Safe Drinking Water

Techniques to Make Safe Drinking Water in the Bush

Water is abundant, especially in Canada. It’s literally everywhere amongst the lakes, rivers, streams, marshes and so on. It’s also vital for survival, in fact you’ll only live for about 3 days without it. But water in nature has dirt, viruses and bacteria that is very harmful to us. We need to make safe drinking water when we are in the bush and I’ll show you how.

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Disclaimer: Everything in this post regarding “safe” or potable drinking water is based on standard and generally accepted methods. Even in the military or as per government recommendations (link provided). In Canada and the US however, even tap water is “mostly” considered safe. The US alone has millions of people that are exposed to unsafe levels of various substances from tap water. Things such as bacteria, chemicals, heavy metals, radioactive particles and so on. The problem is generally worse in rural areas. So I will stress that the only absolute safe water, is water that’s been tested by a lab. With that out of the way, let’s get started.

Filtering Versus Sterilizing to Make Safe Drinking Water

There are two main components to making safe drinking water. Filtering generally removes particles and debris. Sterilizing removes bacteria, viruses and these nasty little guys called protozoa.

The best place to start is with your collection source as moving water is generally cleaner than standing water. If you can find the spring, that is the absolute cleanest as it was filtered underground. And less likely to have been contaminated above ground! Good luck finding springs though, I hardly ever come across them. Anytime you have a choice, scoop your water from a river versus a lake and so on.

Take that concept a step farther and consider a stagnant pond with debris floating on top. It doesn’t even smell good let alone provide an opportunity to collect water without a bunch of junk getting in. It’s also probably full of bacteria and algae. But in an emergency, it may be your only choice, so we start with filtration.

The Cotton Bandana Filter

Unless you are scooping nice clean water from a flowing source, you’ll need to filter it. Any clean cotton bandana can be draped tightly over the mouth of your collection container. I carry one myself for this very purpose. This will let the water in and keep the debris out. That in itself can be half the battle if your source is let’s just say, nasty. Then you move on to sterilization.

Sterilizing Water

There are multiple ways to sterilize water but only 2 really apply in the bush.

Option 1: Boiling

The good old boil, plain and simple. According to the EPA in the US, you’ll need a rolling boil for at least 1 minute. 3 minutes for altitudes above 1000 meters (5000 ft). Chemical free, this will and I’ll quote the EPA: “kill pathogenic bacteria, viruses and protozoa”. It’s your best shot by far. But don’t take any chances, make sure you boil it really well.

Option 2: Chemical Sterilization

The EPA has a page that shows how much chlorine bleach is required to sterilize a certain volume of water. While handy, that’s more for dealing with disasters than the bush. The point is, it takes bleach to sterilize water for drinking and that’s a very scary thought. Well sort of, you’ve been drinking it for years in tap water!

In the bush, we use tablets. The old school military iodine tablets were always the gold standard but they are not as easy to find. Nowadays, there’s all sorts of concoctions using various chemicals and it looks like chlorine is the modern winner. They are not always in tablet form either, powder packs are common as well.


  • Satchel form
  • Includes coagulants (clarifies water)
  • 10 minutes to ready
  • Chlorine based
  • Advertises to remove “most” baceteria


  • Tablet form
  • Includes coagulants (clarifies water)
  • 30 minutes to ready
  • Advertises to not be effective at removing protozoa

I carry (but don’t generally use) Chlor-Floc packs and have included Aquatabs here as a popular alternative. Both have active ingredients most people can’t spell and chemicals can convert to other chemicals… Case and point Chlor-Floc becomes chlorine and I believe the Aquatabs do as well. They both however advertise safe drinking water and are widely used for that. Even though the fine print has some exclusions. One satchel or tablet works on one litre of water.

Why Carry Chemical Sterilization for Safe Drinking Water?

Simple. Water with some chemicals is better than no water. Period. Even municipal tap water has chemicals – some of them can be really nasty. The satchel or tablet is very tiny and not hard to sneak into your pack.

Even though you can make fire in the snow, there may be times it’s too cumbersome to make a fire. Maybe it’s too wet or maybe you lost your fire making sources. There is also something the military refers to as a “non-permissive” environment. Ie. A situation where a fire will give up your position or bring you harm. Maybe you are in a hurry to evade a storm. For whatever reason, there are times to turn to chemicals for safe drinking water. I carry them, but try not to use them.

Containers – Very Important

YETI Drinkware
YETI Rambler Drinkware Collection

Double Wall Containers For Safe Drinking Water Only

This is a very interesting topic but it’s actually vitally important. Everyone is chasing a thermos style container to retain heat or cold longer. Personally, I use a YETI and have an entire post that is a review of YETI Drinkware. In fact, all the containers in the photo are YETI products belonging to my family. And that’s not all of them either…

The YETI Rambler Bottle is my go to in particular. It’s the black one on the bottom left. It’s amazing at keeping coffee hot for a day out at the hunt camp or a snowmobile run in the bitter cold. You’ll always find me toting one and you can get yours from their drinkware lineup.

YETIs are also good for storing a safe drinking water at any temperature. Pay attention to the “safe” part as the plot thickens immediately below.

Single Wall Containers

The huge problem with insulated or double-wall containers (like YETI and every other maker out there) is in the fact that the very thing that provides a convenience (temperature), makes it impossible to use for boiling water. So you’ll ALWAYS find a single walled container in my pack, particularly the Pathfinder Bottle and Nesting Cup Set.

The bottle is of single wall construction, non-insulated. With it you can collect dirty water, boil it and the whole contraption is sterilized. Same for the nesting cup which has fold out handles. You can boil a lot of water this way. Ie. Enough to make a soup and coffee at the same time.

