Water is arguably the most important element for human survival. In a survival situation locating a source of water must be a top priority, but locating water is only the beginning of the process; it must be purified. Drinking water straight from the source, even in a pristine wilderness setting, is extremely dangerous. Water from a stream, pond, or lake may contain bacteria, parasites, or viruses. Any of these things can kill you or contribute to your death, especially if your immune system is compromised and you do not have access to medical help.
There are several ways in which you can make water safe to drink in the field. We will look at each method below.
Boiling water is the “old standby” method that has been used for many years. It has been used forever because it works. According to the CDC, boiling water for 1 minute should kill all pathogens in the water. If you are at altitudes of 6,562 feet or greater, you should boil the water for 3 minutes. You must allow the water to come to a rolling boil before you start timing it.
Obviously, if you are going to boil water, you need a fire and metal container to hold the water. I really like the EmberLit camp stove for boiling water. It is lightweight, folds up small enough to fit in your map pouch or pocket, and can be fueled with twigs. I highly recommend boiling water in a stainless steel pot. Boiling water is an easy, foolproof way to remove pathogens. The only downside to the method is that it takes time, a fire, and a pot. Without any of those items, it may be time to look at the next to methods.
Water Purification Tablets
Water purification tablets are a short term use purifier for emergency situations, when you can’t boil or filter water. They are for “bacterially compromised” water. Most of these tablets will kill bacteria and Giarda Lamblia, but will not protect against Cryptosporidium cysts. The tablets are simply dropped into the water. The active ingredient is titratable iodine and within 30 minutes the iodine will penetrate the cell walls of the microorganisms, rendering them inactive and make the water safe to drink. They do tend make the water taste ‘off’. If you follow the instructions, they are better than nothing. You shouldn’t use these tablets for long term situations, 6 weeks is the limit.
There are a lot of great water filters on the market today that can easily fit into your backpack and filter out all pathogens, including Cryptosporidium cysts. They key is finding a filter that has a pore size of 1 micron or less, according to CDC guidelines. It is best to choose a filter that is labeled NSF/ANSI Standard 53 or Standard 58 for cyst removal or cyst reduction by an ANSI-accredited certification organization.
Portable water filters are an excellent way to purify water in the field. I have used a small hand pump, backpacker filter for years. I bought my first one (like this one) when I was in the Alaskan backcountry. One tip I would offer using these filters is to gather water in a pot and let it settle before sucking the water through the filter. I also put a coffee filter over the prefilter that come on the end of the intake hose. This really cuts down on the silt from rivers and streams clogging up the filter. The filter cartridges are too pricey to fill them up with silt! I have run a lot of water through these types of filters and I’ve been happy with them.
If filtering water for a base camp, a larger but slower gravity filter might be useful. The Berkey Filter Systems are great for a more permanent base camp.
A new filter on the market is the Lifestraw unit. It is a throw away type personal water filter that can purify up to 264 gallons of water. The filter is 0.2 microns and should be able to remove most all of the above mentioned critters. They have recently started making some larger units as well. You can see their current offerings HERE
Have A Plan!
Clean drinking water should be one of the top priorities for anyone interested in preparedness. Figure out which of these purifying methods you wish to have at your disposal and make them part of your kit. As with anything, practice makes perfect and you should test and use these systems before your survival depends on it.
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