How To Filter Water When Camping – Purifying Tips That Work

Taking water from the stream when camping.

You might think that pristine water is plentiful in the wilderness and that you won’t have any trouble finding it. This is not entirely true and you should learn how to filter water when camping. Occasionally, you may even come across people who boast that they’ve been drinking unfiltered water from the streams for years, without any side effects. However, you would be ill-advised to follow in their footsteps.

If you are a savvy camper, you know that the best practice is to filter water, no matter its source. You also know that it is impossible to carry with you all the water you might need unless we’re talking about an overnight camping trip. Water quickly becomes a heavy burden to carry around with you. Here you can find out how much fresh water you need for camping.

Untreated water often contains dangerous pathogens. They can cause waterborne illnesses such as various bacterial infections, viruses, and giardiasis. In some parts of the world, they can even cause dysentery and cholera. Waterborne illnesses can cause different intestinal issues, from cramping to diarrhea, which can lead to serious dehydration.

There are different ways how you can filter water when camping, from boiling to chemical treatment. It is vitally important that you understand which methods of purification help you get rid of which pathogens. You should also know which places are the safest for collecting water. In this article, we will present you with purifying tips that work.

Table of Contents

Where to collect water when camping?

When you are in the wilderness and in rural areas, you can even collect rainwater or water from the snow you’ve melted. In more urban areas, rainwater is not your safest option as it is already contaminated by traveling through polluted air. Beware of dirty snow and keep in mind that bacteria can live in the snow for months.

When looking for water sources, the general rule of thumb is to steer clear of places that are easily accessible to both animals and humans. Chances are that such places harbor more dangerous microorganisms. Instead, focus your attention on these places:

  • Clear, flowing, cool water – it doesn’t allow bacteria to accumulate or mosquitoes to lay their eggs. Here you can find out more about how to prevent mosquito bites while camping. Try to find smaller streams first, as they are the ideal choice for clear water. Rivers should be your second choice because they are often polluted from upstream.
  • Calm water – lakes, and ponds should be your third choice. Since they are stagnant bodies of water, there is an increased chance for bacteria to fester. Avoid murky water, as it can easily clog your filter. Here you can find out more about whether running water is cleaner than still water.
  • Away from the shore – stay away from the area that is likely to be more contaminated due to human or animal activity. Don’t collect water after heavy rainfall, as washed surface material can muddy the water and increase the bacterial loads.

Always gather water from the surface. You can use the pot from your cook set. Once you gather the water you should leave it to sit so that sediments sink to the bottom.

Make sure to always use a prefilter to get rid of larger chunks and debris. Most filter pumps already have a prefilter installed. If you are not using a filter pump, you can use a clean cloth, bandanna, or even pantyhose as a prefilter.

Water filtration vs water purification

Water filtration and water purification are two terms often used interchangeably. However, they are not the same thing. We’ll try to help you distinguish between the two.

  1. Water filtration – the purpose of it is to remove debris and particulates from the water. It can also remove certain bacteria by using some type of cloth or mesh. Filters cannot get rid of viruses, simply because they are too small. Water filtration will give the water the best, natural taste, as opposed to chemical purification, which can alter the taste of water.
  2. Water purification – basically sterilizes the water and makes it safe for drinking. Purification methods deactivate all dangerous pathogens, including viruses. Water purification methods usually rely on boiling, chemicals, and UV light and we will present you with purifying tips that work shortly.

Remember that water purification makes water safe to drink, but it doesn’t remove dirt. That is why you should first filter the water and then purify it. Sometimes you need to both filter and purify the water before consuming it. It largely depends on your location.

Generally speaking, the water in mountainous areas in the USA and Canada can be safely consumed after using filtration methods. On the other hand, if you camp in some places in Africa, you should never rely only on filtration. Without purification that will make your water potable, you could even end up with a deadly waterborne disease in your system.

