If you’re spending more than a day in the wilderness, you’re going to need to take along some sort of water purification system. After all, it would weigh a terrible amount to carry enough water for a four-day camping trip.
Fortunately, just about anywhere you go camping, you’ll be crossing or passing by bodies of water that can help you out. But don’t just go dipping your face into the local lake and gulping down unpurified water, that’s a recipe for disaster.
No matter what system you choose to use, be sure to read the important notice at the bottom of this article about purifying the threads of your water bottle. If you don’t take this critical step, you could still get sick, even if you have properly purified your drinking water.
Why filter your water?
Why do you ask? Because once water has passed through rivers, streams, and lakes, it has accumulated some pretty nasty bugs. Most of these come from animal feces which inevitably gets in the waterway somewhere.
Traveler’s diarrhea and Giardia are two of the most common ways that unfiltered water will ruin your month, but you can also contract things like salmonella, e.coli, hepatitis, and more. All of these will put you out for days, some for weeks or months.
It’s the kind of lesson that’s better learned second hand. Trust me.
The oldest, simplest, and the most reliable way to purify water is with a filtration pump. You can buy portable backpacking pumps for reasonably cheap at your local outdoor store. They work by manually pumping water through a filter, usually made out of clay, which eliminates virtually all risk of illness. If you have extra parts for repair on the trails, this is by far the most reliable way to purify water in the woods.
UV water purification is controversial, and not scientifically accepted as a complete purification system. When properly applied, UV radiation is effective at killing bacteria and viruses. However, it does not purify water of contaminants, heavy metals, or volatile organic compounds. For that reason, I don’t recommend UV as your go-to purification system in the backcountry.
There are a number of companies manufacturing purification tablets these days which you can buy at your local outdoors store. Most of these tablets are just a rebranded version of either iodine or bleach, which are the two most common types of chemical purification used.
Both are effective if properly used, however, each has drawbacks. Firstly, neither of them clean your water at all. So if you drew from a running stream, for example, you’ll still have all that dirt in your water bottle. Also, some people are allergic to iodine and cannot use it as a purification system. Bleach is… well, it’s bleach. Not exactly ideal to be drinking on a regular basis, even in small quantities.
In general, chemical purifiers make a great backup. They can be very small and packed in the bottom of your bag, just in case your primary system breaks down.
The bottom line
The best water purification system for hiking and camping is undoubtedly a purification pump. They are reliable, they clean and purify water, and no one is allergic to them. Best of all, there’s no wondering if they’ve worked or not. If the water comes out the other side, then it’s worked. Using chemicals and UV can feel a bit mysterious sometimes.
It’s a good idea though, to pack some water purification tablets or a small bottle of iodine into your bag as well, just in case your pump breaks.
Purify your threads– VERY IMPORTANT!
Once you’ve filled your water bottle with freshly purified water, there’s one last step that’s very important to take. Because although you have purified the water inside of your bottle, the threads at the lip may still contain unpurified leftovers from filling up. Just one drop of water can hold more than enough bacteria to get you sick.
So it’s very important that every time you purify your water, you screw the cap on tightly and then turn your water bottle upside down. Slowly release the cap little by little until it’s just loose enough to let a little bit of water flow out through the threads. Voila! Now you have successfully flushed any contaminated water out and you are ready to go.