(c) 1996, Willis Lamm, TrailBlazer Magazine
By Willis Lamm
Reprinted with permission of TrailBlazer Magazine for non-commercial
About halfway through a summer ride, we descended to a cattle watering area
where we expected to refresh our horses. To our disappointment, the pipe
supplying the cattle trough from a boxed-in spring had broken and the trough
was dry. Fortunately for us the ride was not a long one and we had hung
around the previous trough which we had come to until all the horses had
drunk. Our sweaty steeds were a little thirsty when we came to the end of our
ride, but no harm was done.
But what if the ride was a longer one and we had counted on water being
available? Or what if we had broken down somewhere, or had wandered off
course, and couldn't make the next "regular" source of water for humans or
The Facts of Life
Water and air are the most essential elements to survival. Depending upon
our age and size, we are made up of between 60 and 70% water. Our horses
aren't much different. Only a 2% drop in our water content and we start to
feel fatigued and headachy. As this drop approaches 5%, fatigue will become
significant and dizziness and disorientation are common. As dehydration
approaches 10%, we may not be able to keep moving.
When working hard on a hot day it is possible to lose nearly 3% of one's
stored water in an hour, particularly if the horse or human doing the work is
not fit or if humans are consuming alcohol. Thus it is easy to see the
potential for problems if something goes awry in the water supply
By now we all know the various reasons we should carry a map... right? So
use that map to your advantage. Whenever riding out in regions where water is
scarce, be sure to find out from knowledgeable locals which sources of water
are known to be adequate for your needs and mark them on the map. Inquire
about sources not only along your route, but also about others in the general
area. You never know when you might need alternate supplies!
In addition to having some knowledge as to where you can find water, you
should also be able to make it potable for human consumption in the event you
or your companions require more water than you are carrying. A reasonably
fresh bottle of saturated iodine (carried in your saddle bag first aid pack)
can provide a means of purification. If you are camping, you could carry a
water filter, but the filter media must be finer than 5 microns and should
also provide chemical treatment.
When participating in organized events one would expect the organizers
would be well versed in both the locations and condition of water supplies
along the route. Such preparation on the part of others should not relieve
you of carrying an official map of the area and making note of ALL the area's
water supplies. I have seen riders miles off course, either because they
became lost or due to some break down, and in some cases their horses suffered
needlessly on a hot day because they had no knowledge of reasonably accessible
sources of water. (Ride sketches are nice to have, but they are not always
totally accurate and in many cases are of little help if you end up off
Humans are sensitive to a number of contaminants in water, none the least
of which is the giardia protozoa which is quite common in the mountainous
areas of the west. Those consuming untreated water in the Rockies, Sierras
and Cascades should be particularly aware of the giardia problem. This
intestinal parasite proliferates through means of cysts which suspend
themselves in water, and once ingested, lodge in the small intestine and
reproduce very rapidly.
Your first indication of infection will likely be explosive diarrhea,
cramps, vomiting, fever, loss of appetite and general weakness. Symptoms can
last from a few days to a couple of months. Giardiasis is not generally
considered fatal but victims often report that they wish they were dead.
Giardia and other toxic pests generally occur as a result of infected
animal or human feces contaminating the water either through direct contact or
rain runoff. Stagnant ponds which are frequented by mammals would more likely
be a source of this "microbe soup" than would be a small running stream
cascading down a steep hillside. The less the water is standing around, and
the less likely animals are going to be standing around in it (including
upstream from where you are taking water), the more likely it will be
So, before you lean down and take that drink because you are thirsty and
think things couldn't get much worse, understand that they probably are about
Human Water Considerations
A number of scenarios could occur which render you short of water and
needing it badly. Assuming you need water and you have to drink what is
available, consider the following recommendations.
Drink from small tributaries instead of larger bodies of water. If it has
rained recently, water collected in rock depressions is often times cleaner
than that which is found in ponds or streams. Disinfectants, such as iodine,
can be introduced into the depression and the water can be purified just where
Avoid ponds surrounded by barren ground, alkali residues along the water's
edge, or bleached animal bones. If you have to take water from a pond
(hopefully one surrounded by lush green plants), take water from the surface
of calm, deep areas, as far away from the shoreline as possible. Many
microbes will settle to the bottom of still water while they may be actively
suspended in water tumbling over rocks and cascades.
Disinfecting the water is important. You probably won't be able to boil
your water, so you'll have to use chemical or filter treatment. The
effectiveness of iodine or other chemical decontaminates is reduced in the
case of water which is cloudy and/or alkaline. These preparations also take
longer in colder temperatures. Read label directions carefully. You may need
to fashion a container to hold the water during the decontamination process
such as using the plastic bag which you should carry in your saddle pack.
Horse Water Considerations
Your horse can tolerate water which is less pure than we can, but it still
needs to be relatively fresh and fairly neutral in pH in order to avoid
gastronomical complications. Also, some horses won't drink water which
doesn't smell attractive to them, so attempting to get them to drink out of
some muddy hole may be a waste of time from that aspect alone.
In general, a pond or stream teeming with life (waterfowl, fish, minnows,
polliwogs, etc.) is probably pretty safe, particularly if your horse can take
water without stirring up too many sediments. Be careful in drought areas
because ponds can partially evaporate and in some cases mineral and chloride
concentrations can get dangerously high. A tipoff will often be an absence of
the customary abundance of diverse aquatic life and plants. The water may be
an unusual color and/or salt or mineral residue may appear along the
shoreline. I'd tend to pass up a pond like this for the next water source
shown on my map.
