Clean water is an essential part of a long-distance walk or hiking trip, especially when it includes an overnight camping adventure, and while it does take some planning, getting your hands on it in the wild isn’t as hard as you might think. However, if you’re an outdoor enthusiast, someone that is seriously looking to get into long-distance walking or become a wild camper, you will need to know how to purify water. 

Science says that a human body can cope for up to 3 to 5 days without water, and in extreme heat, sometimes only a few hours. So, if you were to find yourself in the situation of being in the wild and out of the water, you won’t want to take your chances. The first thing you’ll of course want to do is get yourself to a water source as quickly as possible.

Different ways to purify water

  1. Boil it. If you have a campfire or stove as part of your essentials, this is the easiest way to purify water. Simply bring the water to boil on high heat (you’ll know when this is happening when there are rolling bubbles in the water). Let it continue to heat up for 5 minutes or so. You will then of course need to give the water a bit of time to cool down before it is ready to drink. If the water you are boiling appears to be cloudy, allow the sediment to settle and then filter it out using a clean cloth, a paper boiling towel, or a coffee filter.
  2. Use a filtration or purification pump. You may have seen these in any number of outdoor or camping stores. There is a wide range of water filters and purifiers, each having its benefits and pitfalls. Here’s our rundown of what filters and purifiers are good for different scenarios. 

Types of water filters and purifiers

Gravity filters and purifiers

As the name suggests, this type of filter relies on gravity. You simply fill it up with unfiltered water and hang it from somewhere solid — a tree branch usually works well. Composed of an inline filter, the falling water is forced to pass through while the offending microorganisms are prevented from passing through into the collection area.

Gravity filters excel for large groups of people and require no manual labour during the filtration process. The two main disadvantages are that it does require some time to collect a substantial amount of potable water, and obtaining water from a shallow source is difficult.

UV light purifiers

Extremely common on the backpacking trails in less-developed countries, UV light purifiers are a quick and easy clean water solution. To use them, you simply fill the bottle and insert the prong before pressing a button to activate the UV light. One minute later you’ll have successfully treated your water.

While they provide a simple solution with little to no maintenance necessary, they do have the drawbacks of requiring batteries and only cater for small quantities — usually a litre at a time.

Pump filters and purifiers

A purely mechanical solution, you simply drop the attached hose into a water source and pump the water through an element into the container. A great on the go solution, they allow you to purify small quantities of water quickly and easily from the shallowest of sources. Pump filters do however require manual effort and cleaning is required in the field.

Straw filters

The ultimate solution for those explorers who require an ultralight portable solution. With a built-in element, you simply dip the straw filter into a water source and use it like it were a straw. Very affordable and much more portable than other filtration systems, they provide easy access to clean water with minimal effort required.

However, with that convenience comes drawbacks. There’s no way of storing water, so it can only be used when you have a water source available. In addition, regular cleaning is required, and it’s generally only a solution for one person.

Squeeze filters

With this type of filter, you simply fill the container — generally about a litre in capacity — and then as the name suggests, squeeze it through a filter element as your drink. The squeeze filter provides a lightweight, quick, and easy solution to water filtration with an element that’s easily replaceable. The limited downsides of this method include the small capacity of the container and the infield cleaning of the filter that’s required for continued use.

Dropping purification tablets into your water 

For those who would rather not carry any hardware, several chemical-based solutions can be used to kill off harmful pathogens in water. Iodine and chlorine are the most commonly used. They come available in pills or drops and can be added to a water bottle.

Inexpensive and easy to use, they can be easily packed in a backpack as your primary source of water treatment or simply as a backup to your main filter. One drawback of this solution is the chemical-like taste of the water, although this can be negated with taste-neutraliser tablets.

Another disadvantage is the time required for the chemical treatment to complete. Depending on how much water you wish to treat, it may take anything up to 4 hours before you can drink it.

Commonly asked questions about water purification

What are the no-gos when looking for a water source?

The common rule is that the clearer and more flowing the water is, the safer it is to drink and or purify. This is because the more water moves, the fewer bacteria is allowed to sit and fester. If you are ever in a scenario where you’ve run out of the water, small streams should be the first place you should look.

Collecting and filtering rainwater is also good, although only in the wild, as urban rainwater will likely be polluted. It’s also possible to collect water from morning dew, but it may be worth checking for any poisonous plants in the surrounding area.

Rivers are okay, but larger ones often have pollutants running through them, which can make it slightly trickier to judge. Lakes and ponds too can be used, although they are stagnant, meaning bacteria will be living within the water. 

Are water purification tablets bad for you?

When used in the right circumstances, water purification tablets are generally safe. However, they should be kept out of reach of children or anyone that may mistake the tablets for normal medication, as if ingested without water, or used excessively can lead to several ailments, which include irritation, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain.

So, it’s good to only use them when really necessary and in pressing circumstances such as being out in the wild or stuck at sea. If you’re worried about the effect water purification tablets may have on someone close to you, it may be worth checking in with a doctor before you enter any scenario where they might need to be used.

Does filtering water through t-shirts work?

In terms of the aesthetics of the water, yes. In terms of actually making it drinkable, no. Filtering water through t-shirts (or any other type of thinly made clothing such as bandana) will remove twigs, leaves, rocks, and other large sediments from the water.

You can do this by wrapping the said piece of clothing over a container such as a saucepan or steel bowl, and then pouring the water over the clothing, which will then be weighed down into the container. Once you’ve poured the water through, lift the clothing up and let the water drain through into the bowl, until it is full, and should be now clear of debris.

However, this technique will do absolutely nothing to remove smaller sediment, microbes, or bacteria, meaning you will need to use a method of purification to make this water clean. Luckily, you’ve just read all about the different ways to do that!