How to Purify Water in the Wild – 7 Easy Purification Methods

by | Sep 22, 2020 | Purifying Water

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Do you know how to purify water in the wild?

If you’ve ever spent significant time in the wilderness hiking or exploring, then you know there’s no better feeling than quenching your thirst with a big gulp of water. As soon as it hits your lips, you feel instantly refreshed, and you’re ready to keep pushing on.

There’s a good reason for that.

Just like our planet, the human body is mostly made of water. In fact, according to research, our brains and hearts are composed of 73% water, our lungs are about 83% water, and our skin contains 64% water.

It’s safe to say, water is of the utmost importance to our survival.

Seeing as water can be found in abundance throughout nature, on the surface, it may seem we don’t have to worry about it. The only problem is, if water is contaminated, it could have dire consequences.

Importance of Water Purification

The idea of clean drinking water dates back to about 1854, when Dr. John Snow had a theory. As an anesthesiologist living in London, Snow made one of the most groundbreaking discoveries. 

At the time, a central London city known as Soho, was plagued by an abundance of cholera cases that killed tens of thousands of people in between 1831 and 1854.. Cholera is an infection of the small intestine, which causes severe dehydration and diarrhea.

Without immediate treatment, cholera can quickly become fatal to even the healthiest people in just a few hours.

The widely accepted theory at the time was that cholera was caused by poor air quality. Rather than just accept this theory, Dr. Snow convinced officials to try a different approach. 

Firmly believing that contaminated water was the root cause of the cholera outbreak, Snow shut off the Broad Street pump. This was a pump that was a water source for neighboring businesses and residents.

Sure enough, shortly after shutting off the pump, the cholera cases stopped. Proving Dr. John Snow’s theory right, which was contaminated water was causing disease and death in the area.

Since then, there have been countless studies proving the link between contaminated drinking water and disease and illness. But, what’s the reason behind it?

The Lurking Dangers

Even if water looks good to drink, meaning, it’s clear and doesn’t have any visible debris floating around, there are still hidden dangers lurking beneath the surface you need to be aware of. We’re emphasizing this so much because the consequences of drinking untreated water could prove to be fatal.

 The most common health concerns are pathogens and bacteria that thrive in natural water sources. Perhaps the most dangerous bacteria originates from the gut of warm blooded animals, or fecal pollution.

Since wildlife need water to survive, it’s a safe bet that you’re not the only one drinking from the water source you found. For that reason, you always want to ensure you are purifying any water you collect in nature.

Best Methods to Purify Water in the Wilderness

We’ve been emphasizing the importance of only drinking clean water, but the question still remains. How do you purify water in the wild?

The answer is, there are a lot of ways. Some of which are easy, and some of which are a bit more difficult. The truth is, the best water purification method in nature will largely depend on the environment you’re in, and the resources you have available to you.

That’s why we’ve made a list of the 7 best ways to purify water in the wild.

Boiling Water

Boiling water is probably the most common, and easiest method to purify drinking water. As long as you have clear water, all you need to do is create a flame, and place the water in a suitable container so that it can boil. 

If you don’t have clear water, meaning the water you have is cloudy or filled with dirt, make sure to run it through a filter first. Coffee filters, cloth, and other natural materials can be used to remove dirt and debris from the contaminated water.

Boiling water is the perfect way to kill the bacteria and pathogens that live in the water. Bringing water to a boil can also kill viruses and parasites that may be missed by the naked eye.

Once you have clear drinking water, you’ll need to also consider your current elevation. The reason being, elevation plays a big role in how long you should boil your water.

  • Elevation below 6,500 feet: Bring water to a rolling boil for 1 full minute.
  • Elevation above 6,500 feet: Bring water to a rolling boil for 3 full minutes.

If you’re unsure of your elevation, it’s always best to err on the side of caution. Now that your water is boiled and clear, it’s now safe for consumption.

Water Filtration

Warning: Filtering water will help remove any visible and physical contaminants and threats. However, it won’t purify it completely. After filtering your water, treat it or boil it before consumption.

Filtering your water is often the first step in purifying it. While you should still boil your water after it has been filtered, a proper filtration system will remove dirt and debris that can be harmful when ingested.

There are tons of ways to create your own filter. The way you choose will largely depend on materials that are immediately available to you.

Ideally, you’ll have a container, such as a canteen or cup, a cone, such as a water bottle, and a piece of cloth. As an extra precaution, try to carry some activated charcoal with you.

Once you gather all your materials, you can begin preparing your natural water filtration system. 

The first step is to create a cone with two holes, one to pour the water into at the top, and a smaller hole at the bottom for the filtered water to drip into your container. Attach your cloth to cover the smaller, bottom hole in your cone, and when it’s firmly in place, start looking for the following things to fill it with:

  • Rocks
  • Pebbles
  • Sand

For the first layer, add the larger rocks that you’ve collected. Next, add a layer of the smaller pebbles. Finally, add the layer of sand, and try to press it firmly so that it creates a solid layer. This will help catch more of the dirt and debris during the filtration process.

If you do have charcoal, add it after the sand. You can always create your own charcoal, but the filter will still work without it.

Once layers are set, place your filter over a water container, and gradually begin pouring water into the top of your cone. You’ll notice that it takes some time for the contaminated water to make it through your filtration system, but that’s ok. 

Once you have collected enough water in your container, check to make sure that it was properly filtered. You may need to repeat the process a few times before it looks completely clear. 

Boil it for at least 1 to 3 minutes. How long you boil your water will depend on your elevation. Once boiled, your water will be ready for consumption.

Tablets or Drops

We highly recommend bringing water purification tablets or drops with you whenever you venture out into nature for extended periods of time. Primarily, because they are often lightweight, affordable, and extremely easy to use.

