When going on a hike, one of the main concerns is how to get clean water. While a few decades ago that question was hard to answer, nowadays there are now several quick and easy ways to make sure each sip is as refreshing as the last one was. 

Whether it’s backpacking, hiking, or camping, we’ll go through the best options for getting clean water on the trail, including chemical treatment, filtration, ultraviolet light, and boiling. 

Chemical Treatment Tabs and Mixtures

Chemicals such as iodine and chlorine are still used today to purify water. While it was more complicated in the past, nowadays you can simply buy ready-made tablets from any hiking supply store. These tablets or drops come in packs and contain the appropriate dosage of chemicals to adequately purify water

For example, here are a few options to choose from:

Aquamira Water Purifier Drops

Aquamira - Chlorine Dioxide Water Treatment Two Part Liquid (1 oz Dopper Bottles)
Aquamira - Chlorine Dioxide Water Treatment Two Part Liquid (1 oz Dopper Bottles) amazon.com Check price

Kills odor causing bacteria and enhances the taste of stored potable water
Treatment has a 4 year shelf life from manufacturing date
Treats up to 30 gallons and easy to Use and No Aftertaste
EPA Re...

Aquatabs

Aquatabs - World's Best Water Purification Tablets for Water Treatment and Disinfection in Convenient Travel Packaging - 100 Count
Aquatabs - World's Best Water Purification Tablets for Water Treatment and Disinfection in Convenient Travel Packaging - 100 Count amazon.com Check price

Each Aquatab is 49mg with 16.88% Sodium Dichloroisocyanurate creating 2.6ppm available chlorine. When dissolved in 2 quarts of water the easy to use tablets disinfect the water for safe drinking in...

Potable Aqua Tablets

Potable Aqua Chlorine Dioxide Water Purification Tablets - 30 Count
Potable Aqua Chlorine Dioxide Water Purification Tablets - 30 Count amazon.com Check price

One pack of 30 Potable Aqua Chlorine Dioxide Water Purification Tablets for Drinking
Water purifying tablets are effective against bacteria, viruses and cysts, such as Giardia lamblia and Cryptospo...

Katadyn Micropur MP1

Katadyn Micropur MP1 Purification Tablets (20 count)
Katadyn Micropur MP1 Purification Tablets (20 count) amazon.com Check price

Crafted from the highest quality material ensuring quality and durability
Perfect for indoor and outdoor use
Made in the U. S. A.
The only tablet or liquid proven effective against viruses, bacteri...

When using chemical methods of water sterilization, make sure to use the correct amount that the packaging indicates. If you add too much, the chemicals could make you sick by themselves; too little, and the water won’t be properly sterilized.

Pros and Cons of Chemical Water Treatment for Hikers

There is very little that can go wrong when using water purification tabs themselves as they are pre-measured. 

However, when using any drops or liquids that you mix yourself, it is important to use the appropriate measurements. As mentioned above, with chemical tinctures, an incorrect dosage could cause health problems (although you typically have to be way off of the recommended dose to cause any serious harm). 

Besides that risk, these tablets are a fool proof way to purify your water. They easily fit anywhere and require no additional work. Refer to the packaging to see how many tabs per gallon or liter of water, as it varies from brand to brand.

Iodine: The Old Standby for Water Purification

We can’t move past chemical treatment without mentioning iodine. For many decades, the chemical Iodine was the standard method of water sterilization. Even today, when we have plenty other options for chemical treatment, iodine still remains a very solid emergency backup.

No matter what method you usually carry, you should keep a small bottle of iodine in your hiking gear, always. 

It’s a perfect, no-nonsense safety backup for several reasons:

  • It’s very lightweight and efficient—you don’t need much to sterilize gallons of water
  • It stays potent practically forever. Iodine isn’t a chemical compound, but actually a base, pure element itself. It won’t degrade or spoil when sealed up in a bottle.
  • It’s very cheap, so grabbing several small bottles to keep in every single hiker’s pack in your group won’t cost much.

Having an un-spoilable, potent, lightweight water purification backup is essential for good safety and survival practices. So why doesn’t everyone just use it? Well, you have to know how to use it to avoid being sick, so it isn’t the safest option, and it takes quite a while to purify. It also adds a very distinct taste to the water—not great in normal conditions, but when you’re in an emergency you won’t care at all.

