Water: How I Cycled 4700 Miles Using Only 160 Gallons

I crossed America by bicycle using only 160 gallons of water and almost every last drop came from natural sources or water that was going to waste. That is less than 2 gallons per day. Actually, that is an understatement. 3,000 miles would have gotten me across the country, but I rode 4,700 miles on 160 gallons of water. I crossed America without turning on a faucet on the grid, without taking a shower, without washing my clothes in a washing machine, without using a toilet, and without washing my hands in a sink. I practiced water conservation to the extreme for the first 4,100 miles until I arrived in NYC and at that point, since I had officially crossed the country, I lightened up a bit, but just a little bit (as in I started to use the occasional toilet and a turned on a few faucets).

Here’s the story of my water usage.

The rule when I left San Francisco on April 20th was that I could only use water that either came from natural resources or was going to waste and my goal was to use as little as I could.

For this case, natural resources included lakes, rivers, springs, rain, and wells. I, of course, purified the water when needed.

Water that was diverted from waste came from many sources. I just had to be creative and keep my eyes on the prowl for it. Leaky faucets, showers, hoses and fire hydrants, ice in the catch-trays of fountain soda machines, water bottles on the side of the road and in garbage cans, cups of ice in garbage cans, and dripping air conditioners and dehumidifiers made up the vast majority of the waste water that I was drinking. Some of it I purified, such as the water from the dehumidifiers and AC units. A few times I drank from a sprinkler that was over saturating a lawn but, since this could be considered questionable as to whether it was being wasted, I pretty much avoided that.

Not included in my water usage was food, which is made up of water, as is almost every living thing on earth. Many fruits are composed of 90% water. I realized the hydrating power of fruit one night when I was very dehydrated and peeing bright yellow. I ate a whole five-pound bag of apples and peed clear for the rest of the night. Food naturally has water in it and hydrates us. A large number of Americans are chronically dehydrated. Perhaps this is because so much of their diet is packaged and processed food that is very dry. You might think that by buying apples to hydrate myself I was actually using more resources than if I had just turned on a faucet, but most of the time those apples were from a dumpster so it was resources already going to waste anyway.

So where did the 160 gallons of water that I used come from?

60 gallons straight from lakes, rivers, streams, and rain

6 gallons from wells powered by hand pump or windmill

14 gallons from wells powered by electricity

50 gallons diverted from waste

30 gallons from the grid

Many people might find this statistic unbelievable. I mean, it would be one thing if I were sitting on the couch for 100 days to use that amount of water, but I biked across America on it. The average American uses 80-100 gallons of water per day according to the USGS. I used a 2-day supply of water to bicycle 4,700 miles across America. That means I was 50 times more efficient at using water than the average American. It was extremely challenging, but it is true. I rigorously kept track of my water usage and often went without.

In order to do this journey using just 160 gallons of water I went without showers, washing machines, toilets, sinks to wash my hands, etc. I only used water to drink and to cook. Occasionally, if my hands were really dirty, I’d use a few ounces to wash them, but for the most part I’d just wait until I found a lake, river, or puddle to wash them in. Other times I’d wipe them off in the morning dew on grass. I bathed in natural bodies of water and the rain and used Dr. Bronner’s soap. I washed my clothes and dishes in lakes and creeks also with Dr. Bronner’s biodegradable soap. Water used in this manner is not included in the statistics because it was not removed from its natural source and no energy was used in order for me to use it. I never swam in a swimming pool or played in fountains, as this would have been using water from on the grid.

Before the trip I did a lot of planning and thought out my gear extensively. Since I would only be drinking from natural sources I knew that I’d have to fill up when I got the chance so I brought a 3-gallon jug. The negative aspect to that jug was that it weighed 24 pounds full, which was a lot of weight to tow behind a bike. I also, of course, had a filter. I chose the Katadyn Pocket Microfilter provided to me by Drips Water because it is one of the toughest, most reliable, and long-lasting filters on the market. The ceramic filter is good for 13,000 gallons which is more than nearly any human would ever filter in their entire life. I considered it the most sustainable filter as it needed no electricity or batteries to run and had no filter to replace. The filter removes bacteria and protozoan cysts. What it doesn’t have is carbon to filter to remove some pesticides and chemicals so I probably took in some of that. For the sake of the short, 3-month journey I was ok with that, although with a little more effort I could have used activated carbon to take care of that issue. Oh well, I’m learning.

