Is Running Water Cleaner Than Still Water

People hiking near a small river of running water

Staying hydrated is an absolute must when you’re out hiking on the trail or camping. Water is usually easy to come by in camping sites or on various checkpoints on the trail. However, there may come a time when you won’t have such easy access and you’ll need to source your water from nature. Then the question arises: Is running water cleaner than still water?

While running water is almost always cleaner than standing water, this doesn’t mean that you should drink either directly from its source. You can sometimes drink water directly from its source at very high altitudes and in extremely cold bodies of water, but in most cases, you’ll have to treat your water before drinking it.

So, before slurping down the first mouthful of life-giving water you come across, consider where it’s been and how it got to where it is.

And we’ll provide you with some tips to help you properly treat your drinking water while you’re in the wild.

Table of Contents

Is Running Water Cleaner Than Still Water?

Yes, running water is usually cleaner than standing water. The keyword being usually. Not all streams and rivers are cleaner or more potable than bodies of still water, such as lakes or ponds.

Unfortunately, no matter how clean the water from a natural source looks, you’ll still need to process it somehow in 90% of situations. Unless you find water that is below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, you’ll have to treat it before drinking it or cooking with it.

Even in cases when water is below 40 degrees, it is highly recommended to treat it before drinking it. Unless you’re in a situation where you need hydration immediately, you should always take the time to treat any water you source from nature.

In cases when you’re camping or hiking in very cold weather, some forms of static water are great sources of hydration. For example, when everything is frozen, you can use the ice and snow to hydrate yourself. However, don’t be fooled by the whiteness of the snow. This doesn’t mean that it is clean or that you can drink it right away. We’ll go through treating snow and ice for drinking later in the article.

Why Is Running Water Usually Cleaner and Safer to Drink?

There are several reasons why this is the case and one of them can simply be explained using the old proverb: “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” Flowing water is constantly moving which means there are fewer opportunities for microorganisms to aggregate and thrive.

In addition to this, flowing water is usually colder than a stagnant body of water, as it is more difficult for other factors to alter its temperature. Colder water is a less conducive environment for microorganisms as it provides fewer nutrients.

Finally, running water originates in the spring, which means it had to go through various rocks and minerals underground, which, in turn, means that it has gone through a process of filtration as well as some mineral enrichment.

How to Recognize a Good Source of Water in the Wild?

In addition to preferring running water over standing, there are a few other things you should keep in mind when sourcing your water from nature.

Keep in mind that you should always treat the water you source in the wild because even the water that doesn’t contain any harmful microorganisms can still contain dirt and animal excrement particulates. While these won’t harm you like bacteria or contaminants, they are still not good for you.

Unless you are in a life-or-death scenario where you don’t have the time to treat your water, you should always boil it or purify it with chlorine tablets before drinking.

The Temperature of the Water Is a Good Indicator of How Clean It Can Be

The temperature is one of the first things you should pay attention to when choosing which water you’ll take. Higher temperatures of water create better conditions for the appearance and proliferation of microorganisms. In contrast to this, lower water temperatures are usually a sign of cleaner water.

Unfortunately, this is not a perfect way to determine whether a body of water is clean. There are lakes in the mountains that are cold, but utterly undrinkable because of their mineral composition. Likewise, there are sources of potable water that do not need to be cold. However, you should never drink water from a warm body of water.

The Clearer the Water, the More Drinkable It Is

This one might seem a bit obvious but you should still keep it in mind. A body of water that you can clearly see through is cleaner and more portable than the one you can’t see through.

While in some cases vegetation can be the reason behind the opacity of a body of water, in most cases, it is due to microscopic organisms living there. And this is exactly the type of water you should never drink.

A still body of water that you can source water from

Gather the Water Directly at the Spring

Running water is drinkable directly at the spring, especially if it comes from under the ground. This means it’s been filtered through rocks and comes from underground, which usually means it is clean and filtered. The farther down it goes from the spring, the more likely it is that it will be contaminated in some way.

If you can, you should get your water as close to the spring as possible. this will mean that you won’t need to go through so much trouble treating it before you can drink it.

Pay Attention to Wildlife

The presence of certain animals and plants is a good indicator of whether a body of water is clean. Some crustaceans, such as crayfish live in cleaner waters.

Additionally, members of the entire family of Salmonidae are indicators of clean water. Fish like salmon, trout, chars, freshwater whitefishes, and graylings will live only in clean water.

Man-Made Contaminants Can Be Found in Both Running and Standing Water

Finally, keep in mind that these are all means to determine whether water is free from organic contaminants, not man-made ones. So, it is crucial to know where you’re camping or hiking. You should research the area and learn whether there are any factories or manufacturers of chemicals nearby.

Even though the production of such materials is highly monitored as well as the disposal of the byproducts, accidents can happen. You should ensure that you don’t end up drinking chemically affected water in the wild.

How to Source Water in the Wild?

While knowing whether running or standing water is cleaner is a useful thing to have in your information arsenal before going on an adventure, it will not help you properly source water in the wild. For that, you’ll need to have some outdoor skills and tips.

Check Upstream on Every Running Body of Water

Even though running bodies of water are cleaner, this doesn’t mean they are always clean. Before sourcing water from any stream or river, you should check upstream to see where the water is coming from.

You do not want to drink from a river in which an animal died. This could lead to poisoning and serious health issues down the line. You wouldn’t want to experience any of those even in the best conditions, let alone when you’re hiking in the wild, hours from the nearest hospital.

Melt Snow to Get Drinkable Water

When you’re hiking in cold conditions, you can use snow and ice to source drinkable water. Remember to remove the top layer of snow to deal with any contaminants gathered on top. Also, don’t melt the snow that was stuck to your snowshoes or the snow that was in contact with branches or other organic material.

Keep in mind that melted snow is not safe to drink right away. You should still boil it before drinking or run it through a purification straw.

Use the Weather to Your Advantage

When camping in high humidity, you can catch rainwater and purify it for drinking. All you need to do is leave a waterproof sheet or some other container out in the rain. After a few minutes or hours, depending on how heavy the rain is, you’ll have enough water to keep you hydrated.

If the water didn’t touch any other surface when falling down (such as trees, leaves, or rocks), and your container is clean, the water should be ready to drink. If you’re not sure whether the rain met these conditions, you should still boil it before drinking.

Alternatively, in humid environments, you can even use leaves to source water by wrapping green leaves in a clear plastic bag and keeping them in the sunlight.

Be Careful How You Pick Up Water

Sourcing water in the wild is not easy, and there are many ways to get it wrong. The consequences can be quite dire if you fail to find clean and drink contaminated water. Here are some things you should keep in mind:

  • Clean your container – a dirty container can foul your water and defeat the purpose of boiling it. The best thing would be to find a container in which you can boil water. This will purify both the water and the container.
  • Remove particulates from the water’s surface – there won’t be a point in boiling water if it still has the muck or duckweed in it. use a bandana to filter most of the visible particulates out. This will also help if you’re using a purification straw.
  • Always carry water purification tablets – the tablets can come in handy when there’s no tinder to light a fire. They give the water that trademark swimming pool outdoor enthusiasts are so familiar with.

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