Two things tend to follow disaster: disease and contaminated water. Often, disease is a direct result of exposure to or consumption of contaminated water. A person can only survive 3 days without water, so it is imperative to have access to clean, safe drinking water. Beyond hydration, however, we use water to stay clean, brush our teeth, to launder clothing and wash dishes. After a disaster, we would also likely be using water to rehydrate the food we so carefully dehydrated from our gardens, or perhaps to cook commercially prepared “emergency meals”. Considering how important water is to survival, it is imperative that you learn how to secure a clean, safe water supply in a post-disaster situation.
This article will explain:
- What makes water unsafe to drink.
- How much water you will need.
- How to conserve water.
- How to make your water safe to drink.
- How to prevent illness at camp.
- Herbal remedies for water-borne illnesses.
What Makes Water Unsafe to Drink?
Water can be contaminated by microorganisms, chemicals, and algae. Microorganisms would be the most common concern, especially when drinking from a wild, raw, untreated source of water. Flood waters take everything with them, including oil and other fluids leaked by vehicles, along with whatever might be on your neighbors lawns, in the gutter, and so on. All flood water should be considered contaminated and avoided.
Microorganisms to be most concerned about are protozoa, bacteria, and viruses, as these are the most common contaminants.
According to the United States Forestry Service, 90% of the surface water in the Unites States is contaminated with protozoa, such as giardia, cryptosporidium, and Schistosomatidae. These are generally large enough to be filtered out with commercially available water filters. Double check that your chosen filter lists these in their user’s manual. Occasionally, very small cryptosporidium can get passed filters. Some strains are resistant to chemical agents, including chlorine and iodine. Boiling is the preferred method to get rid of protozoa in water.
Here we find dysentery, Vibrio cholerae, Escherichia coli, salmonella, typhoid, and campylobacter. A good filter should filter out most bacteria, and are easily killed by boiling and chemical water treatments.
Viruses are much smaller than bacteria, and pass right through most water filters. Water purifiers, in contrast to water filters, are capable of removing viruses. Thankfully, these viruses are also easily killed by boiling and chemical water treatments. Waterborne viruses include hepatitis, polio, rotovirus, and norwalk.
There are more chemical contaminants than I can list here. However, VOCs, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, trihalomethanes, and fuel can find their way into drinking water. This is most often due to run off from streets, industrial agriculture sites, manufacturing, sites, and other locations associated with the fuel and chemical industries.
Algae is a growing problem for rural water supplies. When soap gets into the water supply, it creates an environment ideal for the growth of blue-green algae, which may secrete toxins into the water. Water filters should be able to handle algae as will boiling and chlorine.
How Much Water Do You Need?
As a general guideline, many preparedness experts recommend 1 gallon per day per person. This single gallon is intended to provide a person’s water needs for drinking, bathing, washing dishes and clothing, plus sanitation needs. If you have never tested your emergency plans and relied only on 1 gallon of water per day, you should. It is an eye opener. A single gallon is adequate for survival. It is, however, the bare minimum.
As a baseline, most adults require 8 cups of water daily, which is half of the suggested 1 gallon per day per person guideline. A person’s water needs, however, will vary depending upon a number of factors. Variables include heat, exertion, altitude, the size and general health of the individual. If you spend a good part of your post-disaster day on chores around your camp, or perhaps a more permanent bug out location such as a cabin, this will likely include extra walking, lifting, time in the sun, and probably sweating. That gallon can go faster than you anticipated.
If you are able to store water, either at home or your bug out location, the 1 gallon per person per day is a good start. Once you build up a water supply, consider improving that plan by increasing to 2 gallons of water per day, and another gallon for general use. By general use, I mean washing clothing, doing dishes, and keeping your camp clean. Cleanliness helps reduce the chance of loved ones getting sick.
My preferred form of water storage is the Water Brick. It’s stackable, easy to transport if you needed to load the back of your vehicle quickly, opaque to prevent sunlight from penetrating, and can withstand temperatures between -105°F to 230°F. If you have the space, however, there are also 55 gallon drums available from a number of companies with siphons and hand pumps that can be used to store larger amounts of water for long-term emergencies.
