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5 Ways to Purify Water for Survival in the Wilderness

You may not think about purifying water. But carrying fresh water with you on a backpacking trip would add weight to your pack. 

Think about it this way. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say you drink 64 oz of water a day. Then you add in the water needed for coffee, cooking, and cleaning. Multiply all of that for three days. That’s a lot of weight added to your already overflowing backpack.

Animals don’t carry freshwater in the wilderness, and we don’t need to either. But we can’t simply drink out of a stream as they do. Check out these five ways to purify water for survival.

Cheerful young woman drinking water while hiking in autumn forest, panorama with empty space

The Importance of Purifying Water

Freshwater is readily available in the front country — a city, town, village, etc. Turn on a faucet, and you have potable water. However, in the backcountry, you often have a lot of water available, but not all of it is safe for consumption.

Are you ready to risk, at the very least, an upset stomach and, at the most, death? Water, even in its most clear form of a flowing mountain stream, can house many microscopic creatures, including bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. 

You may have heard of giardiasis or more commonly called giardia. Giardia is a tiny parasite (a protozoan) that can wreak havoc on human intestines resulting in severe diarrhea, nausea, cramps, and dehydration. You don’t want to deal with these when hiking in the backcountry. 

Most cases of giardia go undiagnosed, don’t result in severe symptoms, and clear up on their own. However, others can be quite severe, requiring antibiotic treatment to get rid of the parasite. The best way to prevent giardia and other organisms from moving into your intestines while hiking in the backcountry is to purify your water.

Ten Ways To Purify Water For Drinking In The Backcountry For Bushcraft, Camping, or Survival

Water Purification Versus Water Filtering

So you know it’s important to purify your water, but what’s the difference between purification and filtering? Water purifying and filtering can both remove harmful contaminants from water, making it safe to drink. However, the two methods have some key differences. 

Water purifying uses chemicals to kill bacteria and other contaminants, while water filtering physically removes them from the water. As a result, water purification is generally more effective at killing bacteria and is often used in areas with unknown water quality or waterborne illnesses. 

Water filtration removes larger contaminants such as dirt and sediment. Many often use it in areas with relatively clean water sources. However, both methods can make water safe to drink, so choose the one that best meets your needs. You may even use both. 

Woman drinking from water bottle while hiking.
Fresh drinking water is crucial for any camping or hiking adventure.

5 Ways to Purify Water in the Wilderness

There are many ways to ensure that you have drinking water while spending time in the wilderness without lugging seven gallons of water. Those ways include boiling, distilling, filtering, tablets, and UV rays. While each method works differently, they will all help you protect your fun and your intestines.

1. Boiling Your Water

How It Works: While water purification methods have come a long way in recent years, boiling water is still one of the most effective ways to make water safe to drink. Boiling water kills bacteria and viruses and gets rid of harmful chemicals like lead and mercury. 

What to Use: All you need is a pot or a water bottle with a lid and a heat source. Let the water boil at a full, rolling boil for at least one minute before drinking it. 

Tips & Tricks: Boiling water on a hot summer day in the middle of a trail may not be an ideal situation. But with the right tools and planning ahead, this can be the easiest way to purify water in the wilderness.

Ensure that you have a small backpacking stove and plenty of fuel, even if you car camp. Backpacking stoves are small and efficient and can get your water from cold to potable in less than four minutes.

Pro Tip: Boil your water with ease by using one of these 8 Best Campfire Starters to Bring on Every Outdoor Adventure.

Person pouring boiled water from pot into cup while camping.
Boiling water is an effective way to ensure it is safe to drink while you’re camping.

2. Using a Personal Water Filter/Pump

How It Works: Most personal water filter systems use a simple design. Water flows through a series of filters, which remove impurities such as dirt, bacteria, and viruses. Some filters also include a charcoal element, which helps to remove any remaining bad tastes or odors.

But most work by using a mechanical process to remove impurities from water. The water gets forced through a series of filters, which trap bacteria, viruses, and other contaminants. The water then passes through a final filtration stage, which generally uses activated carbon to remove any remaining impurities. 

What to Use: You can find many personal water filtration systems on the market, but we’ve got a couple to check out right now. And these don’t require pumping action.

Sawyer Squeeze

Weighing in at only three ounces and fitting in the palm of your hand, the Sawyer Squeeze may be tiny, but it is powerful. It removes 99.99% of bacteria (i.e., salmonella and cholera), protozoa (i.e., giardia), and 100% of microplastics. It attaches to the included pouch or any screw-top water bottle for instant clean drinking water.


