Water Treatment Options when Hiking, Camping or Traveling

Man fishing on a lake

When visiting places with unknown water quality—whether you head to a remote location to camp or hike or travel to a new place—it may be necessary to disinfect the water to kill waterborne germs before using it.

Drinking contaminated water or using it for cooking, washing food, preparing drinks, making ice, and brushing teeth can make you sick with diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain. Treating these symptoms can be difficult while you are away from home or abroad and without access to medical care.

Knowing the Source of your Water

When planning on camping, hiking, or traveling abroad it is important to know where your water comes from.

It is also important to know if it has been treated, and whether it is safe to use for drinking, cooking, brushing your teeth, or for other activities.

Exposure to contaminated water is more likely in places where there is no sanitation or water treatment infrastructure, such as at campgrounds, remote areas, or in some foreign countries.

Water contaminated with bacteria, viruses, and parasites can sometimes look clean, which is why it is important to know the source of the water, if and how it has been treated, and whether it is safe before drinking it. Bottled water can be an easy option, but it is also important to know where your bottled water comes from and how it has been treated, especially when traveling in remote locations.

Young children, pregnant women, older adults and people with weakened immune systems may be more likely to become infected if exposed to contaminated water.

Treating your water

There are many ways you can treat or purify contaminated water while outdoors or when traveling.

Boiling Water

Boiling is the surest method to kill disease-causing organisms, including viruses, bacteria, and parasites.

  • Bring water to a full rolling boil for 1 minute (at elevations above 6,500 feet, boil for 3 minutes), then allow it to cool before use.
  • If boiling is not possible, use tap water that is too hot to touch, which is probably at a temperature between 131°F (55°C) and 140°F (60°C). This temperature may be adequate to kill pathogens if the water has been kept hot for some time.
  • For travelers with access to electricity, bring a small electric heating coil or a lightweight beverage warmer to boil water.

Disinfection

If boiling your water is not possible, you can make small quantities of filtered and settled water safer to drink by using a chemical disinfectant such as unscented household chlorine bleach.

  • Disinfectants can kill most harmful or disease-causing viruses and bacteria, but are not as effective in controlling more resistant organisms, such as Cryptosporidium and Giardia parasites.
  • Chlorine dioxide tablets can be effective against Cryptosporidium if the manufacturer’s instructions are followed correctly.
  • If the water is contaminated with a chemical, disinfectants will not make it drinkable.

Filtration

If you are using a portable water filter, try to use one that has a filter pore size small enough to remove parasites. Most portable water filters do not remove bacteria or viruses.

  • A filter labeled as certified by NSF Standards 53 or 58 will remove parasites if used properly, but will not remove viruses or all bacteria.
  • Reverse osmosis filters remove bacteria and viruses and can also remove salt from water, which is important for people who may need to use salt water.
  • Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions when using filters and check the label of your filter product.

Ultraviolet Light (UV Light)

Ultraviolet Light (UV Light) can be used to kill some pathogens.

  • Portable units that deliver a measured dose of UV light are effective to disinfect small quantities of clear water. However, this technique is less effective in cloudy water because small particles may block germs from the light.
  • It’s important to always follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

If boiling your water is not possible, you can make small quantities of filtered and settled water safer to drink by using a chemical disinfectant such as unscented household chlorine bleach.

  • Disinfectants can kill most harmful or disease-causing viruses and bacteria, but are not as effective in controlling more resistant organisms, such as Cryptosporidium and Giardia parasites.
  • Chlorine dioxide tablets can be effective against Cryptosporidium if the manufacturer’s instructions are followed correctly.
  • If the water is contaminated with a chemical, disinfectants will not make it drinkable.

Keep germs out of water and off your hand

In addition to using the appropriate drinking water treatment methods listed above, take these steps to protect yourself and others from waterborne illness:

  • If you are in a remote area without toilets, bury human waste (poop) 8 inches deep and at least 200 feet away from lakes, rivers, and other natural waters. Make sure to bury poop downstream from where you or others collect water.
  • Wash your hands before handling food, eating, and after using the toilet. If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.