Imagine that you’re out there, away from the civilization. Camping, hiking, even escaping whatever disaster, natural or man-made, has struck your town. You find a stream, a water source. Can you drink directly from it, without treating the water? You cannot, the water might be polluted with dangerous pathogens, such as bacteria and parasites.
What are the best ways to purify water when camping? In my experience, the most effective purification methods are:
- Reverse osmosis
- Chemical treatment
- Cloth filtration
- UV water purification
- Slow sand filters
- Stone/ceramic filtration
At this point you’re wondering, how exactly do they work? How can you use them while camping? And how do you store filtered water? Let’s answer these questions.
9 Ways to Purify Water When You’re Camping
The following are 9 different methods for purifying water to make it drinkable. Use your discretion to judge which method is the best one for the situation at hand.
One of the oldest and most widely used methods of water purification is boiling (using camp fire or a portable water heater), which is effective at killing microorganisms in the water. That being said, the water may still have a taste, may still be murky, and may still have chemical traces depending on the source you’ve used. Use this in combination with other methods if necessary. Boiling water is a very simple process if you have the right equipment, but in extreme situations it may become necessary to improvise.
Another popular method for purifying water at home is the reverse osmosis filtration, which applies pressure to remove solid particles such as salts. As such, it can be used for desalination as well as filtering out the added fluoride from your municipal water supply.
Reverse osmosis typically utilizes filter systems, whether attached to your tap or in a specialized pitcher. Many of these systems are quite affordable and simple enough to be suitable for home use, so you should consider this if you’re looking for a basic drinking water filter because you don’t like the water that comes out of your taps. There are some reverse osmosis systems which are portable enough to carry if you’re looking for a water filter for camping.
Chemical treatment is used by many municipal water supplies, mostly in addition to other methods of treatment. This will kill off many microorganisms present in the water, but does not prove effective in getting rid of chemical pollutants or murkiness.
Chlorine is one chemical that can be used for purification in emergency circumstances, with most chlorine bleach containing around 5% chlorine. This is an effective method for almost immediately killing off most microorganisms in water, since bleach is a heavy oxidant, but be careful to not add too much. You should add around 4 drops of bleach per quart/liter.
Another basic chemical purification method utilizes iodine, though this will take a bit longer than chlorine. Since iodine is frequently found in first aid kits, this method of water purification could still be useful in an emergency situation where you’re somewhat away from civilization. Iodine kills an array of commonly found pathogens, but not all of them – so you should still be careful. To use iodine, leave the water to warm in the sun for some time and add between 5 and 10 drops per quart/liter, depending on how clear the water is. Alternatively, you can use iodine tablets for water purification (available at most camping stores). Leave the water to sit for at least 30 minutes before drinking or using for cooking and washing.
Distillation is effective at removing many contaminants from water, as well as for the purposes of desalination. This process involves heating the water so that it evaporates and collects in a pipe leading to another container, thus removing many impurities that can be found in water. Since water from unknown sources can contain dangerous pathogens such as E. coli, distillation provides a viable solution for making potable water in a desperate situation.
Traditional distillation apparatus requires a sealed pot set up over a heat source, with a pipe at the top for steam to collect. This pipe typically passes through water for the sake of cooling, and leads to a vessel for collecting the distilled water/liquid. Heating the water should kill any pathogens in it, and distillation will filter out any impurities in the water. It may become necessary to distill water multiple times in order to produce completely clean water, so don’t drink right away.
There are solar distillation methods which could be useful in any outdoor situation, be it camping or getting lost in the wilderness. You can buy a kit for solar water distillation, but it’s also possible to fashion one out of a few readily available components that you should be able to scrape together. A solar still is also suitable for the purposes of desalination, so the aforementioned kits are a must have if you’re planning to go camping anytime soon.
