Yellowstone Backpacking Myths: Don’t Drink the Water!

“Don’t drink the water” may be great advice for traveling in parts of Mexico, but while backpacking in Yellowstone some of us drink up, right out of the stream, no filter and no iodine…and no problem! That’s because the waters of most of the high country throughout the Rocky Mountains are some of the purest on Earth. Of course, the government literature tells a different tale, promoting the impression that to drink untreated water is to dangerously flirt with giardia, the nasty little intestinal parasite well known for diarrhea, awful flatulence and a general feeling of prolonged illness that is absolutely no fun — with a 5-8 day incubation period that can make for an ugly airplane ride home!

Trouble is, the danger is greatly exaggerated. Government giardia warnings are lawyer-driven, not biologist driven. To be clear, it is possible to get giardia — or to contract other digestive ailments from wilderness water — but if you utilize a bit of common sense, it’s extremely unlikely! In fact, recent scientific studies prove that giardia and other harmful microbes generally aren’t abundant enough in most wilderness waters to make anyone sick, that is, unless you are directly downstream or adjacent to a pollution source such as cattle or sheep. Or a troop of careless Boy Scouts. It has also been proven that many digestive ailments result from poor sanitation practices, not drinking water. So clean your hands well after you poop!

Nonetheless, if you’ll sleep better, by all means treat your water. And our insurance carrier and its lawyers also want us to perpetuate the giardia myth, so we won’t tell you absolutely “do not treat your water.” It’s your choice. But on most any of our guided Yellowstone hiking tours, drinking right out of a clear cold high country stream is one of the great pleasures of a wilderness experience, and my unofficial but scientifically-based advice is to drink up, enjoy, and sleep under a starry sky with a clear conscience and healthy bowels!



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