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How To Purify Water | 5 Water Decontamination Techniques

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Hiker filtering water from stream | How To Purify Water | Water Decontamination Techniques | Featured

Here are five survival techniques on how to purify water in a survival situation.

RELATED: 25 Ways To Get Clean Drinking Water In An Emergency

In this article:

  1. How to Purify Water by Boiling
  2. Chemical Treatment
  3. Commercial Filters
  4. How to Purify Water with Natural Materials
  5. Solar Still/Distilling

Best Ways How to Purify Water for Drinking

The Importance of Water Purification

We all know the significance of clean water in our body. It helps our cells, organs, and tissues to regulate temperature and maintain other bodily functions.

Without clean water, it would be difficult to survive or persevere especially when SHTF. But what happens if you find yourself in a survival situation with no access to clean water?

You might find yourself trapped in a predicament where you have to choose between dehydration or gulp a cup of cholera-infected water.

Picture this—you’re in the wilderness and the temperature has been slowly rising since you left your campsite—a good, clear, and unmistakably hot day ahead of you.

You look up and notice a few scattered clouds offering little shade, but at least you’ve got the trees. You set your survival pack down on the ground and reach into a side pocket for your water bottle. It’s empty.

While in reasonable conditions, you might be able to survive for three to five days without water but there’s seriously no earthly reason you ought to test how your body reacts to dehydration. It’s time to find some water.

Whether it’s a puddle or a swift-flowing stream you find, you should never assume the water that is tempting your parched lips is anything less than a bacterial breeding ground.

A bad case of diarrhea or vomiting will only decrease your chances of survival. So, how are you going to turn dangerous water into purified, drinkable, thirst-quenching hydration?

Check out the list below and learn how to purify water in the wild and drink safely.

1. How to Purify Water by Boiling

Man boiling water in the mountain | How To Purify Water | Water Decontamination Techniques

The simplest way to purify water in the wild is to boil it. To do this, you’ll need (I bet you can guess) a container and fire. To actually purify the water, you’ll need to let it boil steadily for 10 minutes.

Some say one minute is fine while others recommend a minimum of seven minutes. In my honest and very frank opinion, the longer you boil water, the “deader” those nasty little sickness-inducing microorganisms will be.

Remember, the last thing you want to happen to you in a survival situation is to get sick. Don’t forget: the higher the altitude, the longer the boiling time.

2. Chemical Treatment

Another way you can make water safe for drinking is to chemically treat it, and you can bet your thirsty little gizzard there are a number of chemicals which will do the trick. Some examples are Iodine tablets, Hydrogen Peroxide, Sodium Chlorite, and household bleach (yes bleach).

Some of these chemicals are actually already sold as water purification tablets designed specifically for campers, hikers, and survivalists. These tablets are pretty easy to use.

Simply drop the correct number of tablets into your container filled with water and let the tablets work their magic. Usually, the water is safe to drink after about 30 minutes (so you’ll have to be patient).

Be sure to check the manufacturer’s instructions before you use these tablets.

Plain old household bleach – one which has no scents, cleaners, or manufactured to be color safe – is also a good water purifier if you know what you’re doing, but be careful!

This is how to purify water with bleach: Add around 1/8 teaspoon of the bleach to a gallon of water and let the bleach do its thing for no less than 30 minutes.

Similarly, mix 5-10 drops of iodine (specifically 2% tincture of iodine) for every liter of water and wait for a minimum of 30 minutes.

RELATED: How To Stay Hydrated In The Wild

3. Commercial Filters


Not all of us are born mountain men (although you may be one). Some of us would prefer the easy way with commercial filters created to come to the rescue.

While there are literally loads of these filters to choose from, most of them operate in a very similar fashion. Basically, your unsafe water will go into a water hose at one end of the purifier, and the water will pass through a ceramic or charcoal filter.

This cleans the water before it goes out through another hose and into your container. Commercial filters come in all shapes and sizes.

Some are pump-operated while others are simple filter straws. One point to keep in mind, however, is not all the commercial filters will be able to remove viruses (although most of them do remove bacteria, protozoa, and other microorganisms).

