Monday, January 18, 2010

The Weight (and Wait) of Water

A few years ago, in The Way of the Mountain Turtle, I wrote:
"It is easy and wrong to think that minimal gear and a simple quest equates to some kind of renunciation of the material world. In a very real sense, a Divide racer’s minimalism is in fact an extremely purified form of materialism. I’m not free of material goods, I’m intensely dependent on them. Each item I have chosen for this journey has been extensively studied and obsessively considered. I’ve literally weighed my options and made my choices. The other racers have done the same."
Now, in 2010, I am again committed to racing the Divide. I'm a bit older and the course is a bit longer but the principles remain the same. And in these months before the race, I am weighing my options and thinking about my gear.

I'm thinking a lot about water, for water is not something you take for granted on the Divide. If you are counting on water coming from taps then you are counting wrong, especially when the race goes into the high country and the dry lands of the Great Divide Basin, Southern Colorado and the enchanted lands of New Mexico. Those are the places where you learn that water is precious. You tune your ears to the musical notes of any drip or ripple. Your dry nose learns to long for subtle hints of humidity.

The best water I have ever tasted came from these New Mexican cattle stock tanks.

In 2005 I rode with bottles, seven liters for the highest, driest, longest sections and I was sucking on fumes when I came upon these tanks. Filtered through a bandana and purified with tablets, this water got me down the trail to the next oasis and drop by precious drop I made my way southward.

A liter of water weighs about two pounds. Yes, I mix metric and English units, I'm an American, it's what we do. When I was younger I thought that by 2010 this country would be fully metric but it turned out I was wrong about that. I was also wrong about going everywhere by jetpack. It turns out that in 2010, I'm still riding around on a bicycle, albeit one that has fewer gears than the bikes I rode in my teen years. But I digress...

Where was I? Oh yes, obsessing about water. It weighs about two pounds per liter. If I didn't care about weight I could ride from tap to tap, towing a water tank trailer. But the weight of the water would slow me down. More time in the hot sun would mean I'd need to carry more water.

On the other hand, if I was infinitely fast, I could travel with no bottles at all, drinking like a camel at each stop and then sprinting to the next.

But I am neither a cargo mule nor a camel. I have to find the middle way.

Last time I had four bottles at the start, adding bottles as things got drier. I'd estimate and bet. Study the maps, study the sky and decide how many bottles would be filled for each leg of the journey. As things got drier, I got more cautious. In the high desert, I left each water source with both my bottles and my stomach full of water.

Questionable water sources mean precautions must be taken. In 2005, I chose water purification tablets over carrying a filter. I'd filter the large bits of crud from the water with a bandana and let the Micropur Water Purifier Tablets take care of whatever evil nasties might be lurking in the water. The tablets take a few hours to work so I evolved a strategy of rotating my bottles, drinking from the one with water that had been purifying for a few hours. Dropping a tablet in a bottle and rolling on is faster than waiting for a slow filter to drip-process the water. I had to think not only about the weight of water, but the wait for the water.

In 2005, I relied entirely on bottles, not wanting the weight of water on my back. I've rethought this and now I'm riding with a 100 ounce water bladder in an Osprey Daylite Pack. In March, I'll be getting some Ergon Team stuff including a BD2 pack that will most likely replace the Osprey in my kit. The BD2 should transfer most of the weight from my shoulders to my hips. The Ergon folks have done wonderful things with the ergonomics of grips, so I have high hopes for the pack.

Another addition to the kit will be a SteriPEN Adventurer Handheld Water Purifier.

This little device promises to act quicker (90 seconds!) than the tablets (which I'll still carry). I'll also probably work a water bladder into my Monocog's tailbox.

It's been raining pretty much every day for the past few weeks here in the Pacific Northwest, but maybe that makes this the best time for me to be thinking obsessively about water for all the dry miles on the trail.

Keep 'em rolling,

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