Water purification tablets are used to protect you from harmful bacteria and viruses found in water, and make water safer for you to drink. This is especially important when drinking naturally sourced water.

There are a few options for you to choose from, each with their own unique benefits. While these tablets and drops work quickly, there is still wait time between treating the water, and it being safe for you to drink.

  • Iodine (Tetraglycine Hydroperiodide) – has a wait time of about 30 to 50 minutes, and is effective against bacteria, viruses, and giardia. 
  • Chlorine  (Sodium Dichloroisocyanurate) – has a wait time of between 30 to 45 minutes, and is effective against bacteria, viruses, and giardia.
  • Chlorine Dioxide – has a wait time of around 4 hours, but is the most effective option. It is effective against bacteria, viruses, giardia, and cryptosporidium.

Whatever you decide to go with, research both the solution and company for best use practices. 

Water Distillation

If you have the knowledge, environment, and proper materials, then water distillation is by far the most effective method of purifying water in the wild. Distillation refers to a water treatment process which converts water into vapor, which is then caught, and turned back into a liquid state.

Distilling natural water is the purest method of purifying water because of the unique evaporation process. 

When water evaporates, it actually changes into a gaseous state. Due to the change, contaminants like bacteria and debris are almost completely eliminated because they don’t have the ability to turn into steam like water does.

Vapor is then released into the air, and everything else is left behind. It’s at this point that you want to cool the vapor or steam, allowing it to turn back into its pure liquid form.

Distilling water is a far more complex water purification method than the others on this list, but it is necessary if you want the cleanest drinking water. It’s especially useful if the only water available to you is salty sea water.

So how do you set up a water distillation system in the wild? You’re going to need a few things.

  • Fire
  • Fire resistant water container
  • Clean tubing or bamboo
  • Tape or cloth
  • Plastic bag

The first step in the water distilling process is to gather water in your canteen or container to boil over a flame. Heat rises, so you need to fasten the tube or bamboo so that it is sealed at the opening of your water container to lean it in an upward slant. Ensure that it is air tight so that no vapor or steam can escape, this is where tape or cloth comes in handy.

Once the tube and container are sealed, fasten the other end of the tube to catch the distilled water. Once your setup is complete, start your fire, and begin to boil the water container so that the steam rises through the tube. 

As the steam passes through the tube, it will begin to cool down, turning back into a purified liquid form. Once it does, your bag will begin to fill with clean water that is safe for you to drink.

Survival Straws and Pumps

If you don’t feel confident in your ability to purify natural water, we highly recommend bringing a survival straw or pump with you on your trip. The reason being, it requires little to no work on your end, and will almost instantly turn most water into safe drinking water.

Even if you are a wilderness survival expert, it’s never a bad idea to have a back up plan in the event of a major emergency. Always err on the side of being over prepared.

Most survival straws and pumps don’t require you to boil, or even filter any water. All you need to do is stick them in a water source, and start drinking. Although, these pumps and straws won’t filter out salt, chemicals, or heavy metals from water.

It works by forcing the water through a unique filtration system that consists of hollow fibers with pores less than 0.2 microns across. Thus effectively trapping dirt, bacteria, and parasites in the fibers, allowing the purified water to pass through.

Straws and pumps have a limit to how much water they can filter, so try to always keep a fresh one handy. 

Collect Water from Plants

If you’re not near a water source, like a river, creek, or lake, then you can actually source water directly from plants. All that it requires is that you have a plastic bag on hand, along with material such as string, wire, or rubber bands to secure the bag.

First, you want to find a water loving plant or tree with large and luscious green leaves, as they tend to work best. Some popular plants include:

  • Willows
  • Cottonwood
  • Berry producing shrubs

In reality, any plant with leaves will do the trick. However, you’ll want to avoid plants that are toxic to people.

After identifying the plant you’re going to collect water from, closely inspect the branch and leaves. Look out for any bugs, debris, or mold as to avoid any impurities and contaminants that could end up in your water.

Next, take your plastic bag, and place it over the leafy branch. Secure the bag with your sting, wire, or tape at the stem of the branch, so that part of the bag hangs lower than where you tied it off at the stem of the branch. This will allow the water to collect effortlessly.

This is a slow process, and a single branch may not produce enough water to keep you hydrated. That’s why it’s good practice to have a few different bags collecting water at once, maximizing the output. 

If you only have one bag, pour the collected water into a container, and start again on a different branch.

After about 4 to 5 hours, you’ll see water droplets begin to collect at the lowest point of the bag. The amount of water you collect depends on how hot it is, and the plant you’re using.

As a general rule of thumb, the hotter it is, the more water you will collect.

Once the water is collected, you’ll need to filter out anything that may have fallen into the water. That includes debris, bugs, and pieces of the plant. To do so, pour the water through a filter, such as a coffee filter or cloth, and you should be good to go. 

Solar Water Disinfection (SODIS)

Solar disinfection (SODIS) is a relatively new method to purify water, as it was only developed in the 1980s. It gained popularity as a cheap and effective way to disinfect water to prevent diarrhea for developing countries.

In order for SODIS to be effective, you’ll need water, and a plastic bottle. Note that solar disinfection only works with smaller amounts of water, and is a slow process.

Fill your plastic bottle, typically between 0.3 and 2.0 liters, with water. Then, shake the bottle to allow the water to oxygenate, and place them in the sun. If it’s sunny out, wait about 6 hours, if it’s cloudy, then you’ll need to wait about 2 days.

Due to prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light (UV) rays, viruses, bacteria, and protozoa are reduced. Meaning, the water becomes safer for you to drink.

Brian Segal

As an outdoor enthusiast, I was drawn to bushcraft at a young age. I constantly find myself trying to learn and improve on my survival skills, and enjoy writing about everything I discover to help pass along to others.

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