If you are in desperate need of water and can find none, here are some
possible solutions for you, depending on your locale.
Several types of birds circle over water early in the morning and in the
evening. Check those areas (although I'd be a bit leery if the only birds
circling were buzzards and vultures!)
Regularly used campsites are typically near some source of water. A well
worn path could lead you to it.
After a rain shower, don't forget to check rock depressions. During rain
showers, catch water in your plastic garbage bag.
Water heads downhill and you can try following dry creek beds to lower
elevations. Finding tracks of animals doing the same thing is generally a
An area of lush vegetation in an otherwise arid area shows good potential
for water. When such vegetation appears on slopes or hillsides, a spring or
seep is possibly present. In rocky canyon country this vegetation may be
minimal. Carefully observe canyon walls for signs, particularly in shady side
In low lying areas lush vegetation may point you to a spring or pond or the
water could be just below the surface of the ground. Try digging in a sandy
area. If the ground becomes moist, you might find water or the location may
be a prime situation for making a solar still with your plastic garbage
When streams run, water "piles up" at the outside of bends in the stream
(see Safe Water Crossings, March/April, 1996). When the stream beds
have gone dry, these make good areas to dig for water. If the subsoil shows
no signs of moisture, try another location. If you can't find enough to
drink, but the ground is moist, this would probably be a good location to try
a solar still.
Note: When you are absolutely stuck, don't underestimate the potential of
digging for water. We have a BLM burro as a pet who, after years of
captivity, still can't resist digging holes during the dry season until she
gets down to moist subsoil. Her youngster, born in captivity some years ago,
doesn't display this tendency. We attribute her behavior to a survival
technique learned in the desert.
Making Survival Stills
From your plastic bag you can fashion a vegetable still. Crush up the most
succulent plants you can find and put them in the bag. (Don't crush them
inside the bag and avoid thorny plants.) Fill the bag with air, tie it off,
and set it in the sun. Over the next few hours the moisture from the plants
will accumulate as water in the bottom of the bag. The flavor may or may not
be to your liking, but you can drink it.
With your plastic bag or better yet, a sheet of plastic, you can fashion a
solar still. You will need some sort of receptacle, such as a tin cup or can,
to catch the water. Hollow out as large a hole as you can that your plastic
bag or sheet will cover. Set your container in the center and surround it
with whatever vegetation you can find (the more succulent the vegetation, the
better). Make sure the plants don't touch the plastic.
Seal off the edges where the plastic meets the ground with stones and dirt.
(It needs to be air tight). Place a couple of small stones in the center of
the plastic in order to make it sag and form a cone directly over the cup.
After about an hour, the underside of the plastic will sweat and the water
will start dripping into the container. Depending on soil moisture and the
moisture in the plants, it may take several hours to get enough water for a
good drink. Most stills will produce a quart of water every 24 hours.
Once you open the still to take out the water, it will usually take about
an hour to start producing water again. If you can't find plants, the still
will still work, but not as fast. Also since the plastic won't make contact
with the plants, crushed cactus can be used in the solar still.
Also remember that when riding out in arid areas, one must also consider the
possibility of wildfires (see Coping with Wildfires, October, 1993) and
land dwelling pests who may be hanging around the water holes to either quench
their thirst or dine on whomever might be taking a drink!
Other than your canteen, what is the most important item you
should carry with you when riding out in dry country?
b. A tin cup
c. A shovel
d. A map
What items in your first aid pack will help you if you are
desperate for water?
b. Triangular bandage
c. Salt tablets
d. Plastic bag
Which is most likely the cleanest source of drinking water?
a. A small waterfall
b. A clear pool
c. Water collected in a rock depression
d. A large river
What is the most serious source of natural water contamination
that you should be concerned with?
a. Animal waste
b. Rotting plants
c. Silt or mud
If you have to drink water from a pond, where should you get
a. From the inlet to the pond
b. Along a sandy shoreline
c. Along a shoreline lush with plants
d. From the surface as far out over the center as possible
Find a suitable patch of dirt in the yard or garden and try
making a solar still out of a plastic garbage bag. How long did it take
you to distill a cup of water? (You'll get your own answer for this
Your most important resource is a map with water clearly
identified on it. If you don't know where the water is in the first
place, you are not likely to need the other supplies.
An unexpired bottle of iodine can help you disinfect water which
you find. If you're heads up enough to keep your supplies secured in a
plastic bag, it will be useful also! On the other hand, salt tablets
will just make you more thirsty.
Typically speaking, the cleanest water you will find (from the
standpoint of bacteria and parasites affecting human health) is
rainwater caught in rock depressions. Obviously this answer assumes the
depression to be reasonably clean and free from animal droppings!
When taking water from a source which otherwise looks healthy
(lots of plants and aquatic animals), your greatest concern is contact
with animal waste. The presence of one giardia cyst (usually
transmitted through animal waste) can make you sick if you swallow it.
The consumption of a dozen will almost certainly do you in. Even
slightly salty water won't hurt you (unless you drink it on a regular
basis), but that giardia critter certainly will!
You want to take calm water over as deep an area as possible.
Most harmful microbes will settle towards the bottom of calm water.
Secure your container to a stick and skim along the surface. You should
still treat the water if you can, but the likelihood of ingesting
something bad is lessened if you take water from the cleanest possible
Our thanks to TrailBlazer Magazine for permission to post this
series on our web page.
You can visit the TrailBlazer website at www.horsetrails.com.
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