Nothing beats hydrating on a grueling backpacking trail after a steep hill climb. Nevertheless, getting access to water and drinkable water can be more difficult.
In the backcountry, water sources may contain harmful bacteria, chemical pollutants, and parasites. These contaminants can cause illnesses like diarrhea, vomiting, and fever. In severe cases, drinking contaminated water can be life-threatening. Therefore, purifying water is crucial to remove these contaminants and make the water safe to drink.
In this article, we'll take a look at four effective ways to purify water while backpacking covering the below points:
- Types of Contaminants
- 4 Ways to Purify Water
- Tips and Best Practices
Types of Contaminants in the Wilderness
Before we discuss the methods for purifying water, it's important to understand what kind of contaminants may be present in the water you'll be drinking.
Some of the most common contaminants found in outdoor water sources include:
Bacteria may seem scary, but they are not all harmful. In fact, our stomachs rely on bacteria to help digest our food.
However, some bacteria found in backcountry water sources can be harmful and cause a range of digestive issues. These include bacteria such as Dysentery, E.coli, Salmonella, Shigella, and Campylobacter, which can be present in streams and lakes.
Thankfully, the good news is that these harmful bacteria can be effectively removed by boiling and using most water filters.
Parasites are just as concerning as bacteria. Some common parasites in streams and lakes are Giardia, Cryptosporidium, and Entamoeba. They can cause severe digestive issues such as diarrhea, stomach cramps, and nausea.
It is difficult to get rid of these microscopic parasites, so multiple water purification methods are often better. You can successfully eliminate parasites from your drinking water by boiling, using a water filter, or using water treatment pills.
Chemical contaminants, such as heavy metals, herbicides, and industrial waste, can be much more concerning to outdoor enthusiasts than bacteria or parasites. These contaminants have the potential to result in more severe health issues like cancer, neurological diseases, liver and kidney damage, and more.
The good news is that this pollution is often visible to the human eye. These water sources will have a foul odor, poor water visibility, or a rainbow oil residue. If in doubt stay away from any water source that you suspect could be contaminated.
If you can't find water sources free of chemical pollution, you still have options. Chemical treatment tablets and activated carbon filters can both be used to eliminate chemical contaminants. Before your backpacking trip, You should do thorough planning for the trip, knowing the quality and availability of water sources. Preparation is your best friend in this case.
Note: It's important to remember that boiling water alone is not enough to remove chemical pollutants.
Natural water sources frequently contain suspended particles, such as silt, sand, soil, and various small amounts of organic and inorganic debris. Even though suspended particles normally do not pose a health risk, they can taint water's flavor and aroma and clog water filters and purifiers.
Removing suspended particles from water requires filters with fine mesh screens or sedimentation techniques (Sedimentation techniques involve allowing the water to settle in a container so that the heavier particles settle to the bottom, leaving the clearer water on top).
In summary, to ensure your drinking water is free of contaminants, it's essential to take the necessary precautions before your trip. By using the right tools and treatment methods, you can effectively purify your water and stay hydrated and healthy while outdoors.
4 Ways to Purify Water
Now that we understand what kind of contaminants may be present in water sources, let's look at the 4 most effective ways to purify water in the backcountry.
Boiling Your Water
Even though there have been significant advancements in water purification techniques, boiling water remains the most effective method to make your water safe to drink.
For proper purification, you should boil the water for a minimum of one minute. If you're at an altitude higher than 6,562 feet, it's necessary to boil the water for three minutes to kill bacteria or parasites that may be present.
To boil your water, you will need a heat source and a pot or cup. For backpackers and hikers who prioritize minimal gear, a lightweight camping stove and a titanium cup are great options.
The best choice that the entire SilverAnt team agrees with is a 26oz/750ml titanium cup and a micro canister stove. 26oz/750ml titanium cups are large enough to boil water, nest your stove, and fuel canister well. Additionally, canister stoves are portable, effective, and can boil water in less than four minutes.
Using A Filter
Using a filter is another convenient and effective way to purify water. Below are the different varieties of popular water filters:
Pump filters are a popular option for backcountry travelers as they can be fast, efficient, and suitable for both individual and group use. The pump filter consists of a hand-held pump, a filter, and tubes.
When using the pump filter, you insert the "dirty" tube into the water source and pump water through the filter, and out the "clean" tube using the hand-held pump. The majority of pump filters function as filters, but some, like the MSR Guardian Purifier also purifies the water.
