Last week my sister and I went hiking in blueberry country, up at Graveyard Fields on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. Thinking we were only going to be gone for half an hour or so, we brought no provisions with us. We followed a trail and came across a pipe sticking out of the hillside yielding what looked like fresh cool water. But…what if it wasn’t?
Whether you’re hiking, camping, or traveling to a place with poor water quality, you should always purify water from an untreated or unfamiliar source before drinking it.
Reasons to Purify Water in the Wilderness
Even if a water source appears clear and cold, there still may be a number of things in it that you don’t want to ingest. Giardia is one of the most common protozoa that lives in fresh water. It is a pathogen that can cause stomach upset, nausea, and diarrhea – not something you want to get during a camping trip. Listeria, coliforms, and other bacteria can be carried by birds and small animals. You can’t see it, smell it, or taste it, but it could be there.
DIY Water Filter and Purification
Filter the water
Always carry a handkerchief with you while out in the wilderness. Not only can you blow your nose or wipe away sweat, but you can also use it as a DIY water filter. (Although I recommend a clean one for filtering water!) Place the cloth over a bottle (and always carry a water bottle with you) to filter out the big stuff like sand, silt, and sticks. Then you can do any of the following to purify your water:
Purify the water
- Chemical disinfection is not a natural solution to water purification, but is often used when a very small or lightweight option is needed. Iodine and chlorine tablets can be used to purify water. At a warmer temperature, like 60°F, these tablets will purify water in about 30 minutes. Colder water will take longer. The taste is sometimes undesirable, so you can add some powdered lemon juice or something similar to mask the taste.
- Boil the water if you can. Boiling at 212°F for 10 minutes will kill most bacteria. At higher elevations, let it boil a bit longer. Once water is cooled it’s safe to drink.
- If you’ll be in the wild a lot, consider getting a portable UV water pen. They can be costly, ranging between $50 and $100, but if you camp as much as I do, it could be well worth the cost. The pens use ultraviolet light to kill bacteria, much the same way larger lights kill algae in ponds. They are very safe, but the pen must be used again each time water is added to your container.
- Membrane filters are used in homes to filter out metallic minerals such as manganese and copper. They have threads running around them which create a barrier water can pass through, but particulate can not. Water bottles with membrane filters are a convenient option for hiking and camping.
- Carbon filters are often used with membrane filters. Carbon has many minute holes that bacteria and minerals can be trapped in. Once trapped, they can’t be flushed out. (I’ve taken the carbon in my filters and buried it in my garden as the minerals that I want to filter out can be used by the plants’ roots. The roots suck the particulate out of the holes in minute amounts and use it for growth.) You can see examples of carbon water filters here and here.
- Find many other water filtration techniques here.
- Steam distillation works very well to get rid of almost anything undesirable you might find in water. Here’s a simple way to make your own steam distiller:
How to Make Your Own Steam Distiller
- kettle that will withstand high heat
- stainless steel funnel that fits over top of kettle
- tubing, coiled is best – it should reach from the smallest point of funnel to bucket
- 5-gallon bucket – with hole in the bottom side large enough for the tubing to come through
- a stand for the bucket
- jar to catch pure water
- heat source
- Set your kettle on the heat source. Do not turn on yet. Place the funnel upside down on top of the kettle.
- Attach the tube to the smallest part of the funnel, which will be sticking up in the air. Coil the tube like a spring. Leave about 3 feet of coil until you get to the bucket. Coil the tube inside the bucket around the inside of the outer wall, then pull a small amount of tube out of the hole.
- Place the jar under the portion of tube that is emerging from the bucket. Fill the bucket with ice.
- Take a mixture of ½ cornmeal and ½ flour and make a paste. Form a dough with the paste and seal any cracks and joints with the dough.(Some recommend just flour, rye flour, and water, but an old moonshiner told me to use cornmeal with it and it works every time.)
- Allow paste to dry for a few hours. Then add your dirty water and fire up the burner.
- The water will heat, forming steam. The steam will rise up into the funnel, curling around through the tube. As it travels through the tube coiled with the ice, the steam will condense and turn back into water, leaving you with pure, fresh water, and nothing else.
- Cool before drinking.
(For all the visual learners – this page shows a similar setup to the one described here. Some of it is different, but you get the idea.)
Have you ever purified your own water? How did you do it?