You and your troop have been hiking half the day to reach the mountain’s summit. You’re thirsty — and even though your leader warned everyone not to eat snow, you can’t resist. So you reach down and pack a big white ball of snow. Looks clean, you think. And you start chomping.
Fast-forward 18 hours: The rest of your troop is out playing while you’re sitting on the toilet—been there all morning with some wicked diarrhea courtesy of that snowball you ate yesterday. Not fun.
Whether it’s snow or a clear mountain stream, you can get very sick from drinking untreated water.
“Even if it looks clear and clean, you’ve just got to do whatever you can to purify it,” says Jordan Romero, 13, who is on track to be the youngest mountaineer to summit all of the world’s seven tallest peaks. Luckily there are many ways to purify your water and several great gear options that make the job easier.
This one is simple. Just heat any suspect water to a roiling boil. When half-inch-wide bubbles are rising from the bottom of the pot for about a minute, you’re good to go. “We always collect snow, melt it and boil it,” Jordan says.
Pros: Cheap, simple, very effective.
Cons: Slow, especially at high altitudes; can use lots of stove fuel; won’t remove silt.
Just plop in iodine or chlorine tablets or drops, and wait as they kill the nasties. Tablets cost between $10 and $15 for a pack of 20.
Pros: Ultralight, simple, great as a backup purifying method. “It’s quick and cheap,” Jordan says.
Cons: “It can affect the water’s taste,” Jordan adds. You need to wait 15 to 60 minutes before drinking, it won’t clean out the silt, and not all chemical purifiers are effective against all germs and things—be sure to check the label.
These battery-powered wands emit ultraviolet light to purify your water. Just turn one on and wave it around in your water. UV purifiers cost $100 or more.
Pros: Very portable, fast, easy, no chemical taste.
Cons: Won’t work in muddy water, requires batteries, expensive, can treat only small batches at a time.
This stands for MIxed OXidant treatment. Basically it uses salt and electricity to make a water solution that interacts with your untreated water.
Pros: Easy, very portable.
Cons: Expensive, must wait for at least 15 minutes while water is treated, won’t filter out silt, requires batteries.
FILTERS AND MECHANICAL PURIFIERS
Filters use a handheld pump that pushes water through a tight screen and a filter that strains out germs as well as silt and such. These are good for wilderness areas where human virus contamination isn’t an issue. Purifiers go one step further (using iodine or electrostatic functions) to deactivate dangerous viruses. Purifiers are essential when traveling in areas where human waste might be contaminating your water source. These generally cost between $40 and $200. Look for one with a filter pore size of 0.2 microns or less. Also pay attention to its advertised liters/per minute, as this will tell you how long it will take you to pump the water.
Pros: Easy, removes chunky stuff and contaminants from the water, generally durable.
Cons: “They can be bulky to fit in your pack,” Jordan says. Also, they can be expensive and could clog and fail in the field.
HOW MUCH WATER DO I NEED?
A good rule: 2 to 3 liters of water per Scout per day. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink. Always have it at the ready and drink small amounts frequently.
WHAT IF IT’S MUDDY?
Muddy water? No problem. Just let it settle in the bottom of a wide pot. Then very carefully scoop the clear water from the top. Next, strain it through a bandana or a paper coffee filter. Finally, filter, boil or purify and drink up!
Great gear to treat your water:
MSR SweetWater MicroFilter ($90, cascadedesigns.com): This durable, simple-to-use pump filters 1.25 liters per minute and weighs just 11 ounces. The SweetWater’s 0.2-micron filter removes bacteria and protozoa as well as the smell and taste of most water.
Aquamira Frontier Pro filter ($25, mcnett.com): The ingenious Frontier Pro is a two-ounce filter that attaches to most any narrow-mouth water bottle, including supermarket-bought water bottles, and filters the water as you suck it through the mouthpiece.
Potable Aqua ($10, potableaqua.com): Just pop two of these iodine purification tablets into one quart of questionable water, shake, wait about 20 minutes and you’ll have safe, drinkable water.
SteriPEN Adventurer Opti ($100, steripen.com): Just plop in this 3.6-ounce battery-powered UV-light purifying wand and stir. Takes just 90 seconds to purify one liter of water. Also doubles as an LED flashlight.
Platypus CleanStream Gravity Microfilter ($100, cascadedesigns.com): This 13.7-ounce gravity-fed system filters four liters of water in just 2.5 minutes with almost zero effort. Simply fill the “dirty” bag with water and hold it higher than the “clean” bag, and gravity will pull the water through the 0.2-micron filter cartridge until it’s ready to drink. Good for camping in groups.
Katadyn MicroPur MP1 Tablets ($13 for 30 tabs, katadyn.com): Simply dissolve these chlorine dioxide purification tablets in suspect water. Takes between 30 minutes and four hours depending on water quality and water temp. Used by the U.S. military and distributed to crews at Philmont Scout Ranch.
First Need XL Water Purifier ($112, generalecology.com): he First Need purifier removes nasties down to 0.1 micron and provides two quarts of water per minute while pumping. Weighs 16 ounces.