Most people know about the Lifestraw, but if you’re looking for a slightly less expensive alternative that is just as good, check out the Aquastiq! Let’s face it. We aren’t prepared all the time.

If for some reason, you weren’t prepared with the proper equipment to purify your water, there are a few other methods of water purification.

Personally, I prefer to travel with my Berkey light. It’s much easier than building your own purification system, not to mention much safer. Check it out here.

4. How to Purify Water with Natural Materials

One of the most primitive ways on how to filter water is by using soil or sand. To do this, you’ll need to create a makeshift filter which will hold the sand or soil and clean your water.

Follow these simple steps below:

  • Get a container (perhaps your empty water bottle?) and place your shirt over it.
  • Place sand or soil on top of the cloth. This will be your makeshift filter.
  • Pour the water over your makeshift filter to remove any sediments and particles in your water. Repeat this process several times until your water is looking clear.

Another method is to dig a hole near the location of your water source and drink the water which seeps into a hole filtered by the soil surrounding it.

However, keep in mind this method does not guarantee microorganisms such as bacteria are no longer contaminating your filtered water.

5. Solar Still/Distilling


For microorganism-free water, a solar still is actually a great method to use when safe, drinking water is not readily available.

  • Dig a hole or pit in the ground.
  • Put your container in the center of the hole/pit to collect the condensed water from the solar still.
  • Cover the hole/pit with transparent plastic and secure it tightly by placing dirt or rocks on the plastic around the edges of the hole/pit.
  • Then, place a rock or any heavy object on the center of the clear plastic so it points towards the container. Like a greenhouse, the water in the soil will evaporate and condense on the plastic sheet. When it condenses, the water will run down into the cup.

Tip: You can add some vegetation into your pit/hole to increase the water output. You can also pour unclean water in the pit to distill it and make it safe for drinking.

The concept of a still is far from new. Follow our steps and create an emergency still of your own.

Watch this video by Ultimate Survival Tips and discover how to make a survival water filtration system:

Whichever method you choose to use, pay close attention to the signals your body is giving you. Staying hydrated, whether or not you are in a survival situation, is absolutely essential to your well-being.

If you find yourself in a less than ideal situation, remember these tips for hydration and these wise words from Bear Grylls: “Keep your head about you, use common sense, don’t panic, and above all think outside the box!”

What do you think of these methods of how to purify water in the wild? Let us know in the comments section below!

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**Disclaimer: The contents of this article are for informational purposes only. Please read our full disclaimer.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on October 22, 2018, and has been updated for quality and relevancy.




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68 Comments

68 Comments

  1. ScottA

    February 28, 2014 at 10:58 AM

    Or, just buy a small Sawyer water filter for $50 that is guaranteed for 1 million gallon, purifying down to .2 microns. If that is not good enough, spend the $100 or so for the Sawyer filter that does down to .01 microns. YOUTUBE has a video on a guy that took dirty green lake water, and ran it through his Sawyer filter. Then he put it against bottled water, and some other water, maybe from a well. Then he had his friends taste them all. They could not tell which was from the nasty lake. Not bad from a $50 filter. Very small and light. Last filter you will ever need, gravity feed.

    • SemperFidp

      October 23, 2018 at 2:17 PM

      Another method is sodus. Basically you filter the water through your shirt to remove debris into a plastic bottle with the label removed and lay it on its side in the sun for 8 hours. The ultraviolet from the sun will kill all pathogens in that time. Even works on cloudy days. Takes time but it works. Yes, it might leach some chemicals from the plastic into the water but diarrhea can kill you in a couple of days. Glass jars even ziplock bags work also.

