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How to purify water in the wild: 6 methods to help you avoid tummy troubles on the trail

woman taking water from a lake
Learning how to purify water in the wild could save you a trip to the hospital or spending a week or so never further than 10 feet from the nearest crapper (!) (Image credit: Getty)

When we’re out adventuring in the wilds, the bodily fluids we lose through exertion and sweat are in constant need of replacing – at a rate, most authorities claim, of around one liter per two hours of hiking. However, getting enough safe, clean drinking water in the system (see our explainer, Water for hiking: how much do you need?) is often far from easy, particularly when our trails take us deep into the backcountry and replenishing our supplies of H2O requires taking it from wild sources like streams, lakes, creeks, or rivers. While these may look clean, clear, and harmless to the naked eye, within them there may lurk myriad microscopic mayhem-makers that could easily put paid to our plans for a fun, trouble-free trip. As such, learning how to purify water in the wild – and taking the time to do so – is of the utmost importance for any hiker keen to avoid a trip to hospital or a lengthy spell of time on the crapper.

In this post, we explain how to purify water in the wild in 6 different ways, from old-fashioned boiling right through to high-tech ultraviolet sterilization.

Why purifying water is important

Few things can ruin a hiking or backpacking trip in quite the same way as water-borne bacteria, protozoa, or viruses. The most common of these include:

Giardia and cryptosporidium Protozoa contained in human and animal feces that can cause extreme gastrointestinal illness (vomiting, diarrhea, and cramps). Both are widespread in most rural parts of the world.

Dysentery and amoebic dysentery These are also caused by protozoan parasites contained in human or animal feces. Symptoms include fever, bloody or mucous diarrhea, chills, and abdominal pain or discomfort. For a (slightly graphic) preview of what a few days with amoebic dysentery looks like, check out The Time I Died in Ladakh

Bacteria The most common water-borne bacterial diseases include shigella, E.Coli, salmonella, campylobacter, all of which can be fatal.

Viruses Hepatitis A, enterovirus, rotavirus, and norovirus are just a few of the water-borne viruses that might be caught by drinking from wild water sources. None of these are eliminated by water filtration systems, but can be eliminated by UV pens, boiling, and some purification tablets. 

water bottle and waterfall

Taking water straight from the source = not a great idea (Image credit: Getty)

How to purify water in the wild: 6 methods

Boiling

Boiling is one of the safest ways to purify drinking water taken from wild sources. The reason for this is that none of the pathogens commonly found in wild water can withstand temperatures of over 170 °F. Given that water boils at 212 at sea level and at around 200 °F at elevations of roughly 14,000 feet, boiling will safely eliminate any water-borne ill-doers when done properly.

As a general rule, you should aim to have your water on a bubbling, rolling boil for at least 2 minutes to make it safe for drinking.

Pros

Eliminates bacteria, protozoa, and even viruses

No separate kit required (if you’re camping)

Cons

You can only process very limited quantities of water at a time

Requires carrying a camping stove of some description

Time-consuming

Fuel consumption

Processed water is hot (ideal for cooking, not so much for drinking)

camping checklist

Boiling your water is the most effective - if not the most efficient - way of making your H2O safe to drink (Image credit: Getty)

Purification tablets

Chemical purification tablets are generally considered the ideal purification method for gram-counters and hikers or campers trying to keep pack size to a minimum. They weigh next to nothing and a blister pack of ten pills – which will treat up to 10 liters of water – takes up about as much space as your average stick of gum. The two most common chemical treatments are Iodine and Chlorine Dioxide. While the majority of tablets can effectively eliminate most microorganisms, bacteria, and viruses, iodine does not eliminate one of the most common water-borne nasties – Cryptosporidium – and both leave your water tasting very funky. 

Pros

Lightweight and packable

Easy to use

Cheap

Cons

Doesn’t filter our mud or silt

Leave a funky taste

Necessary to wait at least 30 minutes before drinking

Iodine can pose a health risk to pregnant women and those with thyroid conditions

Ultraviolet light sterilization pens 

Ultraviolet light purifiers use UV rays to neutralize bacteria, protozoa, and viruses. Most models are very easy to use – all you need to do is fill your water bottle (see: best hiking water bottles) and then stir the water with your purifier pen for 1-2 minutes, then you’ll have safe-to-drink H2O.  The only downside to UV purification is that the pens run on batteries, so you’ll need to keep these charged, and you may have to pre-filter your water to remove sediment.

Our top pick of pens is the SteriPEN Aqua UV Water Purifier.

Pros

Lightweight

Short processing time

Eliminate all pathogens and viruses

Cons

Require batteries

Easy to break

Water might need pre-filtering to remove sediment

Pricey

Sip/squeeze filters

Also known as “straw filters”, these are personal filtration systems that remove bacteria and protozoa via microscopic pores in the filter measuring as little as 0.2 microns. These devices are lightweight, cheap, and can also be used to drink directly from a water source or attached to your water bottle. On the downside, they do not eliminate viruses and are not an efficient means of processing large quantities of water. For more on these, check out Hydration packs vs water purification.

Pros

Inexpensive

Lightweight and packable

Cons

Don’t eliminate viruses

Cannot process enough water for a group/cooking

Lifestraw Filter

The Lifestraw Filter is one of the most popular sip filters on the market. (Image credit: Amazon)

Pump filters

Pump water filters are, essentially, sip/squeeze/straw filters with a pump attached that saves you having to suck the H2O through the filter. As such, they’re a far better option for processing larger quantities of water. As with most filters, pump-style models are effective in eliminating bacteria and protozoa, but only a few, high-end models will take care of viruses. The only downsides to pump filters are their lofty RRP, bulkiness, and need for frequent (and fiddly) maintenance.

The Katadyn Hiker Pro Microfilter is our pick of the bunch.

Pros

Quick processing

Removes sediment from the water

Provides clean water immediately

Cons

Relatively pricey

Filters can clog up

Filtering large quantities requires a bit of manual graft

Bulky

pump water filter

Pump water filters can process water more quickly than sip/straw filters (Image credit: Getty)

Gravity filters

Gravity filters are the ideal choice when basecamping or camping in large groups. As the name suggests, they work by using gravity to filter water from a large reservoir into a container below. The beauty of these types of filters is that they can process up to a liter of water per minute and allow you to kick back and relax in your camping chair while they do so. On the downside, gravity filters weigh a lot more than UV pens, purification tablets, and straws, and the filters can clog up in a hurry if the reservoir is filled with heavily sedimented water.

Our favorite gravity filter is the Katadyn Gravity Camp 6L Water Filter.

Pros

No pumping or stirring required

Very short wait time

Capable of processing large quantities of water

Cons

Require a tree branch or other support to hand the reservoir from

Quite heavy and bulky

Don’t eliminate viruses

Kieran Cunningham

Kieran Cunningham is Advnture's Editor. Kieran is a climber, mountaineer, and author who divides his time between the Italian Alps, the US, and his native Scotland.

He has climbed a handful of 6000ers in the Himalayas, 4000ers in the Alps, 14ers in the US, and loves nothing more than a good long-distance wander in the wilderness. He climbs when he should be writing, writes when he should be sleeping, has fun always.

Kieran is the author of 'Climbing the Walls', an exploration of the mental health benefits of climbing, mountaineering, and the great outdoors.

kieran.cunningham@futurenet.com