Drips Water Katadyn Filter

The Katadyn Water Filter in use

Here’s the story of my water usage on the road:

I left San Francisco on April 20th with a few gallons of water I had purified from a small lake in Oakland and figured I’d be set for the first couple of days. Being near the ocean and in an arid region I wasn’t sure when I’d find water again. I ended up breaking down in San Francisco just 4 miles from where I started and, after getting a new trailer and leaving behind about 50 pounds of gear, I set out 36 hours later, much lighter but quite anxious. I ditched the huge jug and was down to a container that held about 1.5 gallons of water. The first few days in the heat were rough but I managed to find a few sources of fresh water and stay fairly hydrated. Once I got up into the Sierra Nevada’s I had all the fresh snowmelt that my body could desire. I pedaled through the state of California using nearly 100% water from natural resources barring a few ounces from water bottles found on the roadside.

The next leg was 550 miles along Highway 50 through the Nevada desert. This I was worried about, as was every single person who knew about what I was doing. When I found water I sat by it, filled my stomach to the throat, and filled my jugs to the top. I drank from a farm pond, a big reservoir, a well powered by a windmill on the roadside, and a few other natural sources. I never went more than 100 miles without finding water and, after a long week, I was out of Nevada. At that point I realized if I could make it through the desert state of Nevada I’d be just fine for the rest of the trip.

Rob Greenfield Water

Finding and filtering water while in Nevada

In the western half of the country, I got almost all of my water from natural sources. I found a few lakes and rivers in Utah. The Rocky Mountains of Colorado were full of pristine rivers. In northern Kansas, I found many wells for cattle that were powered by windmills. In Iowa, I harvested rain nearly every day, and that’s also when I started to drink from bottles on the roadside. It amazed me how many people threw half-full bottles of water out the window, but it made life easy for me. I also took water bottles from garbage at gas stations. It’s hard to believe, but people throw away water: the resource that gives us life. Often I found full, unopened bottles in the trash or on the roadside. In Wisconsin I stayed with friends who had wells and drank from more roadside water bottles. I managed to find water most of the time but there were many nights that I went to bed thirsty. Often, though, I had had opportunities to harvest water earlier in the day but had not taken them, mostly out of laziness or lack of planning.

Through the Midwest I continued with a combination of wells, rain, lakes and rivers, and roadside water bottles. That’s when it finally started to get hot. Imagine biking long, 70-mile days and not getting to drink cold water. I did not purchase a cold beverage for the entire journey (except for milk a few times which I drank warm when it got warm.) That’s when I came up with the solution of getting ice from the catch trays at gas stations and fast food restaurants. People miss their cup all the time and those trays are often just loaded with ice that would go to waste. I got a lot of strange looks from people that saw me scooping ice from the catch trays and they were boggled by my strange actions but I’ve learned to not care what people think. That’s what has given me the freedom to do what I know is right. I don’t live a life to impress others anymore by doing what other people think I should do. Instead, I impress people by doing what I know is right and by going against the grain.

Things continued on this way and, after 84 days of riding and 4,100 miles, I arrived in New York City. I had indeed crossed America by bicycle but, since the end destination was Vermont, it was not a big deal to me. Yeah, I had crossed the country, but it just felt like another stop on the 4,700-mile journey. There are not many sources of clean, natural water in New York City so I had to come up with an alternative way to get water. This is when I started to seek out sources of leaky municipal water. Within no time I found a leaky fire hydrant just a few blocks from where I was staying and for five days I lived solely off water from this leaky fire hydrant. I drank it. I showered in it. I did my laundry in it. I brushed my teeth with it. I timed how long it took to fill a one-gallon jug and it was 2 minutes. That means that 720 gallons of water were being wasted each day from this hydrant alone. A human needs 8 cups or a half-gallon of water per day to live. That means this hydrant was wasting a 4-year supply of drinking water for one person EVERY DAY that it was leaking like that. It was leaking all 5 days I was there which is a 20-year drinking supply. I knew it was time to leave NYC when someone knocked on the door of the apartment where I was staying and said, “There’s a guy around here that’s been urinating in public so if you see him call the police.”

