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How to purify water for drinking while hiking

30 June 2023

Water is essential for life, and when you're out in nature, finding a reliable source of clean water can be challenging. Whether you're on a day hike or a multi-day backpacking trip, it's essential to stay hydrated to avoid dehydration and other health issues. But how can you make sure the water you're drinking is safe? In this article, we'll cover some effective methods for purifying water in the wilderness, so you can quench your thirst without worrying about harmful contaminants.

Why do you need to purify water in the wild?

Drinking untreated water can lead to various health problems, including gastrointestinal issues and waterborne diseases. Here are some common problems with un-purified water taken from natural sources:

Microorganisms: Untreated water can contain harmful bacteria, viruses, and protozoa that can cause various illnesses, such as diarrhoea, cramping, and fever.

Parasites: Untreated water can contain parasites like tapeworms, roundworms, and flatworms that can cause various health problems ranging from nausea and vomiting to more severe complications.

Chemical Contaminants: Water sources can be contaminated with chemicals, such as pesticides and chemical fertilisers. Consuming such contaminated water can lead to poisoning and severe health problems.

Sediments and Debris: Natural water sources like rivers and streams may contain sediments and debris, including mud, sand, and silt, making the water taste and smell unpleasant.

Different purification methods

Boiling water

Boiling water is one of the easiest and most effective ways to purify water in the wild. To purify water by boiling, follow these steps:

Fill a pot or container with water from a clean source. 

Place the pot over a heat source, such as a campfire or stove. 

Bring the water to a rolling boil. 

Let the water boil for at least 1 minute (3 minutes if you are above 6,562 feet or 2,000 meters). 

Remove the pot from the heat and let the water cool before drinking. 

Boiling water can kill most pathogens, including bacteria, viruses, and parasites. However, it does not remove any sediment or chemicals that may be present in the water. If you're concerned about sediment or chemicals, filter the water before boiling it. 

Chemical water treatment 

Chemical water treatments are another effective and convenient way to purify water in the wild. 

Chlorine-based treatments: These typically come in tablet or liquid form and are added to the water to kill bacteria and viruses. Always read the instructions carefully and allow the water to sit for the specified time to ensure it is appropriately disinfected.  

Lodine-based treatments: These work similarly to chlorine-based treatments and are also available in tablet or liquid form. The iodine kills bacteria and viruses but does not affect chemicals or sediments. Like with chlorine-based treatments, following the instructions and letting the water sit for a specified amount of time is important.  

It's important to note that chemical treatments may not be effective against all types of contaminants, such as parasites or heavy metals. Additionally, some people may be sensitive to the taste or odour of treated water, so it's a good idea to test the treatment on a small amount of water before treating a larger quantity. 

Water filters 

There are also a lot of different water filters and purifiers on the market that can help you purify water for drinking on your hiking or camping trip. They work by physically straining out impurities from the water. Most water filters use a combination of materials like ceramic, charcoal, and mesh screens to remove particles and contaminants from the water.  

Pump Filters: These filters work by physically pumping water through a filter to remove bacteria, protozoa, and sediment. Some pump filters also include a carbon filter to remove chemicals and improve the taste of the water.  

Gravity Filters: These filters work by using gravity to pull water through a filter element, usually made of ceramic or fibre. Gravity filters can be slower than pump filters but are lightweight and easy to use. 

Straw Filters: These are small and portable filters with which you can drink directly from a water source through a straw. They typically use a physical filtration system to remove bacteria and parasites from the water. 

Water filters are effective against various types of bacteria and parasites, improve the taste of water, and are reusable. However, they may not work against viruses, may clog and require frequent cleaning, and can be heavy and take up space in a backpack. Additionally, water filters may not work well in frigid temperatures. 

UV water treatment 

UV treatments are an effective way to purify water in the wild. UV light disrupts the DNA of microorganisms, killing bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens. To use a UV purifier, fill a clean container with water and turn on the device. Slowly move the wand or device around the water, ensuring that all parts of the container are exposed to the light. After a few minutes, the water should be safe to drink. However, UV treatments may not remove sediments or improve the taste of water, and the device may require batteries to operate.