When you’re camping, treating your drinking water is one of the least glamorous tasks. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important.
There are lots of water treatment options available, and choosing the right one can be hard. For starters, most people don’t know that water filters and water purifiers interact in different ways. Filters physically strain out bacteria (Salmonella, E. coli, etc.) and protozoan cysts (Giardia), while water purifiers use chemicals (usually either chlorine or iodine) to kill bacteria, cysts, and viruses, which are too small for most filter elements. Other water treatment systems use ultraviolet light to treat water, which also kills bacteria, cysts, and viruses.
Still confused? Check out these simple recommendations to choose what’s best for you.
For an ultra-lightweight backpacking trip
Use the chemicals for shorter trips. They’re effective against bacteria, viruses, and protozoa, and they’re easy to use, too: just add them to your water and wait. Available in drops, pills, or other formats, chemical treatments are inexpensive, lightweight, and dependable. Pro tip: bring either neutralizer tablets or powdered drink mix to mask the taste of chemicals.
For international travel
Consider a handheld pen-style device that uses ultraviolet light to sterilize water. Simply press the button, insert the light into your bottle, and wait for the device to turn off. Pros: it’s simple, easy, and discrete—some travelers even treat water in restaurants when they’re traveling! Cons: most ultraviolet devices are only designed to treat one liter at a time, so treating large amounts of water can be time-consuming. If this is your primary method of water treatment, always carry extra batteries.
For car camping
On trips where weight isn’t a concern, experts recommend simply boiling all drinking water. All you need are your stove, fuel, and a pot, and you’ve got a fully effective treatment against all water-borne pathogens—with no funky tastes or added chemicals. Bring water to a rolling boil for a full minute (unless you’re above 6,500’, in which case you should boil for a full three minutes.) Let cool completely before drinking. Pro tip: if your water source is murky or full of sediment, consider using a pre-filter so you’re not drinking sand, and keep this in mind as a backup if your filter breaks or fails.
For a rafting trip
You’ll want a pump filter. Just drop the intake hose into a water source, affix the outlet into a pot or bottle, then pump. Pros: they’re easy to use, don’t leave a chemical taste, and make it easy to filter exactly the amount of water you need. Cons: pumping can be a chore. Mechanisms vary, so make sure you read the directions carefully.
For a long expedition
Consider a gravity filter. Just hang and fill the reservoir—and wait. Gravity filters can handle large amounts of water efficiently, so they’re great for big groups. They’re cost-effective, too. Just make sure you understand how the filter works—and how to fix it if it gets jammed. Always carry a backup, just in case.
Whenever you’re treating water, be careful to separate containers carefully—it can be easy to mix up clean and dirty bottles, and it only takes a drop to spread sickness. Always follow your water treatment system’s instructions carefully, and keep camp, bathroom, and dishwashing areas at least 200 feet from any water source. Use hand sanitizer before handling food or potable water.