Clean Water When Backpacking

When hiking, nothing seems more pure than the cold water flowing in mountain streams.  However, even the cleanest looking water can harbor illness inducing pathogens and must be treated.  Once you find a back country water source, there are several treatment options to make sure that the water you drink is safe from bacteria, viruses and organisms. And making clean water when backpacking is actually a pretty fun chore.  In fact, it’s one my kids sometimes fight over!

Ways to Get Clean Water When Backpacking:

1. Boiling– First, filter the collected water through a bandana to remove as much sediment as possible. Bring water to a full roaring boil on your camp stove, and then let cool and it will be safe to drink, free from cysts, bacteria and viruses. Simply pour the boiled water into your bottles and you are good to go once it is cool enough to drink.  This method has its drawbacks as the amount of fuel required to boil all the water your group drinks may be substantial. It also may take quite a while to get cool enough to drink, and may never get past lukewarm in sunny weather which isn’t especially refreshing. However, in a pinch, this is an easy way to get clean water.

Clean water When Backpacking

2. Chlorine Dioxide– At only 1 oz, water treatment solutions are an uber lightweight treatment option. Available in both Drops and Tablets, treating water with chlorine dioxide kills all the most common bugs and viruses, and unlike iodine treatments, leaves a better aftertaste. Simply drop in your water and let it work its bug killing magic.  A major drawback to this method is the fact that it can take up to 4 hours to kill everything, which is not always convenient, and it is ineffective against cysts. If using this method, I would collect each evening all the water we need for the next day and let the treatment work overnight.

Clean Water When Backpacking

3. Filtering– There are several types of backpacking water filters on the market.  One I have recently come across which is both lightweight (only 2 ounces!) and affordable (about 20 bucks) is the Sawyer Mini Water Filtration System.  Using light pressure, water is passed through a filter into individual water bottles or hydration packs.  Simple to use, this is the most common type of system I’ve seen used when I’m section hiking the Appalachian Trail. Another type of filter is the MSR SweetWater Microfilter which uses a pump system. Similar in effectiveness to the Sawyer system, the Sweetwater weighs about 11 ounces but has the benefit of being able to filter larger volumes of water at a time. If you are hiking with a larger group, another filtration option is the Katadyn Base Camp Pro Water Filter, which is what we use when we are filtering water. By using gravity, this larger filter cleans water quickly for large groups without pumping. Weighing 13 ounces, it is a heavier option, but is very convenient in design and makes getting clean water a snap. We used this type of filter on a week long hike in Isle Royale National Park, as tapeworm cysts found in the water there can only be removed by boiling or filtering. However, there are a couple of drawbacks to filtering water. Because viruses are very small, filtration is ineffective in removing them and I know of many people who double up filtration with chlorine for this reason to insure the cleanest water possible. Another drawback is the way the filter can become clogged with silty or high sediment water. For this reason, I recommend bringing along a spare cartridge as a backup to whichever filtration system you choose, which adds to the overall weight.

Clean Water When Backpacking

4. Ultraviolet Light– Our favorite method for water treatment is our SteriPEN Adventurer.  Effective in treating water for both bacteria and viruses, the lightweight SteriPen (3.6 ounces), is simple to use.  Sturdy and dependable, I’ve used this model for numerous trips without problem. First I prefilter collected water through a SteriPEN Filter or even a bandana, to remove as much silt and sediment as possible. Then, using a wide mouthed container, dip the SteriPEN into the water and stir until the UV light turns off. Voila! Clean, drinkable water. The only drawback to this method is that it is ineffective in treating tape worm cyst contamination. Tape worm cysts are found only in certain areas, but this is a consideration depending upon where you are traveling. I love how clean water when backpacking is available almost immediately with this method of treatment.

Clean Water When Backpacking

Once you have decided how to treat your water, you will need to decide how to store it.  Because we hike with kids who sometimes misplace things, we use Nalgene Wide Mouth Bottles because I really appreciate their sturdiness and attached lids. Each kiddo and adult carries at least two of these during the day, with Dave and I carrying any extra water we need in extra bottles or a collapsible Nalgene Canteen. These bottles are virtually indestructible, but are somewhat heavy so decide for yourself whether the extra weight is worth it to you. A lightweight option is to carry refillable plastic water, soda or gatorade bottles.  Much lighter weight, these are also virtually free so a budget option as well.  However, they are less sturdy and require you to keep track of your lids.

Clean Water When Backpacking

With cool gear to play with, gathering and treating water is a favorite camp chore and one the kids sometimes fight over. No matter what your criteria, there is an easy way to get safe water on the trail and clean water when backpacking.

Click HERE to read our entire Family Backpacking 101 Series to get you out on the trail for your own adventures!

What’s your favorite water purification method?

Happy Trails!


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2 replies on “Clean Water When Backpacking”
  1. says: Kristin S

    I love how your kids are real contributors to your trips! Mine are a lot younger than yours, so I have this to look forward to. Are tapeworm cysts and other water threats well-publicized or do you have to think to research the water sources before each trip? (Total newbie backpacking dreamer here!)

    1. The only place we have been that tapeworms have been an issue is Isle Royale in Michigan and it is well publicized there about what treatment options work, both on their website and at the ranger talk when you arrive on the island. Viruses are generally more of an issue in international travel so filters are adequate in the backcountry. If you want to be especially careful, a two step process of filtrations followed by chemical treatment will kill most anything. Dreaming of trips is where it all starts!

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