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Staying Healthy in the Backcountry

Drinking Water in the Backcountry

​​Never assume that water in the backcountry (e.g., lakes, streams, rivers, springs) is safe to drink.

Use only boiled, treated, or bottled water for:

  • drinking
  • preparing food
  • washing dishes
  • brushing your teeth

The best way to make sure your water’s clean and safe is to filter it first, then boil it for at least 1 minute (5 minutes if the water is cloudy or has debris in it).

If you can’t boil your water, filter it first, and then use chemicals (e.g., iodine, chlorine). As a final step, use a UV (ultraviolet) light if you have one.

For more detailed information about how to make your water safe, go to:

Water filters

Portable water filters clean water by forcing it through a very fine strainer, trapping germs (e.g., bacteria, parasites, viruses) that can make you sick.

It’s important to get one that has the smallest holes in the mesh as possible (the holes are very tiny, measured in microns or 1 millionth of a meter). Make sure your filter is 1 micron absolute or smaller.

Don’t only rely on a water filter. Boil your water or use chemicals to make sure it’s safe to drink.

Boiling water

After you filter your water, boil it for at least 1 minute. If the water’s cloudy or has debris in it, boil it for at least 5 minutes.

Boil the water before you go to bed at night. It’ll be cool by morning and ready for you to use.


Chlorine and iodine can be used to kill bacteria and viruses, but they won’t kill all the parasites. Boil your water or use a filter to make sure it’s safe to drink.

Ultraviolet disinfection pen

You can buy an ultraviolet (UV) disinfectant pen at some camping stores. The UV light helps to make water safe by killing germs. It’ll only work if the water’s very clear (not cloudy and with no floating debris). Before you use the UV light pen, let your water sit for a while so the sediment has time to settle. Follow the directions exactly.

Don’t only rely on a UV light pen. You also need to use a water filter and chemicals to make your water safe.

Current as of: July 12, 2019

Author: Environmental Public Health, Alberta Health Services