How To Purify Water While Camping

A complete guide to purifying water while camping.

Posted on: August 29, 2018
By: Jeff Dobbs
How To Purify Water While Camping

You've checked and double-checked your weekend camping gear list. Unbreakable wine glasses? Check. Inflatable day bed? Check. Colored-flame logs? Check. Croquet set? Check. Aside from forgetting to bring spoons, everything seems perfect on the first day. However, by the second evening, you begin to become aware that you've already used four of the five 1 gallon of water jugs you brought, and you are at least 50 miles from the nearest town. It's always the little things we take for granted. Is the waterfall next to your campsite safe to drink from? What about the river? Is rainwater safe to drink? Let's look at various methods and equipment related to water filtration and purification to prevent your next big car camping trip from turning into a survival novel.

How much water to take camping?

It's easy to take for granted how much water you need when you are used to just turning a tap on to get more but take away the tap and now you might need to do some math. For backpacking and camping a person will consume 1 gallon of water per day depending on the temperature and environment. In hot, dry climates this number can easily double. However, for a truly comfortable car camping or glamping trip we should also factor in water used for cooking, doing dishes and the occasional shower to freshen up. This brings our number to a minimum of 2 gallons per-person-per-day meaning 4 people on a 3-day weekend trip should bring 24 gallons of water, weighing in at a bumper-squashing 192lbs!

Can I drink water straight from the river?

purifying water while camping

Can you just drink a glass of rain water? Can you drink straight from the creek at your secret campsite unseen by human eyes in over a century? The short answer is no. The long answer is a bit more complicated but let’s first focus on the difference between filtration and purification. Depending on where you are in the country, scooping up a glass of creek water can yield anything from crystal clear water to something that would make your car dirtier if you washed it with it. A filter torn from your favorite tablecloth may not necessarily make water safe to drink even if it removes most of the cloudiness from the water. In fact, it's not the cloudiness of the water you need to worry about; it's the things living in it which have nothing to do with the cloudiness. At the most primitive level, the trick is to boil the water (5 minutes is long enough). According to the World Health Organization (WHO) water boiled at “158°F(70°C) will kill 99.999% of bacteria, protozoa, and viruses in less than 1 minute.” Simple as that. You may now fill your guests wine glasses with cloudy water of a lightly tan-hue, a mild taste of copper and assure them that it's “safe” to drink.

Will my backpacking water purifier be enough?

What about that cloudiness and taste of copper? For camping trips in most National Forests, a basic hand-operated pump filter such as those used by backpackers will produce sparkling-clear water that probably doesn't need boiled. That said, the tiny hand-operated units will wear everyone at the campsite out trying to produce 8-10 gallons per day. The same companies that make handheld units for backpackers often make larger units for groups that come in both pump and gravity-fed varieties. However, if you are in a somewhat urban area such as a state park, chemicals in the local creek may be a legit concern. This is an often-overlooked topic in the backpacking community. Few of the water purifiers available on the backpacking market are capable of removing chemicals & heavy metals, which bring us to our last topic; water filter and water purifier products.

Water Filtration vs Water Purification

More sophisticated portable water filters such as the backpacking variety are capable of removing 99% of all bacteria, viruses and protozoa (and cloudiness) from water using filtration alone, which is very impressive. For those of you raising an eyebrow wondering about the other 1%, the short answer is yes. Relatively rare viruses like rotovirus, Norwalk virus and even Hepatitis A are tiny enough to sneak through these filters, causing at least 2 US States to make it illegal to market any product under the term water “purifier” because many of them are actually just “filters”. What are the chances of you encountering these viruses on your weekend camping trip? Incredibly small.

Ok, so your water is now crystal clear and safe from living organisms. Those of us with a paranoid streak know that we can boil after we filter and bring that 99% up to 99.999% safe, but what can we do about that copper or sulphur taste? This is actually the trickiest part. Generically termed “bad tastes”, chemicals and heavy metals are very difficult to get out of water. Bearing in mind that things like mercury, arsenic, cadmium, lithium and lead are actually naturally occurring (at non-toxic levels) in water, those of us that want to be sure we are not exposed to toxic levels will require a special piece of kit that's not going to fit in a backpack. Such purifiers are often gravity fed and have multiple levels of filtration which may include activated carbon, reverse osmosis, ion exchange resin or KDF (kinetic degradation fluxion). These types of tabletop purifiers are capable of removing most of what we have listed here and they are as expensive as they sound.

The takeaway

boil water while camping to purify

Seeing as it is legal in most places to market a water filter as a water purifier, we can only recommend due diligence in your search for the perfect water filter or purifier. Shocked? You should be. At the beginning of this article you may have assumed that we could give you the easy answer for a simple problem. It turns out that toxic levels of heavy metals, chlorine, hormones, pesticides and other volatile organic compounds in our water is a very serious concern to us all and there is no easy answer. However, insofar as your Perfect Camping Trip is concerned, the easiest and safest thing to do is just bring a minimum of 2 gallons of water per-person-per-day in sturdy travel containers filled from your tap in the comfort of your home.