How to Make Your Water Safe to Drink
Depending on your circumstances and resources, there are several ways to do this. If you are relying on your Bug Out Bag’s contents to get you to a safe location, then the most convenient option is a portable filtration system. Products like Life Straw, Sawyer Mini, or the Sport Berkey bottle will all allow you to drink from streams and rivers without getting sick. The LifeStraw and Sawyer Mini are water filters, while the Sport Berkey is a water purifier. Of those three, only the Sport Berkey is capable of removing viruses. Chemical purifiers, like iodine and chlorine tablets allow you to purify water you may have hauled to your camp. Do not use iodine tablets if you or a member of your group is allergic to iodine.
If you are bugging in after a disaster and relying on your water storage, bleach may be the most convenient way to do this. The Environmental Protection Agency’s guidelines for this purification method are 6 drops to 1 gallon of water, and double this to 12 drops if the water is cloudy, colored, or very cold. Let the water stand for 30 minutes, and that will allow the bleach to evaporate out of the water, leaving you with safe drinking water. Keep in mind, however, the shelf life of liquid bleach is very short. Liquid bleach is active for only 6 months, and then it’s effectiveness severely diminishes.
Boiling is often used to sterilize water, and the Centers for Disease Control recommend a roiling boil of 1 minute. However, depending on your altitude, water boils at different temperatures. At sea level, water boils at 212°F. However, at a 5000 ft elevation, water boils at 200°F. Go up to 10,000 ft, and water is boiling at 190°F.
A better option is to use a pressure cooker. These are smaller than pressure canners, and there are even small pressure cookers designed for camping. These can be used on either your regular home stove (assuming you still have electricity or gas), a propane camping stove, or even a tin can “hobo stove”. So, why would you want to use a pressure cooker?
A pressure cooker at 15 lbs of pressure will get your water up to 240°F at 10,000 ft elevations, eliminating any possibility of bacterial or protozoan contamination.
To use a pressure cooker, inspect it first to ensure it is in good working order. Clean the water as much as you can before putting it into your cooker. Run your collected water through a cloth, such as a t-shirt or a bandanna. Next, crush up some of the cooled coals from your campfire. Try to make as fine of a powder as you can under the circumstances, and then place your powdered charcoal in a clean sock. Allow the water to drip through this DIY charcoal filter.
Then, fill your pressure cooker 80% full, leaving about 20% headspace. Once the cooker comes up to pressure, cook for 15 minutes. Kill the heat source and allow the pressure to come down. Follow the directions in your cooker’s manual, and only open your cooker once it is safe. The water inside will have been sterilized. However, this method cannot remove chemicals. Depending upon your situation, that may or may not be a concern.
For your long-term plans, whether at home if you are planning on bugging in, or if you are planning on retreating to a family vacation cabin, consider getting a large filter, such as a Berkey. These types of filters remove protozoa, bacteria, and viruses, as well as chemicals contaminants. The filters can be cleaned and reused several times, extending their life to a year or longer.
How to Conserve Water
When the water supply is in question, conserving the water you have is critical. Here are some of my favorite ways to cut down on water:
- Baby wipes: You can wipe yourself down to freshen up quickly, wash hands, saving water on personal hygiene. These can stretch the necessity for a good shower (see Solar Shower below), and can be safely be burned in the campfire.
- Medicated Powder: Something like Gold Bond powder makes a half-way decent dry shampoo. The menthol in it calms an itchy scalp and the powder absorbs excess oils from the hair. Shake it on at the roots, work it in with your hands, then brush out. There is a slight powdery look, but that fades quickly enough.
- Hand Sanitizer: In general, I’m not a huge fan of hand sanitizer. But, in this case, it makes perfect sense. Keep the hands clean and keep them away from the mouth to help prevent infection.
- Solar Shower: These gravity fed showers have a water bladder up top that can use the sun’s rays to provide a hot shower with very little water. However, they can also be used to provide water pressure for washing hands and dishes.
How to Prevent Illness at Camp
The best medicine is to not get sick in the first place. Cleanliness and good hygiene habits are the key to staying healthy and preventing infection from waterborne illness. This is not so easily achieved when you are without running water. Tips to keep clean when conserving water are described above, however, that did not cover how to safely dispose of human waste.
If you are on the move, living out of a tent, and are not in a permanent location, then digging cat holes are the most reasonable solution. Cat holes are dug 6”-8” deep, and 4”-6” wide. You simply do your business in the hole. Dispose of any toilet paper, plant leaf (such as mullein leaf, which makes an ideal natural toilet paper) in the hole. Keep any cat holes 200 feet away from water sources to prevent any contamination, and make sure you have a decent camping shovel.
