Water Treatment for Backpacking
Over the last century, water treatment for backpacking has really evolved. Technology has come a long way in enhancing how water is treated while on the go.
We have fancy straws, portable RO units, uv lights, really cool filters, big ones, small ones, fast ones and slow ones. All of them come in different sizes shapes and durability.
So which method is best?
Well, it depends. I sure have my opinion. And it’s different than what I used growing up.
I always used a water treatment filter because that’s what my dad used. We’d park ourselves by the stream, up to three times a day, working up a sweat pumping those filters for what seemed like forever… all while the mosquitoes were sucking gallons of blood from us.
But that water tasted amazing. Ah, yes it did. There’s really nothing that compares.
Well, as an adult responsible for 16 boy scouts, the water filter for backpacking thing quickly became an anoyance. Even while backpacking with just my little family or a couple friends.
For me, I abandoned filters for a few reasons:
- Weight and size. Filters are heavy and they take up a lot of space. Sure, they’re getting lighter and lighter but 5 – 12 oz of weight and the space that it takes up in a backpack is just not worth it in the backcountry.
Over the years I’ve watched as pack sizes have shrunk. Small is cool. And light is even cooler.
As you can imagine, with a troop of scouts, managing filters among the boys was a nightmare from the outset and got to be too much.
- Work. Pumping water for myself, my family or a troop is a lot of work, several times a day. Nobody wants to carry all the water they need for a two or three day outing on their back so it’s important to have something to refill and refresh you along the way. For a lot of years that meant pumping just to fill my water bottle… or 16 water bottles. Enough of that.
- Durability. Filters broke or clogged all the time. Rarely would we go even one campout without there being issues. We had to have replacement parts handy to fix the filters or it would increase the work load for others because every filter that was down we’d have to pump twice as much through another. So carrying the filters themselves AND the replacement parts was just craziness. Not worth it. Especially when we’re up in the mountains when streams of water are relatively clean (just needs a few microbes removed). This single issue meant we had to have chemical water treatment drops or tablets as back ups anyway.
- Viruses. It’s been proven that a large number of so-called filters don’t really filter out viruses, since they’re so much smaller than other microbules. Viruses are smaller than 0.1 microns and will therefore not be removed by filters with a pore size of .1 or larger (that’s 80% of the filters on the market). So that means in some circumstances you may need to use a chemical water treatment as well to be safe.
So I recently switched to… well, let me tell you about all the things I’d considered before hand because I’m sure you’ve heard of them.
Ultraviolet light has a powerful effect on microorganisms. They don’t like it.
That said, UV light as water treatment is really a new deal with very little studies done on it to prove it’s effectiveness against the most “bend you over” microorganisms.
The only version I’ve tried is the SteriPEN. Those things are cool, but I ran into the same problems as I did with the filter with one additional issue.
Problems with UV Light
- It’s not scalable… meaning you can’t treat large amounts of water when needed. It’s less work but when 16 people are thirsty or you’re cooking a large meal?
- Like the filters, you must either have a chemical backup or replacement bulbs and batteries with you. For the space it took up it had better be durable, but one drop showed the bulbs weren’t that durable at all.
- It took too long to clean the water. 30+ minutes is too long for me. Especially when I’m out of water and need a drink.
- You have to prefilter the water, so you need a filter anyways. What?? You could use a shirt or something but still. The UV light treatment needs the water to be clear in order to do its thing, otherwise you’re not going to be successful at purifying the water.
Long story short, I didn’t even try the SteriPEN with scouts.
So I bagged the UV option pretty quickly. Great idea for some uses (I can’t think of any), but it’s just not practical in my opinion.
Boiling for Wilderness Water Treatment
The old stand by. All told, this is probably the safest, most effective, guaranteed way to purify your water from any contaminants.
To be honest, it’s a poor option for backpacking because you have to truck along the stove, fuel and pots and spend the time to boil the water and wait for it to cool. That’s a lot of work.
