There are so many things to love about camping, from being surrounded by natural beauty to seeing wildlife and experiencing quiet and solitude. However, access to nature does come with a few precautions, especially regarding drinking water.
Although you may be spending time in a place that looks untouched, there’s no guarantee that the lakes and rivers hold pristine water. Because contaminated water can pose a serious health threat, it’s essential to have a means of purifying or treating it.
So the question is, how can you purify water while camping? The answer is, there are 11 ways to purify water while camping. Portable water filters, Filtering with carbon, filtering with iodine, filtering with bleach, filtering with chlorine dixode, liquid water purifying drops, water purifying tabs, solar distillation, ultraviolet purification, boiling, and specialty water purifying pumps.
It’s important to know how each of these methods work, so be sure to keep reading to find out.
Lifestraw Water Filtration Bottle for camping & hiking (Amazon Link)
Portable Water Filters
A great option for campers and backpackers is a portable water filter. Because water is heavy to carry with you, having something light to use allows access to clean drinking water no matter where you are.
Filters work by pumping water into a container where the filter strains out contaminants which are often microscopic and invisible to the naked eye. Each filter has a different pore size which determines what it will filter out of the water.
Pore size efficiency is measured in micrometers or microns for short, and a larger number means bigger openings. The smaller the micron rating, the better the filter will be. However, the flow rate is often decreased on filters with a smaller micron rating.
The following pore sizes will remove different kinds of contaminants:
- One micron or smaller: removes giardia and cryptosporidium, parasitic eggs and larvae
- Less than 0.4 microns: removes bacteria which usually range in size from 0.2 to 2 microns
In addition to a filter, some purifiers also utilize a chemical element such as carbon or iodine to destroy even more contaminants. Because carbon does have a limit on how much it can absorb before losing its effectiveness, make sure to replace this element in a timely manner as recommended by the manufacturer.
It is also only natural that a filter will eventually become clogged. This is not a bad thing because it means the filter is working properly.
If it becomes difficult to get water out, don’t force the pump or apply too much pressure or you will risk pushing all the microbes that have accumulated within the filter into your drinking water. To help the filter last longer and prevent clogs, remove as much sediment and organic debris as possible from the water before putting it through the filter.
Portable filters are becoming more affordable and innovations have made them lighter and more compact, making them perfect for camping. Filters are also very efficient because very little water is lost during the purification process.
Purchasing a Water Filter
Some things to consider when choosing a portable water filter include:
- Ease of use: the filter should be easy to hold and not overly complicated to use
- Weight: when camping or backpacking, look for a filter that is not too heavy
- Easy to clean: a filter will naturally clog which means it is working properly but it should also be easy to clean so it can be reused
- Flow rate: in order to effectively filter, the flow rate may be compromised so this is worth considering if you need water urgently
DIY Water Filter
It’s also possible to make your own filter using a piece of tubing and a small piece of wood. Using sapwood, the softer external layer of trees or green branches can help eliminate a lot of bacteria. However, it isn’t effective at killing viruses.
This is also a very slow method of water filtration so it may not be ideal in all circumstances.
Chemical Water Purification Methods
Several popular chemicals can be used to kill contaminants in the water and this method is quite easy, quick, and inexpensive. These usually come in the form of a tablet, crystal, or liquid that is dissolved in the water. The three most popular chemical methods are carbon, iodine, and chlorine.
- Filtering with Carbon
An activated charcoal carbon filter can get rid of pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals, and chlorine. It absorbs sediment and other pollutants while effectively improving the taste, odor, and clarity of the water.
Carbon is a porous material and, as the water passes through it, the particles are trapped. However, carbon does eventually lose its ability to absorb the contaminants and will need to be replaced.
On its own though, carbon cannot reduce the number of bacteria and microbes in the water so it is helpful to combine it with another filtration method for better purification. Depending on the micron size of the filter, carbon is effective in removing sediments such as sand, soil, and silt.
- Filtering with Iodine
Iodine can be used to kill microorganisms and living pathogens but will not remove toxic chemicals or certain parasites, fertilizers, or pesticides. It is also not effective against Cryptosporidium. It usually comes in tablets or as a liquid, making it lightweight and easy to carry.
