Is it safe to drink the water in the Hokkaido outdoors?

, by Ayaka

Hokkaido's stream water is not safe to drink. We explain why, plus ways to purify it and make it safe for drinking!

A blue pond surrounded by snow.

Is the stream water safe for drinking?

For people who grow up in Hokkaido, it is a well known fact that it is not safe to drink straight out of mountain streams here. Whereas for people who visit us from other countries or even from other regions of Japan, this may be a little known fact. And there may be even less information about this topic in English, so we’ve written this article to help visitors to Hokkaido enjoy our outdoors safely.

Growing up in Hokkaido, we are taught from elementary school about a parasite called “Echinococcus“. Many people may have never heard of this, but if you ask a young school student here in Hokkaido what it is, s/he will tell you all about it and the do’s and don’ts of how to drink water safely in the Hokkaido outdoors! Whether you are travelling on one of our Hokkaido adventure tours or not, we want everyone to travel safely and enjoy Hokkaido’s unique wilderness.

So before you set out on your hiking adventure in Hokkaido, please read on to find out some safety cautions and useful tips related to drinking water in the outdoors.

Red fox with rat in mouth
Red fox captured by our guide Konu in the urban area of Asahikawa

Why can’t I drink the water in Hokkaido?

The reason water in the outdoors isn’t safe to drink is 100% natural, not some nasty industrial contamination! The Red fox, locally known as kitakitsune, is the one to be blamed in spite of its cuteness. Frequent visitors to the subarctic regions and Hokkaido residents may be familiar with Echinococcosis, which is a parasitic disease caused by tapeworms of the genus Echinococcus. Of all the Hokkaido wildlife, the Red fox is the principal intermediate host of this parasite. These foxes live extensively in Hokkaido from sea level to the alpine zone. We humans can be infected by accidental intake of the parasite’s eggs, through drinking contaminated water that the foxes have been in. Naturally, Hokkaido children are warned and educated not to touch them or drink water they may have been in.

Water bottle in a Hokkaido mountain stream, don't drink the stream water
A water bottle with a filter is one of the easiest solutions

What happens if I get the parasite?

It is likely that you won’t notice anything for some years, as it takes 5-10 years until it incubates. The common signs and symptoms are abdominal pain and distention, fever, fatigue, etc. The disease is life-threatening if you leave it untreated. In Hokkaido many preventive measures are put in place, for instance, public education, deworming of foxes, and free regular health checkups conducted by municipalities.

Adventure Hokkaido guide Yasu says, “I take the checkup every three years. Furano City provides this for the residents for free. I personally don’t know anyone who got the Echinococcosis disease. Prevention is more important than anything else. There are some local people who drink the stream water without treating it, when they know for sure where and how the water is sourced. But this is only a small portion of experienced hikers and the best thing for most of us is to be safe. When I am guiding tours, I treat the water at all times as I would like to ensure that the water is 100% safe for our guests to drink.”

Guide filtering drinking water by hanging a plastic water bladder on a tree
Our guide Yasu demonstrating how he treats water for a group in the backcountry

So how should we make our drinking water safe in the backcountry?

On day hikes, we should carry a sufficient amount of water for the entire day, taking into consideration the duration, distance, terrain, temperature and the weather conditions of the day. Once you start hiking in Hokkaido, you won’t find any artificial water supplies on the trails like you do on the Mainland. If you happen to run out of drinking water during the day and want to top up with stream water, you must treat it by filtering or boiling for at least 7 minutes.

Filtered water bottle
Another filtered water bottle designed for one person

Yasu says, “on overnight hikes, we supply our guests with either filtered cold water or boiled hot water. The filter I use can treat up to 40,000 litres.  Depending on the volume I treat every season, I purchase a new replacement filter more or less once every five years. I use this filter even for rain water collected in tanks found at emergency shelters at places like Mt Kurodake.” 

“Generally, we can treat and drink snowmelt water until early September. If the snowmelt disappears earlier than normal due to lower snowfall and there is no water at our camping locations, we guides enjoy extra walking to collect water from the nearest source, which sometimes takes 30mins each way!”

Beer cans keeping cold in a Hokkaido mountain stream
Spring water cold enough for cooling the drinks (the cans weren’t ours..!)

Useful links

About Adventure Hokkaido

Adventure Hokkaido is a tour operator specialising in small group hiking, cycling, and nature tours in Hokkaido. We are a Japanese owned and operated adventure tour company who run overnight tours solely in Hokkaido. From our base town Higashikawa, we are sharing the information on this blog page to help visitors to Hokkaido plan their trips and better prepare for your next adventure holiday in Japan’s last frontier.