Hydration is essential to life and is a critical survival priority. As a resource, it is second only to air in importance.
Finding water in the wild during a survival situation or just an extended trek is vital and in such cases what could be more of a blessing than seeing a beautiful waterfall rushing with its seemingly limitless amount of water?
You might think your water troubles are over, but are they? Is it okay to drink water from a waterfall?
Water from a waterfall is drinkable only if it is filtered and treated first. It can be just as contaminated as any other natural source.
No doubt about it, waterfalls are spectacular and usually a convenient natural source of water, but it really is no safer to drink water from a waterfall than any other source. In the rest of this article we will take a look at some of the potential risks of doing so and tell you how to mitigate them.
Table of Contents
Water from a Waterfall Sure Looks Refreshing
For anyone reading who has ever been really thirsty, and I mean dangerously thirsty, you probably daydreamed (or hallucinated) about a waterfall of pure, clear water in your darker moments.
The thought of a boundless amount of cold, frothy, pure water crashing down around you was, no doubt, heavenly. I’d bet my bottom dollar that anyone in similar straits would pray to find the same.
In those circumstances, you couldn’t blame anyone for just drinking from it as soon as they could lay hands on it, or stick their head under the falls.
But in reality, that water is probably just as dirty as any other water source one might find in the wild.
While it might indeed be refreshing, unless you take the proper precautions it could make you very, very sick, or even kill you.
Whitewater Purity: Myth or Truth?
No matter how hard we try, there are some popular but false survival conceptions “that everyone knows” that seem to stick around despite all attempts at eliminating them.
For example, such wisdom as you can drink your own urine to survive, moss will only grow on the north side of a tree, and sucking snake venom out of a bite will save you.
Another one of these all-star notions is the idea that water from a “whitewater” (moving, foaming) source is some of the purest, safest water you can find in nature.
It’s easy to see where this idea comes from: waterfalls and other whitewater sources are constantly moving and heavily aerated, plus they are imagined to be located in pristine environments that aren’t subject to the same pollution sources as other water sources.
Sadly, this is one more myth busted and buried: waterfalls and other moving water sources can and usually are just as contaminated as any other natural water source.
If the Water is Dirty Before the Falls, it Will Be Dirty After
It is a shame. Waterfalls should be clean and pure, dang it. But they aren’t, and the reason why they aren’t should be obvious.
Water that is contaminated before tumbling and crashing over the falls is going to be contaminated when it reaches the bottom. That’s it. There is no cleaning or purification that happens just because the water is moving.
In addition, many of these beautiful natural wonders are located near (or far) from heavily populated areas, farms, mines, sewage plants, and industrial sites. This means they can pick up all sorts of nastiness from runoff, accidental spills, and dumping.
Waterfalls located deep in the wilderness are rarely much better since natural sources wind up hideously contaminated with all kinds of natural nastiness that can still hurt or kill you.
You can expect to find all of the following and more waiting in your water at the bottom of the falls, if you cared to test it:
- Animal feces
- Animal carcasses
- Human waste
- Pesticides and herbicides
- Petroleum products
- Heavy metals
- Silt and sediment
- And more!
Whew, that’s quite a list. And though it isn’t exhaustive by any means it does show you what you are up against.
Typical Waterborne Diseases Waiting in Waterfall Water
But, if you are really thirsty, in a hurry, or just tempted you could refill your bottle or take a sip from a waterfall.
What’s the worst that could happen?! Well, quite a few things, actually.
Below is a short and by no means an exhaustive list of waterborne illnesses that might assail you if you drink untreated waterfall water.
Giardiasis, also known humorously as “beaver fever,” is a parasitic infection that affects the gastrointestinal tract.
The most common symptom is diarrhea, which can be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramps. Severe giardiasis can also cause weight loss and fatigue.
The parasites responsible for the infection are typically found in contaminated water, such as ponds, lakes, streams, and rivers. Can also be found in food that has been contaminated with feces.
The best way to prevent Giardiasis is to practice good hygiene and avoid drinking or swimming in contaminated water.
Cryptosporidiosis is another crushing intestinal illness caused by a microscopic parasite called Cryptosporidium. The parasite is found in both water and soil, and can infect animals and humans alike.
Symptoms of cryptosporidiosis include watery diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, and vomiting. The illness is most commonly seen in young children, as their immune systems are not yet fully developed.
But if it does take hold in adults the parasite can cause more severe symptoms. Cryptosporidiosis is treated with fluids and electrolytes to prevent dehydration and often requires hospitalization.
Shigella is a bacterium related to E. Coli that often causes dysentery. The most common symptoms are diarrhea, which can range from mild to severe.
Other symptoms include cramping, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and fever. In severe cases, shigellosis can lead to major dehydration and death.
The best way to prevent shigellosis is to practice good hygiene and avoid drinking questionable water.
Most people have not heard of salmonellosis, but almost everyone knows what it is: food poisoning! Specifically, salmonellosis is an infection caused by salmonella bacteria.
Though known for occurring after ingestion of contaminated food you can easily catch it from bad water, too. Flu-like symptoms of salmonellosis include diarrhea, fever, nausea, and abdominal cramps.
The illness may last for a week and assuming there are no complications (or you aren’t in the middle of a survival scenario) you should be okay at the end.
However, some people may develop a more severe form of the illness which can spread to the bloodstream. Not good!
Legionnaires’ Disease is a serious lung infection that is caused by the Legionella bacteria. The bacteria are found in water, and people can become infected if they merely breathe in water droplets that contain the bacteria.
The disease is most commonly seen in people who are hospital patients or who live in nursing homes, as these environments provide the perfect breeding ground for the bacteria but it occurs in the wild, too.
Symptoms include fever, headache, muscle pain, and shortness of breath. If left untreated, the disease can lead to pneumonia and complications can cause death in healthy adults. Early diagnosis and treatment are essential for a positive outcome.
Waterfalls are No Exception to the Rule: Don’t Drink Untreated Water
So, water from a waterfall is not safe as-is. What to do, then? The same thing you would do with any other natural water source: filter it and, if necessary, chemically treat it before use.
There are many different ways to filter water, but one of the most popular and effective methods available to preppers and hikers is using a portable water filter.
These filters come in all shapes and sizes, and some can be extraordinarily effective at removing all manner of impurities. No matter which type of filter you choose, make sure it’s rated for viruses as well as bacteria and protozoa.
As for chemical treatment, iodine tablets are a popular choice among hikers and preppers. Iodine is effective at killing most waterborne pathogens, but it does have the potential to make water taste rather unpleasant.
If you go this route, be sure to follow the instructions on the package to the letter. since ratios are important for safety and effectiveness.
Lastly, don’t forget that you can boil water to kill off pathogens. Boiling water for one minute is sufficient to kill virtually every bacteria and protozoa, and most viruses. Keep in mind this does nothing for most chemical and dissolved solid contamination.
Tom Marlowe grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, He has the experience in helping civilian shooters figure out what firearms work best for them.