The BeFree has a 0.1-micron water filter that removes over 99% of harmful organisms from the water source. It weighs less than 3 oz and comes with a collapsible bottle. This pump-free water purifying system gives you instant access to clean water.

Katadyn BeFree 1.0L Water Filter, Fast Flow, 0.1...
  • HIGH-PERFORMANCE FILTER: The BeFree's 0.1 micron hollow fiber...
  • ULTRALIGHT & COMPACT: Ultralight at just 2.3 oz. (63 grams) The...
  • EASY TO CLEAN: The Stay Clean drink nozzle protects against dirt,...

Tips & Tricks: Personal water filtration systems give you water ready to drink as soon as it goes through the filter. You don’t have to wait for it to cool down. However, the best tip for this water purification system is to research before purchasing one, so you can find the one that works best for you.

Most filter systems have a manual pump design. You’ll also need to track when to clean and replace the filters. You don’t want to drink water from a filter that no longer works. 

Glass of water with water purification tablet.
Water purification tablets release iodine into the water and kill harmful organisms making it safe to drink.

3. Using Water Purification Tablets/Drops

How It Works: Water purification tablets are a simple way to clean water when camping or hiking. But how do they work? Most water purification tablets contain iodine, which kills bacteria and viruses. When you drop a tablet into a water bottle, the iodine releases and starts to kill any harmful organisms in the water. 

You can also use iodine to treat contaminated water by adding it directly to the water and allowing it to sit for around 30 minutes. This gives the iodine time to work its magic and purify the water. Water purification tablets are a convenient and effective way to purify water no matter where you are.

What to Use: You’ll see many water purification tablets on the market, and most will give your drinking water a funky taste and color. However, the tablets will do their job and give you potable water when used properly. We’ve got just a couple listed here to get you started.

Potable Aqua This water purification tablet claims to leave no iodine taste or color in your water. Coming in a tiny bottle with 50 tablets, Potable Aqua is a must-have in any hiker’s backpack. It’s effective against giardia and other bacteria.

Potable Aqua Water Purification Tablets with PA...
  • One Bottle Of 50 Potable Aqua Water Purification Tablets And One...
  • Water Purification Tablets Make Questionable Water...
  • These Water Purification Tablets For Drinking Water Leaves No...

Aqua Tabs

AquaTabs come with a five-year shelf life. Each strip has 10 individually sealed tablets that you can easily bring on any trip. As with any purification tablet, follow instructions and wait for the required time before drinking to rid the water of harmful contaminants and organisms. 

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Tips & Tricks: Keep a supply of water purification tablets with you everywhere you go. They purify water and can also provide backup to other water purifying devices in case of malfunction. While you have to wait around 30 minutes before drinking, that’s better than no water.

4. UV Light Devices

How It Works: UV water purifiers work by using ultraviolet light to kill bacteria and viruses in water. The UV light penetrates the cell walls of these microorganisms and disrupts their DNA, preventing them from reproducing. Thus, it purifies the water making it safe to drink. 

While UV water purifiers are highly effective, they do have some drawbacks. For example, they require a power source, such as batteries. And they can only purify small amounts of water at a time. They also can’t filter out solid particles in the water. Nevertheless, UV water purifiers offer a convenient and effective way of purifying water, making them an essential tool for anyone who needs a safe water supply.

What to Use: UV Light to purify water sounds like something out of a science fiction film, but these devices do the job well. Check out the Steri-Pen Adventurer and the Steri-Pen Ultra to get you started.

Steri-Pen Adventurer 

The Adventurer is good for purifying up to 8,000 liters of water and destroys more than 99.9% of harmful organisms. The UV light can also double as a flashlight, making it a handy tool for any backpacking trip.

SteriPEN Adventurer Opti UV Personal Water...
  • Compact handheld UV water purifier designed specifically for...
  • Destroys more than 99.9 percent of harmful microorganisms,...
  • Safe and effective without altering taste, pH, or other...

Steri-Pen Ultra

The Ultra purifies up to 15,000 liters of water, destroying more than 99.9% of harmful organisms. It also recharges with a USB. The best thing about these UV light devices is that neither one alters the taste or uses chemicals.

SteriPEN ULT-MP-EF SterPen Ultra UV Water Purifier
  • UV light destroys germs' ability to reproduce and make you sick;...
  • Battery Life: Up to 50 treatments per charge and 300 charge...
  • Simple OLED display shows everything you need to know -...

