Think of every movie you’ve ever seen that featured a cowboy, mountain man, explorer or pioneer on the open range, and water.

At some point, there’s probably a scene where they kneel down by a creek or river, dip their hand, a cup or even their mouth in the cold, sparking clean, mountain water and take a drink that really wets the ol’ whistle.

Romantic, for sure. And these days, dangerous.

Outdoorsmen and women who wander the wilds these days can’t really trust any water source. That’s just the way it is.

Pollutants, not to mention viruses, bacteria and nasties like giardia, lurk in many places. The water you discover in the backcountry might – might – be safe to drink as is, but there’s usually no way to know for sure.

So if, say, you’re a backpacker who needs lots of hydration, and you’re only way to get it is by drinking what you find, do yourself a favor and filter or purify it first.

There are several ways to do it.

Boiling. This is a bit time consuming, as you have to filter out – perhaps by pouring the water through a bandana – any big particles. Then you need to burn some of your fuel to heat it, and then you’re left with water hotter than you might want to drink.

But boiling water is a sure-fire way to make water drinkable.

One minute at a rolling boil is sufficient to treat water usually. At high elevations, like over 5,000 feet, go three minutes.

Ultraviolet light. Want to treat water while feeling a bit like Luke Skywalker with a tiny light saber? This is for you.

Commercially available UV water treatment systems resemble some combination of a flashlight and glow stick. You turn them on, dip them in your water, swish them around for a minute or so, and viola, you have drinkable water.

Of course, batteries can die, so you need to carry spares. But these systems are lightweight and easy to use.

Water filters. These come in various shapes and sizes. Some are straw-like. You can dip them into a stream and drink right away, with the water immediately filtered through microscreens.

In other cases, you fill a water bottle or hydration bladder with the water and drink through the same straw attached to the bottle top or hose.

Still others are pumps. You put a screened intake in the water and pump it to get treated water into the vessel of your choice.

These are generally easy to use and very handy. Most require some minimal cleaning when back home, or screens might need replaced over time. But they’re easy and efficient.

Iodine tablets. These little pills are obviously light weight and easy to carry. And they’re easy to use. You fill a bottle with water, drop the tables in and, after 20 to 30 minutes, have drinkable water.

Not everyone like these, though. Unless you get the ones that come with a second set of tablets, meant to kill the iodine taste and smell, your water can be, well, kind of nasty tasting. They’re not recommended for pregnant women either way, though.

So what water treatment system is best? It comes down to personal preference really.

But the best thing is have two methods of treating water any time you go into the backcountry. That way, if something gets lost or broken or fails to work, you have a back-up plan.

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See also: Backpacking a pathway to outdoor adventure.