In emergency situations in domesticated areas it makes more sense to do it this way, but just not while backpacking. Practicality disqualifies this option for me.
Chemical Wilderness Water Treatment Options
With the traditional water filter out of the picture, that leaves us with chemical water treatment options.
All of them are applied directly to the water followed by 30 minutes to 4 hours of waiting. The great thing is that there’s no more work required than collecting and treating the water.
In some situations, you should really plan your water treatment, especially in hot and dry climates. You don’t want to be out of water and have to wait 30 minutes. The can be the difference between heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
So what are the options here? There’s a bunch to choose from so let’s walk through the popular ones.
There are three main categories: Iodine, Chlorine or Chlorine Dioxide and Bleach (which is rarely used for backpacking).
Iodine Water Treatment Tablets
Carry one of these tiny bottles with you and you’ll have water to drink after about 30 minutes. 5 – 6 drops should do it.
Iodine has been popular among scouters for years because they’re small and light weight, but I was never successful at getting my boys to drink it and if they don’t drink that creates all kinds of other problems.
They reason they wouldn’t drink it is because iodine treated water is disgusting. It smells bad, tastes bad and looks bad.
Sure, you can use crushed vitamin C or Kool-Aid to neutralize the taste but that means you have to carry along two little bottles or Kool Aid packets.
Also, iodine is barely effective against Giardia, has NO effectiveness against cryptosporidium and flat out doesn’t work if the water is really cold (say 40 degrees or colder). If the water is cold you have to warm it and allow for a longer contact time (means you wait longer).
All that pales in comparison though to the most important statement:
Iodine is a Toxic Poison
Did you know Iodine is toxic? In Europe it is completely [banned:http://ec.europa.eu/environment/biocides/pdf/list_dates_product_phasing_out.pdf] for sale as water treatment drops. The CDC here in the United States has even had a [warning:http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/drinking/travel/index.html] out about it for years.
I can’t find much of an argument on behalf of iodine water treatment drops. The only advantage for backpacking I can see is that they’re almost weightless and rather easy to use.
Slap the weightlessness on top of the fact that they’re poison, they taste bad, smell bad, turn the water murky, and any way you shake it, they’re not ideal for your health… I can see why most Iodine tablet bottles say “for emergency use only”.
I guess for emergencies, I’d be fine with it. But while backpacking? That’s just not an emergency and I wouldn’t want to dissincentivize myself or my scouts to hydrate by having poor tasting and smelly water.
Chlorine or Chlorine Dioxide Drops or Tablets
For a while I liked the Aquamira liquid chlorine dioxide drops. I used it on a 50-miler. It does take 30 minutes or so and one set (there are two bottles, part A and part B) goes a long way (treats 60 gallons or so).
The water treatment drops had to be mixed together and then added to the water, but it didn’t effect the taste too much. Some people don’t like it and say it tastes like pool water, but to me it was fine. Not ideal, just fine.
The tablets take FOREVER to cure the water, up to 4 hours. I’d never ever recommend them, always go with the drops if you plan on using chlorine dioxide.
I used the drops for a while and even though according to the EPA, chlorine is a toxic poison, I justified the use of it because chlorine dioxide is what the water treatment plants put into the public water supply. Can’t be too bad right?
Maybe. Maybe not.
As for chlorine, which are available in tablets or drops as well, are actually more toxic than chlorine dioxide. The fact that chlorine is indeed a poison ruined that party for me.
I try not to put toxic poisons in my body if I can avoid it and I can definitely avoid using chlorine or chlorine dioxide because there’s a better option.
I heard from a friend one time a simple justification for using chlorine or chlorine dioxide, he said “Well, it’s better than iodine.”
I’d have to agree with him but why on earth would you want something that’s just better than iodine? That’s some sort of compromise that holds your health as collateral because you’re ingesting poison.
I was ecstatic when I found something else that surpassed all of my expectations.