Water is an essential part of hiking and it is particularly important to stay hydrated while on the trail. When going out into nature, you should always bring a water bottle of some kind, no matter how short the hike. However, if you run out of water or are hiking for an extended time, you will have to find natural sources of water. Before you start drinking from any lake, river, or stream you come across, first make sure that the water is safe to drink by purifying it.
Is This Water Safe to Drink?
While you should never just assume water on the trail or in the woods is safe to drink, these basic guidelines will point you towards safer sources of water.
1. Look for clear, flowing water.
Clear, flowing water is the best bet for drinkable water in nature. Water that looks clear and free from surface particles is obviously a better option than cloudy or visibly contaminated water. Streams or fast-flowing parts of rivers tend to be the cleanest sources, but you should purify this water as well just to be safe from any water-borne illness.
2. Stagnant water is most likely unsafe.
Lakes and ponds are usually not drinkable because the water is stagnant and most likely full of bacteria. If you are drinking from these sources, you must purify the water beforehand to kill any bacteria or viruses.
3. Avoid water downstream from camping areas.
Water that is downstream from camping or farming areas may be contaminated with water-borne viruses from any waste that traveled into the water source. Steer clear of these areas and head upstream for better water quality.
4. Never drink salt water.
Salt water can dehydrate you which is the last thing you want while hiking. It is best to avoid any saltwater lakes when looking for drinkable water.
How to Purify Water
Purifying water means removing harmful viruses, bacteria, and chemicals that may be in natural sources. There are several methods of purification to choose from; some are more convenient and effective than others.
Filtering water before you purify it is a good idea if the source is especially dirty, but usually purification alone is enough. Some filters can be inconvenient to use and heavy to carry; a simpler yet less effective way to filter water is to pour it through a paper coffee filter which can easily be carried in a bag or backpack.
Filtration can also be used as a purification method in and of itself. This process is generally done by pumping water through a ceramic or charcoal filter and then treating the water with chemicals. After pumping natural water into a separate water bottle, it will be clean and safe to drink. Some water bottles have built-in filters for an easy and convenient filtration option.
One of the most effective ways to purify water is by boiling it, which removes any bacteria or viruses it may be contaminated with. Water can be boiled in a metal cup, pot, or canteen over a fire. Keep water at a roiling boil for at least 60 seconds to ensure it is safe and let it cool before drinking.
Water purification tablets or iodine droplets are the most convenient and affordable way to purify water. Tincture of Iodine 2% is used to kill any viruses or bacteria and will leave you with safe, drinkable water. Iodine is also the active chemical in many water purification tablets which will accomplish the same thing. Add a few tablets or drops of iodine to your water bottle and let the water set for at least 20 minutes for the chemicals to react. Iodine-treated water may taste strange, but it will be effectively clean.
4. Ultraviolet Purification
Ultraviolet water purifiers involve treating water with UV light to neutralize contaminants and organisms such as bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. This method works best on clear water, so it is best to filter your water first. Some ultraviolet water bottles come with a built-in pre-filter. After filtering your water, stir it with the UV purifier for about 90 seconds. While UV purification is very effective, it can be more expensive than the other purification methods.