by Steve Manley,
If you enjoy outdoor recreation like hiking, camping or backpacking, you know how hard it is to pack in a supply of fresh water from home. Unless you’re car camping, it’s practically impossible. But with the right equipment and a little know-how, finding and purifying water in the wilderness is easy.
First you’ll need to find a source of water — running water from a stream or river is best. There are several methods for purifying this water — you could use a water filter or chemical water treatment, or you could simply boil the water.
Keep in mind that water purification only removes microorganisms, such as bacteria and viruses. It doesn’t do anything to protect you against toxic chemical contamination — if you know your water is contaminated with toxic chemicals, don’t drink it at all.
Finding Water in the Wilderness
It’s fairly easy to find water in most wilderness environments. Start by using your ears — if there’s a river or stream nearby, you’ll hear it. You should always look for flowing water, because the current makes it hard for biological contaminants like bacteria or algae to flourish. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t purify the water, but running water is still safer than standing water. Never drink stagnant water, or water that is discolored with algae.
If you can’t hear flowing water nearby, walk downhill. Water flows downhill, so your best chance of finding a stream or river is to head for the lowest point.
Look for animal tracks. Where there’s a source of water, many forms of wildlife will come for a drink, so following tracks is a good way to find a water source. Don’t get too excited if there’s only one set of tracks, but if you see many, you’re likely to find water.
You’ll also find insects near a source of water. Mosquitoes, dragonflies and other insects live in or near water. If there are a lot of bugs around, chances are there’s water nearby.
Purifying Water in the Wilderness
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 90 percent of fresh water sources in the world are contaminated, so you should never drink water without first purifying it. Even if it looks clean, there could be microscopic viruses, bacteria or protozoa in it that could make you very sick. In the wilderness, there are four basic ways to purify water:
- A water filter
- Chemical water treatment
- Solar power
Before you purify your water, though, you should take steps to remove any debris that may be in it. Water filters can remove debris from water, but filtering cloudy water will clog up your filter very quickly. If your water looks cloudy, strain it through a cloth — a bandana or shirt will work — before purifying it. Alternatively, let it sit until the silt settles, and scoop the clear water off the top.
If you’re planning to use a water filter, make sure you get one that can handle all the contaminants it might face. The best filters pass water through both a filter and a chemical purification component to kill even the smallest microorganisms. Look for a water filter that kills all biological contaminants down to .004 microns; that covers everything, even viruses.
Chemical water treatments are another alternative, and make a good backup in case your filter breaks or gets clogged. Iodine and chlorine dioxide are the most popular. You need to let the water sit for at least half an hour before drinking, to make sure it’s completely purified. These treatments work best on warm water; if your water’s cold, put it in the sun for a while to warm it first.
You can use solar power to purify water, because the UV rays in sunlight kill microorganisms. Fill a clear plastic or glass bottle three-quarters full of the water you need to purify; shake it up and lay it on its side in full sunlight. A reflective or dark-colored surface works best. It’ll take at least six hours of direct, full sunlight to purify the water or 24 hours if it’s cloudy.
Of course, you can always boil water to kill chemical contaminants, if you have the fuel. Bring your water to a vigorous boil for at least one minute to decontaminate it.
Purifying water from natural sources saves you from having to pack in gallons of water on a backpacking or camping trip. If you’re going on a long trip, you should have at least two means of water purification. Purifying your water protects you from infections that could potentially be lethal.