How do I find safe drinking water when camping?

Finding safe drinking water is one of the most important things when camping outdoors. The quality of water can make or break your camping trip. Making sure the water you drink, while camping is potable, can help prevent debilitating illnesses that result from drinking contaminated water. Follow this guide to learn exactly how I use techniques for sourcing, treating, and storing safe drinking water for my next camping adventure. And these are the same techniques you can use to find safe drinking water next time you go camping!

When camping, find flowing water sources like streams or springs and avoid stagnant sources. Treat water by boiling, filtering, or chemically disinfecting before drinking. Store treated water properly in clean containers away from sunlight to prevent decontamination. Further explanation can be found in this comprehensive article.

Choosing Water Sources

Flowing Water Sources

river water

When possible, the best sources of water while camping are flowing sources like rivers, streams, and springs. Flowing water sources are less likely to harbor harmful bacteria, viruses, and protozoa that can contaminate stationary water and make you sick. However, you should never assume water straight from rivers or lakes is safe to drink untreated. Use a water filter or treat flowing water before consuming.

Lakes and Ponds

Lakes, ponds, and other stationary water sources should be avoided when possible since they allow contamination to accumulate over time. Bacteria, viruses, parasites and chemical toxins can thrive in still water sources. If camping near stationary water is unavoidable, take extra precautions to treat the water before drinking.

Avoid Stagnant Water Sources

Steer clear of stagnant small bodies of water likes puddles which can easily become breeding grounds for contamination from animal feces. Stagnant water often carries the most threats to human health and should never be consumed untreated.

Select Accessible Water

When possible, collect water from sources where you can easily access the water and avoid contaminated ground and shallow pools. For example, collecting flowing water from rivers and streams is preferred over scooping up shallow stagnant pools. Select water that is upstream from animal crossing areas which can allow feces and debris to accumulate downstream.

Know Your Water Source

Research water conditions before your camping trip so you know what to expect. Talk to park rangers, check government websites, read guidebooks, and connect with others who recently visited the area to get up-to-date water reports. Understanding typical water quality for your destination helps determine the best water sources and level of treatment needed.

Water Treatment Methods


Boiling water is the most effective method to kill bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. Bring water to a rolling boil for 1 minute (3 minutes if over 6,500 feet elevation). Let the water cool before drinking. Adding a pinch of salt to the boiling water can improve the flavor. Please find information on building a fire.

Water Filters

Water filters designed for camping remove bacteria, protozoa and sometimes viruses from water sources. Filter pumps force water through a specialized filter removing contamination. Squeeze-style filters also work well. Be sure to select a filter certified for pathogen removal.

Water Purification Tablets

Chlorine dioxide and iodine tablets like Potable Aqua can disinfect small batches of water when added and allowed to sit for 30+ minutes. These tablets inactivate viruses, bacteria and protozoa from questionable water sources.

UV Light Water Purifiers

UV light water purifiers and sterilizers expose water to UV-C light destroying pathogens at a cellular level. They work faster than chemical treatments but only treat small quantities of water at once.

Chemical Treatments

Two-part chemical treatments that combine high-test hypochlorite and a buffering agent effectively treat larger quantities of water. Add the chemicals, wait for the water to clear, then wait the recommended contact time.

Water Storage

Proper Containers

water bottle

Store treated water in food-safe containers like stainless steel water bottles and BPA-free plastic bottles and jugs. Do not use containers that previously stored non-food items. Wash storage containers with soap and water before the trip. Cap containers tightly to avoid recontamination.

Limit Storage Time

Try to avoid storing treated water for longer than 24 hours to reduce risk of water quality degrading over time. Discard any stored water that smells bad, looks dirty or cloudy. Rinse water containers thoroughly between refills.

Protect From Sunlight

Keep treated water out of direct sunlight and extreme heat which can allow bacterial growth. Insulate containers in shade or wrap them in fabric or foil to help regulate temperature. Avoid placing water inside tents which can warm quickly.

Indications of Unsafe Water


Cloudy or murky water can indicate particulate matter including sediment, parasites, feces, algae and chemical toxins suspended in the water making it unsafe. Cloudiness typically means the water should be avoided, filtered or boiled before consuming.

Color Changes

While clear water is not guaranteed safe, discolorations like greens, browns and reds can indicate the presence of eroded minerals, organic plant matter or industrial waste pollution. Use caution when drinking noticeably discolored water.

Algae Growth

Algal blooms are rapid buildups of algae in bodies of water, usually signaling larger water quality issues. The algae itself along with bacteria feeding off it can produce toxins that cause illness. Avoid drinking visibly algae-contaminated water.