If using liquid iodine, add 5 drops of 2% iodine per quart of water. The amount of iodine needed may vary depending on the strength of the iodine.
Tablets can expire and most iodine sources do have a shelf-life of approximately six months after they are opened. Always make sure to follow the manufacturer instructions to make sure your product has not expired.
Water treated with iodine needs to sit for a minimum of 30 minutes after the iodine has dissolved. If the water is still cloudy, you may need to add more iodine but be careful not to overdo it because it can be toxic.
Iodine also disperses slower in colder water so, depending on the temperature of the water, it may take longer to be effective.
The water will naturally change color and have a different flavor as well. However, you can then filter out the iodine using a carbon filter after the water has been purified.
One of the downsides to iodine is that it should not be used by those with thyroid disease or anyone who is allergic to it. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should also be cautious about their iodine intake as well.
- Filtering with Chlorine Bleach
Unscented household bleach can be used to treat water and kill germs and parasites. However, because chlorine can be poisonous and contains the highly corrosive sodium hypochlorite, it should not be used in high concentrations
For one gallon of water, only 6 drops of bleach are needed and the EPA recommends the use of chlorine that is 8.25% sodium hypochlorite.
Using bleach is a cheap and effective option but may leave your water tasting like a swimming pool. After pouring the bleach in, stir or shake it so that it permeates all the liquid, then let it sit for 30 minutes.
- Filtering with Chlorine Dioxide
Another chlorine-based purifying method is to use chlorine dioxide which has been utilized by water treatment facilities for decades. It can be purchased as a tablet or in droplet form and will kill most pathogens in about 15 minutes. However, highly contaminated water should sit for 30 minutes or longer and water treated in this way may not be effective against Cryptosporidium.
One of the benefits of chlorine dioxide is that it doesn’t have a very strong aftertaste like iodine and bleach do. It is very affordable in liquid form but can freeze during cold temperatures so tablets are an effective alternative for winter camping.
- Aquamira Water Treatment Drops
This lightweight, inexpensive option is a chlorine dioxide treatment. It is a two-part system in a liquid form that is easy to use and eliminates all pathogens such as bacteria, protozoa, and viruses. After four hours it is effective against giardia and cryptosporidium but it does not filter out particulate from silty water.
- Potable Aqua
These iodine tablets are lightweight and a bottle usually contains 50 tablets, allowing you to treat 25 quarts of water. You must wait 30 minutes before drinking the water after treating it and it will kill bacteria, viruses, and giardia but is not effective against cryptosporidium.
- MSR Aquatabs
A small bottle of these chlorine-based tablets can treat up to 60 liters of water without making it have too strong of an aftertaste. It kills the majority of bacteria in approximately 30 minutes and treats against viruses, bacteria, and giardia but is not effective against cryptosporidium.
Water purification Through Solar Distillation
It’s possible to utilize the sun to heat water and cause it to evaporate. Then, using a piece of plastic, collect the water vapor as it condenses.
One of the reasons this method works is because many chemical contaminants that would be found in water have a higher vaporization point than water. So the pure water will vaporize first and any contaminants will be left behind.
Using solar distillation is said to remove more contaminants than a carbon filter can and is one of the true purification methods as opposed to those which simply treat the water. It can remove heavy metals and bacteria from the water and any chlorine that is left can be filtered out with carbon.
The downside to using solar distillation is that it is a very slow method. It is also dependent on the sun and cannot be utilized at night or when there is heavy cloud cover. Still, it is an effective method and can be used in an emergency.
You can find more information at Safewater.org.
Ultraviolet Water Purification
Ultraviolet (UV) treatments usually come in the form of a pen or other wand that exposes microorganisms to UV radiation through a UV light bulb. This, in turn, disrupts the DNA in the organism and prevents it from reproducing. This means the pathogens may still be ingested but there will be no effect because they cannot replicate inside your body.
UV treatments are a fast, chemical-free option but their effectiveness is limited if the water is cloudy or has a lot of sediment which prevents the UV rays from passing through. However, if you have clear water, UV treatment is quite fast and does not affect the taste of the water after it is treated.
Because the UV light is simply passed over the water, it is possible to miss some microorganisms. It is often recommended to use another method of purification in addition to UV to ensure that everything is destroyed.
