In an emergency or long-term disaster situation, you can never have too much water. Whether to be used for cooking, cleaning, drinking or growing your own food crops, water is rightly called the most essential of all survivalist needs. Along with food and shelter, water makes up the “golden triad” of disaster preparedness supplies.
In order to live through tough times, or just survive in the wilderness for a few days, everyone needs a long-term, reliable source of clean water. It is also important to know how to purify unclean water if the need arises. There are about a half-dozen common purification methods, some quite complicated and others not. A few require special products that can be easily purchased online or in local camping and hardware stores.
Knowing how to make dirty water usable can mean the difference between life and death. Below are some of the better-known ways to make sure you have plenty of water when the situation calls for it:
Boiling: Boiling is not the most efficient or the fastest way to purify water, but in a pinch it gets the job done. In order to remove all pathogens from impure water, it needs to boil between three and 12 minutes, depending on elevation (longer at higher elevations). You’ll also lose a good deal of the water through steam while boiling it. For campers and outdoor enthusiasts who have a good heat source for cooking, it is a good idea to boil a couple pots of water while preparing a meal. That way, the heat source is used more efficiently, is already in operation for cooking, and doesn’t require any additional time just for boiling. This is one of the oldest and easiest ways to purify water at home or in the wilderness.
Distillation: This method of water purification is extremely energy-inefficient but results in very pure, consumable water. To distill properly, make sure the impure water is in an enclosed container so that no steam can escape. Bring the temperature of the container to the boiling point and make sure it is covered with a lid that allows all steam and vapor to collect at one point. This is usually done with a series of pipes or heat-resistant straws. The resulting residue takes a long time to build up but is essentially the collected steam from the boiled (impure) water. The reason distillation works so well is because boiling water leaves its impurities behind and sends only pure water vapor into the air as steam. Devising a way to collect the steam is what distillation is all about. You can buy distillation units for making pure water, without having to build or design your own device ( which is really a major hassle).
Pasteurization: A more fuel-efficient alternative to boiling and distillation is pasteurization, which requires bringing water to a temperature of 160 degrees for at least six minutes. This will destroy all parasites and pathogens in the water, and can be done at home or in the great outdoors. So, why does everyone boil water to purify it? That’s because it’s easy to visually verify that water is boiling. Unfortunately, when water reaches 160 degrees, it does not produce bubbles or give any indication that it has hit the pasteurization point. Fortunately, there is an inexpensive device called a WAPI (water pasteurization indicator) that will tell you if you water pot has reached the vital point, thus saving you about 50 percent on the cost to heat it to the boiling point. In the outdoors, this is a major advantage, as you can stretch your fuel supply twice as long. See WAPI devices here.
Chemical Treatment: Treating water with various chemicals can do a thorough job of making it pure. Chemical treatment can kill all sorts of impurities like viruses, parasites, bacteria and other pathogens. From an energy-efficiency point of view, chemical treatment is the best way to make sure that your water supply is safe for drinking and cooking.
One of the big disadvantages of chemical purification is taste. Even when you use exactly the right amount of the additive, water can really taste bad, even though it is pure. Another problem with chemicals is that measurements must be exact. If you don’t use enough, the water will still be impure. If you use too much, you might suffer serious illness or even death. With most chemical treatments, you have to let the water sit for about a half hour so the purifying process can be complete.
The most common chemical purification method uses household bleach. Bleach does a good job of killing all impurities in water, but you need to add no more than 16 drops (one-quarter of a teaspoon) per gallon, mix it well, and then let it sit for 30 minutes before it is ready for consumption.
If the impure water is cloudy before you chemically treat it, filter it with a coffee filter, or by running it through a funnel that has been plugged with clean cotton. And remember to NEVER use scented, perfumed, or dyed bleach. Also avoid using any bleach that has additives. Regular, unscented Clorox or Purex usually works well.
Purification Tablets: You can buy commercial tablets to use for water purification. The good thing about tablets is that they last virtually forever, cost next to nothing, only take about 30 minutes to work, and usually add no nasty taste to the water.
Mechanical Filtration: Of all the ways to purify water, filtration is probably the easiest. It works on personal devices like water bottles, can be used on a sink or hose, and is relatively inexpensive. You can even make your own devices using coffee filters, cotton and carbon. But purchasing a commercial filter for about $20 is really the smart way to go.
Clean Water is Healthy Water
The philosophy behind disaster preparedness is in the wording, and that word is “prepared.” Smart preparation requires planning. Before disaster strikes, or before heading out to the woods for an off-the-grid vacation, carefully calculate how much water you will need, and then bring along about 10 to 20 percent more than that. As a backup, learn the details of at least three ways to purify unclean water in case your clean supply somehow becomes tainted or lost. Bring at least one gallon of water per person per day, as a general rule.
Water purification is not high science and does not require hours of study or practice. But it certainly is important to know how to purify and to have the necessary supplies on hand to get the job done.
Water is a curious substance: you can have hundreds of gallons on hand but it’s virtually worthless unless it is clean and pure enough to consume. Coleridge put it best in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”
Clean water makes the world go around, and a little knowledge about water purification can make all the difference when civilization is far, far away.