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How should you purify your water out on the trail?

  • Jan 19, 2015

When you're backpacking, hiking or camping, it's important have plenty of water. The general rule is to have about three quarts per person per day. However, if you're setting out for a few days, trying to carry that much water can be heavy and make your whole trip harder. A solution that many people turn to is to use running water they find along the trail. But, no matter how fresh and clean the water looks, you can't enjoy a sip without first purifying it, or you'll be risking parasites, bacteria and serious intestinal issues that will only dehydrate you further. 

There are several ways to purify water. Check out these popular options and discover which works best for you on your next outdoor excursion. 

Boiling 
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rated boiling as the most effective method to kill pathogens and other foreign bodies in water. At normal altitudes, boiling water for only 1 minute should be enough to kill everything. When you get to about 6,000 feet, however, you should boil for 3 minutes, the CDC recommended. 

Among the pathogens you're at risk of when you drink water from a river or stream are cryptosporidium, giardia, bacteria like salmonella and viruses such as norovirus. Most of these lead to gastrointestinal complications, which are especially painful when you're out in the wilderness. Boiling is very effective against all of these risks and one of the best against viruses. 

The disadvantages to boiling are that your water is hot, it takes a long time, you need to carry gear and fuel, and it can taste bland. 

Chemicals
The most popular way to use chemicals for purifying water on the trail are chemical tablets. Unlike boiling water, chemical tablets are quick, convenient and inexpensive. They're also much easier to carry than a pot and camp stove.

Chorine, iodine and chlorine dioxide are all chemicals that can be used for water treatment, although iodine is one of the most common in tablet form. They're all effective against bacteria and viruses, but less so against cryptosporidium and giardia. Talk to park rangers or people with knowledge of the area to understand whether chemical tablets will work against what you're likely to run into. 

The biggest downside of chemicals is that they leave behind a chemical aftertaste. When used as directed it should be safe to consume chemicals at these levels, but the taste can be off-putting to many. 

Even if you prefer other forms of purification, consider bringing tablets along for an emergency. Just like your watch thermometer, your chemical tablets are simply part of your camping gear. 

Filtration 
Physical filtration is an easy way to clean your water, but has limited success against some of the most troublesome pathogens. The CDC explained that filtration is successful against cryptosporidium and giardia but not viruses or bacteria. When used with chemicals, it's an effective method for killing bacteria. 

Filters can be light, be compact and work quickly, WaterFiltering.com pointed out, but they're also expensive, able to get clogged and only as good as the filters inside. 

UV Light 
As Hit The Trail explained, UV light filtration systems are new, but quickly emerging as popular. They're small, quick and effective against viruses among other pathogens. However, they can be expensive compared to other options and eat through batteries, making solar charges and extra batteries necessary, which add to its initial cost. 

The CDC reminded people to practice healthy bathroom habits when in the wild to limit the number of pathogens in the water. Burying waste at least 6 inches deep and 200 feet from a source of water helps ensure that fecal bacteria won't pass any of these pathogens to other campers. 

Keeping yourself healthy and safe should be your top priority when out in the wilderness. First aid and help could be difficult to obtain depending on where you are. So always go prepared and bring something to help you filter water and a watch that can help you navigate in the woods like the PRW2500R-1. These tools can keep you healthy and safe so you can return to your family and friends.

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