Question About Water Purification

8:01 p.m. on January 12, 2016 (EST)
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Hello all, hope you are all doing well!

While I am not new to the outdoors, I am in regards to creating drinking water from natural sources.

My question is I currently own a Katadyn Vario, and while this unit does remove a lot of stuff I would prefer not to drink, it does not kill viruses. Would it be complete overkill to pair that with a SteriPen? I know this is a subject that I could likely get a ton of answers to, however, I have never come across anyone using both...maybe there is a reason, lol.

Anyway, appreciate the info in advance, just trying to get my ducks in a row for an upcoming trip.


9:10 p.m. on January 12, 2016 (EST)
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Awhile back I did a 4-part article here on Trailspace on water treatment. The simple answer is that there is no such thing as "overkill" when it comes to water treatment.

A bit of explanation - As you will read in the series, water can contain "critters" (viruses, parasites, bacteria, .....), chemicals (runoff from industrial and agricultural sources, plus chemicals from algae and other plants such as the notorious "green algae" that collects in crabs and other water creatures that we all like to eat), and a lot of other stuff.

Filtration will remove the "critters" IF the pore size is small enough. Most filters (pumps, gravity fed, etc) have pore sizes large enough that viruses can get through. Some of the deadliest viruses can get through almost anything, although the process known as "reverse osmosis" is almost 100% effective on the smallest virus and a lot of chemicals, including metals like mercury. A filter containing activated carbon will remove a lot of the chemicals and metals.

But nothing is perfect. Distillation is pretty close to perfect - except it usually involves burning a lot of fuel to evaporate the water off.

Ok, now that I have scared you to the point of drinking absolutely no water from any source (including your home faucet), here is some reassurance -

You do not need perfectly pure water (even if you could find such a thing). You need sterile water only for medical procedures. What you need is potable water for drinking. The first step is to know your water source. Avoid sources that include runoff from populated areas (cities, especially in 3rd world countries), industrial areas which are dumping waste into the source, mining areas, and agricultural areas.

Some good news - the filters intended for wilderness use, whether hand-pumped or gravity-fed, will generally take care of the "critter factor". In some areas (think 3rd world slums), there are some critters that will get through some of the filters. UV treatment via the Steripen or Camelbak's AllClear will deactivate (but not necessarily kill) the critters (the deactivated ones will pass through your system pretty quickly) - my preference is for the AllClear, though I also have Steripen's which I use in the glass of water the waiter in 3rd world countries sets on the table. Carbon filters (usually an add-on you can put in the line following the pump or gravity bag) will greatly reduce the chemical pollutants, most of which require a year or two of daily accumulation to cause harm.

Remember - filters remove most of the larger critters, with some filters also removing all but the tiniest viruses. Activated Carbon filters remove much of the chemical and metallic substances. UV will inactivate the critters (encysted parasites will remain inactive long enough to pass through your gut).

MOST IMPORTANT STEP-- Studies in the Sierra, Rockies, New England Whites, and elsewhere have demonstrated that by far the most common cause of sickness among backpackers is DIRTY HANDS!!! WASH YOUR HANDS before touching food, especially if you are the chef.

Many of us drink directly from the streams without any treatment and do not get sick. Yeah, you probably want to filter that brown and green gunk out and have clear water. But it is human hands that pass on the most serious critters.

9:45 p.m. on January 12, 2016 (EST)
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Hi there Bill S, thank you for your information filled response, as a matter of fact I did read your article you mentioned and WOW that was a lot of information! Your article was actually what prompted me to ask the question. In regards to dirty hands, no problem here...I have always been a tad OCD about that.

That said, I just looked at the soap I picked up for this upcoming not anti-bacterial, however, that may or may not be issue, thoughts?

Thanks again for your time!

11:02 p.m. on January 12, 2016 (EST)
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Viruses are pretty rare in U.S. backcountry natural water sources.

