Whether you’re taking a planned trip into the backcountry or you just want to be prepared for wilderness survival, you need to know how to filter water in the wild.
Here, we’ve shared the step-by-step process of filtering water in the backcountry. We’ve also discussed the best water purification methods to filter water in the wild.
📌 Key Takeaways:
- To filter water in the wild, locate your water source, pre-filter your water if necessary, then filter your water with one of the methods listed in this guide.
- Methods of filtering water in the wild include using a portable water filter, making a DIY water filter, boiling water, and disinfecting your water with UV light or water purification tablets.
- Make sure to consider your water source, your setup and maintenance preferences, the filter’s portability, and more.
Table of Contents
🏕️ How to Filter Water in the Backcountry In 3 Steps
Most backcountry water is at risk of containing contaminants like bacteria, which you’ll need to filter out to make it safe to drink.
Here are our top 3 recommended steps to filter your drinking water in the wild:
Step 1: Locate Your Water Source
Your first step is to locate a suitable water source to filter.
When you come across a water source, conduct a visual inspection of the water and the surrounding area. Try to avoid water supplies that may be polluted or heavily contaminated with sediments and debris.
There are a few different freshwater sources you might come across in the wild, including:
- Stream or rivers
- Lakes or ponds
We recommend looking for running waters, like rivers or springs, which are clearer, at a lower risk of bacterial contamination, and easier to filter than still waters, like lakes and ponds.
Depending on your situation, you may also be able to collect rainwater or dew, or collect ice and snow (avoid seawater ice, which is frozen saltwater and unsafe to drink).
If you’re in a region with a tropical climate and you don’t have access to water, look for fruits that you know are safe to eat, like green coconuts and cacti.
Step 2: Pre-Filter The Water (If Necessary)
Your next step, depending on your main choice of water treatment, is to pre-filter your water.
You can make your own sediment filter to remove debris like leaves, dirt, soil, and other large particulates.
Just place a clean cloth, bandana, t-shirt, or other large item of clothing over the top of a container or a bucket, then hold the cloth in place while you pour water slowly over the material. The water will filter through into the container, while the debris will be trapped on the material.
Pre-filtering your water isn’t essential, but it’ll help you to filter water more efficiently with less backflushing (if you’re using a flushable filter) and improve the taste and quality of your water.
Step 3: Filter The Water
Now, you can move on to the main filtration method.
There are a few different options, depending on your budget and how much pre-planning you’re afforded. We’ve shared some of the best methods of water filtration in the wild later.
Your chosen method of water purification or filtration should be based on the possible contaminants in your water.
In most scenarios, choose a filtration method that can at least remove or kill microorganisms, since these could make you sick.
Ideally, find a filter that can also remove sediment, microplastics, and other natural water pollutants.
Once you’ve filtered your water, you can either drink it straight away or store it in an airtight container to drink on the move.
🚰 7 Best Methods Of Water Filtration In The Wild
Portable Water Filters
Portable water filters are the easiest solution for accessing clean, filtered water away from home.
There are several types of portable water filtration systems, including straw filters, filtered water bottles, gravity filters, and pump filters.
Most filters use a cartridge design, and remove several common contaminants in natural water sources, from sediment and debris right down to microplastics and bacteria.
The convenience of these filters is that they’re easy to carry in a backpack or stash in a tent because they’re small, lightweight, and compact.
Boiling water is one of the simplest ways to kill germs in water.
You can boil water in any setting, as long as you have a heat source, a pan, and a storage container. It’s best to boil water in batches and drink it as soon as it’s cooled, which will prevent recontamination.
You can’t boil your water to remove contaminants – it can only kill live organisms like bacteria and viruses.
Make sure to bring water to a rolling boil for a minimum of 1 minute to kill bacteria.
If you’re out in the wild and you only have access to murky, sediment-rich water, an easy way to remove this sediment is with a process called sedimentation.
Sedimentation is when you let water sit for a period of time (ideally at least 30 minutes), allowing the heavier sediment particles to settle at the bottom of the container. You can then scoop out the clean water at the top and discard the dirty water at the bottom.
You can combine sedimentation with a process that will purify water, like UV light or solar water disinfection, to further improve water safety and quality.
The easiest way to disinfect your water in the wild is by using chemical disinfection tablets or drops, like iodine tablets.
These tablets, often sold as water purification tablets, take up to 30 minutes to kill waterborne germs like bacteria and viruses. They’re easy to use: just drop a tablet in your water and wait for it to take effect.
We recommend looking for NSF certified chemical disinfection tablets so you know that they work. Also keep in mind that you’ll need to make more time for disinfection if you’re treating cold or cloudy water.
UV treatment uses a UV lamp to kill pathogens like viruses, protozoa, and bacteria in water. UV doesn’t remove microorganisms from water – instead, it alters their DNA, making them unable to reproduce or cause harm when consumed.
UV water bottles are popular UV light devices for hikers and backcountry explorers because of their simplicity. You just fill the bottle with water, tap the lid to purify your water, then drink it whenever you want.
UV can’t be used to remove odors, tastes, chemicals, or heavy metals – this type of water filter is purely used for purifying water by targeting microbiological impurities.
Solar Disinfection (SODIS)
An alternative to UV treatment is solar disinfection, or SODIS.
DSODIS is an inexpensive, sustainable method of removing harmful microorganisms from drinking water.
You can use SODIS while camping or traveling to kill bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens in your water, no matter where in the world you live. If you use recycled plastic bottles the treatment costs nothing, and is very easy to set up.
The technique is simple: just add water to a clear plastic bottle and expose this bottle to the sun.
Then, wait up to 48 hours for the sun’s UV rays to purify your water and make it safe to drink. The exact time depends on the intensity of the UV light in your region and the concentration and types of pathogens in your water.