When using iodine, a two percent tincture is usually preferred, two drops should be enough to purify a quart of water. For more severe cases, such as muddy or murky water, add ten drops, stir, and let sit for thirty minutes before drinking. 

Water Filtration Using Actual Filters

With the advancement of technology, microfilters have taken the first position when it comes to water purification on hikes. The versatility of this purification technique has allowed it to surpass all of its competitors. Here are a few of the options available to choose from: 

  • “Sip and Squeeze” Water Filters– the filters purify the water as it passed through a tube to your mouth, purifying the water sip by sip. These can easily fit into your backpack and can be refilled at any time. 
  • Pump Water Filters– Work similarly to that of the sip filters, but is equipped with a pumping mechanism. These are not only more expensive but require some maintenance, this is an option for frequent hikers, not a one-time activity. 
  • Gravity Water Filters– These filters are perfect for large groups as it can filter large quantities of water at once. All you have to do is hang it from a tree branch and let gravity do the work, literally. 

Water filtration and water purification used to be two different things—but modern water filters actually have small enough pores that they can filter out bacteria, microorganisms, and other contaminants—so no additional purification is necessary.

Ultraviolet Light Water Purification

Probably the most interesting one as of yet, modern portable ultraviolet sterilizers have become popular in recent years.

The ultraviolet light is used to neutralize viruses, bacteria, and protozoa, leaving behind purified water. This is only a purifier, so if the water is murky and dirty, it is important to use a prefilter. A good prefilter to use in this instance would be the gravity water filter. Once the water has been filtered, place the ultraviolet purifier in the water and stir for 90 seconds, and done. 

Remember to bring a prefilter (if the water is muddy) as well as back up batteries when using this option. It’s a great convenient option, but don’t rely on it in emergencies—you don’t want your safety to rely on battery power.

Boiling Water to Purify It 

Boiling water is probably the oldest and most commonly known method for water purification, and it’s very easy to do. You can use a camping kettle as a boiler, however, it’s not the fastest or most convenient method.

To sterilize water, just bring the water to a roiling boil for a minimum of:

  • One minute at lower altitudes (below 2000 meters or 6500 feet)
  • Three minutes for places above 2000 meters (6500 feet)

The high temperature kills the majority of the microbes, protozoa, bacteria, and even viruses leaving you with safe-to-drink water. 

This technique of sterilizing water is likely the first one humans ever discovered, but in modern times people have been able to make this process easier for hikers and campers with the invention of camping stoves. These stoves are fast-burning, fuel-efficient, and can fit in your backpack.

The downside? It’s not fast, by any means. Realistically this method can only be used at the campsite, but if you’re willing to break out your camping stove during a rest break then it can be a good backup or emergency method.

Some other tips for boiling water to treat it:

  • Be careful not to put the hot water back into any container not designed to handle the heat. It could melt, warp, or release toxins into the water.
  • Always over-boil. Let the water boil for another minute or two past the minimum recommended time, just to be extra sure.

Do You Always Have to Filter Water on a Hike?

Yes, it is essential to filter water whether it is on a hike or camping to avoid getting sick. Drinking unfiltered water can lead to illness and sometimes even death. 

In extremely rare cases, such as drinking directly from the source of a natural spring, drinking the unfiltered water can be relatively safe. However, it’s never totally safe, and it’s always best to filter the water anyway.

Dangers of Drinking Unfiltered Water

When water is unfiltered, it contains living bacteria, protozoa along with viruses that can have fatal consequences. When drinking unfiltered water, you risk contracting cholera, diarrhea, typhoid, or even polio. 

In fact, contaminated drinking water is the cause of nearly 485,000 diarrhea-related deaths every year. This can easily be avoided by using one of the above methods to treat water and keep you and your loved ones safe. 

In Conclusion

Water filtration and purification technologies have greatly evolved over the years. Now, you can have drinking water anywhere, anytime. There are several different options to choose from. Some are more costly than others but highly practical. 

Based on group size and desired purification levels, you can choose which water filtration method works best for you.