Adventures in the wilderness are uplifting for the body and spirit, a chance to connect to the untamed beauty of nature beyond the daily grind of civilization. But properly equipping yourself for the experience is critically important, to avoid a terribly uncomfortable – and possibly life-threatening – scenario.
Put simply, few things are more important to human health & safety than access to drinkable clean water, especially in the wild. When you’re a good distance from the amenities of civilization, preparation could mean the difference between life and death. While it’s recommended that people drink roughly a half gallon (8 glasses of water) a day on average, an active hiker will consume approximately a gallon of water a day – far too much to carry for the duration of a lengthy outing.
That hidden lake you’re hiking toward or river you’re camping beside may look as beautiful as a painting, but there’s a strong likelihood that dangerous parasites and bacteria are lurking in the water, undetectable to the eye. Drinking contaminated water can make you severely ill, and can even be fatal.
The immediate health risks to wilderness water are pathogens, most frequently spread through animal or human waste. Ingesting untreated contaminated water from a stream, lake or RV campsite is an invitation to gut-wrenching illness from the following:
These “treacherous 3” can take you down within just a few hours, beginning with flu-like symptoms such as nausea, gastrointestinal cramping and diarrhea – a nightmare scenario if you’re miles from civilization, especially if you’re out of cell range.
The best practice is to treat water from any source, to minimize the risk of waterborne illness, and make it safe for drinking. As a result, a personal water filter or purifier should be at the top of your packing list for all camping or backpacking trips – it’s even a good idea to have at home, for treating your tap water. Clean drinking water is essential. When seeking out water sources for drinking in nature, look out for signs of likely contamination and avoid locations with these features:
Once you find a suitable water source, be sure to gather water from the surface in the least cloudy or murky area of the water you can find, using a clean container (and clean hands). Use caution not to stir up the sediment at the bottom of the body of water, if any.
The answer depends on the type of adventure you’re planning, and your needs in the field. You can add any of the following water treatment methods to your camping gear:
Water filters work by physically straining out dangerous microorganisms (including parasitic eggs and larvae) from the water before drinking. Some portable water filters can be placed directly in water and used just like a straw, while others simply require filling a bag of water and squeezing it through the filter into a bottle. While usually easy to carry, bag filters tend to have a slower flow rate and require hanging, which is not always convenient if someone is hiking, backpacking or camping in high altitudes or desert terrain.
The Scout II from ProOne is a conveniently small, portable version of a traditional gravity filter. It’s BPA free and independently lab tested to remove over 200 contaminants including lead and other heavy metals, chloramines, VOC’s, fluoride and more. It features a “set and forget” method that filters up to 1.5 liters of water at a time.
Water purifiers use chemicals such as chlorine or iodine, or ultraviolet (UV) light to combat viruses that most filters have difficulty removing. Water purifiers are generally only necessary when traveling internationally. Chlorine or iodine tablets are dropped directly into a bottle of raw water, purifying it within a directed period of time (usually no more than an hour). Various tablets may include sodium dichloroisocyanurate, chlorine dioxide, iodine or tetraglycine hydroperiodide. Chemical treatment methods tend to leave behind a noticeable taste, however.
UV light purification systems use light to damage the DNA of harmful bacteria, viruses and protozoa the water may contain. Adding lime juice has also been shown to speed up the purification process.
DIY sediment filters are also relatively easy to create on your own. A popular method involves layering a mix of gravel, sand and activated charcoal in a container with a small hole in the bottom for water to pour through. These aren’t reliable for regular use and don’t provide a large amount of water, but will suffice in a pinch.
Boiling is the easiest and most age-old method for killing dangerous viruses, bacteria and protozoa in the water. You may have seen a local water boil advisory in the news over the years, usually after severe storms or floods, advising residents to boil their water to prevent infectious diseases. Make sure that you bring the water to a rolling boil for at least one full minute before drinking. Boil the water for 3 minutes if you’re at an elevation above 6,500 feet (1,981 meters).
There are many methods for making sure the water you are about to drink is clean, to stay out of harm’s way on your next wilderness excursion. Learn more about various water filtration methods for outdoor and home use here.