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How To Treat Water In The Backcountry For Safe Drinking

These days, when most people go camping, they tend to bring along a flat of bottled water to make sure they stay hydrated. But what happens when there is no fresh or bottled water around to drink, such as when you go wilderness camping or when you are in a survival situation, lost in the woods for several days or more?

In these cases, the ability to find and treat water becomes a life or death situation. People can go for several weeks without eating, but just a couple days without fresh water can be fatal.

To help you avoid that fate, in this article we will point out how to find, gather and treat water in the backcountry, and introduce you to the microorganisms and pathogens in the water that can do you great harm if that water is not properly treated.

Where to Look for Water

woman getting water from river

When you are in the backcountry, whether on a backpacking adventure, wilderness camping trip or in a survival situation of some kind, you are likely to come across a bevy of different water sources.

However, not all water sources are ideal for drinking. Here are just a few of the best places and tactics for finding the healthiest, potentially life-saving water, listed from best to worst.

  • Fast-moving water. Areas in which there is fast-moving water are the best places to gather the water you will treat. Places like rapidly-moving rivers and streams are great, as are the underside of waterfalls. You should always look for fast-moving water before you turn to any other sources. The reasons for this are many, including that fast-moving water is not a good place for algae and other microorganisms to accumulate. Moreover, mosquitos, which can cause a giant array of diseases, do not lay their eggs on fast-moving water.
  • Slower-moving water. Slower-moving water is your next best bet for the same reasons we listed above. Slower moving water can also be found in some rivers and streams, as well as in rills and brooks.
  • Calm Water. Calm water comes next on the list of acceptable sources in the backcountry. If you cannot find clear water that is moving rapidly or even slowly, turn to a calm water source such as a lake, pool, or swirling stream. Look for areas in which silt and sediment is absent or nearly absent. The reason silt and sediment is bad is because it does not filter well, clogging the filtration device and preventing water from passing through.
  • Water away from the shore. If no rapidly moving, slowly moving or clear water exists anywhere within reasonable walking distance, you may need to just settle for the water that is there. In this is the case, try to collect water that is furthest away from the shoreline. Bacteria and other microorganisms tend to gather closest to the shore, so use a make shift device if need be to reach far out into the water when collecting it.

If you are in a survival situation and it begins to rain, try to collect as much rain water as you possibly can—this is the freshest and cleanest water you will come upon. Also, be sure to wait several hours before collecting water from any other sources after a heavy rain.

Heavy rains tend to bring microorganisms and pathogens to the water’s surface after a steady rainfall, as well as a lot of silt and sediment. Rain will also wash pathogens and bacteria away from the shoreline, where they tend to gather most frequently and in the highest numbers.

There are several danger signs that you should definitely look out for when searching for an acceptable water source. These signs might suggest a greater chance of water contamination.

Thus, if there are other water sources available, you should definitely turn to them instead. Here are some of the signs to be on the lookout for:

  • Water near people or animals. People and animals pose the greatest threat for water contamination. Thus, it is wise to avoid water near populated areas and in places where animals graze, such as meadows or pastures.
  • Signs of messy human occupation. Water in places like established campsites, especially those campsites where very messy conditions are present, should be avoided like the plague.
  • Scummy water. Avoid water that has a lot of soapy or brown scum. This is a good indication that the water is contaminated.
  • Dirty snow. Dirty snow is also a no-no. Also, never assume that clear or clean looking snow is safe to eat/drink. Pathogens can literally live for 6 months or more in icy conditions.

Identifying the Different Types of Water-Borne Threats

So what exactly do we have to worry about when it comes to the water in the backcountry? Actually, any water on the earth’s surface can potentially contain any number of microscopic-sized pathogens—pathogens that can cause a whole host of problems.

Any water that can possibly be contaminated by human or animal feces, or any other disease causing fluids, can cause major problems. According to experts, ingesting just a few of these disease-producing microorganisms is enough to cause diarrhea and other intestinal maladies—maladies that can quickly dehydrate your system, which can lead to even more problematic symptoms.

The disease-causing pathogens that can be found in the water of the backcountry can be categorized into three primary groups: protozoa, bacteria, and viruses. Some of these pathogens can live for months in a backcountry water supply, a fact that underscores the harm they can cause.

Here is a brief description of each of these pathogen categories:

  • Protozoa. The protozoa that can be found in backcountry water supplies include “Cryptosporidium parvum and Giardia lamblia,” among others. Protozoa such as these can be identified (microscopically) by their hard outer shell or cyst that protects them from a range of chemicals. Protozoa are relatively large compared to bacteria and viruses, and while they are more difficult to kill chemically because of the outer cyst, their larger size makes them easier to filter out of the backcountry water.
  • Bacteria. There are many types of bacteria that can find their way into backcountry water. Some of the biggest culprits, however, are some you might have heard of, including Escherichia coli (E. coli), Salmonella, and Campylobacter, all of which can cause major intestinal maladies. Bacteria can be described as mid-sized pathogens, and most of these can also be removed by water filters and through the use of some chemicals.
  • Viruses. Some of the viruses that can be found in the water of the backcountry include Hepatitis A, rotavirus, and norovirus. Viruses are much smaller than both protozoa and bacteria. As such, they can be difficult—to near impossible—to filter out of water with standard filtration systems. To ensure there are none of these viruses in your drinking water, you would need to turn to other methods, including boiling the water or using a UV water purification kit (remember, purifying and filtering water are not the same thing).

How to Treat Backcountry Water

Even if the water you gathered in the backcountry looks pristine and clear, there is still a good chance that it can be contaminated.

To ensure the water you have gathered is completely safe to drink, use one or more of the following treatment methods to clean and purify it.

Boil the Water

Boiling water is the only sure-fire method for killing all of the protozoa, bacteria and viruses within backcountry water. When boiling the water you plan to drink, make sure to bring it to a rapid boil and let it continue to boil for at least one minute.

If you are in the woods at an altitude of 6500 feet or higher, you should allow the water to boil for at least three minutes. There are of course a couple of downsides to choosing this method of backcountry water treatment.

First, you will need to bring along enough fuel for the boiling process, and second, boiling the water does not remove any sediment or debris. If you want, however, you can always filter the water before boiling it.

Use Water Filters to Clean the Water

Water filters are a somewhat good way to clean your backcountry water. Through filtering, you can be sure to clean out any silt, sediment or debris from the water.

Water filters are also a good way to block protozoa and bacteria, however, they are not very effective against viruses—viruses that can make you very sick. There are several water filtration kits that are available to purchase, including filtering straws.

They can be found at most camping stores and offer a good level of protection against many known contaminants.

Use Water Purifiers to Clean the Water

Water purifiers are a great way to clean backcountry water, but they do take quite a while to work. UV light water purifiers are wand-like and they utilize very intense ultraviolet light to disturb the DNA in all types of contaminants, making them impossible to reproduce.

These lightweight tools are simple to use, but they do require batteries and light bulbs—bulbs that can get damaged when hiking in the backcountry. These tools are most effective in clearer water, and are usually used in combination with water filtration kits.

Chemical Water Treatment Options

A good adjunct or even stand-alone backcountry water treatment option is the chemical-based one. Many companies sell iodine or chlorine oxide tablets that are designed to kill most contaminants in the water.

Again, this is a treatment option that should usually be used in concert with a water filtering kit, because the tablets will not remove any dirt or sediment from the water.

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