There are a number of effective ways to purify water while on the go. If you find water and don’t take the time and effort to purify it, you might end up making yourself really sick, which won’t help your survival situation. Knowing the many ways to purify water and having at least two or three of these methods at your disposal wherever you are will ensure you are well hydrated and can focus on other aspects of survival, such as getting food and finding or making shelter.
Why the Need for Water Purification
Water is not as clean as it looks, despite the fact that we use it to clean ourselves and our clothes and dishes. Even when you see a beautiful river or stream flowing that looks crystal clear, there are still things in that water that could make you sick. Many bacteria, viruses, and protozoa (a single-celled organism), as well as other types of impurities thrive in the lakes, rivers, and streams from which we take our drinking water. The water that gets piped into our homes is purified before it flows through the pipes to us, but if you get it right out of the river or lake, then you need to purify it yourself.
When I say that these things can make you sick, you might be wondering how sick. Well, to put simply, you could get a bad case of diarrhea or you could become infected with something so nasty that you will die. Yes, death can be an outcome to drinking unpurified water, so you should NOT take any chances. Some symptoms of drinking unpurified water include abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, fever, fatigue, and weight loss. There are many potential consequences to drinking unpurified water, including catching:
- Infectious diseases
- Diarrhea from pathogens such as E. Coli
- Hepatitis A
- Cholera (comes from drinking water in which there are feces); this is very deadly
- Amoebiasis (caused by a protozoa that lives in water or sewage containing flies)
You can also ingest the following from unpurified water:
- Chemicals from farm runoff, household waste, and industrial waste
- Heavy metals, such as arsenic
Methods of Water Purification
There are many ways to purify water. Some of these you can prepare for ahead of time, such as when you are at your bug-in or bug-out locations or you have packed the necessary equipment/chemicals to carry with you when you are in the bush. There are also times when you might find yourself without convenient methods of water purification and have to wing it. The following are the best methods of water purification whether you have planned ahead of time or you need to purify water on the go, without prior planning.
The simplest method to purify water is to boil it. As long as you can start a fire or have a stove or some means of heating water to the boiling point and you have a pot or other metal container in which to put the water, you can purify it. Once the water reaches 100 degrees Celsius and remains at a rapid or rolling boil for at least 1 minute (3 minutes at altitudes of more than 5,000 feet/1,000 meters), it will kill off all the harmful bacteria, viruses, and protozoa in the water. Once the water has cooled down, it can be used for drinking. One of the major downfalls of this method is that it will not rid the water of any chemicals or metals.
Chemicals can be used to purify water and this is perhaps the second easiest way to accomplish this goal. There are many chemicals that can be used to purify water. Perhaps the most readily available in a bug-in situation are bleach and iodine.
There are also chemicals that come in the form of crystals, tablets, or liquids that are designed for people to carry with them when hiking or camping. Here is a list of chemicals and how to use them:
Bleach: Make sure the bleach is pure, with no additional cleaners or scents added. You also want to ensure it is not color-safe bleach. Add 1/8 teaspoon of bleach to one gallon of water and let it sit for at least 30 minutes. DO NOT add more bleach than this as it can be harmful to humans at higher concentrations.
Iodine: Use 2% tincture of iodine and add 5 drops per liter of water and 10 drops per liter if the water is cloudy. Let it sit for at least 30 minutes. DO NOT use more than this as too much iodine can be harmful to humans, particularly to children and pregnant or nursing women.
Hydrogen Peroxide: Use 3%-10% diluted hydrogen peroxide. Because it is a weaker microbiocide, you will need more of it. Use 1/8 cup to one gallon of water. Keep in mind that this is not a method of water purification that is approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but it is useful to know in a pinch.
Tablets and crystals: There are different types of water purification tablets and crystals, all of which are designed to simply be dropped into the water. Iodine and potassium permanganate can come in tablet- or crystal-form. Sodium chlorite (a form of chlorine) comes in tablet-form.
When it comes to using prepackaged chemical water treatments, please always follow the manufacturer’s directions on the product packaging. These directions will vary depending on the type of chemical being used. It is also useful to swish the water in the container when adding water purification tablets to help spread the dissolved components throughout the water.
Microfiltration and Ultrafiltration
Simply filtering water through a cloth, even a finely woven one, will not purify your water; it will remove larger particles and make the water look more visually appealing. It certainly doesn’t hurt to filter your water before you purify it. Check out this article on how to build a DIY water filter. But if you apply microfiltration or ultrafiltration, to the water, you can remove harmful bacteria and other impurities that could make you sick.
Microfiltration has an average pore size of 0.1 micron and will effectively remove protozoa from the water. However, it is only moderately effective at removing bacteria and it will not remove viruses or chemicals. Ultrafiltration has an average pore size of 0.01 micron. It is very effective in the removal of protozoa and bacteria, is moderately effective in the removal of viruses, and has a low level of effectiveness of removing chemicals.
There are many commercial water filters on the market that will provide microfiltration of water. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some are simple filter straws, such as the LifeStraw, which are easy to carry and can be used anywhere. Some, such as Sawyers Personal Water Bottle and Vestergaard’s LifeStraw Go, are water bottles that have a built in filter. Others, such as the MSR MiniWorks , use a ceramic filter and will attach to the top of a standard Nalgene water bottle or MSR Dromedary bag.
Distillation is a method of allowing water to evaporate and then re-condense on a surface from which it can be transferred into a container. Distillation can be a slow process, but is effective, particularly if you use a solar still.
If you are in the bush or field and you need to purify water, use a clear or translucent sheet of plastic and secure it over a hole that is 3 feet deep. Place a rock in the center on top of the plastic and a container in the center of the bottom of the hole and allow the sun to work its magic.
As the water evaporates, it will condense on the underside of the plastic and will run down and drip into the container. You can put water from a river or lake into the hole to distill it, or if you are attempting to distill water from the moisture in the ground itself, you can add vegetation or even urine to the hole to increase the level of moisture that can be distilled. A great demonstration can be seen in the next video:
In a Pinch
No one wants to be without water, but if you find yourself in the wild with no equipment or tools of any kind, you still have an option left. Ultimately, if you can’t find a way to purify the water, then you might have to drink right from the source. Try to find running water, as this is better than standing water, and try to find a location as far away from animal traffic as possible.
When you find the body of water, be it a lake, river, or stream, go far enough away from the edge of the water that the vegetation has begun to grow. Then go about two or three feet beyond the edge of the vegetation and dig a hole. Dig down until water begins to seep into the hole. This water will be filtered by the sand, soil, and roots of the surrounding vegetation, but it is not guaranteed to be completely clear of pathogens.
Remember that this option is a last resort, but if you are dying of thirst (literally), then this is the best option left to you. Then all you can do is hope you don’t get sick, and if you don’t, then remember where your watering hole is so you can come back to it if you need to. A safe place to drink water is life!