The Best Ways to Purify Water in the Backcountry

By Peter Brandon
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The Best Ways to Purify Water in the Backcountry

Peter Brandon
 
 
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If there’s one thing everyone needs on a multi-day adventure into the backcountry, it is access to clean water.  Even when you think you’re in the most remote, untouched areas, water sources can still be contaminated with dangerous parasites and viruses that can be fatal, especially if you’re miles from help.

Luckily, in the past few years there have been huge advances in the way of water purification technology, and it’s now easier than ever to purify your water. Continue reading to learn about all the best ways to purify water and decide which method best fits your needs.

 

Even the most beautiful water sources could still contain dangerous bacteria and viruses.
Even the most beautiful water sources could still contain dangerous bacteria and viruses.

 

Boil it

The most time-tested and effective way to purify water is to simply boil it. The EPA says if you bring water to a rolling boil for at least one minute you’ll be able to kill all viruses, bacteria, and protozoa as they simply can’t survive at those temperatures.

 

Boiling water can be a good method if you are car camping and have plenty of time and fuel available, but in the backcountry, boiling isn’t always the most feasible method because you need to try to conserve your precious fuel for cooking.

Additionally, most lightweight cooking sets don’t have a pot large enough to hold a sufficient amount of water, so you’ll find yourself going through the boiling process multiple times to get enough water. Remember, too, that water boils at lower temperatures when you’re at high altitudes. To combat this, you’ll need to boil the water longer to help ensure you’ve killed any biological contaminants.

 

 

One situation where boiling water is a particularly good method is when it’s cold out. You can put the boiled water in your water bottle and store it in your sleeping bag with you when you go to bed. It will help to keep you warm throughout the night!

Use Iodine Droplets

Using iodine droplets, or tablets, to purify your water is a simple and time-tested solution. You’ll generally purchase two separate vials, one containing iodine, which kills the bacteria and viruses, and another which is a neutralizer, which helps to get rid of any iodine color and taste that may remain in the water.

The purification process takes around 30 minutes, so this method isn’t always great if you’re really thirsty, or you need large quantities of water for cooking. It is, however, a relatively simple and lightweight solution.

Purification Tablets

Another method for purifying your water is using pre-packaged purification tablets. The active ingredient for these tablets varies, but a common one is “Sodium Dichloroisocyanurate”.  All purification tablets work similarly to iodine, in that by adding the chemical in the tablet to your water you kill any bacteria or viruses that might be floating around in there.

Purification tablets are simple and easy, but as with the Iodine method, you have to wait a bit before you can drink the water once you add the tablet.

 

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UV Light

One recent addition to water purification technology is a product known as the “SteriPEN”, which uses UV light to kill 99.9% of viruses, bacteria, and protozoa.  The basic process for purifying water with a UV light is to fill up a bottle with contaminated water, turn on the “SteriPEN” or other UV purification device, and then place it in your water and stir it around, exposing all of your water to the light.

UV purification devices are great because they are easy to use, and you can drink the water immediately after treatment. The one drawback is that they do require batteries, so if you’re going on an extended trip, you may need to carry some spare batteries along the way.

 

Not a bad place to sit and purify some water.
Not a bad place to sit and purify some water.

Water Filters

The one huge drawback to boiling, iodine, tablet, and UV light purification methods is that they don’t do anything to clear up silt and sediment that may come from a dirty and muddy water source, which are quite common in the backcountry.  Some people have made screens and filters to help trap sand and mud and keep it out of their water bottles, but this isn’t always practical or effective.

 

Enter the world of filter purification systems.  Encompassing a wide range of different products, all from different brands, the filter purification systems make use of porous filters with extremely small orifices to literally screen out not only sand and mud, but also 99.9% of bacteria and protozoa from your water. While most filters aren’t able to filter out viruses, some do, so make sure to check before you buy your filter what it’s able to screen out.

While all filter purification devices are similar in the way that they make your water safe to drink, there are tons of different styles and designs to choose from.

 

 

My personal favorite is the Sawyer Squeeze. It’s extremely small, light, and simple, and you don’t have to deal with any pumps and moving parts, or long tubes and hoses. With the Sawyer, you just fill up the included pouch, screw on the filter, and squeeze the pouch to force water through the filter to purify it. It’s quick, easy, and effective.

Other filters feature hand pumps, and long tubes that extend into the water source. These used to be the norm, but are slowly being taken over by simpler systems like the Sawyer Squeeze. Too often the filters with moving parts would break, leaving hikers thirsty and frustrated in the woods.

One major drawback to filter based systems is that if they freeze, the ice crystals essentially ruin the filter. For this reason, they’re tricky to use in the winter because you have to always worry about trying to keep it warm.  However, for three season use, water filters are a popular choice among all types of outdoor adventurers.

 

Each of these 5 types of water purification methods have their own pros and cons. Think about your water needs in the backcountry and see which one works for you!

Alternatively, as many others do, consider using one primary method, such as filtering, and keep a few tablets, or iodine droplets as a backup.  That way if something goes wrong with your filter you can always fall back on the tablets or droplets to get you through a few days until you can make it back to clean water sources.

 

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