Perhaps the single most important thing for us daily is hydration, even though most folks never realize it or think about it. If you are away from your tap, or an emergency happens it becomes obvious very quickly. So how do you find and purify the necessary life sustaining water?
The easiest way is to take what you need with you. This means knowing how much you need daily and accurately planning the trip. An average person needs to consume about 13 cups (3 liters) of water (or other liquids) per day and women need about 9 cups (2.2 liters) when in a temperate climate. These requirements go up with exertion and climate. The more we sweat the more water we need. Our bodies tell us when we need to hydrate, we get thirsty and our urine is clear when we are properly hydrated and gets darker as our need for hydration increases. It is unlikely when traveling on foot that one will carry enough water for more than a few days.
Water is readily available in most environments. Creeks, lakes, oceans, ponds, rain, rivers and streams are all good sources of water. Water also settles under the ground. Three quarters of the earth’s surface is covered by water, clearly an abundance exists, but in certain areas and during times of drought it can be more difficult to find. Water sources are annotated on most maps in blue. Intermittent streams are annotated in dashed and dotted blue lines. These are streams that tend to dry up during certain times of year and can be overflowing at others.
Finding water isn’t the only problem, once you have found the life sustaining water, you have to purify it. Several common methods are available. Boiling is perhaps the most common. Boil your water from 3-12 minutes depending upon altitude. Most elevations will require only 3-5 minutes of boiling, the higher the altitude, the longer you have to boil it to get rid of any bad bacteria and other organisms that may be lurking in your water source. Boiling isn’t always the most efficient, since it can cost both time and fuel to boil the water. You also must have something to boil it in. In the day and age of plastics this can be an issue sometimes. Generally a large pot can be packed inside a backpack and aluminum is light weight enough to not adversely affect the weight of the pack; carry a lid for the pot to enhance boiling time and conserve fuel.
Chlorine bleach is also another easy way to purify water. Simply add 1/4 teaspoon per gallon of water (about 16 drops). Bleach kills just about everything, however if you store bleach in your kit, change it out about every six months as it begins to degrade. The little Tobasco bottles found in most Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MRE) pouches make a great container to hold enough bleach to purify several gallons of water. This is perhaps my most favorite method of purifying. Simply put about 4 drops of bleach into a quart water bottle or canteen and shake well. Chlorine dioxide tablets are a modern solution and do not have an expiration, the downside is it takes time, typically four hours to purify the water. Calcium hypochlorite is another bleaching method. It is inexpensive and easy to use. For $5.00 you can purchase enough to purify 10,000 gallons of water. Add 1/2 a teaspoon of granules to 1 gallon of water, label this as poison; add 1/8 cup of solution to a gallon of water to purify it. This works great for purifying large quantities of water. If you collect rain water off your roof through the gutter system, this is also a good method of purification.
Iodine tablets are another method for purifying water. Iodine has a tendency to change both the color and taste of the water, it isn’t my most favorite method, but it is effective and most camping supply stores still sell small bottles of iodine tablets. These are good to keep inside your vehicles, they tend to not spoil or degrade like bleach will. One advantage to this method is the iodine can be used to clean wounds.
Ultraviolet light is a newly developed method of purifying water, but is the least effective method as it doesn’t kill viruses. There are many of these systems available on the internet. I know this is a fairly new technology, so in time it might be a viable option for all uses.
My other method is filtration, there are a number of systems on the market, just make sure you read the labels as some simply take out impurities while others actually purify. There are many good pump systems, and water bottle systems that use charcoal filters. Usually you get a 98% accuracy with these and they do not affect the taste of the water. They are light and compact to carry and even work with camel pack type water storage systems.
Let’s look at water storage systems. Over the centuries they really have changed little. Water flasks, water skins, canteens, cups, jugs, jars, and bottles. Everyone has their preferences. Today’s technology gives us Nalgene water bottles (BPA free) that have wide mouths and are labeled for measuring. BPA is bad, a chemical reaction from the standard plastic water bottles that are mass marketed to grocers and convenience stores, add sun and/or heat and it causes a reaction with the thin plastic. Camel Pack style water bladders are also a favorite and come in many styles and fit in most bug out bags. These can have inline filtration systems installed. I still like canteens and water skins, especially at historical reenactments. My philosophy is you have to have the right water storage system for what it is you’re doing. Just as you have to have the right pack. My favorite for short trips and day the hikes is a camel pack with large pouches to carry my basic survival needs. I have a smaller one for runs and cycling treks. For longer trips I carry one inside my pack and carry a few extra water bottles. Longer hikes you can simply add more water with canteens and Molle style systems. If you are going to be out for weeks, simply set up caches along your route. Remember to replenish your water supplies whenever possible. Never pass up a viable supply without refilling everything, your next stop might be dry.