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,



Anonymous said...

I am having the same internal debate about ‘water’ purification. I have used tablets/cloth, SteriPen and MSR filter. Each has their pluses & minuses. A filter with a quick disconnect and bladder(s) is by far the quickest and most convenient way to treat a large amount of water, but alas also the heaviest. I will probably wait till I start packing out my final gear cut before I completely decide but right now it looks like the trusty ol filter for me.

Jill Homer said...

Good thoughts. I am a water nut. After spending my irresponsible youth hiking around the desert without so much as a single water bottle, followed by years of acclimation (i.e. wimpificaiton) in the Southeast Alaska rainforest, I made water my top priority on the Divide. I carried as many as nine liters as well as an 11-ounce water filter. Because of the nine-liter capacity and my water mania, I only used that filter I think twice, maybe three times the entire trip. The rest was tap-to-tap. That I happened to be on that leisurely 24-day pace in what was perhaps the coolest, wettest year in the history of Divide racing, certainly helped. But valuable lessons were learned all around, and if I had to do it again, I'd probably land close to your school of thought.

Janet said...

Being a sweaty beast, any hydration pack on my back is going to be a hot mess, so I keep fantasizing about putting the hydration pack on my bike frame (front panniers? rear panniers? somewhere wedged in the frame?) and running a long Camelbak line to the vicinity of my mouth... does anyone do this? Would it be ridiculous to locate water far from your center of gravity like that on a bike? Thoughts, anyone?

Markus said...

Kent, you'll love the Ergon pack. I work in a bikeshop in Brisbane Australia, we ride all summer in high heat and high humidty. Our shop sells Camelbac, Deuter and Vaude packs and drink systems.(until recently no one distributed Ergon in Oz- i bought mine direct from the US) I now ride an Ergon pack (the little one-i think it's DB2???) and camelbac bladder como. The Deuter and Vaude Flexiback (similar on both brands) systems are great in high humity/heat areas but the hip belt weight distrubution and exo frame and ball gizmo setup on the Ergon is better, all of these are far better than the Camelbac brand pacs, the packs are prehistoric in design (great bladder/valve though) Trying the Nalgene bite valve soon too.(the magnetic hook up seems to be a great idea).
I know!!!!'s not my choice either, but you have to drink.
Cheers and good luck.

Bob said...

Nice thoughtful post, Kent. I am a filter guy from way back, but they do add weight. The problem I have (philosophically) with either tablet or steripen methods is that they both require great care not to leave contaminated water on the lip or outside of the bottle. My MSR filter will screw to the top of a bottle and so only filtered water will ever touch the bottle. Maybe a touch paranoid, but how many amoebas does it take to cause an infection?

To Janet - I have seen pictures of people who have run a line to a bladder that is located in the top compartment of a frame bag. That would put it a bit below your center of gravity as opposed to a back-mounted pack, which would be a bit above the CG, so it should actually be a bit more stable. Hip packs are also available.


cycleofaddiction said...

I thought it was only the UK that mixed metric and imperial measurements,have you folks seen Drink Safe Systems
The Travel Tap on backpacking light UK site might be usefull to you!

Bruce Newell said...

I had a water filter fail on me a month into my GDMBR ride this last summer. I had purification drops as backup, but lucked out and was able to find tap water and mooch the use of my companions' filter until I bought a new filter in Pinedale. I wasn't racing, but if I were doing it again, I'd be tempted to 'go light' and just use drops when I must and glory in tap water when I could. Although it's a tough call -- filters are quick and, when they work, easy. My backup two 6 liter MSR DromLite bags worked brilliantly; near weightless when not being used, sturdy and leak-free when being used.

Ainsley Wiles said...

The two main things I would worry about are 1. crypto and 2. giardia. Either could take you out of the race. Crypto is resistant to disinfectants like chlorine, but UV deactivates it. The main thing to consider with the SteriPen is water clarity. I would be tempted to have all three.

Apis said...

You gotta at least "prefilter" the gück out of the water.

And, yeah cryptosporidia are very resistant to Cl‾ based disinfectants. Is the weight of a filter that big an annoyance to someone that is obviously not a weight-wienie?

Craig B. said...

Janet, I used to run into a guy in Flasgstaff that kept two large bladders in a frame pack he'd built- worked fantastic. It's what I would do if I were racing the Divide.

fatbob29r said...


I hate hydro packs, but realize they are a necessary evil. Another option, might be to get a couple of "two fish" bottle cages and attach them to your fork legs

Unknown said...

Excellent post. I am a total weight weenie when it comes to my backpacking gear, and the SteriPEN is a great device for rapid sterilization. UV sterilization technology has been used as a primary method in laboratory systems for years, and the Adventurer, with its optional solar charging unit, will fit the bill perfectly for an undertaking such as the Divide.
As Bob mentions, be careful about splashover. Filter systems allow for a closed setup, keeping the ick-water away from the clean water. In canister sterilizers require that you are vigilant about agitation during sterilization (or else you're only sterilizing a small fraction of the water) and making sure that you keep surfaces clean which the sterilzer will not contact.
If you're sterilizing in your bottles, might I make a suggestion:
Run the SteriPEN once, close the bottle and give it a shake, then hit it a second time. You'll have washed any stray droplets from the lid and lip area into the larger clean pool for re-sterilization.

(Crypto/Giardia were a focus of my microbial lab work back in Cincinnati. You'd be surprised how few organisms it takes to be infectious. Crypto can be infectious at only 10 oocysts and has an ID50 of 100 oocysts; meaning that at a dose of only 100 of them, 50% of the sample population will become infected.)

jimmythefly said...

Gravity filter from backpack to frame-pack? I used a buddy's gravity filter camping last year, and it was great for in-camp situations, and worked surprisingly fast. I never tried it in the backpack, but perhaps on a bike it could be made to work.

That way you're constantly filtering water and simultaneously moving the weight off your back. The "dirty" bladder stays contaminated and the "clean bladder" doesn't ever get dipped into suspect water.

I like the simplicity of tablets, but gravity filters have just as few moving parts. Just an idea.

jimmythefly said...

PS that second paragraph reminded me of Dune. I'm thirsty just reading it.

joseph said...

That way you're constantly filtering water and simultaneously moving the weight off your back. The "dirty" bladder stays contaminated and the "clean bladder" doesn't ever get dipped into suspect water.

i also didn't get it either

jimmythefly said...

".....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."

Sorry for the confusion, I was referring to the second paragraph of Kent's post.

Forrest said...

I've been using the SteriPen for hiking, and love it. Carrying several water bottles up a 3,500+ foot ascent in July and August ( when you need lots of water ) is back breaking work; carrying an empty bottle and a few-ounce purifier works wonders, at least on trails that you can depend on finding water when you need it.

Note, however, that these only work on bio hazards - anything with DNA or RNA. If you come across water with good old arsenic or something along those lines, the sterilizer won't help you. Nor does it do anything for taste.

Unknown said...

Always I need water when ever I hang out anywhere. I will be having my Hydration Bottle with me.

DaveG said...

If you're looking for bike-mounted hydration with a tube and valve for the rider, check out some triathlon gear. SipStream, Speedfil, and Vision Tech, among others, has such gear.

Anonymous said...

check out they have a off the shelf frame hydration pack has two bladders and room for more stuff