The speed and convenience of pump filters make them a great choice for backpacking trips. If you constantly pump, you may filter up to 1.5 liters per minute, which is a great amount of water!
However, pumping can be tiring and the pump filter can be clunky, as it has many parts and attachments that can make it complicated to set up.
Squeeze filters are smaller and easier to use, compared with pump filters. Pioneered by the brand Sawyer, a squeeze filter system consists of a bag, a compact filter unit, and your mouth (or a water bottle/cup).
To use it, simply fill up the bag with dirty water, screw it onto one end of the filter, and squeeze the water through the filter into your water bottle or your cup.
Although squeeze filters are simple to use and lightweight, they do have some limitations. They can get clogged more often than other filters, and they are not ideal for larger groups.
Water Bottle Filters
For people who are constantly on the road, water bottle filters are a practical choice. They filter the water as you drink it and are attached to the inside of a water bottle. Similar to squeeze filters, but in the shape of a water bottle.
Water bottle filters are a combination of filtration and purification and it is important to know which kind you are getting. The main advantage of these filters is their ease of use as you likely already carry a water bottle with you. And with a water bottle filter, you can have clean drinking water anywhere you go. Just fill up the bottle and drink.
Filtering your water is a great way to get quick access to clean drinking water without the need to wait for it to cool.
However, it's crucial to research thoroughly the water filter that best meets your needs before making a purchase.
Using tablets is the most straightforward technique to cleanse your water. Simply dissolve a tablet whole into your water, and then wait about 30 minutes. You can easily make a cup of drinkable water without the need for a heater or a filter.
Even if the tablets give the water an unpleasant taste or odor, the tablets do kill bacteria, parasites, and eliminate chemical pollutants.
Always carrying a supply of tablets for purifying water with you is highly recommended. They can act as a backup for other water purification systems in case they break down. Even though you need to wait around 30 minutes before drinking, that is still preferable to having no water.
Ultraviolet Light Devices
The final method is a newer but growing option: Ultraviolet light purification. They use UV light to kill bacteria, parasites, and other pathogens in the water.
The process is simple to use and rapid, requiring only 60 seconds to purify an 8 oz. (236 ml) water bottle. It's crazy that you can get a bottle of water so quickly!
However, there are a few downsides to UV purification, including the need for batteries and the risk of malfunction due to a low charge or a faulty unit. Furthermore, you should always carry spare batteries.
Additionally, UV purifiers do not filter anything, so the water you drink is the water you treat. If the water has a lot of sediment in it, it will taste worse and take longer to treat.
Each method has its own advantages and disadvantages, and the best option will depend on your individual needs, such as the type of trip, the water source, and the amount of water you need.
Tips and Best Practices
Regardless of the method you choose, there are several guidelines and recommended practices to bear in mind:
Use A Tablet and Boil Water Together
As previously mentioned, boiling water alone may not eliminate chemical pollutants. To ensure that the water is safe for drinking after boiling, use water treatment tablets in addition to boiling the water. This will help kill any bacteria and eliminate any chemical pollutants present.
Replace Filter Cartridge Regularly
Regular replacement of the filter cartridge is essential if you use your water filter frequently or if the water on your trip is known to contain high levels of impurities. With time, a filter cartridge, especially ceramic or mesh, can become clogged with silt or sand easily, making it less effective at removing contaminants from the water.
By replacing the filter cartridge regularly, you can ensure that the water filter continues to provide clean and safe drinking water.
Check Batteries on UV Devices
Before setting out, ensure that the batteries of your UV light device is functioning. A dead battery renders the device useless and will leave you without a means of purifying your water.
Listen to Your Intuition
Lastly, it's important to trust your instincts when it comes to identifying questionable water sources. If a water source appears or smells suspicious, it's best to avoid it. In such cases, it's preferable to err on the side of caution and find a different water source.
By following these guidelines and recommended practices, you can safely and effectively purify your water, stay hydrated, and maintain good health while in the wilderness.
Purifying water is a crucial part of backpacking in the wilderness no matter where you go.
Your purification methods can change according to the water sources along your journey. If the sources, such as rivers, streams, and lakes, are pure and clean, just boil the water or use a UV light. If you need to filter water from less reliable sources, such as springs or wells, you must use a filter and safety purification tablets.
If you have enough space, you can even combine different options. Simply pick the approach(es) that you feel most comfortable with.
So which way do you prefer to purify water while backpacking? Tell us in the comment below.
To your next adventure!