Once boiled, the bottle will store your water for safe transport and it nests inside the nesting cup for tighter storage in your pack. The bottle by the way is sized on purpose to be correct for one chemical tablet, for those times you can’t make a fire.

Looks can be deceiving. What many may perceive as a basic tin bottle, is actually a bad-ass safe drinking water machine.

Old-School VS Modern Ways to Make Safe Drinking Water

Sorry folks, I’ve bored you with old school up until now. For good reason though, there are no outdoor stores in the bush selling fancy filters. Now you can make safe drinking water with just a steel container and a fire! And a metal container of some form is a lot easier to come across. If you are out on the ATV or snowmobile and are stranded, I guarantee you can pull a metal part somewhere that holds water! The drive belt cover of a sled is a perfect example.

Now that you know your basics and can survive a bad situation, let’s look at some modern methods.

The EASY Way to Make Safe Drinking Water

Grayl GeoPress for Safe Drinking Water
Grayl GeoPress at York River

The Katadyn Befree will filter and sterilize water in one step. It’s such a simple process: sterilzation through micro-filtration. The filter goes down to 1 micron effectively removing 99. 9999% of bacteria including protozoas. That is a level that’s beyond EPA approval and it’s done chemical free. The Katadyn Befree holds .6 litres of water and it rolls up into nothing. It also weighs almost nothing. I keep one in the side pocket of my pack at all times.

Another big contender is the Grayl GeoPress. It’s function and methods are the same as the Katadyn, it just comes with a very sturdy container. Naturally it also has a bigger price tag. It should also be noted that the fit and finish is superb. It’s heavily used by several big names in the outdoor world and I’ll vouch for it wholeheartedly.

The Katadyn’s filter is good for 1000 litres. Grayl stops much shorter at 250 litres – but the filter is replaceable. I can personally vouch for both of them as I own and use them myself.

Finding Water

You may be thinking this is all nice and dandy, but what if you can’t find a source of water? I only have one real trick for that, follow the animals. Don’t forget that you are not the only one that needs water to survive.

Low, fast flying birds are a great indicator. They fly low when heading for water – and they have a much better viewpoint than you to find it. Low flying birds are a telltale sign in the mornings.

On a goose hunt, I sat on the river’s edge and saw at least a hundred geese hit up a nearby field to feed. By early afternoon, they hit the river for a drink. Birds won’t necessarily guide you to water, it depends on what they’re looking for – but sooner or later they will end up there. Game trails, the paths walking animals take, are similar but a lot harder to follow.

You can also observe the terrain and look for higher elevations that drop to lower ones. Valleys will hold water. If all else fails, look for better looking vegetation or more mosquitos. These are good indicators that area sees more water in general or even has water.

Snow is definitely a good source but it comes with the same general hazards as water. Don’t consume it without sterilizing it. And be warned, you need to melt a lot of snow in order to make a little bit of water.

Check the Quality of Your Source

Animals intake food and water. They also generate waste just like we do and they’re not so discriminate about where they do their business. Nor do they control where they die. So while you never fully know what contaminants lurk, what you can do is check upstream a bit before collecting your water downstream. Literally, you are looking for waste or dead animals. If in doubt or anything looks off, you can work your way farther upstream until things are looking cleaner.

Also suggested here is that you don’t collect water from where you see animals congregating. So while you may follow them to a source, move upstream a bit for collection.

What if You Don’t Have Any Means to Purify Water?

I guess you are going home early:) Or at least when your good water runs out! But what if it’s a survival situation and you can’t go home? You will have some serious decisions to make.

What we do know here is the clock is ticking and you will eventually NEED water. So watch for signs of when you are in trouble:

Mild Dehydration

  • Extreme thirst
  • Less frequent or dark urination
  • Dry skin, mouth
  • Dizziness, fatigue

Serious Dehydration

  • Rapid breathing, heartbeat
  • No urination
  • Fainting, shock
  • Confusion

The serious list means seek immediate medical attention, which in this case you can’t. Without water your mental capacity will also diminish. In other words you’ll want to figure things out before it gets too bad.

Generally speaking, illness from un-safe drinking water can take a while to set in, sometimes even days. There is a camp that thinks death is coming anyways, you might as well extend your time to try and survive – take the water and deal with sickness which is generally treatable after rescue. The other camp says don’t do it no matter what, you’ll only make matters worse.

I know what I would do, but I can’t answer that for you. It’s brought up here as we generally fall back on our training when bad things happen so I simply want to put it in front of you. We’ll cover making natural filters in a separate post one day as there are ways to make “survival water” so to speak.

The good news is I’ve never been there, nor has anyone I know. The more you prepare your gear AND skills, the less likely you’ll EVER find yourself in this situation! That’s the whole point of this post.

Safe Drinking Water

You’ll quickly notice on this site repeated references to carrying multiple sources of ignition to make fire. A minimum of 3 to be exact and you’ll find that quite common amongst serious outdoors people, even in military training. Now you also see there are multiple ways to make safe drinking water.

I honestly carry the bandana, sterilizing chemical, the single wall bottle to boil and an all in one water filter. Between these 4 items, we have 3 really good methods to make safe drinking water. I don’t know about you, but when things are this important, I don’t take ANY chances. Water is as important as fire!

If you are curious what else you can carry into the bush, Backpack Gear Load Out is an awesome post for you.

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Stelios Lazos
Stelios Lazos

Stelios comes from the corporate world where he was a highly successful executive. Inspired by his love for the outdoors he has re-located with his family to live to the BushLife where he blogs about his adventures. Finding inspiration in the never-ending questions from aspiring outdoors people, Stelios aims to share his knowledge, one post at a time.

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