A solar still contains two troughs: one for the contaminated water, and an empty one for collecting the distilled water. A piece of glass is placed at an angle over the contaminated water trough, angling down into the collection trough for the distilled water. In order to increase the amount of energy absorbed from the sun, it’s useful to use a black trough for the contaminated water (or to paint it black). This method is basically taking advantage of the processes of evaporation and condensation, and beyond setting up a solar still and adding the water, it requires little effort and no additional filters or technology.
While you can certainly desalinate water using distillation or reverse osmosis, there are other ways that could prove more practical if you find yourself stuck at sea or on a deserted island somewhere and don’t have potable water. There are portable desalination kits available, which you should take to sea with you, or in case of hiking along a sea beach. These include solar stills as well as filter systems and other setups, though the former may be the easiest to take with you.
If there is a lot of particulate matter present in the water, cloth filtration becomes an option. This will not filter out any pathogens or pollutants, so you should only use this method with relatively clean water or prior to purifying the water through other means. You can also set up a more complex filtration system using roots and cloth, which will give you clear water that’s still not necessarily safe to drink. While cloth filtration might not make for the ideal drinking water filter, it will still remove some of the impurities.
UV Water Purification
Ultraviolet light stops microbes from reproducing, which vastly reduces their potential for harm. The drawback of UV purification is that you should not expose the water to sunlight for any length of time, or else there’s a chance of the microbes reactivating and thus becoming harmful again.
You can buy UV water purification systems, some of which are small and portable enough to carry with you. While you will still need a power source to charge it, there are UV water purification pens that you can charge using a normal USB connection (even from your laptop). These are a great idea to keep on hand (and keep charged), should you find yourself in a situation where the only potable water source is subject to microbial contamination.
Slow Sand Filters
Slow sand filters produce relatively clear water free of pathogens, taste and odor. They do not necessarily remove all bacteria from the water. This might not be the most practical setup for a water filter for camping, if you need something for short-term use. It may still be an option if you’re stuck in the wilderness for a long time and need a long-term solution to water filtration, or if you’re building a camping site.
Slow sand filters are built with a layer of gravel on the bottom, upon which coarse sand is placed. Finer sand is place on top of this, and the water is allowed to flow through from the top. The subsequent layers filter out any sand particles in the water, while many contaminants are filtered out when they pass through the biofilm layer that grows in the top. The addition of charcoal will filter out any flavors or odors present in the water.
Stone and ceramic filters for drinking water have existed for centuries, and are still commonplace in many parts of the world. These include jempeng stones and various ceramic filters, usually of the type using a container with two separate parts. In most ceramic filters, contaminated water is placed in the upper portion and slowly collects in the lower one, passing through a ceramic filter. A jempeng stone filter works in a similar manner to ceramic filters, with the water being filtered through porous stone in order to remove any murkiness or other particulate matter. If you’re looking for a great water filter for camping, you might consider a ceramic or jempeng stone setup.
How to Store the Water after Filtration
Once you’ve actually purified the water for drinking, you need a safe way to store it so that it doesn’t get contaminated all over again. If you have any clean containers or bottles with you, this is the obvious answer. It’s generally better to allow containers to thoroughly dry in the sun (if that’s at all possible in your circumstances), so as to avoid contaminating your freshly potable water with waterborne pathogens or other pollutants.
Nearly anything that you can find will do, but it’s better if your water is protected from sunlight and from being left open. Open water containers can become standing water pretty quickly, risking re-contamination as well as eventually becoming a breeding grounds for mosquitoes. If you decontaminated your water using UV purification methods, it’s absolutely essential that the treated water is not exposed to any source of light for any duration of time, or else the deactivated pathogens will be reactivated and begin reproducing once more.
Is campground water safe to drink? If you’re situated at a campsite, you can rely on the signs that you see next to the body of water. If a sign has an image of a crossed out tap, or you see purple colored pipes nearby, then it is not safe to drink from here. Consider using purification methods discussed earlier.
Can you shower in non-potable water? If there is no other option, then the answer is yes. However, be very careful not to swallow any water accidentally. Untreated water contains malicious pathogens, as we already mentioned in this post. Just to be safe, see if you can at least filter the water that you intend to use for washing.