Purifying tips that work

Let’s dive into the purifying methods that will ensure the cleanest, safest potable water gathered from sources in the wilderness.


Boiling is the oldest backwood purification method there is, although not the most practical one. In order to boil the water, you need fire and fuel. If you are unsure if camp fuel is the same as lighter fluid, make sure to check out this article. Boiling will kill the dangerous microorganisms, but may not get rid of certain chemicals, dirt, and bad taste.

An important rule to remember is that higher altitude equals longer boiling. If you are above 5,000 feet or more, you should increase the time of boiling to at least 3 minutes. Make sure to allow water to cool down before consuming it.

Boiling water to purify it when camping.

Chemical treatment

Chemical treatment is a chemical process that basically deactivates or neutralizes all the bad stuff in the water, making it safe for drinking. There are two main types of chemical treatment that are used for water purification: iodine and chlorine.


Iodine comes in the form of water purification tablets or drops. It effectively kills all the bacteria, is easy to use, and is lightweight. You can buy iodine tablets for less than $10, so they are inexpensive, too.

It usually takes around 30 minutes for the water to be purified this way. The downside of iodine is that it makes the water taste and smell like metal. However, the good news is that you can neutralize the taste by using another treatment in the form of the second tablet.


Some chlorine tablets may take up to four hours to react in the water. They are also slightly more expensive than iodine ones. When it comes to the taste, it doesn’t alter the taste of water as much as iodine. It kills off bacteria, viruses, and protozoa.


Most household bleaches basically contain a form of liquid chlorine – sodium hypochlorite. You should add around eight drops of unscented bleach per gallon of water. After 30 minutes, the water will be safe for drinking. Don’t use the household varieties of bleach for water purification if they contain more than 8% of sodium hypochlorite.

UV Purification

UV Purification is not a filtration method itself, so you should filter the water first to get rid of dirt and debris. This method won’t affect the taste of your water, since it doesn’t use chemicals. UV light can destroy most (not all) harmful microorganisms. Solar water disinfection (SODIS) uses solar energy to make your water safe to drink. UV water purification pens, such as Steripen are small and portable, but keep in mind that they do need a power source to charge them.

Pump filters

Pump filters are easy to use, especially if you pump your water directly from the water source into the drinking bottle. They rely on the power of your arm, or in some cases the battery, to pump the water from its source to the water container.

The pros of this method are that you can drink the water immediately after it’s cleaned and that you can easily purify up to a quart per minute. The cons are that you have to clean the filter and some of the pumps can be big and heavy to carry around.

Gravity filters

They resemble IV bags and consist of three parts: dirty water bag, filter system, and clean water bag. Gravity filters can be quite pricey and when it comes to size, they are bigger and bulkier than other options. They are a good option for filtering water for a larger group of campers.

Bottle filters

They may seem like the most convenient choice, as the idea is that you can drink the water right from the bottle, once it’s purified. The reality is that you often need to put a lot of effort into sucking water through a filter bottle. Bottle filters are a convenient choice for shorter camping trips. Make sure to also check specifications for these bottle filters, as a lot of them don’t have any purifying elements other than eliminating odors and unpleasant taste.

Bonus tips

  1. Wash your hands often – you can purify water to your heart’s content, but it will all be in vain if you forget to wash your hand after answering nature’s call. Using a hand sanitizer is a good practice too. Here you can find out if bears are attracted to hand sanitizer.
  2. Make sure to wash your water containers – if you pour purified water into a dirty water bottle, well, you do the math. Make sure to rinse your water bottles with purified water too.
  3. Leave all the water sources pristine  – camp and dispose of human waste at least 200 feet away from water sources.

Camping is a strenuous activity, so always stay hydrated. When in doubt whether your water is safe for drinking, make sure to both filter and purify it, just to be on the safe side.

We hope that we have provided you with valuable water purifying tips, as well as answered how to filter water when camping. If you are a camping newbie, check out our article about camping terminology everyone should master.

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