Biking Journeying Risk Talking Point

Running out of Water? Would you ask for help or drink from a puddle?

La Gorga in Boltaña, Pyrenees
Written by Kirstie Pelling

Running Out of Water?

Would you ask for help or drink from a puddle?

Do you and your other half respond differently under pressure? If you found yourself out with the family, cycling up a mountain in the Pyrenees, in the heat of the day, running out of water, and hours from the nearest town (I know you probably wouldn’t), would you wait for a passing vehicle and ask for help or drink from a puddle with a straw? Stark choice I know, but you should probably know this about your partner, in advance… 

We are parched

My throat is a dry rasp. I am hot, sweating and irritable. All I can think about is ice cold water. It’s not exactly a life threatening situation – we are only 20 miles from the next town, Boltaña. But we have quite a bit of Pyrenean mountain between us and the next reliable source of drinking water. And with only bicycles to get us there, it’s looking like it could us take several hours.

I am a little bit worried about the kids. It is over 35 degrees and we are all expending a lot of energy climbing up and over the Puerto de Serrablo, a 1291 metre pass in the central Pyrenees. Cameron and I are trying to keep cool and make progress by hopping from one patch of shade to the next. Stuart has a more rhythmic approach, maintaining a steady cadence as he and Hannah inch their way towards the top of the col on their tandem. Matthew’s style is determined, sprinting ahead so he can get frustrated at the top while he waits for us all to catch up. Despite our differences we share one thing in common, we are all dreaming of water.

Cycling in the Pyrenees on the road

Cycling in the Pyrenees beyond Laguarta, Aragon.

Another fine mess

It’s the kind of mess we occasionally get ourselves into on expeditions. Like the time in Argentina when Stuart and I got stuck at a remote Patagonian Police Station for a week. Or the time Matthew got sick from heat exhaustion cycling in Croatia. Or the time we got all our washing trapped in a launderette in Germany. Or the time… well as I say, these kind of things happen from time to time on our adventures together.

Each situation is unique, brought on by a mixture of circumstance and the combined consequences of a whole host of little decisions; decisions that are individually innocuous, yet somehow lead to something less than desirable and wholly unpredictable. Over the years I have learnt that in the throws of these situations the most important thing is not to work out how we got there and who is to blame but to figure out how best to get us out of it. And Stuart and I do that very differently.

Let me count the ways…

I panic. He doesn’t.

I catastrophise. He doesn’t.

He thinks out of the box. I don’t.

We row, a bit. We row some more. And then we each handle the situation in our own way.

Generally this involves him trying to fix the situation himself while I rope others in to help.

Sometimes his way works, and sometimes I get the job done first.

Playmobil Family Fixing a puncture

When a problem occurs, everyone has their own way of helping

Back on the mountain

Stuart shakes the last few drops of water out of the vacuum flask and into a cup. He passes it around and the kids take small sips. It’s the last of the water; all our bottles are now empty. How did we miscalculate like this? We filled all 12 bottles before we left and carried a few extra litres too. But the journey has taken us longer than we expected. We climbed into fading light and were forced to make an impromptu overnight camp. The pasture we chose turned out to be a favoured spot for cattle with nocturnal grazing habits. It meant a nervy, restless night and a grumpy morning.

We thought we would have reached a hostel if not last night then by lunchtime. According to our map and guidebook the hostel had a bar. But in fact it’s an empty holiday cottage and the adjoining bar is closed. It is now apparent that we also underestimated the gradient and length of the climb. We have already crossed two false summits and close inspection of contours suggests we have another 200 metres of climb to do before we get our hopes up again on the next ridge.

Stuart offers me the cup. I refuse and tell him to give it to the kids.

“You should drink. It’s no good having a dehydrated adult in charge.”

“I’ll be fine,” I say, although I’m not completely sure.

Chimney in Laguarda, Aragon, Pyrenees

In Laguarda, we find the hostel and bar. Closed.

Pushing on

We push on. The road is quiet. The kids are quiet. The fact they aren’t complaining means they understand the situation. Stuart and I have a few more whispered words about the precautions we could have taken and, I think, silently blame each other. He abandons his bike to see if he can find the river we have been following for the last 24 hours, some way below the deep woodland. Ten minutes later he returns, having tracked down the dried river bed but no water.

