Want to know how to purify water when backpacking and spending time in the wild? Then read this guide to wild camping water purification.
One of the most important aspects of prepping for a backpacking or wild camping trip is planning what to eat. But even more important is knowing how you’ll get the water you will need.
Wild camping water purification
Water is heavy and you need to drink plenty of it. How much you need depends on what you are doing and how hot it is. Your body needs two litres a day without being active or in hot conditions.
When hiking it is recommended you drink a litre every two hours. On a day hike most people hydrate before and after so they only carry around two to three litres. But if you are on a multi-day trek with camping in the wild you are going to need a lot more water than you can carry.
So if you are heading out into the wilderness you need a method of getting clean water. The easiest way to do this is to filter water from a lake or stream using personal water filters – but is that 100% safe?
Today we will look at how to purify water when backpacking and wild camping. There are a few different methods offering different advantages, to ensure your water is safe to drink.
Why is water purification important?
Do a little research on the pathogens you can find in water and you won’t want to drink it without purifying first! You can find all kinds of nasty stuff in natural sources of water with virus, bacteria and protozoa the most common. You can also pick up a parasite or consume toxins.
The World Health Organization breaks down the potential pathogens you can find in untreated water below:
- Bacteria, viruses, protozoa and helminths with the exception of Schistosoma.
- Potentially emerging pathogens, including Helicobacter pylori, Tsukamurella, Isospora belli and microsporidia, for which waterborne transmission is plausible but unconfirmed.
- Bacillus, which includes the foodborne pathogenic species Bacillus cereus for which there is no evidence at this time of waterborne transmission.
- Hazardous cyanobacteria.
It is important to remember how lucky we are to have clean drinking water from a tap. Around 3.4 million people die every year around the world due to drinking contaminated water. There are various charities working to stop this, check out Wateraid if you would like to help.
Can’t I just filter the water?
When heading out into the wild you should always have a personal water filter such as those made by Lifestraw and Sawyer. Be prepared for something unpredictable by putting one in your backpack. Then if you get stuck out in the wilderness you have a back up plan.
But why not just use a water filter? Very simply although the filters by the above brands will stop 99.9% (or more) of bacteria and protozoa they cannot filter viruses. Viruses are just too small to be stopped by filtration so they need to be removed another way.
Having said that filters so an amazing job of cleaning water. They not only make it more palatable but far safer to drink in an emergency situation. Any water source – even free flowing – can contain a virus but they are less common than the other pathogens.
What happens if I drink untreated water?
Often nothing. You could get lucky quite a few times before you ingest something you shouldn’t. But you could get seriously ill from drinking water that has not been purified.
There are several serious diseases you can get from untreated water sources. These include Hepatitis A and Escherichia coli (E. coli).
But the most common problem is sickness and diarrhea. This is usually caused by the two most common internal parasites cryptosporidiosis and giardiasis. Diarrhea, may initially seem like just an inconvenience, but if not treated it can lead to death, primarily due to dehydration.
How to purify water when backpacking
Below you will find some easy ways that you can purify water when you are hiking, wild camping or backpacking into the wild. Most of these techniques are easy to do and don’t require much effort.
Although you can’t always be 100% sure, boiling water will get you pretty close. Most of the organisms that will make you sick can’t survive at 100°C (212°F). In fact they actually can’t survive past 71°C 160 (160°F) for more than 30 minutes.
If you’re backpacking out in the wilderness, fill up from a lake or stream and take it back to your campsite to boil. You need at least one minute of vigorous boiling to make it safe to drink or use in cooking.
Just remember whatever you carried the unboiled water in could still be contaminated. But if considering how to purify water when backpacking this is the go to method for most people.
Iodine tablets (and other chemicals)
Iodine tablets are one of the easiest ways to make sure that your water is safe to drink. All you need to do is drop them into the water, close the lid loosely and wait about five minutes.
After five minutes, shake your water bottle vigorously and then close the lid as tight as possible. Let it stand for 30-35 minutes and it is safe to drink. This is how to purify water when backpacking if you will not be able to boil it.
There are also chlorine tablets and other chemical options that work in a similar way. I have always found chemical cleaning to leave a horrible taste, but I generally have some tablets in my back just in case.
Ultraviolet (UV) light is one of the most effective ways to purify your water. UV rays annihilate the DNA of pathogens and is an effective way of stopping microorganisms from reproducing.
There are essentially two different devices on the market that you can use for wild camping water purification. There is battery powered – remember to pack spares – or hand cranked UV sterilization systems.
You simply fill up your water bottle or container with water from the lake or stream. Shine the UV light on the water for the prescribed amount of time for that device. Usually in under a minute the water is safe to drink.
One of the more popular models was the SteriPEN Sidewinder Water Purifier. Unfortunately it seems like Katadyn who own SteriPEN no longer make that model. But the SteriPEN Adventure Opti looks like a great option.
You need to be careful with UV light purifying methods if the water is cloudy. Particles and discoloration stop the UV light and allow pathogens to escape the treatment. So filter the water first to make it clearer.
Solar Disinfection (SODIS)
Fortunately we also have a natural source of UV we can utilise. Solar disinfection (SODIS) was developed in the 1980s to disinfect water simply and for free.
It has primarily been used to help developing countries gain access to safe drinking water. SODIS has been very effective at improving drinking water by reducing viruses, bacteria, and protozoa.
Very simply you sit clear plastic reusable bottles out in the sun using natural UV to kill any pesky pathogens. Ideally you want to use long thin bottles as UV only penetrates water by about 10 cm (4 inches).
Fill them almost to the top but leave about 3-4 cm (1 inch) gap. Then give the bottle a vigorous shake to get as much oxygen into the water as possible. Finally leave it in the sun for four to eight hours – how long depends on how sunny it is.
If you don’t get enough sun in one day leave it for another day. The longer you leave the water the more chance all the pathogens will have been destroyed. This is an easy method of wild camping water purification.
Again dirty water can hide the pathogens so it is always good to filter it first. This will also remove particulate matter and improve the taste. If you don’t have one of the filters mentioned above then a piece of cloth will do to get rid of most of the dirt and floaties.
Distilled water is liquid that has been boiled into vapor and then condensed back to into water in a separate container. Distilling water will kill pathogens, leave particulate matter behind and remove heavy metals, salts, most chemicals and toxins. You can even distill urine.
If you have a filter there is no need to distill water unless it contains chemicals, salts, heavy metals or other contaminants a filter won’t remove. There are several methods that you can use to distill water in the wild using the sun and clear plastic bottles.
How do I purify water when wild camping?
Living close to Yosemite National Park allows me to go backpacking into the wilderness. I always take either my Sawyer or Lifestraw water filtration device and my Jetboil. That way I can quickly filter water to make it clean and then boil it just in case there it contains any viruses.
This article was a team effort. The research and first draft was by Lisa Vargos. Luke Rees then adapted it to fit the AWE365 style. Luke also added more details and some tips of his own.
Lisa grew up on a small cattle ranch in Madera, California. She runs a prepping and survival blog in which she shares her passion for the lifestyle.
Based two hours from Yosemite National Park, Lisa grew up camping, fishing, hunting, and hiking. When not writing about her outdoor survival passions, you can find her working out at her crossfit gym, walking her two dogs, camping, fishing, or hiking somewhere in the mountains
I hope this article has answered how to purify water when backpacking. Let us know in the comments if you have different methods for wild camping water purification! Be sure to check out our hiking discounts as you could save a fortune on your next trip.