There are several DIY filters that you can use to filter or purify water in an emergency situation:
Activated charcoal is a common water filter material, and you can make your own charcoal filter to provide similar clean drinking water benefits.
This water filtration method adsorbs water smells, tastes, and toxic compounds. It can even reduce heavy metals and fluoride. However, activated charcoal can’t be used for removing bacteria or viruses.
To make your own activated charcoal filter, place a charcoal lump from your campfire and put it in a (preferably clean!) sock. Pour water into the sock and catch the filtered water in a container underneath.
Hand-Made Sediment Filter
You can make your own sediment filter, too, if you don’t have access to a filter already.
Take a bucket and fill it with layers of gravel, activated carbon, and play sand. Drill a hole in the bottom of the bucket and pour water through the top. As the water passes through the various layers, each layer will trap sediments like dirt and rust.
This DIY filter can’t be used to remove chemical contaminants.
Fruit Peel Filters
Ever wondered what you can do with your leftover fruit peels? As a last resort, you can use your old apple peels to purify contaminated water.
This method is only used in locations where there are only two options: drinking contaminated water or trying the fruit peel filter method. Choose other filtration systems before this DIY method.
DIY Water Distillation
The best DIY water purification method is to produce distilled water from plants and moist soil in the ground.
Follow these steps:
- Set up camp and find a spot on the ground that gets full sunlight.
- Dig a small hole in the ground, then place a can (such as a coffee can) in the hole.
- Stuff damp, green plants in the hole around the outside of the can.
- Cover the hole with plastic wrap, making sure it’s well sealed, then weigh down the middle with a small pebble.
- Wait for sunlight to heat up the hole. The water from the damp plants should evaporate, hit the underside of the plastic wrap, condense, and drip into the coffee can from the middle of the wrap.
You can keep adding more and more plants until you’ve collected enough water to drink.
👨🔧 Want more detailed instructions? Check out my guide to distilling water from plants or moist soil.
🤔 Why Filter Water In The Wild?
So, now you know the best methods of filtering or purifying water in the wild, why should you bother in the first place?
While water in the wild might look clean, fresh, and refreshing, it might contain invisible contaminants that could make you sick.
Backcountry water supplies in the US may contain bacteria, pollutants, pesticides, and large floating particles of sediment (such as leaves, twigs, and mud).
If you’re traveling further afield to locations abroad, you might come across a natural water source that’s also at risk of virus contamination.
Lakes, rivers, streams, and other natural water supplies haven’t undergone chemical treatment like chlorine disinfection, so you’ll need to filter or purify your water with ultraviolet light, a water filter, or water purification tablets to produce safe, drinkable water that won’t put your health at risk.
📝 6 Factors To Consider When Filtering Water In The Wild
Below, we’ve shared 6 factors that you should consider when purifying or filtering water in the wild.
The Source Water
Depending on your survival situation, you might have access to only one type of water, or several water sources.
The type of water you have access to will determine its likely contaminants. Rivers and ponds are more likely to contain heavy sediment, natural materials, and harmful organisms like bacteria, while flowing water sources, like rivers and streams, are more likely to be clearer and lower in sediment (although they could still contain bacteria, chemicals, and other local pollutants).
Your location also affects the likely contaminants in your source water, and the methods you will need to use to remove these. If you’re traveling overseas, we recommend looking at water filters that can also kill viruses as well as bacteria.
Filtration Vs Purification
Based on your situation, ask yourself whether you’ll need a water filtration method, a water purification method, or a combination of the two.
You only need to filter your water if you know for certain that it doesn’t contain any microorganisms that could cause waterborne illnesses.
You might choose to only disinfect your water (i.e. with UV purification in a UV water bottle) if you’re not concerned about local contaminants and you’ve found a clear, clean-looking fresh water supply.
In most scenarios, we recommend doing both – filtering water to improve its taste and quality, and purifying water to kill or remove microorganisms and make it safe to drink.
DIY Treatment Vs Store-Bought Filter
Also consider whether you prefer to make your own water treatment solution or you’d rather purify water with a store-bought filter.
A store-bought solution costs more but offers the most reliable results. Many manufacturers get their products third-party tested and certified to support their performance claims, so you can rely on them to remove certain contaminants.
Making your own water filtration or purification solution takes longer and doesn’t guarantee effective results, but it’s a free or low-cost option. Plus, it’s good knowledge to have if you ever unexpectedly find yourself in an emergency survival situation with no store-bought water filter on hand.
Do you need to filter your water on a camping trip, or are you heading on a hike and need a portable way to filter water on the go? This will determine the size and weight of the water filter you choose.
You can buy straw water filters and water bottle filters, iodine tablets, and hanging gravity bag filters that take up minimal room in your backpack. These are the best option if you want to pack as light as possible.
Setup & Maintenance
Setup and maintenance is something you’ll probably want to minimize when filtering your water in the backcountry.
The quicker and easier the setup, the faster you can purify water for drinking. Buying a personal water filter from a manufacturer will help you to reduce setup because most filters are quick to assemble and can be used almost immediately.
Finally, consider the cost to purify water in the wild.
You can expect to pay $50-$200 for a water filter or purification system for filtering water in the wild. Or, make your own and just pay the materials cost.
The long-term cost to filter drinking water in the backcountry is low because most survival water filters last for years and are backflushable, so you can reuse them again and again.
Continue Reading: Exploring 18 Off-Grid Water Filtration & Purification Methods
📑 Final Word
Hopefully, you now know how to filter water in the wild, and you have the information you need to choose the best method of filtration for the job.
If you don’t like the thought of making your own water filter and you’d prefer a more trustworthy store-bought solution for filtering water in the wild, you can learn more about the best portable water filters here.