Up until NYC I was using an average 1.26 gallons of water per day. Then, I toured through urban cities on the east coast for another 20 days and 600 miles and used an additional 54 gallons of water. The increase came because I started to use toilets, which I used for the first time in Connecticut. A standard toilet these days uses 1.6 gallons per flush, but many older toilets are still in use that use 3+ gallons per flush. I just can’t rationalize using 1.6 gallons of water to get ride of pee. Sure, maybe poop, but not pee. I understand we need a proper system for disposing of human waste and what I was doing on this trip was quite extreme and not reproducible but it was to bring attention to the matter. We can’t all be pooping in the woods and in the occasional park like I was. One thing you can do at home to reduce water consumption via the toilet is “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.” That simply means to not flush after going pee. There really is no need to. The way I figured, 1.6 gallons was more than I needed to survive for the day and I wasn’t about to go flush an equivalent amount down the toilet for a little pee. If you really wanted to handle your waste without wasting water you could build a self-composting toilet, which I will be doing when I get back to San Diego. All of this is much harder when you are biking across America than if you have a solid place to call home at the end of each night, and I look forward to practicing water conservation once I return home.

You might think I was one stinky dude from not taking showers, but that was not the case at all. People often commented on the fact that I didn’t smell bad and often were surprised that I smelled good. Just because water is not coming from a shower head above you doesn’t mean it doesn’t get you clean. Bathing in lakes will get you just as clean and I did that nearly every day. My clothes were not always sparkling clean, but cleaning them in lakes got the job done pretty well. It’s not like we need to be perfectly sparkly clean anyway. Live naturally, be you, be true, be raw, and a little bit of dirt or sweat won’t bother you anymore. There is nothing gross about being sweaty or a little dirty. It is natural. To cut back on water usage, you can take fewer showers or take shorter showers. If you think about it, there really is no need to shower every single day. You can wash your clothes less as well. There is no need to wash clothes after every time you wear them. Wear them a few times before washing them and make sure you are doing full loads. You’ll also find that you are spending less time doing laundry and folding clothes. You can also own fewer clothes because the less you own the less you have to wash.

In mid-July, I launched the “Drip by Drip” campaign and decided to pedal from New York City to Boston in the middle of a heat wave using only water from leaky faucets. It was brutal at times but I made it. I drank from spraying fire hydrants, leaky faucets, showers, and hoses, chewed on discarded cups of ice, scavenged for bottles of water on the roadside that people tossed out their windows, and drank from dripping AC units and dehumidifiers. I drank just over a gallon of water each day for a total of 8 gallons of water and biked 260 miles. The daytime high ranged from 89-97 degrees every single day and the heat wave was the most extreme in 60 years on the east coast. Besides that 8 gallons I also flushed some toilets. Each time I watched this source of clean drinking water go to waste, thinking about the fact that I had just flushed more than a days worth of drinking water down the toilet.

Drip by Drip by Rob Greenfield of Greenfield Adventures

Drip by Drip Campaign

In other countries, this campaign of mine is real life. In many countries, finding water truly is a matter of life and death for humans. Imagine that. Here in America, we can turn a knob and a seemingly infinite amount of water is at our fingertips. We have so much of it that we take it for granted. Believe me, you wouldn’t take it for granted if you only had access to a few gallons per day. We turn on a faucet and we have all the good, clean water we need to drink, to bathe, to clean our stuff, to brush our teeth, and to even poop and pee in. Imagine not having any of that. Imagine having to search for your water or walk miles to get it and then walk miles home carrying it. That is happening all over the world and our excess consumption in America has something to do with it in many cases. At home in San Diego, I rarely thought of the fact that water gives me life, but now that I have gone to this extreme and took away the convenient means of accessing it I have realized just how precious and valuable it is. I’ve learned to value a drop of water.

Some of you might be saying, “The water gets recycled anyway. It’s not like it’s going to the landfill.” Here’s what’s happening when you are wasting water.

1. You are wasting your own money.

2. You are wasting electricity. Water is pumped through the tubes in your house using an electric pump. If it is hot water then it took a lot of electricity to heat that up. Once the water goes down the drain it also takes energy to get it to the plant.

