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Drink or Die: Proven Water Purification Techniques

There’s always a lot of gear to pack in case things go wrong when taking your off-roader out exploring mountains, deserts, or simply getting lost for thrills.

Not having the right replacement parts, clothing, gear can be a pain; running out of power or fuel can put you in a bad situation. Few supply issues, however, can turn dangerous as quickly as a lack of clean drinking water. Humans can only survive for around three days without water, and factors including extreme temperatures, lack of shade, and dry conditions, among others can reduce that time period further. Even when sources can be found, the water they offer may not always be safe to consume. Because of this, proper water purification methods are essential.

There are many common bacteria and amoeba found in fresh water sources around the world that can cause sickness and potentially even death if untreated. It’s absolutely critical that water be treated for consumption, no matter how dire your need. With just a little extra forethought and extra gear in the rig before your next outing, you can utilize certain pieces of equipment and procedures that can purify water in minutes if necessary. Here are some solutions and techniques to keep in mind.

Nothing is more important than a reliable water source in a survival situation. Knowing techniques to purify water in any environment can save your life.

Products to Purify Water

There are a number of very viable and cost effective solutions for water purification on the market today. They range from small, hand-held units to larger solutions for greater numbers of people. Generally speaking, outdoor enthusiasts should not wait until they are thirsty to start the water purification process. Some methods can take some time to execute—a device that requires solar power to clean or desalinate water, for example—so try to plan ahead as much as possible. This extra bit of preparation can keep you from ending up in a situation where you’re tempted to drink from potentially toxic sources.


Probably the most common method of purification by far the simplest and the most compact – small, easy, portable tablets. There’s always room somewhere in your truck or even in your pack for them. These can be comprised of a number of different chemicals, some of which can be harmful to the human body, so be certain to read any warnings or disclosures included with the product. Some examples of these are iodine tablets or crystals, sodium chlorite, or potassium permanganate. This should be considered an emergency or short-term solution. These chemicals can be harmful long-term, or to children or pregnant women. These chemicals may not kill all parasites.


Portable water filters are also a common solution for purification needs. When acquiring a device that filters water, an important characteristic to be aware of is the filter’s micron rating. There are certain contaminants that are smaller than others. For example, E. Coli is 0.2 to 4 microns in size. Viruses that are equally lethal can be 0.004 to 0.1 microns in size. Choose a micron rating that is appropriate to where you will be going and what you will be doing. Dirtier water will require a better micron rating to filter out more toxic things.

A young man filters water while hiking in Grand Teton National Park, Jackson Hole, Wyoming.


There are commercially-available products that allow for nearly immediate detoxification of water sources. An added benefit is that many don’t take up too much space in your vehicle. A popular item is the LifeStraw, which is a small cigar-shaped device that allows an individual to consume liquid without first purifying it. It can prevent the transmission of disease by bacteria, protozoa, viruses and does not require electricity or batteries to operate. A newly designed product known as the Life Sack is an interesting technology in that it can be used to transport food staples or grain and then used to purify water using a solar water disinfection process also known as SODIS. Of course, if you only have access to salt water, a simple Solar Still will desalinate the liquid.


Methods to Purify Water

It can be wishful thinking to believe that you’ve packed for any eventuality when heading out; thankfully, an outdoor enthusiast doesn’t necessarily need to have a product on hand to detoxify water. There are several ways to clean the water you need without having to be prepared in advance. The first of these is the most simple and most obvious – just boil it. Heating the water above the boiling point – 100 degrees Celsius or 212 degree Fahrenheit – will kill most lethal organisms, but it does nothing to reduce the levels of harmful chemicals that may be in the water. This, of course, requires that you know how to create and maintain a heat source, or have the resources and environment to do so.

In-ground Stills

Another method that is useful for purification when no specialized equipment is handy is an in-ground solar still. At minimum, a clear plastic sheet or similar product will be needed. Digging a square or V-shaped pit is the first step. The object of this is to collect moisture from the soil or surrounding vegetation, so adding plant life to the pit is a way to generate additional liquid. At the center of the pit place a small bowl and let the sheet fall into the bowl – a stone can be placed on the sheet over the bowl and thus used to aid in the condensation effect.

Placing other stones on the edges of the sheet can keep the center stone from falling into the bowl. Solar radiation will then condense the water from the surrounding soil, causing it to drip into the bowl. Adding unclean water, urine, or other liquid can also increase the amount of useful water produced by the process.

Using the Rain

Lastly, atmospheric moisture, snow, or rain can be purified using clothing or similar material. Scholarly papers have determined that white cotton cloth (synthetic materials do not work as well) and filtered snow are the safest combination. However, if snow or rain is not available, potentially dirty water can still be made useful. A sock filled with sand as a filtering material will work successfully. But, it is an inferior option to those available with some preparation. It may take a few passes through the filter to eliminate the cloudiness of the water, but this can be a solution for an emergency need.

There is nothing more important in a survival situation than access to a viable, clean water source. Water is life. While it is important to prepare for the worst and have a meaningful filtration system handy, these techniques can prolong life until a rescue can occur. As always, staying alive is the most important thing.

The Risks of Un-Purified Water

By the Numbers: Water-borne Illness

Dysentery is a major risk for survivalists and outdoor enthusiasts who drink unpurified water. It’s characterized by frequent passing of feces, blood, and mucus. It is a prominent risk all around the globe, though primarily in developing countries. Two main organisms are usually the cause: a bacterium called Shigella and an amoeba.

  • Dysentery worldwide: 160 million cases
  • Dysentery cases resulting in death: 600,000
  • Dysentery cases in the U.S.: 30,000
  • Diarrhea-caused deaths each year (worldwide): 842,000

Purification Spotlight

Because of the worldwide need for greater access to clean water, there is an increasing focus on crowd sourcing the solution to greater numbers of people. A number of contests are sponsored around the globe by a combination of private and public foundations and other financial sources. 14-year-old Deepika Kurup of Nashua, New Hampshire won $25,000 from an organization sponsored by The Discovery Channel and 3M (The Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge).

She created a device that uses photo-reactive chemicals to kill bacteria in water and can operate off the electrical grid. This movement has spawned other innovations such as the Pure Water Bottle, a device invented by Timothy Whitehead. It cleans the contaminants from liquid in a matter of minutes. It uses a combination of micro-filters and UV light, and is powered by a manual crank.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the Fall 2016 print issue of Tread Magazine.

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