This article was originally published in Issue 1 of our magazine.
Warning: Because the nature of contaminated water is complex, there can be no assurances (implicit or explicit) that the processes described herein will eliminate any or all risks associated with drinking water that may be, knowingly or unknowingly, contaminated to any degree. Results detailed herein reflect improvements in specific aspects of water quality, but not complete mitigation of any risk, known or unknown. All claims are consistent with and do not exceed those made by the manufacturer.
In any emergency or when disaster strikes, man made or natural, the assurance of clean water is the first thing to go out the window. Just ask the millions of people affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy or even the California blackouts in 2011.
So, you have your bug-out bag all ready to go. You’re ready for a SHTF scenario. But, do you have a water management plan?
“Well smart ass,” you say, “everyone knows to have bottled water stored up!” As well you should, but with the average person requiring close to a gallon of clean water per day for hydration, cooking, and hygiene, (source: FEMA) a family of four would need 28 gallons of water for one week, that’s 53 2-liter soda bottles. If you have limited storage space, that much water is impractical. Assuming you have to go mobile that’s 234 pounds you’d have to lug around. If you’re lugging that much around, you’ll have to hydrate more and so the vicious cycle begins.
So I’ll ask again, what is your emergency water management plan? When setting up your plan your choices will center around your solution to three key concerns: acquisition, treatment, and transportation/storage of your water.
All the experts agree the best source of clean water is from your supply of bottled or commercially purified H2O. For the sake of this hypothetical let’s assume you’ve gone through your stored supply of water and don’t have a bazillion-gallon cistern at the ready. Where do you get water?
If you’re bugging out and staying mobile, you must assume your water source is contaminated in some manner. If possible, collect from a flowing water source like a stream or river.
In an urban environment your only choice may be to collect from municipal sources. If that is the case, moving water may come from open hydrants, spigots, or rain runoff. Generally, moving water is the way to go, unless it’s moving through the dumpster in the back alley.
Now that you have collected enough water to meet your immediate needs, it’s essential to make sure it’s safe not only to drink, but also for cooking, cleaning, and hygiene. There are many ways to treat water. No method, however, ensures it will be completely pure. Our goal is create a system that improves our water quality and generally avoids our water having that “south of the border” effect. We need to make sure our system is effective in reducing the risk of health issues associated with protozoa, bacteria, viruses, and particulates as well as dissolved chemicals. Our treated water should also be tasteless and odorless.
Filtration: The most used and familiar method of water treatment is filtration. Available filtration products range from filters that look like straws to mammoth room-size machines pumping water through an endless maze of oddly named materials.
All water filters are based on the same principle: dirty water comes in, goes through various layers of semi-solid and porous media and comes out the other end a little cleaner for the journey. The type and level of contamination of water being filtered as well as your circumstances will determine the type of filter you incorporate into your water management plan. The more contaminated the water, the more complex a filter will need to be.
Above: A Platypus GravityWorks system uses hollow fibers to remove sediment and various microorganisms.
Simply running water through a coffee filter or tightly woven cloth will filter out large particulates. More dense media can filter out bacteria and some microbes. Filters with activated charcoal can improve taste and remove chemicals. The best will have a ceramic plus carbon media filter and have an integrated backflow preventer to eliminate cross contamination. Check out the gear rundown to see which filters might suit your bug-out plan. All water treatment methods should start with filtering the collected water.
Boiling: Boiling is the most simple and the safest method to treat water and kill a majority of bacteria and other microbes. To treat water, merely put it in a larger pot and bring water to a rolling boil for a minute or more. Let the water cool and transfer into a clean storage container. This of course assumes you have at least a portable heat source. It’s also time consuming and your volume of clean water is limited to the size pot you use.
Above: The MSR MicroRocket stove is a lightweight system that can be used for boiling and distilling water.
Chlorination: When no heat source is available, an alternative method for killing microorganisms is the use of simple household bleach. Emphasis on simple, do not use scented, color-safe bleaches, or bleaches with additional cleaners. FEMA recommends bleach containing 5.25- to 6.0-percent sodium hypochlorite.
Add 1⁄8 of a teaspoon per gallon of clear water, stir, and let stand. After no less than 30 minutes the water should have a slight chlorine smell and is safe to drink. If there’s no chlorine smell, add another 1⁄8 teaspoon per gallon and let stand for another 30 minutes. If it still does not have a slight chlorine smell, discard and find a new water source.
Tablets are similar to chlorine in that they use chemicals to kill infectious little critters, but instead of chlorination they employ oxidation to eliminate the microbes. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions with this more convenient approach.
Ultraviolet Light: The coolest and most high-tech method of water treatment has to be the use of UV light to kill bacteria and microbes. UV technology on a large scale has been used at municipal treatment facilities for years, but recently the same technology on a smaller scale has become available to the public. The theory is simple: employ concentrated short-wave UV light for a specific amount of time to a specific volume of water to create a veritable virus, bacteria, and protozoa graveyard. Short-wave UV light, which is normally filtered out by our atmosphere, breaks up microbe DNA, killing it an almost biblical way. Pretty dang cool if you ask me.
Distillation: Remember when I said there was no one method that covers all the bases in treating water? Well, distilling comes pretty close. In it’s most simple form, we’re saying that the same method used to create sweet Southern white lightning moonshine can create almost pure drinking water.
There’s no need to start hoarding copper tubing and working on designs for a still to make Popcorn Sutton proud. Remember we need something we can bug out with. So tap into your inner MacGyver and create a mobile water distiller that will break down to fit into a go bag.
Above: A common metal water bottle and any ¼-inch metal tubing (shown is the faucet connector found under most sinks) can be rigged up up to create a crude but effective distillation system
Of course distillation can only do so much, removing some dissolved impurities, but not all. Cover your bases by using a good ceramic with ceramic filter. Of course you do need a portable heat source and the time to boil water. You may also want to consider whether or not you want sacrifice space in your bug-out bag for the metal pot.
Now that you’ve figured out the water treatment system that works best for you, you need to figure out the best way to store and move your water. The biggest consideration in storage and transportation is to have separate containers for dirty water and clean water. Once a container is used for dirty water, it should always be used for dirty water. One of the most common mistakes in treating water for personal use is cross contamination. The water can only be as clean as the container it’s stored in.
There are numerous containers for storing water, from Nalgene bottles to 55-gallon drums. Only you can determine what works best for your bug-out plan. In an urban scenario, mobility may be the most important consideration. Bladder systems like the Dromlite by MSR are extremely flexible. Of course, CamelBak is one of the most well-known names in hydration mobility. CamelBak also integrates their hydration system into numerous packs that can be used as bug-out bags allowing you to have all your essentials in one place.