When preparing for camping, hiking, or some other outdoor activity, packing enough water should be on top of your list. If you find yourself in the wild and without clean water, you won’t last longer than 3 days. 

There are lots of sources of water in the wild, but it is highly unlikely it would be good for drinking before processing it in some way. So, how to purify water in the wild?

Where to find water?

water stream

First, you will need to find water before purifying it. Depending on where you find yourself there can be abundant or practically no water sources. We will divide them into categories. 

  1. Surface water – lakes, rivers, streams, and similar are pretty obvious water source, but salty or brackish water can also be used  if you can distill water 
  2. Springs and underground water – this is probably the “cleanest” water source, but we still recommend purifying it since it could be chemically polluted. 
  3. Precipitation water – fresh rain that didn’t fall through the tree canopy should be safe to drink immediately. Snow, sleet, ice, or dew can also be collected.
  4. Tapped trees – maple, birch, walnut, hickory

1. Boiling

boiling water outdoors

This is the best-known and one of the safest methods for water disinfection. Boiling won’t remove all chemical contaminants but it should kill all pathogens. It can be done over the campfire but make sure the water is boiling for at least 1 minute, and 3 minutes if you are above 6 500 feet ( 2000 meters ) altitude. If you are using metal containers, don’t use aluminum ones because when heated it can seep bad stuff into the water.

Boil only clean water without any dirt, leaves, and other large debris. You can accomplish this simply by filtering water through a clean t-shirt that is folded a couple of times. 

If you don’t have any fireproof container you can heat rocks for 30 minutes and put them in your water container, but be careful if using this technique since some rocks can explode when heated. The best way to avoid this is to pick rocks that are dense, hard, made from one material, and angular, also avoid river rocks. 

2. Distillation – solar still

Solar still is a simple invention that will both collect and distill water. It is based on a greenhouse effect, and you will need a few simple items to build it. Start with digging a 3 feet deep hole in the ground and at the bottom place a clean container with green vegetation around it, then stretch a 5×5 feet square piece of milky plastic over the hole. Seal the rim of the plastic with dirt and rocks to keep the steam from escaping and then put a small rock at the center of the plastic square to make it cone-shaped. 

The sun will create steam underneath the plastic that will start to condense on plastic. After a while, the water will start to drip from the plastic into the container at the bottom. 

Instead of vegetation, you can put salty water in the hole. After the water evaporates all the salt will remain in the hole and only fresh water will be in the container.

3. Filtering

The easiest way to build a water filtration system is with a bottle and a container. Cut the bottom of the bottle, and punch a hole in the bottle cap where water will drain in the container underneath. Put a piece of fabric at the neck of the bottle, it will serve as the final filtering layer, then put layers of charcoal, fine sand, small gravel, and larger gravel.

Running your water through this system a couple of times will clear it from any physical contaminants, but you will still need to treat it in some other way to remove bacteria and other pathogens. 

4. Disinfecting tablets and drops

Purify water with tablets

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Depending on your needs there are lots of commercially available disinfecting tablets, usually, they are iodine or chlorine-based. If you are just starting to experience the great outdoors they are a good choice because they are so simple to use. However, be careful since different products have different use instructions, and also, it is not recommended to use them over a longer period of time. Another downside of tablets and drops is that they make water taste bad.

Iodine drops

First, let’s say that this method isn’t safe for pregnant women, and for people who are allergic to shellfish. Water won’t taste so great, but this method is quite easy, yet effective. 

Use 2% iodine tincture, and add 5 drops per quart of water. If the water is a bit cloudier, use 10 drops. Let it rest for 30 minutes before drinking it. 

5. UV devices

SteriPen Ultra UV Water Purifier

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This method is really effective since UV light disrupts the DNA of microorganisms in seconds. They are great for clear water, but if the water is a bit murky or if there are some particles floating around, it won’t be 100 percent efficient. Usually, they are small, pen-shaped devices that are really practical for camping, and another great thing is that they don’t add to the taste of water. However, they usually run on batteries so it can be a problem if they run out and you didn’t bring spare ones.

6. Backpack filters

filtering water with straw

Today there are two main types of water filters for backpackers, pump-based and gravity-based.

The biggest difference is that with pump-based ones you will have to do all the work, while with the others you just hang a reservoir and let gravity do all the work. 

When choosing a backpack-filter for yourself, pay attention to pore size, most of them have a pore size of 0.1 or 0.2 microns which will be enough to filter out protozoa and bacteria. Viruses can be as small as 0.02 microns, so the best way to get rid of them is with chemical and UV purifiers.

Most of the filters have activated carbon which can remove contaminants like pesticides and similar chemicals, but it also removes unpleasant tastes from water.  

Straw-like filters

The best thing about them is that you can drink directly from the source. They are small and light which makes them really practical when packing. On the other hand, there is no container so water is only available when you are at the source. Another advantage is that most of them have activated carbon filters that remove bad flavors from water.


Any of these methods will provide you with safe water, however, if you ever find yourself in a situation where you are unable to treat your water, drink it raw. There are good chances you will catch some disease, but it is better to be sick and alive than to die from dehydration.

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