To Boil or Not to Boil?

To Boil or Not to Boil?


To Boil or Not to Boil?

Waterborne disease is a risk for travelers who visit countries that have poor hygiene and inadequate sanitation, and for those in the wilderness relying on surface water in any country, including the United States. In today’s world of Large Farms for both Livestock and crops, the threat goes beyond just pathogens, it also involves poisons from pesticides and fertilizers. In addition, humans and animals, are also a source of microorganisms and toxins that contaminate water sources and cause intestinal infections or poisonings. 

Pathfinder Stainless Steel GEN2 Canteen Cook SetDuring excursions into nature as well as times when we are caught in an emergency scenario, we must decide what will be the best method to de-contaminate our water sources. Carrying water from home is always the best measure of defense in the short term and you should consider that 1 quart or liter will not go far on a hot day or in the event of an overnight stay. Combine this with the fact that we may use water for cooking as well and most of us will not wander off trail carrying a gallon or more of water, however; there may be a real need to consume that much in a given 24-hour period.

So, in a world filled with the latest techno gadgets and chemicals to treat our water, what do we do? BOIL! Yes, boiling your water is the ONLY 100% guarantee you have to kill waterborne pathogens in ground source collected water. You make ask, “What about chemicals?” Well, that is another issue altogether as boiling will not remove chemical contaminants. To be as safe as possible we must first filter and then boil water for the best results. There are a variety of good filter systems on the market today, but we must remember that no filter system or chemical alone is capable of killing ALL water born organisms.  

So as far as filtering goes, buy the best one you can afford but do not rely solely on filtration for killing all waterborne pathogens because that filter doesn’t exist!

You be wondering, “how long do I need to boil?” and “what is the best way to collect the safest possible water?” There are actually several collection methods you can use but a personal favorite is to use one container (Metal) for collecting/boiling and another container for holding and cooling the potable result. In this manner, you are sterilizing the container (in a manner of speaking) by the heat of the fire. The Wilderness Medical Society and the CDC (Center for Disease Control) agree that temperatures of 140-160 degrees Fahrenheit are sufficient to kill Water Borne Pathogens over an average boil time of 2 to 3 minutes. However, keep in mind the average time mention is based on normal elevation (below 6,000 feet). At higher Elevation, the time is extended due to the fact that water boils at a lower temperature in less oxygen-rich environments.

Sawyer Mini Water Filtration SystemHowever, there are obvious chemical and filtering methods you can use to kill 98-99% of the contaminants in case you CANNOT boil. Chlorine Bleach is a trusted measure for treating water sources consumed by thousands worldwide. However, you are still taking that small risk and unless filtered you still must deal with possible chemical contaminants. In a Pack, especially overseas, we suggest carrying a Sawyer mini brand water filter and Chlorine Dioxide Tabs, this combination while not 100% effective does at least address both contaminate issues as well as being compact and light to carry. The Sawyer Mini Water Filtration System will filter up to 100,000 gallons. The Aquamira Tablets come 20 per pack and 1 tablet is good for 1 US Quart or liter, so carry multiple packages.

With the use of purification tablets, its suggested any water bottle or canteen device carried should be a standard quart or liter, and then there is no confusion or worry. Too many water bottles today are made to be aesthetically pleasing and utterly useless for emergencies. If you have the choice of only one Bottle it should always be metal that way you can boil in it if possible and then let the container cool before consumption. A stainless steel military style canteen & nesting cup or a stainless steel bottle and nesting cup would be an ideal solution to this.

At this point, you now have an issue with time? It takes a certain amount of time for chemicals to effectively decontaminate water. So, without a watch or sundial how do you know? Wait as long as you think 15 or 30 minutes is and then wait twice as long!

Now you can see why boiling is the preferred option. It’s typically safer, takes less time, and is a simpler process.

Drinking suspected water sources is a serious consideration. Some say it’s better to get out alive and be sick later than not make it due to dehydration. However, being prepared is the always gives you the best options!


  • An issue often overlooked especially out west is heavy metal contamination too. When there are woods, there are usually mines around that expose heavy metals to our backwoods water sources. In which case, filtering would be needed. Hopefully a company will offer backpackers/woodsmen a more cheaper, convenient, uber light and instant way to test water sources without using that typical bulky +$25 kit that works only once. If this exists already, I’d like to know. Thanks for revisiting water boiling and filtering, Dave.

    - Ryan Moore

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