If you are at a more permanent location you can consider outhouses and latrines. These will require deeper holes than a cat hole, and also must be contructed at least 200 feet away from a water source. However, a 5-gallon bucket with sawdust, kitty litter, or even pine needles and dry leaf litter, can serve as a toilet. When done correctly, the dry material cuts down on any human odors. The bucket is then emptied outside, and the waste material is then thoroughly composted to prevent any spread of bacteria. Composting adds heat to the waste, and a surprising amount of heat at that. For more information on this option, there is a free PDF on how to do this safely at HumanureHandbook.com.
Whatever your option for toileting, you will need to have a plan for both feminine hygiene (assuming there are women in your group) and for handwashing. Commercially-made pads and tampons should not be buried in a cat hole, as they can be dug up and do not decompose easily. They also do not burn well either. Tampons require very hot, long fires to get them to burn completely. Better options are items like the Diva Cup which can just be emptied and rinsed quickly, or reusable cloth pads (they have come a long way) which can be washed, but won’t leave anything behind which can be dug up later. Regardless if women are at your camp or not, the commercial pads and tampons make useful medical preps in case of severe bleeding from lacerations and puncture wounds.
For washing of hands, or cloth pads, or clothing, I like to have a solar shower set up near the toilet, with a washbasin underneath. The gravity feed creates pressure, yet uses minimal water. Be sure do empty any soapy water away from water sources so as to not contribute to algae in the water supply.
Herbal Medicine for Water-borne Illnesses
Sometimes, no matter how you plan, things go awry. If you or someone in your group does end up sick from a waterborne illness, you need to know what to do. If there has been a crisis that has cut off the water supply, or if you are in a remote location, it may not be possible to get to a hospital. There are, however, some herbal remedies you may wish to add to your first aid kit for just such an occasion.
In my book, Prepper’s Natural Medicine: Life-Saving Herbs, Essential Oils, and Natural for When There Is No Doctor, I have listed herbal tinctures for protozoa, bacterial, and viral infections. As I’d like to share the Antiprotozoan Tincture formula with you, because of all the potential contaminants you may find in your wild water source, protozoa are the most likely you will encounter.
When I make these remedies, I make individual tinctures (herbal extracts made by macerating herbs in alcohol) and then blend them. These herbs can be grown at home in your herb garden, or purchased online from your favorite herbal supplier. While there are more precise ways to make herbal tinctures, a very simple way is to fill a jar with your plant material, pour in vodka or brandy of at least 80 proof, and allow it to steep in a cool, dark place for 6 weeks. Strain out all the herbs, and bottle the liquid. Label your bottle immediately. It’s just too easy to forget what’s in the bottle, so label your tincture ASAP!
Make individual tinctures of the following herbs:
- Black Walnut (the green hull)
- Milk Thistle
- Oregon grape root, or other berberine-containing herb
Once the tinctures are ready, blend together once ounce of each. This will give you 8 ounces of Antiprotozoan Tincture. This can be bottled in either two or four ounce bottles. Take 30-60 drops or 1-2 cap-fulls, 3 to 6 times daily until evidence of the infection is gone.
If you wanted to take this tincture a step further, you could add increase the Oregon grape root to three ounces, add two ounces of echinacea, and once ounce each of garlic, Sweet Annie, and juniper berry. This would give you 16 ounces total of tincture, and would be effective against both protozoa and many types of bacterial infections as well. This is a good solution when you are not sure if the infection is protozoan of bacterial in nature. I would then use a dosage closer to the high end of the above mentioned range.
I keep my tinctures at home in amber glass bottles called “Boston rounds” with an eye dropper with a rubber bulb. However, in my first aid kit, I store my tinctures in HDPE amber round bottles. These HDPE bottles were designed to handle caustic liquids, will not leach BPA into your precious tinctures, and will not break like glass. You’re first aid kit is guaranteed to take a beating, so having durable bottles is a must. Dosing can be made with disposable plastic pipettes, or use the cap for a single dose. I generally use no smaller than 2 ounce (60ml) bottles in my kit.
While we cannot know when a disaster will strike, or if the disaster will force us to stay in our homes or force us to seek refuge elsewhere, our need for clean, safe drinking water does not change. There are many convenient options for water storage and purification, plus plenty of ingenious ideas for water filtration and purification on the go, hiking it out in the back country. Take a moment today to review your level of water preparedness, and start filling in any gaps today.
For more formulas and herbal remedies like this, please check out my book, Prepper’s Natural Medicine.