Clean-water-mountains

Backcountry Water Treatment | The Complete Guide

Updated May 21, 2020

This is a complete resource guide to backcountry water treatment!

Here is an overview of what you’ll learn in this article:

  • How can I tell if water needs to be treated?
  • Best solutions for treating backcountry water
  • What could happen if I don’t treat my water?
  • Smart choices while picking a water source
  • What to avoid when picking a water source
  • Our best advice

Let’s do this!

Introduction to Backcountry Water Treatment

If you’re planning to go on a camping trip, climbing trip, or any sort of outdoor activity for an extended period of time you usually right away start a mental packing list. You need your camping gear, clothes, shelter, food, and water. You likely have your go-to gear and favorite snacks. But what about water? Water is so tough. If you’re going on a trip for more than a few days, you can’t expect to lug around a week’s worth of water on your back. So what do people do?

Finding a natural water source is a great way to not only live off the environment but also minimize the cargo you are carrying. It is great to find a body of water you can drink from, but it is extremely important to treat your water.

How can I tell if water needs to be treated?

It’s nearly impossible to tell if water needs to be treated with the naked eye. However, the first thing that gives you a sign is if the water has debris or sediment floating around in it. But even if your water looks clean and pure, you really want to be sure you are eliminating all protozoa, bacteria, and viruses. Let’s see how we can accomplish this.

Best solutions for treating backcountry water

Lake Tahoe California

1. Boiling Water

Boiling water is by far the best option to ensure your water is as clean as possible. Water should be boiled for at least 1 minute. This should be a rapid boil with lots of bubbling. Keep in mind that if you are at an altitude (or over) of 6562 feet, the water should be boiled for at least 3 minutes. This method should kill all pathogens.

2. Filtration

Filtration can most definitely be used to kill microorganisms, but this all depends on a number of things. It depends on the size of the pores of the filter, contamination volume, as well as the size of the microorganisms you’re trying to filter.

3. Disinfection

Disinfection is an option, but there are many factors that highly contribute to the outcome. Chemical disinfection success depends on how cloudy the water already is, how concentrated the actual disinfection is, water temperature, and water pH levels. This, of course, varies by what kind of disinfection you choose, as all manufacturers make their product slightly different. Some have a higher concentration which therefore affects contact time. All of these factors play a big role in effectiveness.

4. Combination of Disinfectant & Filters

This is by far the most effective solution if boiling water is not an option.

What could happen if I don’t treat my water?

There are lots of things that could contaminate water, but do you know where they come from? Do you know the side effects? It is good to be knowledgeable of this, so you can better understand what and why these things happen. Let’s go through what we come across frequently.

Water-mountains1. Cryptosporidium

Cryptosporidium is a parasite that can cause cryptosporidiosis. The most common symptoms from this are diarrhea, vomiting, cramps. The source of this parasite is from human and animal fecal waste.

Effective removal methods:

  • Boiling water (refer to the method above)
  • Filtration is effective when an absolute less than or equal to 1-micron filter is used
  • Disinfection with chlorine dioxide has a moderate effectiveness
  • Combination of filtration and disinfection is highly effective when both chlorine dioxide and an absolute less than or equal to 1-micron filter is used

Ineffective removal methods:

  • Disinfection with chlorine or iodine is not effective

2. Giardia Intestinalis

Giardia intestinalis, also known as Giardia Iamblia is also a parasite that comes from human and animal fecal waste. This also is commonly accompanied by diarrhea, vomiting, and cramps.

Effective removal methods:

  • Boiling water has high effectiveness (refer to the method above)
  • Filtration has high effectiveness when an absolute less than or equal to 1-micron filter is used
  • Disinfection with chlorine dioxide has a high effectiveness
  • Combination of filtration and disinfection is highly effective when both chlorine dioxide and an absolute less than or equal to 1-micron filter is used
  • Disinfection with iodine or chlorine has a low/moderate effectiveness

3. Bacteria (Salmonella, Shigella, E. Coli, Campylobacter)

Ingesting bacteria from contaminated water can likely cause gastrointestinal illnesses with diarrhea, vomiting, and cramps. These types of bacteria come from human and animal fecal waste.

