How to Get Fresh Water While Camping

Beautiful Stream Flowing Over Rocks - but How to Get Fresh Water While Camping

Fresh water is the most important thing you need to have on a family camping trip. Trouble is, family camping can consume a lot of water very quickly.

The most you are likely to carry with you is a filled 5-gallon drinking water container.  Even that takes up quite a lot of space which could be a problem if you are relying on your family car for transport. 

Five gallons will probably do for a short one or two-night trip. If you are staying for a few days, or if you have a larger family, it won’t last long.  You need to know How to Get Fresh Water While Camping.

Getting Fresh Water – Depends on Your Mode of Camping

By mode of camping we are essentially considering 3 types of camping:

  • Frontcountry – Established campsites that will provide at least a minimum of factilities (some can be quite luxurious)
  • Backcountry – these are areas that are designated and approved for camping but which offer few, if any, facilities
  • Dispersed or wild – off grid camping.  Pitch your tent where you please (if it is allowed).  The only facilities are what you bring with you.

For those of you going backcountry or dispersed camping, you are going to need some way of getting safe drinking water.  You are going to have to consider:

  • Your sources of water – river, stream, lake etc
  • How to make your water safe to drink – just because a stream looks clean and refreshing doesn’t mean it’s safe to drink.

We are going to cover both of these questions in this article.  However, in brief, the best ways of getting water that is safe to drink are (in order of preference):

  • Camp Site Filling Station – for those on frontcountry campgrounds
  • Water you have brought with you
  • Outdoor Water Filters
  • Water Purification Tablets
  • Boil Water

How Much Water Do You Need?

There is no absolute rule for how much water you need when camping.  It seems generally accepted that you should allow about 4 pints (2 litres) per person for drinking.  That seems to gel with our experience, but we would also go through a few sodas and more than a few beers too.

If you are going to be cooking for the family, you should probably budget for using about twice as much as for drinking alone.  All in all, that’s about a gallon of water per person per day.  Hmm, maybe we should that start using that as a unit of measure– the GoWPPPD.  It’ll never catch on.

For a family of 4 you would be looking at 4 gallons per day.  It’s important to know this.  If you are going to be camping for more than one or 2 nights, the amount of water required quickly gets to be too much to carry.  You have to have a way of getting safe drinking water.

We recommend you try to take 10 gallons, in 2 separate containers, with you.  The Coleman 5 Gallon Jug is ideal. The cap comes off for filling but the integrated spigot provides fine control in getting water out. The spigot and the flat sides of the Coleman jug make it ideal in your camping kitchen. You are going to use a fair amount of water in your food preparation and cooking.

Simple 5-Gallon Jug with Spigot

We know that 2 x 5-gallon containers take up a lot of space.  2 containers makes sense though:

  • You have 10 gallons of water with you – that’s enough for at least 2 days for even a pretty thirsty family
  • Once on your campsite, you can fill one container while the other keeps giving you water
  • If you are going to filter water – it may be essential if you are wild camping – the process of filtering can take a while.  It is good to have one container for dispensing water while you use the other to filter your next day’s supply.

Camp Site Filling Station

For most people reading this, refilling your portable tank while camping should not be too much of a chore. You are likely to camping at an established, front country campground with lots of facilities that will certainly include plentiful drinking water.

There are thousands of Frontcountry camping sites across the whole of America.  Some of the better known are operated by:

  • National Park Service
  • State or local park service
  • KOA
  • Boy Scouts of America
  • Girl Scouts of America

If you are new to family camping these campgrounds provide a great introduction.  They aim to make your life that bit easier and typically provide:

  • Wooden decks for a solid surface for your tent
  • Centralized campfire pit
  • Picnic tables
  • Charcoal grill stands (sometimes)

Many of these sites offer much more and may include restrooms, bathrooms and showers. Some, like those owned by KOA, may also include lots of leisure activities including swimming pools.

Water spigots are usually well signposted.  Before using any spigot or faucet to replenish your water containers, you must ensure it is marked as drinking water.  It might also be marked as potable.

If you are not sure where it is, consult with the park ranger.

Once your tank is filled up, keep it above the ground, on a picnic table or at least a chair, so that it is away from most bugs and dirt. Keep the valve closed too.

How to Get Fresh Water While Camping When No Clean Water Exists

Sources of Water

The task of refilling your water tank becomes a bit more of a challenge when you are roughing it off the beaten path. Even if you find a spigot, you can’t be sure it’s safe to drink.

