Water Treatment on the Trail

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Having enough information about different ways of purifying water on the trail can be extremely important in areas where you won’t have access to clean drinking water. This article is about water treatment and the best ways to clean water in the wilderness.

You might have the greatest pair of hiking shoes, comfortable and well-fitted pack, light and breathable clothing, and the latest hi-tech gear; however, other things are no less important for your hike. Food and water will be probably the heaviest items in your backpack but they’re well worth their weight. But while you can manage without food for weeks, this isn’t so for water – you can survive without hydration just a few days (on some occasions dehydration can kill you in a matter of hours).

On any walk, you need to know where water sources are and what the condition of the water is likely to be. Water supply is among the most important things you want to know about a region you’ll be hiking in.

Depending on the location and time of the year, water can go from an insignificant concern during the planning stages to the most important factor. Sometimes carrying just a full water bottle can be enough if you go to a place where there’s plenty of drinkable water. However, on some occasions, you may have to carry much more water with you – if you go for a desert hike, for example. Then even 10 liters may not be enough – you’ll have to carry two or more bladders full of water in addition to a plastic water bottle (if you prefer light hiking) or a double-walled water bottle (if you prefer the convenience of having a thermos on the trail).

Even in places where you are able to find enough water to keep you hydrated in the wilderness, you should use some type of purification the water before drinking it. Remember that even the clearest water source should not be trusted unless you want to risk your hiking adventure. You have several options for purifying water on the trail, each with its pros and cons. We’ll discuss them below.

Mountain creek and forest

Popular ways of purifying water on the trail

Purifying water

Probably the most popular disinfection method/type of water treatment. It makes the water taste flat but boiling water for just one minute will kill all the microorganisms that can be harmful to your health. Let the water cool before use (it will take approximately 30 minutes).

You can use a nice trick to make the boiled water taste better – put some oxygen back into the water by pouring it back and forth between two water bottles. Actually, using any two containers will do that. You can boil water even in your water bottle, however, don’t try doing this in a double-walled water bottle, but in a stainless steel single-walled bottle.

Boiling is among the most reliable means to ensure safe drinkable water, despite the disadvantages of using this method. Carrying enough fuel to provide plenty of hydration for your trip is among the biggest disadvantages of this method of purification. Additionally, it’s time-consuming and often impractical to boil water in the wilderness.

Using chemicals
Iodine and chlorine can be used for disinfecting water. They are lightweight and simple to use. You can disinfect water using liquid chlorine or chlorine tablets. Chlorine dioxide is probably the best chemical way of treating water. It’s easy to use and removes all pathogens. When activated, chlorine dioxide releases highly active concentrated oxygen into the water, and it’s this that kills bugs. Treated water tastes fresh, with no aftertaste.

Iodine is banned for water treatment in the European Union; however, in some countries, you can find iodine tablets or crystals and use them for purifying water (water disinfection). Tablets have a limited life; you should buy a fresh supply at least Iodine crystals, sold in drugstores, are a longlasting alternative to tablets. These can be held in solution and small amounts poured into water bottles when required, though you need to be sure no undissolved crystals enter the drinking water. A disadvantage of this method is that it is limited in effectiveness and is not appropriate for very muddy water. In this case, use an alternate source of water.

Using a portable water filter
A portable water filter is a quite popular tool for ensuring that you have clean drinking water during your hike into the backcountry. Filters remove anything too large to pass through the pores, but they don’t disinfect water or remove viruses. Portable water filters can disinfect water if they have a chemical component. In such a case, they’re described as purifiers. First allow the debris settle to the bottom, or strain the untreated water through paper towels, coffee filters or a bandana; then use the water filter.

Filters come in three forms: bottle feed, gravity feed, and pump. The first are simple filters that substitute for the lid of a water bottle or fit inside. They’re lightweight and easy to use, though you have to squeeze fairly hard to get water out. Pump and gravity-feed filters are better for camp and group use. Pumping can be slow and tiring, but it can be used for any amount of water. With gravity-feed filters, a bag of water is hung up with the filter unit and a hose leading into a water container below it. Most gravity filters are also bottle-fed or pump filters as well. The flow rate of this type of filters is about a liter a minute. The three adjectives that best describe the biggest disadvantages of water filters are:

  • heavy
  • inefficient
  • unreliable

Additionally, you need to learn some techniques in order to keep them clean and use them correctly. Cleaning filters is necessary too, so you’ll have to carry cleaning items on your trip.

Using ultraviolet light
The latest method to purify water is with UV light. It doesn’t require chemicals or waiting hours before drinking the treated water. UV light removes pathogens in a fast and efficient way. You need a water bottle with wide mouth technology (a cook pot suits too). Then stir the water with the lamp until the LED light goes out, which takes a minute and a half for a liter of water. UV treatment works regardless of the temperature of the water and it doesn’t change the taste of the water. However, it’s not a filter, and water should be clean. If it’s turbid or with debris, you have to either prefilter the water or let it settle in a container first. Then, you can pour off the cleared water and treat it. Also, keep in mind that these products require batteries to function.

Glacier water winding through landscape


Having access to enough drinking water should be one of the major considerations in planning your hiking trip. A real problem with water on the trail is deciding whether what you find is safe to drink. Thus, purifying water is necessary and essential for a safer hiking experience. There are many methods you can use to provide yourself clean water for drinking and sanitation. Whether using a good old method of water treatment such as boiling or some more hi-tech method like using UV light is up to you.


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