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Water Purification In The Wilderness

water purification

Water purification in the wilderness and on extended fishing trips is a critical skill to master. (It’s not the ONLY skill to master. Check out our handmade firestarter tools such as our firestarter necklaces and survival tinder balls).

It is commonly known that the more remote a fishing spot is, the more likely it is to be a good one.  When it is easy to get to a particular fishing location, that means more people will likely visit that spot.  This means fish will be spooked and concentrations will be smaller.  There is something to be said for hiking or boating to virgin waters for a prime fishing experience.

Hydration can be an issue when fishing remotely for several days.  There is a good chance you will be doing lots of hiking or paddling in the hot sun.  Wading also can wear you out and dehydrate you.  On trips like these, carrying drinking water is tough.  Water is heavy and can really weigh down your pack. 

The best solution is to purify water as you go.  Since you are on a fishing trip, you should be near a good-sized body of water.  However, drinking that water without purification could make you very sick.  In this article, we will cover ways to safely stay hydrated in the wild without carrying drinking water.

Why Hydrate?

The Survival Rule of Threes states that the average person can survive about three days without water under normal circumstances.  However, wilderness fishing trips are not normal circumstances.  You will be spending lots of time in the sun working hard to get to the right fishing spots.  This shortens your window.  You may only survive a day or two without water.

In addition, the side effects of dehydration kick in almost immediately.  You will notice that you become weaker and get winded easier.  You might be light-headed or dizzy, and headaches are common.  Then come cold sweats, dry mouth, and heart palpitations.  Your last warning sign is if you pass out or stop sweating. 

I have experienced severe dehydration several times, and it makes basic tasks very difficult. When I am fully hydrated, I can walk three or four miles with a heavy pack before I want a break.  When dehydrated, I may only make it a few hundred feet before I need to sit down or even lie down.  It just sucks all of the energy out of you, and it feels like your heart is going to beat out of your chest.  You should start regularly hydrating as soon as you start your adventure, and never wait until you are thirsty to drink.

Why Purify?

Most water sources in the wild will contain tainted water full of debris, bacteria, and other pathogens.  The warmer the water temperature is and the more stagnant it is, the more likely it is to make you sick.  Drinking this water can cause vomiting and diarrhea which would only dehydrate you faster.  The only time you should ever consider drinking tainted water is if you have already gone several days without water and have absolutely no way to purify it.  At this point, you just need to hydrate enough to survive a few more days. Many waterborne pathogens take a few days to really start affecting you. 

There are a few exceptions to this rule.  If you have clean chunks of ice to melt, it should be okay to drink.  You should avoid snow as it is 90% air and 10% water.  Springs are spots where water spews directly out of the ground after being purified by the earth itself.  This is safe to drink as long as it does not smell funny.  Mineral deposits are still possible in springs.  If you can set up a rainwater catchment system, it is safe to drink most rainwater.  Finally, there are plants like coconuts and watervines that can be safe sources of water.


By far the best option for purifying water is a filter.  Modern water filters eliminate 99.999% of all harmful pathogens.  You can use a straw style filter to save space in your pack.  Just be prepared to get on your belly to drink unless you have a container for water.  I prefer filter bottles as they allow me to fill up and then drink as I go until I fill up again. You can also get gravity fed filters with rubber bladders that hold several gallons of water.  These are ideal if you will be camping in the same spot for several days, or if you have a group of people using one filter.


One of the oldest methods for purifying water is to boil it over a heat source.  Chances are you will have a campfire or a camp stove of some kind, so boiling water just takes a few minutes.  We were once told that the water must boil for a long time to make it safe, but we now know you just need to bring it to a boil and then let it cool.  This does not remove debris, so filter as well if possible.

Iodine Tablets

I typically carry iodine tablets with me in the wild because it is common for my water filters to become clogged with debris.  Sometimes I can fix them, and sometimes I cannot.  If it rains, fire can be a problem as well.  This leaves plan C.  A vial of iodine tablets can purify about 25 bottles of water and will easily fit in any pocket.  Just drop two in a bottle of water, shake it up a few minutes later, and you can drink in 30 minutes.  You can use bleach to accomplish the same thing, but I prefer not to pack liquid chemicals-plus you have to be careful to make sure that your measurements are correct, or you could end up poisoning yourself.

Other Options

If none of the previously mentioned methods can be performed, you still have a few steps you can take.  None of these purification methods are ideal, but they are much better than doing nothing or not hydrating.  You can layer gravel, sand, and charcoal in a bottle to make your own water filter. Just tie some cloth over the opening at the bottom to remove debris.  You can set clear water out in the sun in plastic bottles for six or more hours to kill most pathogens with UV light.  You can also dig a proximity well next to a body of water and hope that the earth will filter out most of the pathogens. 

As you can see, hydration is something to take seriously.  If you or someone in your group becomes dehydrated, you could end up in a wilderness survival scenario instead of a fishing trip.  If you see signs of serious dehydration, try to call for help.  Sometimes an IV of fluids is the only way to bring someone back.  If this is not possible, sip lukewarm water in the shade and put a wet cloth around your neck.  Hopefully, this discussion will help you stay hydrated throughout your whole trip.

Water Purification Is Important But Must Be Approached Carefully

Please note that these are basic tips and advice regarding water purification. Please follow all local regulations and understand the affects that various chemical treatments can have on your health. Water purification isn’t something you can afford to get wrong.

Questions? Concerns? Contact us here!

You can find out a TON of great information about backpacking trips in Michigan from Jim DuFresne’s classic book, Backpacking In Michigan (You can find it here) (Yes, it’s a classic).

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