We push on. But a hill we thought was a gentle curve turns out to have teeth and it’s more up and down, up and down. Cameron and I have lost faith and are flagging. Stuart and the others forge ahead convinced the summit must be soon.

The road to Laguarda and Col de Serrablo

The road is quiet, our only companions cattle.

Help in the shape of a campervan

Suddenly I spot salvation. An old green campervan comes wheeling around a tight hairpin bend ahead. I flag it down and try and explain the situation in Spanish. It takes a while for my pigeon Catalan to get through to the young German couple. But as soon as they understand what’s happened they spring out of their van, talking to me in fluent English.

“You need water? And you have children? We have lots of water. A whole container full! We have only a dog and we pass a supermarket today!” says the German guy.

His girlfriend fills one of my water bottles and gives me a litre bottle of her own to top up another. He then comes out with a bottle of cordial and fills up one more.

“It’s lemon. Vitamin C for your journey!” he cries. I could weep and I hug him.

He is taken aback and his little dog nips at my ankles territorially but I don’t feel any pain.

Bikes at the summit of Puerto de Serrablo, Aragon, Spanish Pyrenees

Arriving at the summit of Puerto de Serrablo

Onwards and upwards

It takes Cameron and I another half an hour to reach the top of the pass where we find Matthew crouched down by a brown puddle at the side of the road. He appears to be drinking from it through a straw.

“Stop!” I scream, running towards him, water bottle in hand. “I have water. I have more water. I have LEMONADE!!! What are you doing?”

“Drinking out of a puddle. Dad told me to.”

I thrust lemonade at him. “No you are not.”

He stands up, shrugs and takes and drinks from my bottle. “Nothing much was coming through anyway.”

Stuart anticipates the fury that is coming his way. “It’s a Life Straw. It’s specially made to filter the dirt out of the water.”

“If he gets dystentry and dies, you are to blame.”

Thirst quencher

The problem is solved. I win a small victory, one even Stuart acknowledges as he gulps down lemonade. But I know in my heart that if there were no campervan on the horizon, I’d be drinking out of a puddle and thanking him for having the foresight to bring the LifeStraw®.

“Did you not see the campervan?” I ask him.

“I saw it, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me to flag it down and ask for water. And anyway we we had the straw.”

We are so different.

So, what about you?

Would you flag down a campervan or drink from a puddle? What about your partner? If you like the straw idea you can buy yourself a LifeStraw Personal Water Filter or even go His and Hers! Or just leave a comment with your thoughts.

For tips on the useful safety and survival equipment Stuart likes to carry around ‘just in case’ check out our post on Top 10 Outdoor Survival Essentials.
Drinking water from a Life Straw

I am greeted at the summit with this, my kids drinking from a puddle.

About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.


  • Brilliant post and fantastic adventure!!! I enjoyed reading it a lot!! I’m like you under pressure Kirstie… and we row a lot as well 🙂 🙂 🙂
    But after rowing, we breathe and find the solution… I must admit that my husband is much, much more sharp than me finding the proper solution! 🙂

  • Oh my word, reading this made me so anxious about you all! I’d be leaping in front of the camper van, definitely, but would use the straw if there was no camper van. My husband can go for ages without eating and drinking (I think he was a camel in a former life) so he probably wouldn’t need the camper van or the straw and would think that I was being demanding by wanting water.

  • as Gretta above, my husband can ride for hours without food and drink , but my son and I cant. we need to drink much more than him and I think there is a gender difference in approaching others for help. Women seem much more able to ask others be it for directions or help

  • This was a great story! So glad everything worked out well in the end. We almost ran out of water while lost on a desert hike this summer. I was contemplating calling the park ranger number for help just has my husband found a way back to the trail head. I am sure he would not have considered calling.

  • Great article!
    Lydia and I got in a similar pickle cycling in the Picos de Europa years ago. Miscalculating the climb and water required, I did a heartless thing and gave Lydia an ultimatum – either we freewheel back down to the town we’d left many hours before to climb all over again tomorrow, or keep going (no Lifestraws in those days). Being a fighter, Lydia agreed to keep going.
    We got that odd burst of energy you get 100m from the top of any climb, sprinted for the ‘Puerto de San Glorio’ sign, and were rewarded with several cans of ice cold pop from a Dutch couple in a campervan, of course!
    Thanks for reigniting the memories.

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