Another downside to UV treatment is the requirement for replacement batteries which can be expensive or heavy to bring along. If the unit itself is dropped, it can get broken or damaged, making it unusable.
Ultraviolet Light Purifier
This lightweight pen is one of the most popular UV water treatment methods. It is compact and can filter 32 fluid ounces per 90 seconds, making it quite fast. It works against protozoa, giardia, cryptosporidium, bacteria, and viruses.
All you have to do is place it in water, activate it, and the indicator will signal when purification is complete. It can fit into a wide-mouth water bottle easily and one set of batteries can treat approximately 50 liters while the UV light has a life of 8,000 treatments.
Purifying water by boiling
One of the most effective methods of purifying water is also the simplest, cheapest, and safest. Boiling water is highly effective when it comes to killing microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. However, it cannot remove particulate or other impurities in the water.
A big drawback to the boiling method is the fact that it can be quite time-consuming. First, it takes time to boil the water and only small amounts can be boiled at a time depending on the size of your fuel source and container.
After the water comes to a boil, you must let it boil for several minutes. Then you must wait for it to cool before drinking it which means it is not an immediate source of clean water.
You will also have to bring with you a container that can be used to boil the water, such as a metal pot. In addition, you need a fuel source that will quickly be able to heat the water, and canisters of fuel can be heavy when weight is a consideration.
If the water is contaminated with mud, sand, or other organic matter like leaves, sticks, and insects, this must all be filtered out. You will also have to wait for any sediment to settle to the bottom before drinking it.
Another consideration when boiling water is the altitude. If you are up in the mountains, you will need to boil the water for longer. At 160 degrees Fahrenheit, the water will need to boil for at least 30 minutes. This is because water boils at lower temperatures in higher altitudes and you’ll want to make sure it boils long enough to effectively kill any contaminants.
Katadyn Vario Water Filtration system (Amazon link)
Water Filtration Systems
- Platypus GravityWorks
This gravity filter system treats a high volume of water quite quickly and can store up to 8 liters. It is effective against protozoa, bacteria, and cryptosporidium but does not treat viruses. Although it is very lightweight, it is expensive and can be difficult to collect water from some sources.
- Sawyer Mini
This pump filter is lightweight, small, and inexpensive. The filter lasts for up to 100,000 gallons and can be used either as a straw or attached to a bottle. However, it cannot treat large quantities of water and can quickly get clogged.
- Katadyn Hiker Pro
This lightweight pump is really fast and perfect for water sources that are hard to get to or are shallow and small. It is very sturdy and even though it’s light for a pump, it is still quite heavy at a little over 13 ounces. It is not effective against viruses but does well to eliminate bacteria, protozoa, and cysts.
- MSR Trail Base
Able to function as either a hand pump or a gravity filter, this two-in-one is good for drinking straight from the source or filling up containers. The gravity filter can be a bit slow and this is a heavy pump, weighing more than 17 ounces. However, its versatility makes up for a lot and it is very effective. It has a 0.2-micron filter to eliminate bacteria and protozoa.
Other Tips and Advice
It is recommended to always have at least two different water treatment or purification methods with you when camping. Some methods do well with bacteria but not with viruses, so a second method may be necessary to fully clean the water. Also, if one method malfunctions, you will have a backup to ensure clean drinking water.
When choosing a method of water treatment, there are several things to consider:
- Group Size
If you are camping with a large group of people, you will need a method that can purify large quantities of water so everyone gets enough to drink. Gravity filters are an excellent option for this because they can quickly filter a significant volume of water.
- Water Source
When camping near highly polluted areas, the type of contaminant will determine which method you use. If heavy metals and pesticides are a concern, you may want to opt for a filter that is able to remove them. For water sources that are infected with giardia, use iodine because it is more effective against this parasite.
Backpackers will need to choose an option that is lightweight and compact. For them, boiling the water probably won’t be an ideal variation because it requires you to bring along a fuel source and pot which can be heavy. Instead, chlorine dioxide tablets are a good choice because a set of 30 tablets from Aquamira weighs less than an ounce.
In a survival situation where getting water fast is a matter of life and death, the speed at which your purification method works will be vitally important. In this case, a UV treatment may be the best option because it can treat water very quickly.