Purify Water in the Wilderness – A Skill to Keep You Alive
By Kevin Steffey, Natural Blaze
The truth of the matter is that no matter how much water you can find while you’re out in the wilderness, it will almost always need some level of purification before you ingest it. Even high in the mountains, with clear, running water directly near the source of a spring you can’t always be sure that it’s not going to make you sick. Fortunately, there’re quite a few ways to make sure that what you’re drinking is safe, and most of them won’t take up much room in your hunting backpack.
First Things First: Filtering
Not all of the water you’re going to be able to find is only going to be infested with microbes, there’s also the matter of removing silt in many cases. There are a number of ways you can go about this, but in a survival situation you might not have the materials to set up an actual filter.
If you can, cut off the bottom of a water bottle and pull a piece of cloth over the open mouth piece. Add small rocks, then gravel, then a layer of sand above this and pass the water through. The sand and gravel will catch much of the silt and help to clarify the water quite a bit.
In the worst case scenario, you might find yourself having to just use whatever cloth you have on hand. This can be surprisingly effective. If you have an extra shirt folding it over multiple times in order to make sure that you have extra layers will make this method more effective.
With running water this is less of a problem, and if it’s a truly desperate situation don’t worry too much about a little bit of silt. As long as the water is mostly clear, you’re ready to pick a method for the actual purification of the water.
The Old Reliable: Boiling
Boiling will kill almost anything that will get you sick in the water. This means that some kind of metal container, even a canteen, in your bag is about as essential as your hunting boots while on an extended trek. Gather your water, get a fire going and allow it to get to a rolling boil.
The recommendation is generally to bring things to a rolling boil for at least a minute, but in the case of particularly suspect water it’s not going to hurt to keep things going for at least three to five minutes just in case. Once this is done, you can allow the water to cool and rest assured that it’s quite unlikely to make you sick.
In the event that you don’t have a fireproof container on hand there is a way to use non-fireproof materials to boil although you can risk contaminating the water with some melted plastic. It’s still a better prospect than dying of dehydration, however.
Cut off the top of the bottle and make a pile of stones in the bottom of it. Then use a fire to heat a few other stones and figure out a way to move them. Once the stones are sufficiently heated you can place them one at a time on the stones at the bottom of the container in order to get the water to a rolling boil. Replace the stones as they cool enough to be touched until you’ve kept the water boiling for a good amount of time.
This method is a little bit chancier, since you risk damaging your container, but if you go about the procedure with some care then you’re likely to be able to pull it off. Moving the heated stones will depend highly on what you happen to have with you and your surroundings, but most people will be able to figure out something.
Getting Specialized: Chemical Treatments
Chemical treatment methods are favored by many people, and if you choose wisely you can keep the cost down quite a bit while also minimizing the amount of space it will take in your pack.
A 2% iodine tincture is probably the cheapest route, you’ll only need a very small amount in order to make sure that you have clean water. For clear water roughly three drops per liter is pretty much ideal, if the water is still cloudy after filtration go with five just to be safe.
Bleach can be used in the same manner and ratio, but it can’t be used to disinfect wounds effectively which makes iodine the ideal solution for the problem.
In either case, wait at least half an hour in the case of clear water or a full hour in the case of cloudy water to allow the chemicals time to kill off microbes.
Iodine tablets for water purification are also available, but they cost quite a bit more and using them for any emergency first aid use is going to be a pain since you’ll need to mix them carefully with water for them to be of any use.
Indeed, a small vial of 2% tincture with an eyedropper is a good idea to have in your first aid kit anyways. It’s less painful to use than rubbing alcohol and requires much less volume than hydrogen peroxide, which are the usual disinfectants used while in a wilderness situation.
The Lifesaving Lifestraw
Recently there have been a bevy of new filtration devices on the market which allow you to easily drink from nearly any source of water. The foremost of these is undoubtedly the Lifestraw, which is used in many areas of the world.
One of these devices costs very little, can filter up to 1000L of water per straw, and allows you to drink directly from all but the most contaminated sources of water. Indeed, there are even models available which can help you to make sure that even heavy metals and organic chemicals like pesticides can be removed from the water you’re drinking from.
They take up very little room in your pack and are probably the easiest solution while out and about in the wilderness. Many people use them to drink directly from streams and even stagnant sources of water like lakes and ponds without suffering ill consequences.
We would still recommend boiling the water, however, if you have the resources available as an extra precautionary method. You can never be too sure, and remember that water poisoning can take days to weeks to affect you, which isn’t so bad if you manage to get back out in only a few days but can turn a bad situation into a lethal one if you’re not found quickly enough.
Knowing how to purify water in the wilderness is one of the basic survival skills that should be mastered by anyone who spends a significant amount of time away from civilization. The above methods are all simple and don’t really require much in the way of money or advanced methods and if you keep them in mind they might just save your life one day.
Kevin Steffey is an avid hunter and freelance writer. He loves spending time in the field with his rifle more than almost anything else, and occupies his off-time discussing deer and their habits online. He is a founder at www.deerhuntingfield.com