  2. andy

    February 28, 2014 at 11:33 AM

    I’ve read that when boiling water, once it boils, it’s good to go! a minute or two after it boils is more than sufficient let alone 7 to 10 minutes. As other articles state, the bacteria are dead by around 180ºF. The time to get it to 212ºF (where you can visually see it is at that temp without the use of a thermometer which you most likely won’t have) from 180º is supposed to be even a bit of overkill. Also, when surviving, why would one want to waste the firewood when letting the water boil for 10 minutes after it first starts to boil. I guess altitude will have an effect on the timing as water boils at a lower temp as altitude rises…
    Also, you can disinfect water simply by using the sun and a clear bottle such as a soda bottle. All it takes is about 6 hours in the sun’s UV to kill all pathogens. obviously this works better in equatorial regions, but it’s good to have a non-fuel alternative. Look up SODIS on the net and you’ll see what’s being used in other countries (such as Haiti) to clean their drinking water

    • ken

      February 28, 2014 at 12:10 PM

      You are correct, IF bacteria were all you needed to concern yourself with, but that is not the case. Bacteria and most viruses die at lower temps, but cysts, thermophilic organisms, fungi, and a few other nastys can last awhile even in boiling water. Plus you can evaporate away some of the more volatile chemical pollutants if you prolong the heating.

      • Ron Riley

        March 30, 2014 at 11:09 PM

        Thermophilic organisms don’t survive in cooler water. Typical temperature range for these are 40c to up to 104c. So unless your trying to boil water to drink pulled from a hot spring you are pretty safe in this area. Also the fungi you state are pretty much the same field of study. Also the time it takes to bring water to boil and then letting it cool will keep the water in the temp range to kill all the nasty stuff. Less fuel use and that can mean more time. 13 MEU.

  3. left Coast Chuck

    February 28, 2014 at 12:14 PM

    Coffee filters are light weight, filter out the big junk and then can be used for toilet paper or for fire starter. I prefer to use multi-use items and coffee filters fit that bill. I also prefer back ups. In addition to the can opener on the Swiss army knife, good old c-ration can openers are light weight and a pack of 5 costs less than $3.00 from most suppliers. Take a pack with you. They can also be valuable trade items for someone whose Swiss army knife has become lost.

  4. left Coast Chuck

    February 28, 2014 at 8:09 PM

    Here in SoCal, finding 170 gallons of water in one day is the hard part. Until this weekend we were starting to think that the desert was going to reclaim Los Angeles. I have been told that at one time in the not too distant past the Southwest suffered a 100 year drought. After three years, it looked like we might be in a 100 year cycle again. In the event of an EMT event, the usability of ocean water may well be in doubt, depending upon what the sewage treatment plants do or are capable of doing. If they can manually open the outflow lines to the ocean, I think they may well do that to keep sewage from backing up. That means that everything that gets dumped into the sewer, not just human waste, will get dumped into the ocean. Short of distillation, I don’t see how that can be cleaned up for drinking and washing purposes. It would be nice to have someone who was actually a water treatment chemist write a treatise on how to treat various levels of chemical contamination for this site. I’m not worried about human and animal generated pollution as much as I am chemical and heavy metal pollution and drug pollution which I guess would fall under chemical pollution. For example, is it possible to remove the coal ash pollution occurring in a river back East by just simple distillation? Is something else required? As I understand the situation, it is not just chemical pollution but the ash itself is a heavily polluting element and would present severe problems removing it from the water.

  5. snowman8wa

    February 28, 2014 at 9:56 PM

    Used to think if ya drank from a running stream you’d be safe, then my Brother-in-Law proved me wrong and paid the price of “Beaver Fever”. Was speeding home and got pulled over by a LEO, the cop let him go because he said he looked like death…..was out for weeks. Not one to mess with.

    From the CDC:

    Giardia is a microscopic parasite that causes the diarrheal illness known as giardiasis. Giardia (also known as Giardia intestinalis, Giardia lamblia, or Giardia duodenalis) is found on surfaces or in soil, food, or water that has been contaminated with feces (poop) from infected humans or animals.

