Water Treatment 101

Water FiltrationWhen 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.