Water Purification

We’re off to a backcountry hut for a few days and I’m checking off the list. Water bottle and thermos? Check. In winter months, packing enough liquid for a day is easy. On multi-day backcountry trips, melting snow is common practice for topping up on water. It’s a slow process though. If there is a stream nearby, it’s often easier to punch a hole through the ice and fill the pot.

Water, water everywhere - and not a drop to drink!

But let’s face it – gone are the days when all mountain streams were pure enough to drink freely. Purifying water – at any time of the year – is a given for outdoor enthusiasts. Whether or not you know anything about protozoa (e.g.  giardia, cryptospirdium), bacteria (e.g. cholera, E. coli), or viruses (e.g. Hepatitis A, Norwalk), we all know that safe drinking water is important. How can you make sure the water is safe to drink?  

There are four main options for water purification:

1. Boiling
Boiling water is a standard method of purifying that precious liquid. This is what we’ll be doing in the cabin. Boiling kills protozoans, bacteria and viruses – as long as the water boils hard for  the recommended range of 5-10 minutes. The downside to boiling water is that you need to pack a stove and fuel if you’re not staying in a cabin, have time to boil the liquid, and then let it cool before it goes in your water bottle (not usually a big problem in winter months).

2. Iodine, Purification Tablets and Other Water Treatments
Iodine is an old-school purification trick that truly makes your water taste terrible. On the upside, it kills almost everything. Most recent on the market, chlorine dioxide water treatments and iodine-free water purification tablets are options to consider. But a word of caution, these additives take time to work and they can be an expensive option if you’re looking at more than an occasional litre or two of water. 

3. Microfilters
There are a wide range of filtration systems on the market. Although the initial outlay of cash can range from $65-$100, microfilters provide volumes of safe drinking water – taking out everything but tiny viruses, which is not a big concern in North America. Filter care and cleaning is important to ensure that it continues to work effectively. Water loaded with particulates should be allowed to settle out before filtering. If not, you’re filter will plug and your arm will get very sore from pumping. 

4. Ultraviolet Light Pens
Relatively new on the market, ultraviolet pens zap out all protozoa, bacteria, and viruses. Cons for this easy purification system include the fact that batteries are needed (spares should be carried for longer trips), the water needs to fairly clear for the UV pen to work, and it’s a little slower for the volumes of water needed for larger groups than the microfilter option.

Whichever system of water purification you choose, be sure to follow all the instructions properly and have a fun trip!

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