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4 Ways to Make Drinking Water Safe While Camping

You may already know that drinking water from creeks, rivers and lakes is not advised without first treating it in some way. But did you know a study by Stockholm University concluded that even rainwater is unsafe to drink anywhere in the world, including Antarctica? Long story short – unless you packed it in, don’t drink it until you’ve treated it. With that in mind, here’s how to make water safe to drink while camping.

There are many ways to treat drinking water, but it all boils down to four primary methods:

  1. Boiling
  2. Disinfecting
  3. Filtering
  4. UV Light

Making Water Safe to Drink by Boiling It

The CDC recommends this method, if possible. They call it “the surest method to kill disease-causing germs, including viruses, bacteria, and parasites”. You should boil the water for at least 1 minute (or 3 minutes when at elevations above 6,500 feet).

Pro Tip: Improve the taste of boiled water by adding a pinch of salt per quart of water.

Disinfecting Water While Hiking or Camping

There are several ways to disinfect water collected outdoors. Many outdoor stores will sell disinfecting tablets, such as those made with chlorine dioxide. You could also add a small amount of bleach to the water with similar results. Iodine tablets are also an option.

Using Bleach
Not all bleach is the same strength. Those sold in U.S. grocery stores are typically around 5% – 9% sodium hypochlorite. At this strength, 8 drops would disinfect a gallon of water.

Using Tablets

These are commonly sold in stores that sell hiking and camping gear in the form of chlorine or iodine tablets. Because there are so many types of water treatment tablets at various potencies, it is best to follow the directions provided by the manufacturer.

Filtering Water While Hiking or Camping

There are many portable water filter options on the market now, including straws, water bottles and portable gravity filters, like those mentioned in A Hiker’s Guide to Safe Water. The CDC recommends choosing a filter with a pore size of 1-micron or smaller. Even with a filter, the CDC also recommends using a disinfectant, such as those discussed above, after pre-filtering the water.

Filtered water often provides the best taste out of these four main water purification methods. Here are several of the most popular options among outdoor enthusiasts:

UV Light and Solar Disinfection of Drinking Water

Using UV light to disinfect water can be done with modern technology, such as portable UV lights by Steripen requiring a charged battery or electricity. These units work well at disinfecting clear water, but the light doesn’t penetrate cloudy water very well. Therefore, it is recommended that you allow all sediment to settle and for the water to become clear before treating.

You can also use the power of the sun, which provides UV light, but this method is not as reliable because it relies on sunshine (which is never guaranteed), and doesn’t have the measured UV doses provided by portable ultraviolet light systems. Basically, you fill a clear bottle with water, lay it on its side, and allow the sun to do its work for 6 hours to 2 days, depending on whether it is sunny or cloudy. It’s hardly scientific, but may reduce some of the germs in a pinch.

Honorable Mention

Solar Stills (solar water evaporation traps) work, but are not very efficient. As The Myth Busters found, even with a large setup a solar water still can only provide about 5% of your daily water intake needs. Not only that, but the set-up isn’t portable so you’ll have to stay put, or return to the still later.

As you can see, there are many options when it comes to making sure the water you drink while hiking or camping is safe. The most surefire way is to bring clean water with you, but even then you should be prepared with one of the options above in case of emergency.

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