Water Treatment

Water Treatment
Platypus Water Bladders

In a few weeks I’m going to be hosting an “Intro to Backpacking” Seminar at Harriman State Park.  I’m hosting this event via the Meetup Group “Hudson Valley Hikers.”  Meetup events tend to get a lot of RSVP’s, but also a lot of No-Shows. In order to vet people out before giving them a spot at the seminar, I’ve asked them to email me questions about backpacking.  Some of them are pretty good and I’ll be sharing the answers via a series of posts called “Ask CampingJay.” This post will discuss Water Treatment Methods.

Water Treatment

At 2 lbs per quart (1 kg per liter), water is one of the heaviest things a backpacker has to carry. Carrying all of the water you need for a trip is usually not an option. One of the first skills a backpacker needs to learn is how to treat water found in the wilderness.

Water from most natural sources must be treated before it can be consumed. Threats from untreated water include viruses, bacteria, and protozoa. In some cases, water may be polluted with chemical run-off from farms or industrial areas. There are various methods of treating water and each method has pros and cons.

Chemical Treatment

One of the easiest water treatment methods is to use chemicals. Chemical treatment methods kill viruses, bacteria, and protozoa. They are mostly inexpensive, lightweight, and easy to use. On the down side, they do tend to add a taste to water that some people don’t like. Chemical treatments don’t remove debris or pollutants from water. Most chemical treatment methods slow down in the cold.

UV Treatment

UV Treatments use a “magic wand” to sterilize organisms with UV Light. This method doesn’t kill pathogens, but prevents them from reproducing in your gut. While UV Light can only be used to treat small batches, this method is easy to use. On the downside, UV Treatment devices are expensive and require battery power.


Boiling is the old tried and true method that kills everything and adds no taste to your water. If you’re already carrying  stove and pot, you don’t need anything extra to boil your water. The EPA recommends boiling water for 5 minutes, but most backpackers I know just bring their water to a rolling boil and consider it clean. This is a great method to use in camp, when your boiling for cooking, coffee, or hot coco anyway. This method is also great winter when your water starts off frozen.  Relying on this method may require you to have some fire building skills, but you should brush up on those anyway.

Most Filters

Most of the backpacking filters sold on the market today are lighter and easier to use than the models found 10 years ago. Manufacturers have migrated from pump style filters to squeeze or gravity style filters.  Gravity filters allow you to hang a bladder of water and use gravity to drip it through a small filter cartridge in line with a hose. The clean water collects in a lower bladder. Squeeze filters work by screwing the filter onto a bladder and squeezing the water through it. Most standard filters only remove large bacteria and protozoa but are not effective against viruses or chemical pollutants. Unlike the methods above, they also remove soil and other debris from water.

Water Purifiers

Purifiers are advanced filters that have several stages, usually including activated carbon and reverse osmosis. These filters are expensive, bulky, heavy, and require some effort; BUT they remove almost everything from your water.  They are effective against viruses and some chemical pollutants.

Water Treatment Comparison Chart

OptionPros Cons Examples
Fig 1: mparison Chart

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