Water Treatment and Purification for Survival and Emergencies

Get all the facts about purifying water for safety.

Having the knowledge and tools to treat your drinking water is an essential part of any backpacking excursion, as well as being invaluable should you find yourself in an emergency situation. Common solutions to treating drinking water include filtration, chemical treatment, boiling, and distillation. Many people don’t know that there are 4 main types of water contaminants, and not all of the common methods above will help with all types of contaminants. Each of these methods has different strengths and weaknesses, depending on the water source that you are purifying.

Prepare yourself to obtain drinkable water in any scenario.

The four types of contaminants are:

  • Particulates – mud, sand, debris, etc.
  • Microbiological – bacteria, viruses, and parasites such as Giardia
  • Inorganic Toxins – arsenic, lead, fluoride, radioactive materials such as uranium
  • Organic Toxins – solvents, pesticides, gasoline, etc.

Organic contaminants can be the most toxic. For example, arsenic (an inorganic toxin) is deemed toxic at a level of 1 part per billion (1 : 1,000,000,000) and dioxin (an organic toxin) is deemed toxic at a level of 1 part per quintillion (1 : 1,000,000,000,000,000,000). The recent chemical spill in West Virginia is an unfortunate example of organic toxins being released into the water supply. This spill affected a relatively small rural population. You can imagine the chaos that might ensue if a spill were to affect the water supply of a large city due to mismanagement, natural disaster, or act of war.

Microbiological contaminant is the most dangerous in a short-term emergency situation, as a small number of infectious organisms can multiply many, many times inside the human body and cause toxic shock. This can lead to dire circumstances in a matter of hours, rather than the days or weeks it will likely take for organic or inorganic toxins to cause incapacitation. For this reason, there is very little margin for error when it comes to purifying dangerous microbiological contaminants.

Your purification method often spells the difference between failure and success.

So how does each of the purification methods stack up against each of the contaminant types?

Particulates Microbiological Inorganic Toxins Organic Toxins
Filtration Excellent Good Fair Fair
Chemical None Excellent None None
Boiling Concentrates Excellent Concentrates Concentrates
Distillation Excellent Excellent Excellent Excellent

As you can see, different water hazards are best dealt with using different purification methods. To get the best results, a combination of methods is always recommended. For hiking and outdoor situations, particulates and microbiological contaminants are the most common worries. A high quality filter like the Aquamira Frontier Pro, in combination with chlorine-based treatment drops or water treatment tablets, will result in the safest water quality. Pouring water through a coffee filter or compact microfiber camp towel before utilizing your water filtration system can increase the life of the valuable filter. The filtration system you use also has a big impact on how effective different contaminants are filtered out. The micron rating of the filter determines the size of contaminants that will be removed. If the contaminant is smaller than the micron rating, the filter cannot be counted on to remove that contaminant.

Distillation is the most effective solution for toxic hazards.

If the main water quality concern relates to inorganic or organic toxins, chlorination treatment or boiling is not going to offer much help. A filter will help remove some of the contaminants, but if you encounter a toxin with dangerous levels on the order of dioxin, it might be necessary to remove contaminants at a much higher rate of success. In this case, distillation is the safest bet. The Red Cross and FEMA recommends making an emergency water distillation system as diagrammed below.

Emergency Water Distillation Diagram

A similar emergency still could be created in a camping or bug-out scenario by replacing the pot lid with an inverted cone of aluminum foil, and hanging a drinking cup by a stick and string through a small hole in the tip of the cone. A campfire or small camping stove would be used as a heat source for boiling the water. The best emergency stoves utilize multiple fuel types to ensure that your stove won’t become a useless hunk of metal if you run out of a proprietary fuel formula.

Distilling Water in a Bug-out scenario

You can also purchase emergency water distillers, such as the model offered at the Survival Still website.

For more information about water emergencies, please give the Red Cross and FEMA water pamphlet a read. Printing it out is also recommended, as you may not have access to a functioning computer during an emergency situation.

We’d love to hear any comments you have about water purification or emergency water situations that you may have found yourself in before. Please leave a reply below.

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