3. Only a certain percentage of water is recycled back into drinking water. For example, on the coast some is pumped into the ocean, which is not ideal for the ocean and the creatures and plants living in it as it changes the salinity. The fresh water is now salt water.

4. Recycling the water at the plant can be a very energy consuming process. Many industrial processes require the processed water to be heated or cooled.

5. Chemicals are used to disinfect the water once it gets to the plant to create clean water. The more water we waste the more chemicals are wasted and in turn the more chemicals that need to be created. If you pour 5 gallons of water down the drain that has chlorine in it, as most tap water does, you also just wasted that chlorine doubly as that same amount you just wasted will have to be added to it to turn it back into drinking water. It takes resources including water to create chemicals.

6. It’s not like the nice, clean water you pour down the drain gets to the planet still nice and clean. It gets mixed with all sorts of dirty water and goes through the same cleaning process as the dirty water.

Water is also recycled naturally by the earth but it is a long-term process and nature is not able to meet our current demands. That is why there are water shortages all over the world. It’s very obvious. Lake Superior where I grew up is multiple feet lower than it was when I was a child. Lakes and rivers are vanishing. Water shortages are everywhere. It’s obvious stuff if you pay attention to it. This doesn’t only affect us. This affects wildlife such as fish and birds that need this water to live. Water is a naturally renewable resource but nature cannot keep up with our demands.

So, what can you do?

Use less. It’s just that simple. The average American uses 80-100 gallons per day. For simple math I’ll use 100 gallons. Cut your usage in half and you save 18,000 gallons of water per year. That’s a 98-year supply of drinking water for one human. Now, if everyone in the USA cut usage by half we’d save 15 billion gallons of water per year. The population of the entire continent of Africa is 1 billion.

That means, at a half gallon of water per day per person, the entire continent of Africa could drink for 30 years if each of us reduced or consumption by half for just one year. (Side note: these stats are just for individual consumption. The USA actually uses 400 billion gallons of water per day).

Now, I’m not saying we’re going to ship our water to Africa and my math also uses estimates and is by no means perfect. Nothing I have written about in this blog is perfect but the whole idea is just to put it into perspective. We can use less water. We can use A LOT less water. We will save a lot of resources by doing so.

What you can start doing today:

-Don’t drink bottled water. More than 25% of bottled water comes from the same place that tap water comes from, anyway! It is 1,000’s of times more expensive to drink bottled water. If you drink bottled water are you telling me you are so rich that you should pay 1000’s of times more for something? Would you pay $1,000 for an apple or a chocolate bar?

-Flush the toilet less. It uses more water than any other activity in the house.

-Be conscious and use less. Americans 100 gallons/ day, Europeans 50 gallons/ day, sub-Saharan Africans 2-5 gallons / day, me on this trip <2 gallons per day. Americans, it should be easy to use less having this knowledge!

-Take shorter and fewer showers. A five-minute shower uses 10 to 25 gallons of water.

-Pay attention to running your faucet when not needed. The average faucet flows at a rate of 2 gallons per minute.

-Consume less stuff. Everything takes water to produce. The less stuff you buy, the less water is needed. (Consumption of goods is not included in the 100 gallons per day). It takes over 700 gallons of water to make a cotton t-shirt, for example.

-Grow food, not lawns. Watering grass is a complete waste. It is aesthetically pleasing but serves us very little besides that.

-Reuse water. Water plants with water from your sink or shower for example. Or flush your toilet with shower water.

To put it into perspective of what I did: An average American uses 80-100 gallons of water per day. In Europe, the average citizen uses 50 gallons per day (about ½ of what Americans use). In sub-Saharan Africa, the average citizen uses 5 gallons per day (about 1/20th of what Americans use). I used less than 2 per day (about 1/50th of what Americans use).

The earth can’t keep up at the rate that we are using our water. If not for yourself and if not for the earth, at least be fair and do it for the people around you and the people that don’t have it around the world. Live a life that is beyond yourself and when you take actions think about whom it effects.

The good news is there is no need to feel hopeless and it is not too late. The solution is simple. Start using only what you need and inspire others to do the same. If you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem. Realize that, take action, and you will be a part of the solution. Inspire and teach others to take action and now you’re really part of the solution.

We can do this!

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