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How to disinfect water while camping

  • Aug 25, 2015

Ideally, you should either camp close to an acceptable water source or bring a lot of water with you during the trip. It's essential for washing, cooking and, of course, hydrating. Moreover, without access to drinking water, hiking vigorously can become dangerous, especially in the heat.

Still, there may be an emergency that leaves you without any trustworthy, filtered water. In this scenario, you may have to find an acceptable water supply to decontaminate. Here's what you should know about turning river, lake or natural water supplies into safe drinking water.

Decontamination doesn't remove every harmful substance
First and foremost, remember that not every water source can be easily turned into safe drinking water. While microorganisms and bacteria can be destroyed, other inorganic substances can't be removed easily. For example, the methods mentioned below will not make ocean water safe to drink because it contains salt, which will cause the substance to harm more than it will hydrate.

Salt, heavy metals and most chemicals will not be removed from the liquid using these methods, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Keep this in mind.

Filter first
Of course, this also goes for other substances like dirt, moss or scum. You don't want those hard substances in your drinking water, so do your best to filter them out. There are a few modern filter purifiers that turn natural water supplies into safe drinking water quickly, but you may not have one of these devices handy.

In a pinch, you can use a cloth, paper towel or a coffee filter stretched over a bowl or jug. The EPA recommended finding water that is not discolored or letting cloudy water settle before straining it this way. Remember, this method does not make the water safe to drink. Pathogenic bacteria, viruses and protozoa will move through your makeshift filter as easily as the water. Using one of the below methods is critical after straining.

Boiling is best
The most reliable method of disinfecting is boiling. Heating your water to a rolling boil for at least one minute will effectively kill all of those dangerous microorganisms, making the liquid safe to drink. After boiling, the water should be set aside to cool naturally. 

This method changes slightly at higher altitudes, however. Check your watch altimeter before setting a timer for boiling water. If you're hiking at an elevation higher than 5,000 feet, boiling for one minute will not be sufficient. Instead, boil for a full three minutes.

Bleach is also effective
In reality, if you've run out of clean water on the trail, you likely don't have the tools necessary to bring any amount of water to a rolling boil, though. For  a more convenient solution, a small amount of bleach can efficiently kill microorganisms. In fact, it takes just six drops of the substance to disinfect a whole gallon of water. However, it's very important that you use the right bleach. Regular, unscented bleach that is free of added cleaning substances is recommended.

This is why it's a good idea to pack a dropper and a small container of bleach in an emergency kit before hitting the trail. To purify the water, add the correct proportion of bleach to the filtered supply, stir and let it stand for at least 30 minutes.

Be aware, this method will give the water a chlorine taste, which may not be appealing. If the flavor is too strong for you, do not consider using less than the appropriate amount of bleach. Instead, move the water to another clean container and let stand for one or two more hours.

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