3 Ways To Clean Water Outdoors and 1 Definite NO
That burbling stream looks oh so tasty, but you know better than to take a slurp, right? This post is about how to get clean water outdoors
Because it’s not simple any more
You could be downstream from a cow patty farm, a batch of feverish beavers, Babar and his Maman taking a bath, or a dead opossum. A salamander is swimming around at your feet. There’s an old cellar hole just upstream: perhaps the family abandoned a dump that dribbles toxins into that lovely sparkling brook.
Time to do the cleanerizing….
You could boil your water. That’s the tried-and-true purification method. But then it needs to be cooled. You need a good-sized pot, a pot holder, a significant fuel source, a stove, patience. To make a liter or two. The only solution in extreme conditions, but otherwise laborious, impractical, and adventure-crimping.
So you go shopping
But when you run down to the outdoor store, shelves are stocked with 10 varieties of water scrubbers, and online stores may offer 50 other possibilities.
Here are 3 ways to sort them out.
First, let’s narrow down the problem with a few basics.
What are we looking for here? If you have non-drinkable water and you’re in the US or other developed country, bacteria and protozoa are your enemies. There’s runoff and heavy metals, too, but that’s another subject altogether.
Examples of bacteria include E.Coli; examples of protozoa cryptosporidia (“crypto”) and giardia. You do not want to have a personal relationship with this lot: see the smirk on that giardia?
In a developing country, you’ll need extra precautions. Heavy metals are a long shot, but you’ll want to strip viruses from that tempting liquid, as well as bacteria and protozoa.
That’s pretty much it for basics.
Now the methods to clean water outdoors.
Method #1: Filter
With each method, the goal is to force water through a high-tech filter that removes lurking critters.
These are not the same as the kind of water filter you get because you don’t like the taste of city water. Pur and Brita come to mind. Not those at all.
Which one you choose depends largely on efficiency. You will figure this out right off the bat.
Gravity filters take the least amount of work, since nature does the job for you. Straws take the most, unless you have prodigious slurping muscles.
Before you buy, check the packaging to make sure the filter pores are fine enough to eliminate 99.999+ % of bacteria and protozoa.
The more sophisticated filters will also remove farm runoff and heavy metals. All catch “floaties”, little bits of natural debris that might otherwise drift in your cup of coffee.
With a filter, in no time at all, your water supply can go from sketchy to amazing. But—caution here—filters are for bacteria and protozoa, NOT viruses.
Method #2: Steripen
Steripen is the brand name for a device which zaps water with UV light. You stir this gizmo in your container of water.
You stir patiently. It takes 90 seconds per liter of stirring before the Steripen has done its job. Although 90 seconds may seem like a short time, it has been known to feel interminable.
And then you only have one liter. You might go through it in less than an hour on a sweaty day.
Clean water outdoors and in town as well…
Owning a Steripen is a big advantage in places where water-borne viruses can soon give you a case of “Delhi belly”. It’s an efficient and cost-effective method of purification.
And then….If your limited budget finds you sitting in a Guinean restaurant and enjoying a tasty local dish in rainy season, imagine this: you can retrieve a Steripen from your backpack, stir the water in your glass—dramatically produced from a “sealed” bottle opened at table-side for your delectation and delight—and drink without too much worry.
Method #3: Tablets
The age-old stand-by for cleaning up unhealthy water has been the iodine tablet. These come in a little bottle and make your water rust-colored. Remember?
Be warned that “age-old” is the operative description here. Iodine was the method of choice before protozoa were discovered in otherwise pristine water, even in glaciers. And it won’t “do” crypto.
So, you’ll want to pick up the kind of tablet that treats all 3 varieties of nasty critters: bacteria, protozoa, and viruses. Be sure to read the packaging and let the water set up for the requisite amount of time. Patience is needed, but no muscle.
Added bonus for this method: purchase the type that is packaged in blister packs. Cut off just as many as you need for your excursion and stash them in a pocket.
And, if you happen to stock iodine tablets and own a filter, set up your water with the iodine per instructions and then run it through the filter. Viruses, check. Protozoa, check. Bacteria, check.
1 Definite NO
Here’s where it’s easy to get tripped up because the internet rumor mill luuuurves this method. Do NOT use liquid drops such as Aquamira expecting to rid water of contaminants. This concoction is for enhancing potable (i.e. already drinkable) water by improving taste and aroma. Aquamira is NOT FDA approved for making water safe to drink. See label above/right.
Bottom note: what’s with “purifying”?
When talking about how to clean water outdoors, you’ll hear people use the word “purify” when they actually mean something substantially short of purification.
“Purifying” means ridding your water supply of bacteria, protozoa, and viruses. All three.
You’d also expect “purified” water to be free of gunk, runoff, heavy metals as well. And, heck, it had better taste good.
No “purified” Babar bathwater, puuleeeze.
Clean water outdoors photo credits: Featured image, Colorado’s Alpine Loop National Backcountry Byway: CC BY 2.0 by BLM via Flickr. Elephant with baby: CC BY 2.5 by Thomas Breuer via Wikimedia. Giardia: CC BY 2.0 via Flickr by Schmidty4112. Man using an MSR filter pump: CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr by Josh Koonce. Steripen: CC-BY 2.0 via Flickr by Ryo Chijiiwa. Beaver: CC by 2.0 via Flickr by Space Age Sage.