Effective removal methods:

  • Boiling water has high effectiveness (refer to the method above)
  • Filtration has moderative effectiveness when an absolute less than or equal to 0.3-micron filter is used
  • Disinfection with chlorine or iodine has a high effectiveness
  • Disinfection with chlorine dioxide has a high effectiveness
  • Combination of filtration and disinfection is highly effective when iodine, chlorine, chlorine dioxide and an absolute less than or equal to 0.3-micron filter is used

4. Viruses (Norovirus, Hepatitis A, Enterovirus, Rotavirus)

Ingesting viruses from contaminated water can potentially cause gastrointestinal illnesses with diarrhea, vomiting, and cramps, as well as hepatitis and meningitis. These types of viruses come from human and animal fecal waste.

Effective removal methods:

  • Boiling water has high effectiveness (refer to the method above)
  • Disinfection with chlorine or iodine has a high effectiveness
  • Disinfection with chlorine dioxide has a high effectiveness

Ineffective removal methods:

  • Filtration is not effective
Lake-Tahoe

Smart choices while picking a water source

All of those viruses and bacteria can sound super scary. So it helps to make smart decisions from the beginning, in choosing where you actually source your water from. This can help the overall quality of your water from the start. Here are some tips you can look out for while sourcing your water:

  • Flowing water is always a smart choice if possible. Try a stream or river area where water is in high rapid movement. This eliminates any sort of growth or build-up of microorganisms.
  • Off-shore locations are always better as well. Microorganisms tend to be highly concentrated along the shore.
  • Avoid areas that have a lot of sediment or silt. Calm water areas like lakes or pools usually have clear water, which passes through filters much better. Just remember if the water isn’t clear, there is a much higher chance of a filter getting clogged, and not working properly. This is the last resort if you cannot find flowing water.
  • Extra tip: Always gather water from the surface of your source. This will likely be the least murky. Let sediment sink down to the bottom, and try not to disturb it while water is being gathered.
  • Extra special tip: SANITIZE YOUR HANDS! Personal hygiene always plays a role in sourcing and treating water. The cleaner you keep your hands, the less chance of contaminating your water. A good practice is sanitizing your hands after going to the bathroom (duh – but we have to say it), after your hands have been in contact with natural water sources, and of course before food prep/water duty.

Things to avoid when picking a water source

  • Pack animals. Signs of nearby pack animals or other domesticated animal activity.
  • Meadows. Avoid water near meadows especially at lower elevations. Animals tend to graze here.
  • Heavily populated. Avoid water nearby heavily populated or popular campsites.
  • Human waste. Avoid any water sources around areas where there is evidence of high human traffic (therefore human waste).
  • Brown residue. Watch out for brown or discolored residue, foam, scum which is a sign of algae bloom. Keep in mind algae is not harmful. But it is a major red flag for nutrient-rich areas which microorganisms love to grow in.
  • Snow. Never assume the snow is clean. Microorganisms can live in ice for months.

Our best advice

There are lots of different types of filters, pumps, and chemical treatments out there. So do your research, and remember to always have a backup plan. You never know which method you may need, or which method could potentially fail you. Pumps that take batteries may die, filters can get misplaced, and at the end of the day, a product can simply not function properly. So our word of advice — always boil your water! It’s the safest and most effective way to ensure your water is treated properly.

Happy adventuring!

Rach

Questions, comments, feedback–we LOVE IT ALL!! Please feel free to drop us a line in the comments below.

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2 Responses

  1. Couldn’t agree more that boiling water is always a good (and cheap) way to go. To save fuel and go a little faster, I’ve used a UV light purifier system and with iodine tablets as a backup for most of my backcountry trips. The system is lightweight and saves a lot of space (pros) but runs on batteries and took me a bit to trust that a flashlight looking thing (cons). So far its a system that’s worked for me!

    1. Thank you so much Kevin! This is awesome information. We are thinking of doing a follow up article with specific solutions (like your examples), so this is great info! Really appreciate your feedback! -Rachel

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