How to Purify and Treat Water While Camping

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Whether you’re heading out on a week-long backpacking trip in Glacier National Park or an overnight adventure in the Adirondacks, having a system in place to purify and treat water while outside is essential.

In this article, we’ll discuss why you ought to treat your water while camping, and we’ll offer up 4 ways to purify water in the great outdoors.

Let’s get started.

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How to find reliable water sources

Before we dive into our discussion on treating water while camping, let’s first talk a bit about how you should go about finding reliable water sources in the mountains. 

Although every situation is unique, here are a few general water procurement tips to keep in mind :

  • Check your map. Always check your map for guidance on where your nearest water source might actually be. Of course, maps and GPS hiking watches can be wrong, so don’t rely solely on this information. This is especially true if you’re in an area with seasonal water sources, like Rocky Mountain National Park. But, most maps are fairly accurate when it comes to the location of major lakes, rivers, and streams.
  • Opt for moving water. Once you find some potential water sources on your map or as you hike, it’s time to decide which one is best for your drinking water. As a general rule, moving water is better than still water because insects and pathogens like to hang out in stagnant pools and puddles. So, whenever possible, opt to collect water from a river or stream, rather than a lake.
  • Avoid water in livestock areas. In some parts of the world, such as near Yellowstone National Park, livestock grazes near our hiking areas. In these situations, you’ll want to avoid drinking water from livestock grazing areas whenever possible. Animal feces can easily infect water supplies, so it’s best to avoid these water sources if a suitable alternative is available.
  • Head to higher elevations. Higher elevation alpine areas tend to be at a lower risk for waterborne illnesses because fewer animals and humans make their way to these locales. As a result, alpine lakes and streams tend to be the cleanest water around, but you should still treat this water before you drink it.

Why treat the water before drinking?

If you’re hiking in a hot, arid environment, like Grand Canyon National Park, you may be tempted to start drinking water as soon as you collect it from a water source.

However, it’s important that you take the time to treat your water before drinking it during your camping trips. 

Here are 3 reasons why you should always treat your water while outside :

  • Prevent illness. Although that alpine lake in Olympic National Park might look clean, there’s a high chance that it harbors pathogens that can make you sick. In fact, the CDC recommends that you treat all water while camping to protect yourself from waterborne illnesses.
  • Improve taste. Purification can also improve the taste of your water. In situations where your water source has a funky taste or odor, chemical-based treatment systems can make your water-drinking experience a bit more enjoyable.
  • Remove sediment. If you’re traveling in areas with silty water, some treatment systems can help remove this sediment from your water before you drink it. Indeed, filter-style treatment systems can help clean your water out to ensure that you ingest only pure water during your trip.

Common types of waterborne threats

As we’ve mentioned, preventing illness is one of the major reasons to treat your water while camping and hiking. In particular, there are 3 types of waterborne threats that you ought to be aware of. These include:

  • Bacteria. These tiny microorganisms are found in water sources around the world. Bacteria, such as E. coli, campylobacter, cholera, and salmonella, can cause serious gastrointestinal distress on the trail.
  • Protozoa. In North America and much of Europe, protozoa are the primary type of waterborne illness in the mountains. These relatively large microorganisms include giardia and cryptosporidium, both of which can cause gastrointestinal issues.
  • Viruses. The smallest of the waterborne threats, viruses are tiny pathogens that cause diseases like norovirus and hepatitis A. While not as common in North America or Europe as they are in parts of South America, Asia, and Africa, these viruses can wreak serious havoc on your body.

Water treatment methods

Now that you know why you should purify and treat your water while outside, let’s discuss 4 reliable ways to do so on your adventures.

Pump filter

The first method on our list, the pump filter, is a classic choice for a range of camping adventures.

Pump filters, as the name suggests, are designed to remove dangerous pathogens from your water by pumping them through a filter. 

To use this method, you’ll do the following :

  1. Place the intake valve of the pump in your water source.
  2. Place the outflow valve of the pump in your water bottle.
  3. Use the pump mechanism to pull water out of your water source and force it through the filter.
  4. Continue pumping until your water bottle is full of water.

The primary benefit of using a pump filter is that it can remove bacteria, protozoa, and sediment from your water.

However, pump filters tend to be heavy, and they require regular cleaning. With very few exceptions, pump filters also aren’t capable of removing tiny viruses from your water, which might be a concern in certain parts of the world. 

So, this is worth bearing in mind before buying a pump filter.

Chemical treatment

Your next water purification option is to use a chemical treatment solution. These solutions are either iodine or chlorine dioxide-based, depending on the specific model that you buy.

To use chemical treatments, it’s imperative that you follow the manufacturer’s instructions. While each treatment is different, most follow some basic principles, including :

  1. Fill up your water bottle with water.
  2. Add the correct number of drops or iodine tablets to your water, as per the manufacturer’s instructions.
  3. Wait 5 to 20 minutes (based on the manufacturer’s instructions) before drinking your water to give the chemicals enough time to kill off any pathogens.

Chemical treatments can be a great option for more remote adventures because they tend to be lightweight and highly portable. They’re also generally capable of killing bacteria, protozoa, and viruses, but this varies from model to model.

The downside is that chemical treatments can get pricey over time. They’re also not suitable for people with iodine or chlorine dioxide allergies. Furthermore, not everyone likes the taste of chemical treatments, so it’s good to try this method out on a short trip before packing it on an extended adventure.

UV sterilization

One of the newest water treatment options on the market, UV sterilization systems is a popular choice for folks that prioritize convenience in their camping gear. These UV systems are normally shaped like small flashlights that emit a UV light to kill off any pathogens.

To use a UV sterilization system, you’ll need to follow the manufacturer’s instructions. However, most models require the following :

  1. Fill your water bottle with water.
  2. Place the UV light in your water and turn it on.
  3. Swish the light around in the water for 60 seconds.
  4. Turn the light off and enjoy your water.

As you can see, the benefit of UV sterilization is its convenience. This system also tends to be very lightweight and portable. However, it is expensive. Furthermore, UV sterilization requires electronic devices, which can break or run out of battery.

Boiling

Last but not least, we have the old-fashioned method of water treatment: boiling.

Boiling water is a reliable, nearly foolproof method of eliminating dangerous pathogens from your water. To use this method, you’ll need a camping stove and some fuel. Then, do the following:

  1. Gather water in your camping cookware pot.
  2. Place the pot on your stove and bring the water to a rolling boil.
  3. Boil your water for at least 1 minute.
  4. Wait for the water to cool down before consuming.

The boiling water method can kill off nearly all pathogens without the need for any fancy gear. But, we should note that this method does use a lot of camping fuel. Therefore, it’s not an ideal choice if you’re running low on fuel during your travels.

Gaby Pilson

Gaby is a professional mountain guide with a master’s degree in outdoor education. She works primarily in the polar regions as an expedition guide, though she can be found hiking, climbing, skiing, sailing, or paddling in some of the world’s most amazing places when not at work.