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Backcountry Water Treatment Part 2: Keeping Your Water Supply Safe

In Camp

Keep latrine and gray water areas separate from all water sources, especially in wilderness areas like Antarctica. And don’t forget the Purell.
(photo: B. Straka)

Whenever and wherever you camp, you must make sure your water supply is not contaminated, as well as take great care not to contaminate the water supply. To prevent contamination, separate your water source from the areas for bodily relief and washing dishes or yourself by at least 100 feet (or as specified by the land manager).

Designate a clean water source area and a separate latrine area when you set up camp. If there is a latrine or outhouse available, make this the designated latrine area. Emphasize to everyone in your party (adults and youth) that they must use the designated latrine area, and must not just step outside the tent during the night or first thing in the morning. When designating the latrine area, keep in mind that other people may be using the area in the future. In winter, consider the impact when the snow melts.

In Winter

It is tempting to think that snow, especially in winter, is uncontaminated, but this is not necessarily true. Avoid yellow or brown snow, but also keep in mind that animals roam the snowfields and can contaminate the snow, just as humans do. Purify the water, just as in summer. If you are melting snow, continue heating it up to the boiling point. While it’s obvious when thinking about it, the shovel or scoop used for gathering snow to melt into water should be different from the shovel used for the latrine or other purposes.

In Wilderness Areas

In an increasing number of wilderness areas, camping and backpacking groups are required to carry out all human waste. This can be accomplished by using one of the commercial waste bags (RestStop or WAG Bags, for example) or by using doubled plastic garbage bags.

In the latter example, one garbage bag is used as a liner, either for a bucket carried in for that purpose (some groups carry a toilet seat for the can) or for a hole dug for that purpose. The person changing the liner bag should wear disposable gloves (the same type of surgical gloves everyone should have in their first aid kits), tightly close and tie-wrap the liner bag, and place it inside a second bag, which is also tightly closed and tie-wrapped. The now-contaminated gloves are disposed of in the new liner bag. A handful of cat litter can help reduce odor and will make the operation less unpleasant for the designee.

In winter, waste matter usually freezes quickly. To reduce volume, reserve the bags for fecal matter and have people urinate a short distance away. The bags can be emptied into a latrine or a dumpster at the trailhead (check with the local land managers for their standardized practices).

During a Natural Disaster

It is also important to be aware of the potential contamination of water supplies during natural disasters, such as earthquakes in California, floods in the Midwest, and hurricanes in the Gulf States. While this does not relate directly to camping, knowledge and practice in dealing with water supplies in the backcountry can help with preparedness for natural disasters or other interruptions of normal water supplies.

Clean Hands

A clean backcountry camp includes keeping nearby water sources uncontaminated. (photo: A. MacLeay)

Cleanliness is more difficult in the backcountry. It is important that the cook always has clean hands, as should everyone when eating (especially finger foods like sandwiches). Certainly, the person on latrine duty should not also be the cook. And when rotating duties, do not have the latrine person’s next task involve food preparation. If possible, the latrine person should thoroughly wash his or her hands with soap and water.


Do not wash your hands in any stream, lake, or spring. That is your water supply and that of other parties and the local wildlife. You can carry a folding basin for this purpose; do the washing at least 100 feet from water sources. Alternatively, use the sterilizing solutions or gels, such as Pure Touch and Purell, found in many drug, grocery, and camping stores.

Clean Dishes

Rinsing soap off dishes, especially aluminum pots, requires enough hot water that the extra fuel to be carried becomes a significant factor. Part of the solution to having clean dishes is to prepare foods that produce minimal mess. Much of the mess can be cleaned off dishes and cooking utensils by scrubbing with snow and following with a hot water rinse (remember to pack out all food waste!). Also, remember to dispose of any soapy wash or rinse water in an ecologically sound manner, at least 100 feet from water sources.

You can also clean dishes as much as possible at the end of each meal, then sterilize dishes, cups, spoons, etc. in boiling water just before use in the water to be used for cooking.


Continued in “Part 3: What is in Backcountry Water?” »

Read Water Treatment and Storage Reviews »



The series reviews about water treatment is very informative but leaves the outdoor visitor in fear of waterborne illness. The mixed and conflicting opinions and experience of the analysts is a lot to digest/ingest. No one passed judgment on the Sawyer’s filters or the new Be Free filter. My friends who are biologists bring water from municipal treatment when hiking in the deep lakes in high desert area, because of agricultural and cattle feed lots which only distillation can remove. Someone among the commentators could comment upon Sawyer’s filters, Be Free, and Lifestraw, too. Thank you.


Do consider that the OP's posted this in 2008, so certain products currently are no longer available, while others had yet to be developed.

FWIW, I've definitely camped in a few areas where stock animals foul the water, or where stagnant water sources are suspect.  I use the ion treatment pills (two-step hyper chlorination/oxidation).  This chemical treatment uses the same chemistry principles as many water municipalities.  Such treatment is definitely safe for drinking, albeit the water may taste or look funky, due to suspended solids. 

I cannot speak of the venues you hike, and know that much of the venues east of the Rockies require some form of treatment, but much of the High Sierra and Rockies are safe with no treatment whatsoever.  Universities and government agencies conduct ongoing water quality assays of these sources; a little sleuthing on the internet may turn up beta on the water quality of your venues.

Lastly, I prefer the pills over filters for three reasons: they weigh WAY less; filters may perform poorly or fail altogether if they freeze over; and I have better things to do with my time than wrangle filters and pumps on my hikes.


Hi Howard. Thanks for your interest in water treatment options. We have numerous user reviews of those products here:

They include reviews of the BeFree 0.6L and Gravity BeFree 3.0L, among other Katadyn products, and Sawyer products, like the Mini, Squeeze, and Micro Squeeze, among other filters, purifiers, and chemical treatment options.

As Ed notes, the how-to "Backcountry Water Treatment" articles were originally written in 2008, so could use some updating, but Trailspace's user gear reviews are continually updated as community members add to that collective knowledge with new reviews and updates.

I hope that helps!


I carry the sawyer squeeze as sometimes the areas I hike have gardia issues. For a backup just incase my filter falls or Freezes I carry aquamira Drops..Just as effective as the pills...I hope this helps with your Question.

Like Denis, I also carry chemical tablets or drops as a backup in my emergency bag—typically Katadyn Micropur MP1 or Aquamira Water Treatment Drops.

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