Water Treatment Along the Hayduke Trail
A Moment of Fate
I had run out of water the day before. I walked 22 miles with less than a liter to get to my next water cache. Multiple water sources that were usually reliable turned out not to be there. During this trip I was quickly learning that water treatment along the Hayduke trail took longer than anticipated. Also, water was much more scarce in certain places than I had expected.
As I walked into Lower Muley Twist Canyon I was carrying all of the water that I needed for the day. I had retrieved it from my water cache the day before. I was planning on filling up at a *supposedly* reliable source called Muley Tanks towards the end of day. Due to my experience yesterday, and having noticed so many other sources being dried up to this point, I was nervous to see if any sign of water even existed in the tanks.
Part way through the day, traveling through Lower Muley Twist canyon, I ran into an older man. Who, for the sake of this story, I will call “Ranger Rick.” I asked Ranger Rick if he had come up from Muley Tanks and if he knew whether or not they had water.
He informed me that he did not know and that he wouldn’t count on it if it was him. He said there hadn’t been any significant rainfall in the area in the last two years.
Many water sources, in his experience, were drier than usual in the past couple years. I asked him if he knew where any other water sources may be. He pulled out his old USGS 7.5 minute topographic maps where he had notes on water sources in the area from over the past 20 years! Ranger Rick was actually a backcountry ranger in the area for over 10 years earlier in his life - hence the name.
Dang! It was my lucky day!
He showed me multiple locations where he had previously known there to be water (notes from about 12 years ago). I snapped a photo of his map, thanked him graciously, and we parted ways. Now I had to choose. Do I head off the trail in search of water that may or may not be there or do I count on Muley Tanks having water? I decided to turn off the trail and follow the directions of Ranger Rick and…I found the water he was talking about! It was a little green, but you take what you can get in the desert. I filled up enough water to get me a few days farther and continued on. The water source is pictured below.
Turns out, Muley Tanks did not have any water and was completely dry! If I had not run into Ranger Rick that day I would have had to find another way to get water. Most likely this would have meant needing to turn back, walk to a road to hitch a ride, or hope to run into someone that would be willing to give up water. Any of these scenarios would have been way less than ideal. It made me feel as if the universe was on my side.
Types of Water on the Hayduke
Water abundance and scarcity varies greatly on the Hayduke Trail. At points there are 2-3 day stretches with no natural water sources. At other points, you are walking directly in the water for miles. A hiker will come across many different water sources. Some sources are turbid, some are highly alkaline, and others are so dirty that you either can't drink from them due to agricultural waste or you might completely destroy your filter trying.
I was confused about what all these different types of water were - what is turbidity and alkaline? What does “agricultural waste” even mean?
Turbidity is the cloudiness or haziness of a fluid caused by large numbers of individual particles that are generally invisible to the naked eye, similar to smoke in air. Turbid water is common in a few places along the Hayduke. One of the reasons for this is that rock in the Southwest is eroded slowly by flowing water -- which means sediment is carried through creeks and rivers into your bottle. You will be able to tell fairly easily if the water is considered turbid. You may not be able to see the riverbed because of all the silt in the water, or it may become noticeable when you fill your bottle and hold it up to look.
Highly alkaline water.
Without going super deep into science, highly alkaline means that the water will have a high concentration of salts and minerals. You can tell this in a water source on the Hayduke because the edges of the source will have white salts dried up next to them. The water will also have a bitter and/or salty taste to it. No, the alkaline water on the Hayduke doesn’t give you the health benefits of a bottle of alkaline water you would buy from a fancy health foods store. I have read multiple stories of Hayduke hikers getting intestinal distress (i.e. diarrhea) from drinking alkaline water. So, make sure to bring some anti diarrhea and upset stomach meds with you...just in case.
Agricultural Waste? Yeah, that doesn't sound like the greatest thing to have in the water. Basically, this waste is the runoff from various agricultural operations upstream. The water source may contain salts, nutrients, pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals. For example, the Dirty Devil River is a water source that all information I found says not to drink from. And, if you saw it, I don’t think you would want to either. The authors of the guidebook apparently destroyed their filter trying to filter the Dirty Devil River water.
That’s a basic overview of the types of water sources that I encountered. You never know what you will find in the water out there. It could be flowing water with chemicals, standing water with algae, a cow pond with cow pies floating in it, water with dead animals in it, or a beautiful clear spring that is reminiscent of a deserted island oasis.
My Water Treatment Plan
On the Hayduke I used a three step water treatment system. I did not always use the entire system for every possible source. Sometimes I just used 2 drops of bleach if the water was clear and flowing. Other times, I took the time to use each step of the system. Just to note, this three step system took some time and I had many long sessions of water treatment in the evenings at camp. Here is a breakdown of what I did:
Pre - Step: Settle turbid water
If you are collecting turbid water you may want to let it sit overnight and “let the dust settle” before pouring it through the bandana or through the squeeze filter. I have read this works best in a dromedary. Note: I did not have to let any turbid water settle on my Hayduke trip, so I am not able to speak from personal experience.
Step 1: Manual filtering
Filter the water through a bandana into a bottle. I used a small half liter Nalgene bottle in order to obtain water from slightly shallower or smaller sources. Then, I could pour it into one of my bigger water carrying containers (i.e. MSR dromedary, Platypus bottle) through my bandana.
Step 2: Filter water with desired filter
I would then pour that water into the Sawyer Filter bag and squeeze the water through into another bottle. I found that it was easiest if I was filtering into a structurally sound water bottle such as the Smartwater bottle or the half liter Nalgene that I was carrying.
Step 3: Treat with desired chemical treatment
Once I had the water in its final container, I added two drops of household bleach per liter and waited about 20 minutes before drinking. In the picture above I have taken an old eye dropper bottle and turned it into my bleach dropper bottle.
Treat Yourself to Water.
Water is literally one of the things that keeps us alive. Doing a long distance trail that forces you to think hard about how scarce water is and how critical it is for your survival is a unique and beneficial experience. I found that carrying water can be really challenging. If you didn't know, it is heavy and can be very awkward to pack. Even with both of these downsides, you will be thankful that you put the time and energy into carrying it. When you feel thirsty or the desert sun is hotter than you expected - you will thank yourself. Check out my Top 3 Memorable Moments post and follow my upcoming journey’s on the Appalachian and Continental Divide Trails in 2021 @jeffpod on Instagram!