Boi;ing your water over a campfire is survival skills 101.
(Photo by Kevin Estela)

How To Purify Water: So You Won’t Die Of Dysentery

Abdominal pain with diarrhea containing blood and mucus. Does that sound like a good time to you? If so, please drink untreated water in the backcountry and go on getting dysentery with your bad self. It’s a morbid fate that will affect approximately 1 million people worldwide per year. Drinking dirty water can lead to a wealth of health problems that will disrupt your well-being if you don’t exercise caution. It’s hard to believe what you can’t see can harm you but that is the nature of water-borne diseases and parasites. You must mind the little things. As terrible as these invisible killers are, there are some very simple steps you can take to safeguard your drinking water and stay hydrated as you explore the great outdoors. We’re offering up 3 proven methods to purify water to prevent an untimely passing.

How To Purify Water

“Kill it with Fire!”

  You might hear people refer to this strategy anytime they encounter a spider. It works equally as well with water-borne nasty microorganisms. Anything living in your untreated water can be killed by bringing it to a boil. Depending on who you speak to, the amount of time you must boil water will vary from 5 minutes, to 3 minutes, to 1 minute or just big bubbles instead of little bubbles. We recommend the minimum of bringing water to a roaring boil but if you have a decent lid for your container, you can boil water for much longer without losing any to evaporation. Boiling water requires no specialized equipment other than what you need to make a fire and contain water. For this reason, it works well inside a third-world kitchen or a remote wilderness campfire ring.  

Learning to correctly purify your water is an essential survival skill.
(Photo by Kevin Estela)


   A time-proven method to purify water is the use of chemical pills or droplets of liquid. For years, iodine reigned supreme for treating water. It was used in Vietnam and for an extensive period of time in the military. Iodine will work for some microorganisms like giardia but it will not be effective against cryptosporidium. Water treated with iodine has a distinct taste that many find unpleasant unless a small amount of vitamin C is added after the water is treated. Alternatives to iodine, if you or one of your party is sensitive to it, include chlorine, chlorine dioxide, and bleach.

These chemicals are usually found in liquid droplet form or pills and they have varying effects on water much like iodine if the water is exceptionally cold or murky. The best of this bunch is Chlorine Dioxide. It leaves almost no taste or smell to the water as an added bonus. One thing to remember with using chemicals, they are chemicals. Dosages will vary based on the amount of water treated and there is always the potential for “chunky” bits in the water to be treated on their exterior only. Consuming them could still get you sick. Whenever possible, run your water through a strainer of sorts (like a clean article of clothing or cloth) before treating it.

Mechanical Pumps

  Technology is incredible and there are some great mechanical devices used to push water through filter elements. Depending on the size of the pores in the filter, the pump used can be classified as a water filter, microfilter, or water purifier. Sometimes, depending on the size of the various filter elements, you can use one for domestic trips with less of a health risk and one for international travel where there are more potential viruses in untreated water. Mechanical pumps require additional space to store and carry them as well as manpower to operate them. They also can be prone to breakage given their moving parts and the fragile nature of the ceramic commonly used in the filter itself.

Particular care must be exercised if the pump unit is used in cold weather where the water left in the unit freezes and causes micro cracks. This will potentially cause the water you are pumping to seep through and into your system.  Pumps are highly reliable if they are used properly and just about anyone can learn to move the operating handle up and down as the pump tubing is submerged in a water source. Perhaps the most convenient mechanical “pump” that uses gravity is the large base-camp sized…you guessed it, gravity pump. Think of a large water bladder that has a filter unit at the base. Water is pushed through it at a steady flow. The hardest work you’ll need to do is hanging it without the quasi-water balloon falling and popping at your feet.

Iodine treatment is a fabulous way to safely purify your water.
(Photo by Kevin Estela)

The Little Things

  As previously mentioned in this article, you need to mind the little things. Iodine must be stored in dark-colored bottles as it is light sensitive. You need to take caution with the threads of  your water bottle or let some of the treated water escape through them as you shake the bottle to avoid contamination from a single drop left untreated. Your mechanical pump may require backwashing when you get home to make it operate at its full potential. Also, remember to fully dry any camp dishes or cups you’ve washed in untreated water and heat them up a bit over your campfire to ensure no moisture remains. Remember too, you may be out of the proverbial woods but not safe yet.

Even the ice in your water at a local food establishment in a foreign country can be suspect. When in doubt, drink bottled water and hope it isn’t just tap water sold to unsuspecting tourists. Another little thing is toxicity. The methods described here will treat biological threats but they won’t remove pollutants from industrial areas, pesticides, etc.

  On one hand, water can provide life but on the other, it can easily offer death if you aren’t cautious. If you are in serious doubt of the quality of your water, consider doubling up on the treatment. It doesn’t take much to render water safe to drink but you must be vigilant to avoid the masses who will die from waterborne illnesses each year. 


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