: Fever, nausea, and diarrhea.
Illness duration: 3 to 7 days.
Cholera is a particularly nasty bacterial disease that can manifest after 2 or 3 days of exposure. It has been known to kill people in a matter of hours through rapid dehydration.
Symptoms: Nausea, Vomiting, and diarrhea.
Illness duration: If proper treatment (replacement of fluids) is administered, recovery only takes a few days. However, some people can carry the disease for a number of months.
Ways of Treating Waterfall Water Before Drinking
There are simple purifying options available if we find ourselves faced with a shortage of safe drinking water.
There are several methods for treating water today:
- Using chemicals
How to Properly Boil Water
The general rule to follow when boiling the water is to ensure that you bring the water to a rolling boil for 1 minute at low altitudes and 3 minutes if you are at high altitudes of over 6,000 feet (2000 meters).
My take on it is that if you can boil it for 1-3 minutes, why not go ahead and wait a bit longer to maximize your chances of avoiding waterborne illness?
In fact, professional survivalists tend to err on the side of caution here and often boil their water for as long as 10 minutes.
Related 5 Ways to Boil Water Without a Pot | With Simple Instructions.
Chemical tablets like these found on Amazon are easy and convenient to carry. People have used iodine tablets for years. However, iodine turns water yellow and makes it taste terrible. Additionally. iodine also does not even work on Cryptosporidium.
A better alternative is Chlorine Dioxide tablets.
These work well because they produce a very high form of oxygen as they dissolve. The only downside of these is that it takes about 30 minutes for the water to get purified.
An ultraviolet purifier, like this one found on Amazon, uses ultraviolet rays to kill any bacteria, protozoa, and viruses in water. Simple and easy to use, this method involves inserting an ultraviolet purifier into a 32-ounce water bottle. Then, you use the purifier itself to stir the water. After 90 seconds, you have purified water to drink.
A water filter pump (Amazon Link) is a handy tool to keep in a survival kit. It is far superior to trying to use a Life Straw (Also Amazon) alone. However, I do recommend that you carry both. Redundancies are always good.
If unable to use any of the above methods, you can always use (even make) a water filter. Here is a cool video showing one of the methods:
It is only natural to be concerned about the safety aspect of our drinking water, especially since water is so essential for our survival. Although most of us do carry a good supply of bottled with us, there is always the off chance that we could run out.
Therefore, it is an important survival skill to learn what water sources are safe and which are not. If no clean natural sources are available, then it is time to use one of many purification methods. Once you are armed with the correct knowledge, you can have peace of mind when out on one of your wilderness adventures.
What are parasites, and how do they enter the human body? Parasites are organisms that live on or inside the human body. They enter our bodies through food, drink, and contact with infected animals or infected places. Waterborne parasitic diseases are caused by drinking untreated water found in waterfalls, lakes, rivers, and other such sources of drinking water.
Are there any natural ways to eliminate parasites from the body? Today research has found that some common foods can help rid the body of parasites naturally. Some of these foods include:
- Turmeric: Adding it to food, milk, and tea can help
- Milk and Castor Oil: Drinking one cup of warm milk with 2 teaspoons of castor oil
- Garlic: Crushing 2-3 pods of garlic and eating it can get rid of some parasites within a week
- Fresh juices: Such as coconut and pomegranate
How do I decide how much water to carry on a hiking trip? The amount of water needed for a hiking trip varies based on your size, fitness level, and the heat and humidity on a given day. A general rule of thumb is to take 2 cups (1/2L) of water per hour of hiking for adults. Children can usually get by on 1 cup per hour. Double this on a really hot day.
For more, don’t miss 4 Reliable Ways to Collect Water in the Wilderness.
Hey, I’m Jim, and the author of this website. I have always been interested in survival, fishing, camping, and anything in nature. In fact, while growing up, I spent more time on the water than on land! I am also a best-selling author and have a degree in History, Anthropology, and Music. I hope you find value in the articles on this website. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or input!