The best way to be sure you are drinking safe water when camping is to carry your own water. But if you want to travel light or you’ve run out of water, there are several ways to treat water from the river, tap and other sources.
Below is a quick guide on how to make water safe to drink while camping.
Can You Drink Water Straight From A River?
No matter how clean the water looks, never drink water straight from a river, well, lake or any other natural source.
Clear water can still harbor deadly pathogens. The last place you want to get sick is where you are out camping, far away from medical help.
This also extends to water from a tap. If the campsite has water taps, the water may not be safe for drinking. Some campsites will even have a warning that the water is not potable and is only suitable for washing.
Basically, unless you are 100% sure that the water is safe to drink, don’t drink without treating it.
The only water you can trust is water you’ve brought from home or bottled water you’ve bought from the store.
For any other water, you’ll need to treat it first before drinking. Below are 3 ways to do so.
3 Ways To Treat Water When Camping
Depending on what equipment you have, there are three ways to treat water when you are camping, backpacking or hiking: boiling, disinfection or filtration.
Boiling The Water
Boiling water is one of the easiest and most effective water treatment methods. It works by using heat to kill bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
The best thing about boiling water is that you don’t need to buy any extra equipment or treatment products. As long as you have your cooking gear, you can treat water.
To make sure the water is safe for drinking, bring it to a full boil and leave it to boil for at least 1 minutes.
Let the water cool before drinking.
Tip: If the water is muddy or cloudy, pass it through a cloth, paper towels or coffee filters to clear it up. You can also leave it in a container until the water at the top is clear. Slowly, pour it into another container.
The main limitation of boiling water for drinking is that it doesn’t get rid of inorganic contaminants like heavy metals and chemicals in water. Some of these, like pesticides and lead, can be really dangerous.
So boiling water from a polluted source may not be enough to make it safe for drinking.
Disinfecting The Water
Another easy way to make water safe for drinking is disinfecting it. Chlorine is one of the best chemicals for disinfecting water.
You can use unscented bleach (make sure it’s chlorine bleach) but it’s easier to pack chlorine water purification tablets when going camping. Iodine tablets are also effective at disinfecting water.
Follow the recommended dosage on the label to treat water.
If the water is muddy or cloudy, first filter it using a cloth or paper towels to remove particulates.
Another way to disinfect water for drinking is using ultraviolet light. UV light kills pathogens by damaging their cell DNA.
An easy way to do this is using natural UV light from the sun. Simply fill a clear water bottle with the questionable water and leave it out in the sun for a few hours.
Here’s a video on solar disinfection.
If you don’t have time to wait for the sun to treat your drinking water, you can use a portable UV water purifier.
There are plenty of them designed for outdoor use, like this Water Purification Sterilizer Pen.
Filtering The Water
If you want to remove germs as well as inorganic impurities from water, filtration is the way to go.
You’ll need a filter that has very tiny pores that can block bacteria, viruses and other pathogens from passing through.
The most popular outdoor water filter is the LifeStraw Personal water filter. It removes over 99.9% of bacteria and parasites from water.
It also filters out microplastics, mud, dirt, and cloudiness. But it does not filter out chemicals, heavy metals and other inorganic contaminants.
For that, you’ll need a filter with materials like activated carbon that can remove these impurities.
How Do You Distill Water When Camping?
There’s a fourth way to treat water for drinking – distillation.
Distillation is highly effective at treating water. It removes pathogens, heavy metals, particulates and most chemicals.
However, it’s difficult to do away from home. That’s why we did not include it above.
Even at home, you need a water distiller, which is not cheap, to purify water. Unlike other methods of water treatment, distillation also consumes a lot of energy since you need to heat the water until it evaporates.
There are several DIY methods to distill water when camping, but they are tedious and time consuming. We recommend sticking to filtration, disinfection or boiling water.
Here’s a video of one of the DIY methods if you are interested.
Tip: If you are car camping with a large capacity portable power station, you can always carry an electric water distiller for use in case you run out of drinking water.
Where Can I Find Water To Drink When Camping?
If you are at a developed campsite, check whether they provide water. Some campsites have a tap that’s accessible to campers, though the water may not be safe to drink. So you’ll need to treat it fast.
If you are in the wild without any amenities around, look for water from a natural fresh water body. This can be a lake, a river, creek, spring, or pond.
If possible, avoid using stagnant water as it is likely to harbor more pathogens and impurities. Flowing water is the safest, though you still need to treat it using one of the methods we’ve discussed above.
Cloudy or muddy water is okay to use with treatment. Run it through a cloth or coffee filter first to remove the solid particles of mud and dirt. Then boil, filter, or disinfect the water before drinking.
But if you find water that has an unusual color or smells weird, avoid it as it could contain toxic chemicals.
Remember that boiling and disinfecting water doesn’t remove chemicals and other toxic inorganic contaminants from water.
Many camping water filters also don’t eliminate these impurities. They only remove bacteria and viruses.
How To Get Drinking Water From Precipitation When Camping?
Another natural source of drinking water is precipitation.
If it looks like it’s about to rain, leave containers outside to collect the water. You can also fetch rainwater from the runoff coming off your tent or tap.
While rainwater is generally safe to drink without treatment, dirty surfaces like your tent or tarp can contaminate it. Just to be safe, boil the water first or add some chlorine tablets.
If you are winter camping, the snow also makes for safe drinking water. Get freshly fallen snow as it’s the safest.
You can much on it as it is or melt it over the fire. If the snow is not fresh, melt it and boil the water for a minute or two to make sure it’s safe to drink.
How Can You Tell If Water Is Safe To Drink In The Wild?
There are some obvious signs that a source of water outdoors is not safe to drink. If the water is smelly, has an unusual color, or it’s stagnant, it’s probably not safe to drink.
Also be careful if the water is downstream from a factory, a mining site, a farm, or a town. It may contain a high level of impurities.
Generally, however, there’s no way to tell if water is safe to drink just by sight and smell. That’s because some impurities like heavy metals and some chemicals are odorless and colorless.
Disease-causing germs can also be in clear water.
So no matter how clean the water appears, you cannot trust it. Treat it before drinking.
The only natural source of water you can drink without treating is rain and freshly fallen snow.
Is Cloudy or Muddy Water Safe To Drink?
Cloudy or muddy water is not necessarily dangerous for your health. It’s what is in the water that could be bad for you.
Muddy water is likely to be home to dangerous parasites and impurities.
And even if you filter the water through a cloth to make it clear, it’s still not safe to drink. You need to boil, filter or disinfect it.
Does Boiling Water Kill All Germs?
As long as you boil water for one minutes (longer for higher altitudes), it is safe to drink. That’s not to mean the water is completely free of microorganisms.
There are some bacteria that can survive high temperatures. But these do not cause diseases in humans. All the pathogens that can cause waterborne illnesses are killed when you boil water.
Remember that boiling water does not neutralize chemicals, heavy metals and other inorganic impurities. If anything, it increases their concentration. If you suspect the water source is polluted, find another source of water.
If you’re looking for more camping safety advice, here is our guide on women and safety.