    Giardia is protected by an outer shell that allows it to survive outside the body for long periods of time and makes it tolerant to chlorine disinfection. While the parasite can be spread in different ways, water (drinking water and recreational water) is the most common method of transmission.

    http://www.cdc.gov/parasites/giardia/

    • left Coast Chuck

      March 1, 2014 at 5:31 PM

      Yeah, the old wives’ tale was if the water was running over rocks it was okay to drink. Drank lots of water from streams like that and never got sick. Stopped doing that when was advised by Marine Corps medical personnel that those pristine looking high Sierra streams were loaded with sheep liver flukes, even in the dead of winter. Cold water didn’t kill them. Sure was clean looking water but needed my liver for other purposes than growing flukes.

  6. Lucy Mauterer

    March 1, 2014 at 1:36 PM

    As gross as it may sound, you can even pee in the pit you’ve dug for your solar still. Its going to be distilled anyway so who cares what the sournce of the water is?

  7. Ronald Machleit

    March 1, 2014 at 8:16 PM

    You didn’t mention the little water purification tablets we used in the Service, Never had to use any though, you can still buy substitutes in stores. Any information or advice? thank you Ron Machleit

    • Wade

      March 2, 2014 at 8:48 PM

      Ronald,
      That would be under Chemical Treatment, number 2 on the list.

    • prsmith

      April 19, 2018 at 11:28 AM

      That depends on your source. They’re great for high mountain lakes and streams but in the lowlands or cities where chemical contamination is high, there’s no substitute for a high quality filter. Bringing to a boil or treating chemically to eliminate small viruses isn’t a bad idea in those situations also.

  8. Elisha

    March 2, 2014 at 10:27 PM

    A bit off topic, but is there a more printer-friendly way to print these useful articles? I want to print this one out to save, but the last one I printed (80 uses for paracord) ran over 40 pages, because all of the comments printed (fortunately, most of them were useful).

    • Stephanie

      March 3, 2014 at 8:01 AM

      I understand that concern. Looking to get printer friendly articles for you soon. Thank you for the suggestion.

    • left Coast Chuck

      March 3, 2014 at 5:22 PM

      I use a MAC and I use cut and paste using TextEdit. It is tedious, but it allows me to cut out extraneous parts and I can enlarge the type if the original size is hard to read. If you are using some PC program, I guess you could use cut and paste, pasting into a Word program. The hard part comes with some articles that have formatting commands that are hard to remove.

      • Great Grey

        May 6, 2014 at 1:15 PM

        In the PC world the easiest way to remove formatting commands to paste into Notepad (not WordPad) the cut and paste that into your regular word-processor.

    • Mikial

      January 20, 2016 at 5:10 PM

      I always just copy the articles, and then paste them into a Word document as “Plain text.” Then it’s simple to go through an delete everything you don’t want. If you want to keep the photos and diagrams, paste it under “Keep Source Formatting” or “Merge Formatting” then go through and delete the adds and other things you don’t want like comments.

    • John Martin

      October 23, 2018 at 7:52 AM

      I just hold the left mouse button down and scroll thru the article, right click the highlighted area and choose copy, then paste in to word or other word processor apt I’m using, then save and/or print.

    • John

      October 23, 2018 at 8:56 AM

      Hey Elisha, Just highlight the parts you want to print, copy them to a word, notepad, wordpad, etc doc, and print from there. Hope that helps.

    • Bob

      October 24, 2018 at 7:13 AM

      Highlight the part you want to print, select Print, click the bubble next to the word Selection, then click ok to print.

  9. JJM123

    March 2, 2014 at 11:24 PM

    Repeat – OK – where are the valid video links?? None of the videos in Survival Life Issue 148 work!!

  10. Melanie Shedd

    March 3, 2014 at 10:29 AM

    What about a solar powered Steripen? I used one while back packing and it worked great.