12:13 a.m. on January 13, 2016 (EST)
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Thanks JRinGeorgia, through reading that does appear to be the case. I think I will stick with my tablets and Katadyn for now...we will see what the future holds, lol.

Thanks for taking the time to respond!

5:52 a.m. on January 13, 2016 (EST)
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I don't worry about soap to avoid transfer from hands to food. I make a point of never touching my food. Bars are eaten from their wrapper, snacks are shaken from bag to mouth and meals are sporked directly from freezer bags packed at home. Once you get in the habit it becomes second nature.

10:43 a.m. on January 13, 2016 (EST)
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reelandtrigger said:

... In regards to dirty hands, no problem here...I have always been a tad OCD about that.

That said, I just looked at the soap I picked up for this upcoming not anti-bacterial, however, that may or may not be issue, thoughts?

Thanks again for your time!

 Plain old soap is just fine for removal of contaminants on your hands. In fact, the USDA and the medical community in general recommendation is to NOT use anti-bacterial soaps. The more hardy bacteria, protozoa, and viruses survive, leading to our increasingly current situation of critters which can survive the strongest of decontaminants. This is especially true of antibiotics (so minimize the use of antibiotic creams on cuts).

The alcohol-based gels (Purell and similar) work well in removing most contaminants as well. But avoid getting those products into the streams - they harm the good critters in the streams (like fish).

(hmmm... looks like I should thank the usual "Greek Chorus" for chiming in

    {8=>D  )

8:45 p.m. on January 13, 2016 (EST)
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I rarely filter water unless it's suspect.  In all my darn-near 60 years I've not once been sick due to water contamination of any kind.  Still, it's better safe than sorry.

And I agree will Bill, proper hygiene goes a long way in keeping one healthy. 

7:48 a.m. on January 16, 2016 (EST)
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I very rarely use any treatment technology on my BC potable water.  And most of those instances were to deal with brackish water from desert canyon water seeps.

As Bill stated, potability of most water sources in the mountainous west (and select regions elsewhere in the US are not an issue.  For example: tap water in most municipalities have higher Giardia counts than the typical Sierra stream.  I further lower my risk by drawing water from streams that have no trail crossing upstream, and little to no human activity in the watershed above my source (i.e. no trails leading into said watershed).

I also agree with Bill's comments that most BC illnesses are the result of sketchy personal hygiene.  As a restaurant owner I am OCD about hand washing and food handling.  Therefore I willingly volunteer to cook for my group, as that is the best way to assure food doesn't get contaminated.    Lastly I bring a small bottle of bleach, which is used to sterilize all eating and cook wares.  The clean up routine involves three steps, just like the process restaurants use when cleaning dishes in a three basin sink: soapy hot water to degrease and clean, rinse water to de-soap, and a bleach infused second-rinse water to sterilize.  No one has ever gotten ill eating from my camp kitchen in over fifty five years. 


10:21 a.m. on January 16, 2016 (EST)
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whomeworry said:

  As a restaurant owner I am OCD about hand washing and food handling. 



Oh how we wish all restaurant owners and food service workers shared in this obsession.

I've worked in IT for my most of my life but for a brief period I was a technical trainer and that position required me to become a Certified National Restaurant Association ServeSafe Instructor and Testing Proctor.

I had to do traveling seminars teaching safe food handling and proctoring the ServeSafe exam. It was a little scary how low the average test scores were as well as how many participants failed the exam.

And this experience almost ruined me from being able to eat out. I've been out of that profession for three years now but I still can't stop watching the servers and food handlers when we go out and cringing at all the bad techniques, possible cross contamination, and general obliviousness to food safety.

10:49 a.m. on January 23, 2016 (EST)
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Good post by Patrick. I cook with my Sertoma Club and the rules are pretty stringent for commercial cooking.

For groups in the backcountry, I just try to get people to wash their hands and have some awareness.  A few drops of chlorine bleach is very helpful when washing dishes. On boat trips which usually last a week, we take turns cooking dinner, but each person is responsible for their own plates and silverware.

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