4 Ways Of Treating Water In the Backcountry To Make It Safe To Drink (2022)

Humans don’t actually need that much to survive: food, water and shelter. You can even skip food and shelter for a few days—but you can’t live long without water. So when you’re out in the backcountry, having a reliable water source is essential. Yes, I suppose you could drink water straight from a stream, but I tried that once—the next two days I suffered the worst stomach cramps and stinkiest gas of my life. Never again. Ever since then, I’ve made sure to filter my water, and I’ve had a lot more fun in the woods!

Why it’s a good idea to treat your drinking water

Drinking water from a stream is an unnecessary risk. Want to know why? There’s really only one reason: it could make you sick. Who knows what’s upstream? There could be a beaver living up there and that clear water you’re looking at could be full of its fecal matter. There could be a dead deer. You simply don’t know what’s in there.

This risk goes beyond avoiding drinking from water sources close to farms where runoff could occur, or from obviously polluted lakes. Almost every body of water is full of contaminants. Protozoa, bacteria and viruses are all the things you want to avoid putting into your body.

So what do those nasty little things do?

Protozoa

Protozoa are the largest pathogenic microorganisms, measuring in at one micron (one-thousandth of a millimeter) or more. Ingesting them causes things like giardiasis. Commonly known as beaver fever, the Coles Notes go like this: you don’t want it. Ingesting the giardia parasite can cause diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, etc. The complications from something like beaver fever can go on for months or even years if it becomes a chronic infection.

Bacteria

Bacteria are ubiquitous in most bodies of water and can generally be consumed without harm. The odd few, however, trigger diarrhea and dysentery. Most measure about one micron in size, though some particularly dangerous ones, like E. coli, are smaller.

Viruses

Viruses—which can be smaller than 0.1 microns in size—are less of a concern in North America. Polio is an example of a virus that can come from untreated water. They’re more of a concern in developing countries, but certainly nothing you want to mess with.

(Video) Ten Ways To Purify Water For Drinking In The Backcountry For Bushcraft, Camping, or Survival

In conclusion? You don’t want any of these things in your body. Best to clean your water.

[ Also read: Katadyn Water Filter Review ]

Ways to treat water

Making water potable in the backcountry is an essential skill, but there are many ways to do it. Things to take into account are cost of the equipment, speed at which water can be cleaned, the resulting flavor of the water, maintenance of the device, and what the treatment method is effective against.

Boiling

Tried and true, boiling water is a guaranteed way to kill any “bugs” in your water—meaning, it is effective against protozoa, bacteria and viruses. In my mind this is a last resort—it’s time consuming, fuel consuming and it still may taste awful. The guidelines have changed over the years, but these days they suggest boiling for at least one minute (three minutes above 6,500 feet altitude). It’s a solid backup plan if your filter quits working or you run out of chemicals. There is no gear required to do this other than a fire and a pot, so it’s easy on the wallet.

Chemicals

4 Ways Of Treating Water In the Backcountry To Make It Safe To Drink (1)

Adding chemicals to your water is another classic way of treating water in the backcountry. Common chemicals include bleach, chlorine, iodine and chlorine dioxide. All of these are highly effective in killing viruses and bacteria, but there are varying claims about their effectiveness on protozoa.

The official position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is that iodine, chlorine and bleach are not effective against protozoa such as cryptosporidium and have a low to moderate effectiveness against giardia.

(Video) How to Filter Water in the Backcountry || REI

Chlorine dioxide is unstable and is prepared by mixing two chemicals when needed. Some claim it is effective against protozoa, including giardia and cryptosporidium. However, the CDC maintains that it has a low to moderate effectiveness against cryptosporidium and a high effectiveness against giardia.

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It should be noted that bleach and chlorine destroy intestinal microorganisms known to aid in digestion, so they aren’t a great long-term solution. As well, iodine in particular (but possibly all chemical treatments) should not be ingested by pregnant women. Pregnant women, (parents on behalf of) young children and those with preexisting health conditions should consult a doctor before using chemicals to treat their water.

The effectiveness of chemical treatments is dependent on many factors, including the temperature of the water, the concentration of the chemical, the cloudiness of the water, the pH level of the water, and how long the chemical is given to treat the water before being ingested. For these reasons, the CDC recommends coupling any chemical treatment with water filtration to ensure full protection from viruses, bacteria and protozoa.

Chemicals do provide a cheap, simple and lightweight solution to water treatment. Make sure to closely follow the manufacturer’s instructions on how much to use and how long to wait before drinking the treated water. Another downside to using chemicals is that they can sometimes make the water taste undesirable. This can often be remedied by adding flavored powder to mask the taste. However, on a hot day you might not care very much about how the water tastes!

4 Ways Of Treating Water In the Backcountry To Make It Safe To Drink (2)

UV light

New to the world of backcountry travel is the UV light filter. Much like UV filters used in homes with wells and septic systems, UV light disrupts the DNA of bacteria, viruses and protozoa making them harmless. Generally, you dunk the light in your cup or bottle of water, turn on the light and let it run for the suggested amount of time (generally about 90 seconds).

Of course, the downside to UV light systems is they need batteries and they don’t remove particles from turbid water. As well, they will not be as effective in water that is very cloudy, which means it’s important to couple UV treatment with water filtration.

There are a number of options available and they seem to run anywhere from about $75 to $200.

(Video) What You Need To Safely Treat Water In The Backcountry

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Filters

4 Ways Of Treating Water In the Backcountry To Make It Safe To Drink (3)

Filters are generally the most popular way of cleaning water in North America. Water filters force water (by way of pumping or gravity) through microscopic pores.

