How to Purify Water when Canoe & Kayak Camping

3-minute read

No matter how clear and clean backcountry water looks, there’s no guarantee it’s safe for people to drink. Microorganisms in wilderness waters can cause an array of nasty consequences, from mild to severe.

cup of coffee and water bottle next to camp stove at a canoe campsite

Purifying your drinking water in the backcountry is essential (photo courtesy of Emilie O’Connor)

When you canoe, kayak or kayak fish on a long day trip, it’s probably feasible for you to take drinking water along. But when you’re on a multi-day trip—especially when portaging is involved—you don’t want the haul water around with you.

As paddlers, our supply of water is unlimited. The key is to make sure that water is purified and safe to drink.

What Makes Backcountry Water Unsafe for People to Drink

The water in backcountry lakes and rivers can contain bacteria and viruses, and also tiny parasites, like giardia and cryptosporidium.

If these microorganisms are in the water you drink, they can play havoc with your digestive system for days, and even weeks. It’s not worth it!

Thankfully, there are several ways you can treat these wilderness waters to make them safe for you to drink and cook with.

man canoeing on a wilderness river

Portability is key for any water treatment system for canoe and kayak camping (photo courtesy of Paul Villecourte)

Boil Water

Boiling the water is the surest way to be sure any nasty unseen critters are killed. Take the water to a full, rolling boil for one minute. This is most easily done with a backpacking stove like a JetBoil or PocketRocket. These take up little room in your pack, are light to carry and heat your water quickly.

If the location where you’re paddling allows for it, you can build a campfire to boil water. If you plan to use a campfire to cook anyway, this is a good idea. Otherwise it takes a long time for the fire to get hot enough to boil water!

Then, of course, you’ll need to wait for the water to cool off before putting it in your water bottle for drinking.

  • PROS: It costs nothing extra as long as you have a reliable heat source. It’s the most reliable method available for killing all these microorganisms.
  • CONS: It takes a while, up to several hours to bring the heat up and then allow the water to cool again.

Use Water Purification Tablets

Another option is to take water purification tablets along. Each tablet is designed to dissolve in a liter of water, effectively killing any harmful microorganisms that might be present.

These tablets are readily available from outdoor and sporting goods stores for $10-15 for a dozen or two tablets. Be sure you look for those that contain chlorine dioxide, which handles more of the microorganisms than straight iodine.

  • PROS: Relatively cheap and extremely easy to use. Feather-light to pack and carry.
  • CONS: It takes 4 hours for the tablets to work, so you have to plan ahead. Can get pricey, depending on how long your trip is and how large your group is. One-time use only.

kayak campsite with two tents, picnic table

There’s no shortage of water when kayak or canoe camping! (photo courtesy of Sharon Brodin)

Use a Certified Water Filter

There are several high-quality brands of packable, portable water filters on the market that are certified to filter out these microorganisms reliably. They come in sizes for individual use up to sizes for small group use.

Some are designed for use in a water bottle. Others work great to provide purified water for both drinking and cooking for a group. Investing in one or more of these will take a chunk of cash, but they’ll last for several years.

  • PROS: You can drink the water right from the filter. It’s immediate. Good filters last for years with the right use and care.
  • CONS: Filters can be expensive. Some can be tricky to use and clean—read the instructions!

For more information and a downloadable PDF chart about water purification methods in the backcountry, visit the CDC’s website.

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