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  15. Derek Sharpie

    May 30, 2014 at 12:40 AM

    that’s kinda old school.
    I bought berkey water filter that I can carry anywhere. that’s very convenient and made me feel safe. works well on river and spring waters. perfect for outdoor trips

    • Jason Forest

      October 19, 2014 at 11:38 PM

      thanks for sharing us your knowledge. we really need to have a good water purification system now that millions of people are dying from different diseases they acquired from drinking unfiltered water

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  17. robert hopkins

    August 27, 2014 at 12:08 PM

    hey where are the products i am looking water filtration systems ,, etc…

  18. Jason Forest

    October 21, 2014 at 4:19 AM

    thanks for sharing us your knowledge. we really need to have a good water purification system now that millions of people are dying from different diseases they acquired from drinking unfiltered water

  19. Josephine Bernie

    November 5, 2014 at 8:46 PM

    Water is essential for health, hygiene and the productivity of our community. water treatment process may vary on the water condition that you have in your area. its better to invest on a good water treatment. it will benefit you by providing safety to you and your family.

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  21. Wendy

    December 10, 2014 at 8:24 AM

    A portable water filter is perfect for outdoor activities. I think using such an inline filter can enable us to have clean water to drink and cook.

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  23. Jillian Jayne

    June 25, 2015 at 6:27 PM

    Great info!!!!!!

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  26. Shawn

    January 20, 2016 at 11:16 AM

    I survived a week without food or water (while fasting). Obviously I was not in a desert. Many people don’t realized that your food contains water in it. You don’t need to drink any water at all if you eat enough food.

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  28. Ralston Heath

    January 18, 2017 at 9:30 PM

    Good basic info. One more to add is the seep hole. Next to the water source dig a hole about eight inches away and just a little deeper (say nine or ten inches). Wait a while… the water that seeps in will be filtered enough by mother nature to be drinkable. Some say to scoop out the first fill to settle the mud, so do as you wish, drink muddy right away or scoop out and drink the clearer refill. Either way there will be no living critters and virus bacteria will be minimal. Of course, use a little common sense here. If the water hole is full of cow poo, as well as the area surrounding it, you may want to look a bit longer for a different source of water.

    • Snake

      February 17, 2017 at 11:24 AM

      If you actually read the article you’d see that “seep hole” was mentioned in #4! What wasn’t mentioned is a transpiration bag, should have been included with the solar still.

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  30. Paul Smith

    February 19, 2017 at 8:11 PM

    1. Boiling water longer than a minute or two does nothing to the living organisms. If they survive for a minute, they’ll survive 10 AND boiling away the water concentrates any non-volatile chemicals – you must boil more for the same amount of water and you increase the ingested chemicals.

    2. If that filter you’re sucking water through doesn’t kill water borne viruses, you’re looking for trouble.

    3. A small pill bottle filled with Potassium Permanganate will disinfect a lot of water. Wrap it in a plastic baggie and stick it in your pocket, purse or backpack. Add a bottle of Glycerine and you’ve got both a cleaner and a source of fire.

    • David Fierstien

      February 24, 2017 at 4:40 PM

      From the Potassium Permanganate MSDS:

      This stuff is poison

      Potential Acute Health Effects:
      Hazardous in case of skin contact (irritant), of eye contact (irritant), of ingestion, of inhalation. Slightly hazardous in case of
      skin contact (permeator). Possibly corrosive to eyes and skin. The amount of tissue damage depends on length of contact.
      Eye contact can result in corneal damage or blindness. Skin contact can produce inflammation and blistering. Inhalation of
      dust will produce irritation to gastro-intestinal or respiratory tract, characterized by burning, sneezing and coughing. Severe
      over-exposure can produce lung damage, choking, unconsciousness or death. Prolonged exposure may result in skin burns
      and ulcerations. Over-exposure by inhalation may cause respiratory irritation.
      Potential Chronic Health Effects:
      CARCINOGENIC EFFECTS: Not available. MUTAGENIC EFFECTS: Mutagenic for bacteria and/or yeast. TERATOGENIC
      EFFECTS: Not available. DEVELOPMENTAL TOXICITY: Not available. The substance may be toxic to kidneys, liver, skin,
      central nervous system (CNS). Repeated or prolonged exposure to the substance can produce target organs damage.
      Repeated exposure of the eyes to a low level of dust can produce eye irritation. Repeated skin exposure can produce local
      skin destruction, or dermatitis. Repeated inhalation of dust can produce varying degree of respiratory irritation or lung damage.

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