According to the CDC, filters are highly effective at removing protozoa, including giardia and cryptosporidium, from water. When using a 0.3 micron (or smaller) filter, they are moderately effective at removing bacteria. However, they are not effective at all against viruses. Once again, this makes it necessary to pair filters with either UV light or chemical treatment.

Gravity filters involve very little work on your part, but some wait time. You simply fill the provided bag with water, hang it in a tree, and let the water filter down through a tube and into your water container. These types of filters generally cost $100 to $150. A hand pump filter will take less time, but requires more work as you’ll need to manually pump to run water through the intake tube, into the filter, and through the output tube into your water container (generally speaking). These filters can cost anywhere from $100 to $400.

There are variations on filters, such as straws that allow you to drink directly from a water source or squeeze filters.

Filters do require some maintenance. They will need to be cleaned after a given number of liters of water.

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(Video) Thru Hiker/Backpacking Tip: how much water to carry? Plus a scoop. Plus real example of calculation
4 Ways Of Treating Water In the Backcountry To Make It Safe To Drink (4)

How to collect water

Once you know how you’re going to treat your water, there are some guidelines on where to collect that water from. Obviously standing pools of water are a no-no. Stagnant water is a breeding ground for all the things you don’t want to put in your body. You also want to avoid bodies of water that are close to grazing animals or other campsites.

Flowing water is the ideal situation. Try to get it from a higher elevation, or closer to the water’s source. Be sure to use a clean container and remember to wash your hands before collecting water. If you have to collect water from a lake, try to do so away from shore and collect from the top couple of inches of the water body.

Best practices

When it comes to cleaning your water in the backcountry, common sense prevails. If you’re worried about your water source, try to find another one. If that isn’t possible, you can always combine a couple of the above techniques to ensure your water is safe. It’s always best to start with the cleanest water possible; allow silty water to settle in a pot before pumping or treating.

FAQs

What are the 4 main processes of treating water? ›

Water treatment steps
  • Coagulation. Coagulation is often the first step in water treatment. ...
  • Flocculation. Flocculation follows the coagulation step. ...
  • Sedimentation. Sedimentation is one of the steps water treatment plants use to separate out solids from the water. ...
  • Filtration. ...
  • Disinfection.

How do you treat water in the backcountry? ›

Boiling can be used as a pathogen reduction method that should kill all pathogens. Water should be brought to a rolling boil for 1 minute. At altitudes greater than 6,562 feet (greater than 2000 meters), you should boil water for 3 minutes.

What are the 3 ways to make drinking water safe? ›

Three Ways To Purify Water
  • Boiling. Bring the water to a rolling boil for 3-5 minutes. Let cool before drinking.
  • Disinfect. You can use household liquid bleach (regular household bleach contains 5.25% sodium hypochlorite) to kill microorganisms. ...
  • Distillation. Fill a pot halfway with water.

How do I make sure water is safe to drink in the wild? ›

The simplest method to purify water is probably boiling. You need to bring the water to a full, rolling boil for at least five minutes to be safe, with some experts recommending an even longer time. The downside to boiling your drinking water is that it removes the oxygen and the water ends up tasting flat.

What are the 5 steps of water treatment? ›

The 5 major unit processes include chemical coagulation, flocculation, sedimentation, filtration, and disinfection (described below). There are chemicals added to the water as it enters the various treatment processes.

What are the methods of treating water? ›

Top 7 Methods of Water Treatment
  • Coagulation / Flocculation. Coagulation is adding liquid aluminum sulfate or alum and/or polymer to raw or untreated water. ...
  • Sedimentation. When water and flocs undergo the treatment process, they go into sedimentation basins. ...
  • Filtration. ...
  • Disinfection. ...
  • Sludge Drying. ...
  • Fluoridation. ...
  • pH Correction.
Nov 7, 2015

How do you treat water trails? ›

Luckily, there are now many simple and convenient ways to purify water obtained along the trail when you're out for a nice hike. You can choose from chemical treatment (iodine or chlorine), filtration, ultraviolet light, or boiling. Each of these methods is very effective when used properly.

How do you purify water in the forest? ›

How to GET CLEAN WATER! The Forest Beginner's Guide - YouTube

How can we make water safe for drinking class 8? ›

Answer: Filtration, boiling, and chlorination are some ways to make water safe to drink. Explanation: Filtration is a process where there is a removal of bacteria and unwanted particles for example dust or fine pieces of rocks or dirt.

How do you purify water for drinking? ›

If you don't have safe bottled water, you should boil your water to make it safe to drink. Boiling is the surest method to kill disease-causing germs, including viruses, bacteria, and parasites. adding a pinch of salt for each quart or liter of boiled water.

How do you make mountain water safe to drink? ›

If you're at an elevation over 6,500 feet, bring the water to a rolling boil for 3 minutes.
  1. Your water is now ready for drinking! ...
  2. Disinfection happens when a chemical or UV light is added to water to kill bacteria, viruses, and other potentially harmful organisms.
Aug 10, 2020

Videos

1. HOW TO Choose a WATER SOURCE in the Backcountry | How To Filter Water Backpacking
(Wandering Switchback)
2. Backcountry Water Treatment, Part 1: Boiling vs Pasteurization
(GearSkeptic)
3. How To Get Drinking Water While Backpacking In Cold Winter Conditions
(Mike In The Woods)
4. Backcountry Water Treatment, Part 2: Chemical Disinfection
(GearSkeptic)
5. Turning muddy water into drinking water
(dogofthedesert)
6. ✅ Top 5: Best Water Filter For Hiking On Amazon in 2020
(Rating ARK Gadgets)

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