Water boiling over an open fire

How to Sanitize Your Drinking Water While Backpacking

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A beautiful spring morning in the backcountry, you wake up next to the sun rising just above the trees on the horizon. Basking in the enjoyment of the morning sun, the warm feel of a cup of coffee, and enjoying the sun beginning to burst over the horizon, displaying all the colors of a kaleidoscope. Now imagine that same scenario without knowing how to sanitize your drinking water while backpacking, coupled with a terrible, violent, messy case of the shits.

Not fun. None at all.

Contaminated drinking water can be treacherous, and if you are unlucky enough to be in a remote location it will magnify the ramifications of the situation tenfold. Clean drinking water is the most important part of backpacking long distances. Once you have the tools and knowledge, then avoiding tainted water becomes second nature.

Why you should sanitize your water

Gone are the days of drinking from a freshwater source safely and without the fear of catching some sort of stomach bug.

With the explosive population growth over the last 100 years, most if not all of the water sources you stumble across are not safe to drink from

Sanitizing your drinking water is the key for any successful backpacking trip. Carrying around enough water for your entire trip is not practical and will add weight at a torrid pace.

The best approach is to sanitize any, and all, of the water that you plan on drinking.

What’s in the water anyway?

For sure nothing nice, they are all nasty creatures and their singular goal in life is to give you diarrhea, really bad, for as long as they can.

  • Giardia
  • Bacteria
  • Cryptosporidium
  • Viruses
  • Chemicals

Giardia

Giardia infection (Giardiasis) is one of the most common water-borne pathogens in the United States. This slimy little parasite resides in the digestive system of humans and animals. Giardia is most often found in water contaminated with feces. The effects of Giardia on the human body are unpleasant, to say the least. Giardia causes severe stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Giardia is in…

  • Lakes
  • Rivers
  • Pools
  • Jacuzzi’s
  • Wells

Bacteria

Bacteria are both good and bad for you, some of the bacteria found in your drinking water will have serious consequences.

There are a large number of different types of bacteria on the planet.

Unfortunately, there is no 5-second test to discover which you will be drinking when you sip from a random source of water.

This is a short list of some of the bacteria found in your drinking water.

Viruses

Viruses that make you sick are never a good thing, ever. It is commonly known that bacteria found in drinking water is one of the reasons that people fall ill from tainted water. Viruses are another way to get super sick from the water, and obviously, should be avoided at all costs.

There are over a hundred viruses in water, here is a short list of some nasty ones found in water…

  • Hepatovirus
  • Norovirus
  • Enterovirus
  • Rotovirus

Cryptosporidium

This one gives you the shit’s, really nasty shits.

It’s a type of diarrhea caused by microscopic parasites in the water, unfortunately, you will not see or smell them.

Symptoms from Cryptosporidium can last up to two weeks and involve watery diarrhea that will ruin anyone’s day.

Some of the symptoms include…

  • Watery diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fever

Chemicals

This one is a fairly new gift that we all have the pleasure of dealing with in our water supply. The industrial revolution has brought us some awesome amenities that make our lives much easier. The downside of that is that the waste from the production of the materials is often in the form of chemicals, and those chemicals make it into the local water supply.

A few of the chemicals found in water include…

Methods to Purify Your Water

There are a few different ways to purify your water and the method isn’t as important as the outcome. The most important thing you can do is to treat your water in some way, shape, or form.

Boiling Does the Job

Knowing how to sanitize your drinking water while backpacking is half the battle, and boiling your water is king. Boiling your water is a foolproof way of keeping your stomach safe and asshole closed. The only requirement is having a water source that is accessible, a means to boil the water, and a container to boil the water.

Boiling your water kills everything and is the safest route to clean and pure water. On a long hike or backpacking trip, we often have the means to heat up some grub, and that will double as a water purifier. The only things that you need are fire and a pot or metal canister of some sort.

Purification Tablets

I keep these with me on every backpacking trip and every time I travel abroad. The idea that I can toss them in any water source and wait 30 minutes makes them a no-brainer for me to take on every trip.

Purification tablets eliminate everything except for sediment (gross) and chemicals (bad). For the ultralight backpacker, water purification tablets are your best friend. Simple, easy to use, and lightweight. All you have to do is toss them in and let them sit for a few minutes, and bingo bango, you got yourself some clean water.

Purification Straw Filters

The most famous is the Life Straw, with this you can drink from any water source by sipping through the straw. The major difference and limitation of water filters are that the filters are not always created equal. Sippy straw filters do not eliminate heavy metals, chemicals, Giardia, or Cryptosporidium.

They are made of carbon, ceramic, or synthetic filters that will kill the bacteria and chemicals. If you need a filter to remove viruses as well, then look for one that has iodine in it as well. This will do the trick.

Bleach It

A quick, easy, and lightweight solution for sanitizing your drinking water while backpacking. The proper mixture is 6 drops of bleach for every gallon of water. Add the bleach and stir, then wait for half an hour before drinking.

Bleach will not kill Cryptosporidium, however, bleach is easy to carry in one of the small travel containers that are available for purchase in any major grocery store. Just bring a few ounces with you, it will not weigh that much, and in a pinch is a perfect solution for quick and easy sanitation.

UV Light Filters

Filtering your water with UV, the first time I heard this major doubt arose in my mind. “How the heck does UV eliminate anything?”

A UV water filtration system can eliminate up to 99% of waterborne pathogens that are commonly found in water. The UV rays penetrate harmful pathogen in the water neutralizing all the nasty bits. UV filters will not eliminate chemicals, heavy metals, or volatile organic compounds.

This is great and all, however, it will not eliminate chemicals that found in water. It also needs electricity, so if you’re on a long trip and plan on using it frequently you may run into some problems.

Pump Water Filters

These operate with the same mechanical function as the straw type filters. They will filter your water through a filament made up of ceramic or carbon, with very small holes.

You hand pump the fresh water through a hose which filters out the bad shit we talked about above. Again, not everything will be eliminated but it’s better than drinking from a pond of stagnant water. Pump water filters will not eliminate Giardia, Cryptospordium, heavy metals, or chemicals.

The hand pump water filter can handle a larger volume than the sipping straws and work well when you have a large group of people. Boiling your water after filtering is good practice. It may seem redundant, however, taking every step to protect yourself from a stomach bug and the accompanying effects are well worth your time.

Gravity Water Filters

This water purification system works with gravity and utilizes similar technology as the water pump and water filtration straw solution. One of the benefits of gravity water filters is that they are lightweight and work relatively fast, making them useful to anyone on the go.

Gravity water filters will not eliminate Cryptosporidium, chemicals, heavy metals, or Giardia. The filters are made of ceramic, carbon, or other synthetic materials with little itty bitty holes that work as filters. These filters are another option, and really it is about preference and convenience.

Conclusion

Never just drink it, ever. There are more than enough ways to fall ill from water than you can count on one hand. On the contrary, there are more ways to sanitize your water than you can count on one hand as well. If you feel like living on the edge, go ahead and drink from any water source you see.

Knowing how to sanitize your drinking water while backing will save your stomach and backpacking partners a smelly mess. Keep in mind that even if you find a fresh source of fresh water, you have no idea who or what makes its home upstream. You only need the case of the shits once in your life when you are on a week-long trip to realize that you never want that to happen again.

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