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Water, water, everywhere...

Water is the second most important survival essential. The rule of threes states that you can live for about 3 days without water and places the priority of water below that of shelter. While it is true that exposure can kill you more quickly than dehydration, it must be acknowledged that even minor dehydration (2%-3%) can impair thinking. Since most survivalists and outdoor experts will acknowledge that your own brain is your greatest asset in a survival situation, it is important to stay hydrated by drinking often; don't skip opportunities to drink because you think that you've got three days before you need another drink of water!

Further, dehydration can cause physical problems as well. A 5% loss in fluids results in weakness; a 10% loss results in dizziness, inability to walk, and a tingling sensation in the limbs; a 15% loss results in dim vision, deafness, a swollen tongue, and a numb sensation in the skin; greater than 15% can result in death.

The first step is finding the water. Fortunately, most of the continents are strewn with lakes, rivers, and streams, so your odds of finding water are pretty good if you know how to go about it. Water flows downhill, and can usually be found by looking in gullys, valleys, or other depressions in the surrounding landscape. In the wintertime, snow can also be abundant and can be melted into drinkable water.

Water can also be extracted from numerous sources. Small solar stills can be used to condense moisture out of the ground, prepared plant matter, tainted water or urine, etc. Some plants can be altered to produce water.

However, despite the favorable odds of finding water, it is always a good idea to carry a good amount with you whenever you can. The average person needs about two liters of water a day. Even if you are just out for the day, I recommend drinking several glasses before you leave home and then carrying as close to two liters as possible.

The second step is making the water drinkable. Because most "civilized" people are not accustomed to drinking untreated water, we are required to purifiy or filter the water before drinking it. Below are several methods of making water potable while in the outdoors. (Please keep in mind that these are general statements; a review of every single product out there would be overly time-consuming. But rest assured that every product we carry has been tested and a review is available!)

Method 1: Boiling

Boiling is the simplest and most well known way to kill bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. Depending on the heat source, a boil can be achieved in as little as 4-5 minutes. There's no reason to heat the water any longer than it takes to reach a boil, because the water will actually be safe to drink a bit before it has reached boiling. However, be sure to go all the way to a boil to make sure you've given it enough time. Remember, if you're dehydrated, you won't be thinking as clearly and your perception of time might be off.

Some downsides to boiling are that you must have a heatable container and a heat source, you must wait for the water to cool enough for the purpose it is to be used for, and boiling does not remove any contaminants from the water, but just disables microorganisms.

Method 2: Solar Purification

Closely related to both boiling and UV radiation is Solar Purification. All this requires is a transparent container, laid on a surface (preferably black) in direct sunlight. If the surface is black, the weather is warm and the sun is beating down good, the water can be purified in an hour, due to a combination of heat and the solar UV rays.

The downsides to this are situations where there is no sunlight, no suitable surface to lay the container on, and you don't have the time to sit for an hour or two for this method to work. Also, this method will not remove any contaminants from the water, but just disables microorganisms.

Method 3: Ultraviolet Radiation

UV lights are another way to purify water. The benefits are that they are lightweight, purify quickly (less than a minute for a pint of water), and are effective against bacteria, viruses, and protozoa.

The real limitation to UV lights is that they run off of batteries, which can wear out very fast. One popular brand was found to only get 20-40 uses out of 4 standard AA batteries, which would only treat 20-40 pints (this may be mitigated by using a solar charger to recharge batteries). Also, UV lights do not remove any contaminants from the water, but just disable microorganisms.

Method 4: Chemical Treatment

Purifying the water through chlorine, iodine, and their derivatives will kill varying amount of bacteria, viruses, etc. in the water, rendering it safe to drink. The benefits of these methods are that they are usually lightweight and compact and simple to use, making them easy to pack along in case of an emergency. Also, when you purify with chemicals, they remain in the water and continue purifying, even if exposed to more microorganisms.

However, there is a limited treatment amount, as your supply of chemical drops or tablets will run out eventually. Also, the chemical treatments can take from 15 minutes (for viruses and bacteria) to four hours (for cysts such as giardia and crypto) before the water is safe to drink, depending upon the temperature and quality of water. Additionally, chemicals do not remove any contaminants from the water, but just disable microorganisms.

Method 5: Filtration

In addition to bacteria and protozoa, this method actually removes other contaminants which may be present in the water, such as pesticides, detergents, mecury, lead, arsenic, etc. Generally, these are found only in small quantities in water, and as such pose a lower risk than microorganisms. However, in great enough quantities or over a long enough period of time, these other contaminants can also pose serious health risks. Additionally, filter elements can generally treat much greater quantities of water than chemicals and don't require batteries, making them a more cost effective alternative in the long run.

On the down side, filters generally do not work very well against viruses*. Pump filters also tend to be heavy and bulky when compared to water purification tablets or UV lights*, and so are usually best for someone who plans on obtaining a significant amount of water in the wild. If a filter requires pumping*, it can also take quite a bit of time that could be spent on other considerations, whereas other methods do not require your constant attention.


*Note that Seychelle filters also have a special media that is effective against viruses and bacteria, are lightweight, and require no pumping.