Tips & Tricks: Be sure to have extra batteries on hand for your UV water purifying source. The evenings can get cold in the wilderness. Cold drains the power from the batteries, so keep your batteries just as warm as your toes. 

Couple filtering water at campsite.
Whether you choose to filter or purify your water, clean drinking water will be crucial for your camping trip.

5. Distillation

How It Works: Although boiling water kills bacteria, it doesn’t remove all impurities. The best way to make sure your water is completely clean is to distill it. Distilling water involves heating water until it turns into steam and condensing it into water.

This process removes all impurities, including viruses, minerals, and chemicals. If you’re in a survival situation and need to purify water quickly, distillation is the best method. 

What to Use: To distill water when camping, you will need a pot with a tight-fitting lid, a bowl, and tubing. Fill the pot with water and then place the bowl upside down on top of the pot. Place one end of the tubing in the bowl and the other end in a container for the distilled water. Make sure that the tubing doesn’t touch the water in the pot. Boil the water, then turn the heat down to simmer. 

The water vapor will condense on the bottom of the bowl and drip back into the pot. This process will continue until all the water in the pot distills. Then, you can turn off the heat and remove the tubing. If you have ice or snow, put some on top of the bowl to help speed up the process. Once all the water has condensed, you can safely drink it.

Tips & Tricks: Distilling water in the backcountry may be easy if you are a survivalist and have brought (or know how to create) all the required components with you. While this is a less common method, it’s always good to have tricks up your sleeve and a few items like tubing.

Pots of water being boiled on campfire.
When backcountry camping, knowing how to distill water can be a life saving skill.

Keep In Mind: You’ll need both water and food to fuel your adventures, so we uncovered Is Freeze-Dried Food Bad for You?

Which Way Is Best? 

With so many water purification systems, how do you know which one to choose when planning a backpacking trip. First, consider what type of water is available. 

If you’re only purifying water from clean sources like rivers and lakes, you can get away with using a simple filter. But if you’ll purify water from less reliable sources, like springs or wells, you’ll need a system that can remove viruses, bacteria, and sediments. 

Next, consider the space you have. Can your backpack hold a large water filtration system that uses a pump? Do you have room for extra batteries? And what about the heat source required to boil water? Do you have a pot or fire starter for that?

What it boils down to is that the best way is what works for your adventure. Remember that being without drinking water can make your hiking trip quickly turn from fun into a disaster. So, the ideal solution is to bring along a couple of different options just in case.

Water Distillation for Bushcraft and Survival

Keep Your Water Pure

Get out there and explore the world with your new knowledge of keeping your water pure. Because no matter which water purifying method you choose, you can head out into the wilds with the confidence of what you need and how to use it. Your tales of adventures can now be less about water purification and more about the time you fell in the water while taking pictures of that eagle you tracked all day. 

How do you prefer to purify your water? Tell us in the comments below!

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About Cait Morton

Co-Founder, Logistics Queen, Business & Content Manager, and Animal Lover

An Upper Peninsula of Michigan native (aka a Yooper), Caitlin is the organization, big-picture, and content strategy queen of our operation. She keeps everything orderly and on track.

With a background in Business Management, she supports and helps channel Tom’s technical prowess into the helpful content our readers and viewers expect. That’s not to say you won’t find her turning wrenches and talking shop – RV life is a team effort. She keeps the business and the blog moving forward with a variety of topics and resources for our audience.

Believe it or not, she is rather camera shy, though she co-hosts the Mortons’ personal videos and The RVers TV show.

Caitlin’s passion lies in outdoor recreation and with animals. Some of her favorite things to do are hiking, biking, and getting out on the water via kayak, SUP, or boat.

She also loves the RV life due to the fact that you can bring your pets along. Sharing information about safely recreating outdoors with your whole family – pets included! – is very important to her. Because of this, Caitlin spearheaded the launch of HypePets in 2023.

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Jeff Conlee

Thursday 22nd of June 2023

I don't know when drinking water from a well or spring became dangerous. I am 74 and when I was growing up in Texas, we would go camping next to a river but there was a spring we would drink from, and I do not remember any of the family getting sick. Even now we live in the country in Washington state with an unfiltered well 65' deep that has been tested 3 times in the last 12 years that comes up perfectly clear each time, but if you are unsure of your water source then any of the above-mentioned methods would be advisable.


Saturday 14th of May 2022

Boiling wanter does not get rid of lead and mercury.