Surface Oils

Rainbow coloration or oily sheens on the water surface often arise from industrial pollution and petrochemical contamination. Water appearing oily should not be consumed or used for cooking due to chemical toxicity risks.

Bad Smell

Foul sulfurous egg-like smells typically signal the presence of decaying organic matter and bacteria in the water making it unsafe to drink untreated. Heavily scented water with apparent contamination should be avoided when possible.

Animal Feces

The presence of animal feces in or near a water source is a clear sign of contamination risk. Feces contains high levels of bacteria, viruses and parasites that can cause waterborne illness in humans. Seek a cleaner water source when possible.


What is the safest type of water to drink without any treatment?

The safest type of water to drink untreated while camping is water from a fast flowing fresh water stream high in the mountains far from development and human or animal waste. However, no natural water source is guaranteed safe without adequate treatment.

Can I drink rainwater collected while camping?

In most cases you cannot safely drink untreated rainwater directly while camping. Rainwater becomes contaminated as it flows over land picking up debris, feces and organic matter. Boil or filter rainwater before drinking as you would other found water.

How long can I store treated camping water?

You should not store treated camping water for longer than 24 hours. Even in closed containers, the quality of treated water degrades over time allowing bacterial growth. Discard any water that smells, looks dirty or you did not witness being treated.

What is the minimum water I need when camping?

The average person needs at least two quarts, which is a half gallon, of water per day for drinking while camping. That amount supports basic survival hydration but more water may be needed depending on climate conditions, exertion and individual needs.

I hope this detailed guide on finding safe drinking water while camping helps prepare you for sourcing and treating water on your next outdoor adventure! Let me know if you have any other questions.

Additional Content

When searching for drinking water while camping, having a few key pieces of gear can make the process much easier and safer. Here are some of my recommended items for finding and treating water in the wilderness:

Collapsible Water Carrier A foldable and portable water storage bag allows you to collect found water and transport it back to your campsite for treatment. Choose lightweight durable models that hold 2-5 gallons. Rinse thoroughly between uses.

Water Filter or Purifier An essential item, water filters remove bacteria, protozoa and some viruses while purifiers neutralize even more pathogens. Both make found water safer to drink. Focus on filter speed, effectiveness and ease of pumping/squeezing when making your choice.

Water Test Strips These small test strips detect specific water quality parameters like pH level and detect dangerous contaminants like heavy metals. While not a replacement for filtration/disinfection, test strips help identify severely contaminated water.

Hard-Sided Water Containers Have dedicated leak-proof water bottles and jugs just for treated drinking water separate from containers used for found water. Hard-sided models maintain water purity better. Clearly label drinking water-only bottles to prevent mixups.

Funnel and Hose Collecting water from streams and shallow pools is easier with some accessories. A funnel directs water flow while a siphon hose with filter allows drawing water from tougher sources like shallow ponds into your carrier bag or bottle for transport.

Backup Chemical Treatment Tablets like chlorine dioxide, iodine and chlorine provide chemical disinfection of found water in case your main treatment method fails or cannot filter certain contaminants. They offer security if your filter breaks halfway through a multi-day hike to purify water until you can replace it.

When preparing for a camping trip, research information on water sources from rangers, guidebooks and weather patterns to help decide the level of water treatment preparations warranted. Overprepare rather than underprepare when sourcing drinking water in the wilderness. Having multiples means of water collection, filtration, chemical treatment and storage makes maintaining personal safety and hydration more reliable in rugged unpredictable terrain should equipment fail or natural water sources shift.

While waterborne contaminants ranging from giardia to cryptosporidium rightfully receive emphasis when camping, do not discount the importance of water taste too. Bad flavor whether from treatment chemicals, carried containers, or minerals in found water can discourage drinking even if the water is safe, leading to dangerous dehydration. Address taste with lemon or other additives so drinking water seems appealing not unpleasant during your outdoor adventure.

Getting sick from tainted water can ruin a camping trip quickly. Protect yourself and avoid suffering by taking sensible precautions when securing nature’s water for drinking while spending time in the backcountry. Both research and redundancies are key — know your source options in advance while packing backup items for critical tasks like gathering, treating and storing water. Being overly prepared beats getting caught unawares and paying the price through waterborne illness far from help.

Use the knowledge in this guide as a framework to help develop customized water safety plans unique to your specific camping destinations and planned activities. Remember that finding potable water in nature requires vigilance, care and preparatory investments like filters enabling you to apply wilderness wisdom in keeping contaminants at bay. Promoting wellness through safe sustainable hydration lets the wonder of water enhance rather than endanger your outdoor experiences.

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