Is filling water tank from mountain stream safe?

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Here’s a question from a reader of RVtravel.com about boondocking. 

Hi Bob — I enjoy your articles and appreciate the insights. You spoke to Dan about conserving water but the truck camper picture prompted yet another question. We are considering using a solar-powered 12-volt DC water pump with an inlet strainer and an inline whole house water filter to refill our fresh water tank from available natural sources such as the running stream in the truck camper picture. Do you know if that is safe? Perhaps adding a bit of bleach to the fresh water tank to kill any bacteria or ??? We always filter our drinking water at the sink and the ice maker, but wondering if the fast-moving water from a creek, river or even a spring would be safe. —Ken W.

Hey Ken — When I was a kid growing up in eastern Pennsylvania my dad would take me hiking in the Pocono Mountains and we often stopped by springs where we drank directly out of them. I never got sick. But I’ve grown more cautious now and I think with good reason. The nation’s waterways are much more polluted and contain many more pathogens and microorganisms today than back then, so you can’t be totally safe drinking from any water source that hasn’t been treated. 

Any natural water source is also going to be home to birds, fish, and animals that do their business in or near these water sources. You don’t know what went into that water farther upstream. You also don’t know what the source of water is that bubbles out of the ground as a spring. It is just not safe to gamble on drinking water from unknown sources. And this goes for using the water for any use that you may ingest, such as for brushing teeth, washing veggies, and cleaning cooking and eating utensils. 

And those filters of yours will not remove all of the nasty organisms eager to enter your body. The easiest and safest way to treat untreated water is to boil it. According to the Washington State Department of Health and the United States Environmental Protection Agency, you should bring the water to a boil and keep it rolling for one minute to purify it. At altitudes above one mile you should increase the rolling time to three minutes. And if you decide to test whether a water source is OK by drinking a glass, you may go months, even years, and not get sick. But when you do – you will greatly regret it. Consider instead carrying Jerry jugs or collapsible containers of potable water to last you through your RV boondocking trip.


You can learn more about making water safe on the SurvivalTopics website and this USA Today article.

[Editor: Also check out the Product Spotlight regarding LifeStraw, and their line of water purifiers, in the most recent Great RV Accessories newsletter.]

Read more about boondocking at my BoondockBob’s Blog.
Check out my Kindle e-books about boondocking at Amazon.

Do you have a question for Bob? Email him at bob.rvtravel (at) gmail.com .

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Don Lee
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Don Lee

Several years ago a railroad brought in out of state workers to assist the locals with a major maintenance project. All filled their water jugs from a mountain stream that the locals had used for years. By noon on the first day the out of staters were all in the hospital with stomach cramps while the locals were all fine. Bottom line is don’t drink from a water supply that your metabolism might not be adjusted to.

Tom Becher
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Tom Becher

Questions like that always make me think of the front page of I think MAD MAGAZINE that showed a lumberjack ( flannel shirts, jeans, laced boots and woolen hat) bending down to take a drink of water from a creek. Behind him upriver is a moose turning the water yellow. Always think of that and never drink the water.

RV Staff
Guest

Ewww! Good reminder, Tom. Thanks! 😀 —Diane at RVtravel.com (aka Mountain Mama — own 18 acres in the Cascades on a beautiful, fast-running creek, which I don’t/won’t drink from)

Fred Burns
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Fred Burns

Many years ago, one of my customers went on a hiking vacation in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado & drank from a stream several times. Two weeks after returning home she fell ill & became permanently paralyzed from the waist down from something in the water. She spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair. She was a wonderful, outgoing, fun loving, adventurous woman & her life was drastically changed forever.

RV Staff
Guest

OMG! How sad. 🙁 But thank you very much for the very important warning, Fred. —Diane at RVtravel.com

Chris Potter
Guest
Chris Potter

Bob is correct, even if the water is crystal clear, it can still have bacteria in it. “Giardia” is often the culprit, and can even kill you in rare cases. Giardia comes mostly from human waste, although it is often blamed, at least sometimes unfairly, on animals. Anywhere where humans have been upstream of you in the watershed (Which is almost anywhere an RV can go.) is susceptible. It may be OK to shower in questionable water, but don’t get any water in your mouth or nose. And don’t wash your dishes in it. A regular sink type filter is… Read more »

RV Staff
Guest

Thanks for all the great information, Chris! 😀 —Diane at RVtravel.com