Be Prepared — Clean Water


“Nowhere is the line between good and bad or right and wrong drawn more distinctly than in the question of the sanitary facilities of a camp.” —From Camp Sanitation, Boy Scouts of America, 1928

Scouts have been talking about keeping their campsites clean for a long time and it is not just that we like neatness; it promotes good health and safety. And some of the same things we do when camping can keep us well in an emergency. Take water, for example, we turn on our taps and clean drinking water is available, but not during many emergencies.

Severe weather or an earthquake would quickly disrupt our water supply. This could even happen just if the electric grid went down or if your local water source was contaminated from bacteria, other organisms, or a chemical spill. These all could mean you could be without water for 48 hours – or longer – until your local service can deliver water clean again.

Storing Water

Always listed among a Scout’s Outdoor Essentials, it is a good idea to take water when you go camping or hiking. And having some stored at home is a good idea too.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you will need eight cups (2 liters) per person, per day for drinking and that same amount for cleaning and hygiene. Store an additional gallon of water for family pets too.

Emergency Essentials suggests, “As a minimum, you should have three-day’s worth of water. That means, if you have a family of four, you’ll want at least 12 gallons of water stored up. That should keep you going during minor emergencies where you just have to wait a couple of days for the city to fix whatever problem it’s encountered.

“Perhaps a safer minimum would be to have enough water to last for at least two weeks. This would enable you to survive much longer should a much more devastating disaster come through. And, going back to your family of four, this would mean you would need at least 56 gallons of water.”2

That is a lot of water, but it is the most important resource you’ll need in an emergency. Begin with a couple of cases of water in plastic bottles.

I keep one case just inside the garage door and another with my “grab and go” and CERT bags on a shelf in the garage next to our “get-away” car. We have also purchased five 5-gallon water jugs that are filled with water in our backyard shed.

We’d get by for three days or so, but then what? For us the choice is easy, a river runs by our home, but there are…

Dangers in the Water

It is hard to believe that when I was a Scout we could drink from streams and not come home ill. In the field, camping or hiking, there will often be streams, lakes, springs, and snowfields which could all be potential sources of water. Nonetheless, all outdoor water sources need to be boiled, purified with chemicals, radiated, and/or filtered.

The Fieldbook, which is my go-to-outdoor source, warns of these dangers from river and other outdoor water sources:

  • “Protozoa are single-celled organisms found in nearly every kind of habitat, but most are found in aquatic habitats. Giardia, a parasitic protozoan, is commonly spread from hand to mouth. Thoroughly washing your hands after using a [latrine] is one of the most effective
    ways to avoid it. Giardia sets up residence in your intestines, where it can cause diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.
  • “Bacteria are single-celled microorganisms, some of which can be passed from one person to another. They also can be contracted from
    streams and lakes, and can be present in the soil. Avoid bacterial infections by keeping your tetanus immunizations current, by washing your hands frequently, and by thoroughly disinfecting any cuts or scratches you might suffer.
  • “Viruses are submicroscopic infective agents, many of which can spread easily from one person to another. Fortunately, most viruses do not survive long when exposed to the environment.
  • “Chemical Residue of agricultural pesticides and fertilizers can endure a long time in the outdoors. Heavy metals can leach into streams from mines and construction sites. Avoid still water, especially if it has a sheen of unnatural color.”1

There are problems too if you get water from rainwater collection, a solar still, or even a well you might dig in your yard. Each water source could harbor illness from microscopic organisms and chemical residue.

Safe Drinking Water

The safest water, of course, is what get from the tap before an emergency. So store some, at least three gallons for each person in your home and more if you can. But then learn how to make water safe so that when your storage is used up you can get what you need.

Filtering Water

Unless you can afford expensive water filters, which clog quickly, these two methods will work to help clear water of debris.

Towel Filter uses simple capillary action to move water from one container the to the other. If the first container is filled with dirty water, the towel will filter out the debris delivering clear water to the second container

Sand and Gravel Filter
moves dirty water through gravel, to sand, to charcoal, past a coffee filter to remove debris and deliver clear water

Notice that neither of these methods delivers clean water, just clear water, which most of want to drink. But that means the water still needs to be treated before drinking

Purifying Water

There are three effective ways to treat water: boiled, chemicals or UV radiation.


According to the Wilderness Medical Society, the best means of getting safe water is to heat it to a rolling boil—the boiling point is enough to kill organisms in the water. Of course, unless you are cooking with that water, it will need to be cooled and aerated by pouring it back and forth a few times between two containers. This adds air to it, removing the flat taste after boiling.

This process is 100 percent effective and simple too but consumes precious fuel in an emergency and takes time to heat and cool the water.

Chemical Treatments

Chemical treatments use iodine or chlorine to kill bacteria and viruses found in water. They are simple to use and relatively inexpensive, but you have to plan ahead and buy them for storage. However, they are not always effective against protozoa, they usually have a long waiting period to be effective, they often leave an unwanted taste and over time the tablets lose potency.

Solar Water Disinfection

This third-world solution, know as sodis, uses sunlight to make biologically-contaminated water safe for drinking. It is effective against bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and worms. The ultraviolet part of sunlight can kill pathogens in water and the solar thermal heat from the sun the results even better. This method is actually recommended by the World Health Organization as a viable method for household water treatment and safe storage.4

After filtering the dirty water, you place it into clear soda (PET) plastic or glass bottles and set it in bright sunlight to pasteurize it. Exposure to sunlight deactivates diarrhea-causing organisms and as the water heats in the bottles the effectiveness increases.

The drawbacks of this method is that you must have six hours of direct sunlight. A sloped sun-facing surface improves results, such as a south-facing roof. Adding a reflective surface, such as foil or reflective mylar, under the bottles improves results. If the sky is partly cloudy the process will need two days and will not work if cloud covered. Water contaminated with non-biological agents such as toxic chemicals or heavy metals require more steps to make the water safe to drink.


1 Packing Checklists for Camping Trips, Scout Outddor Essentials, Boy’s Life
2 How Much Water Should You Store?, Emergency Essentials
3 Hygiene and Waster Disposal, Fieldbook, pp.121–125
4 “WHO | Treatment technologies”. Household water treatment and safe storageWorld Health Organization

Darryl Alder
Darryl is a retired career Scouter with more than 30 years of service. These days he is a Scouting Ambassador and serves on the Council Membership and Marketing Committee. However, his pride in Scouting is his volunteer service as an Associate Advisor, Varsity Scout Coach, Scoutmaster, Cubmaster, Chartered Organization Representative, and Commissioner.

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