When backcountry camping, make sure your set up your campsite near a source of water.  The preference, from a water supply point of view is:

  • River
  • Stream
  • Lake
  • Pond

While the water flowing in the streams and rivers of the backcountry may look pure, it can still be contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other contaminants

Rivers and streams are always better than ponds or lakes. Sitting water can accumulate far more contamination that running water. In general, running water will be cleaner.

Take a look at our guide on setting up your campsite for more options. You might also like to take a look at choosing your first family campsite.

Precautions to Take

Taking water out of rivers is preferred. Always try to look for clean looking water. It is still going to be contaminated – but at least there are probably less particulates to remove.

Take water from upstream of your campsite. This is particularly true if you are using the river for water sports or swimming.

Before taking any water, scout out the bank for a couple of hundred yards to check for any dead animals or foul looking drains. You don’t want to be taking water downstream of any animal watering soaks either.

Cleaning Water for Drinking – Your Key Options

As you know, clean water is crucial. Where clean, safe drinking water is not available, you will have to make it yourself. We have 3 main methods for making river and lake water drinkable.

  1. Camping Water Filters
  2. Water Purification Tablets
  3. Boil It

1. Camping Water Filters

Water filters for family camping

Most of us have, or are at least are familiar with, water filters for the home. They have a universal size and attach easily to a common kitchen sink faucet, saving you a ton of money on water bottles. Well, the same concept can be applied to the great outdoors.

Outdoor water filters typically have a simple hand pumping system and are small, making them easy to pack. The disadvantage of this system is that it can be a bit time consuming to fill a 5-gallon or more container.

Camping water filters do 2 jobs.  They remove almost all particles suspended in the water.  You can take brown, muddy looking water and you will get beautiful, clear water out.  Of course, making the water look good is only a small part of the requirement.  It has also to be made safe to drink. 

To do their job camping water filters will have at least 2 levels of filtration:

  • Ultra fine, micro filtration to remove all particles
  • Carbon filter to remove the vast majority of pathogens and impurities.

Many filters will have a pre-filtration filter.  This is intended to provide a fairly course sift of the incoming water thereby protecting the much finer, ultra-filtration filters.

Here are 3 examples of typical hand-powered, water filters

Joypur Portable Outdoor Water Filter

The Joypur is a triple filtration filter designed for backpacking or smaller camping parties.  

It’s filters are replaceable which extends it’s life compared to some other filters. 

Very impressively, it claims to be able to process 49.4oz per minute.  Say what?  Ok, we did some conversion – that’s about 1.5 quarts per min or a bit less than 3 minute per gallon.  It’s still going to take 15-20minutes to fill a 5-gallon container.

Big Berkey Gravity-Fed Water Filter

OK, I guess the name gives it away.  This is quite a big beast – 8.5inch diameter and 19.2 inches tall.

Gravity fed.  Just fill up the top container with river water and leave the Berkey to do its job

Able to filter and hold 2.25 gallons of water at once. That means you will get water filtering done a lot faster and have more time for, well, camping.

It could even double as your actual water tank if you want, although we would recommend the large 5 gallon one, so you do not have to go get more water as often.

Berkey make some extremely impressive claims for this machine:

“by removing greater than 99.999% of viruses and greater than 99.9999% of pathogenic bacteria, while also removing or dramatically reducing protozoa (such as giardia and cryptosporidium), trihalomethanes, inorganic minerals, heavy metals (including arsenic, lead, mercury, chromium), pharmaceutical drugs (including caffeine, Acetaminophen, Ibuprofen, Progesterone, Triclosan)”

Personal Water Filters

The water filters we have discussed so far have been well suited to family camping.  The Berkey, in particular, is quite large.  These are going to be better suited to car camping.

There are a range of water filters designed for personal use while hiking, backpacking or solo camping.

Water Filter Straws

First of all we have the straw style of filter.  As the name suggests, you put the bottom of the straw into the dirty water, and just suck at the other end – just as you would with a straw. Examples include:

The LifeStraw weighs just 2oz, is good to filter up to 1000 gallons, and is claimed to “Remove- minimum 99.9999% of waterborne bacteria, 99.9% of waterborne protozoan parasites, and filters to 0.2 microns; surpasses EPA filter standards”

Like the LifeStraw the Lixada is good for 1000gallons.  That should certainly be enough for a few seasons camping trips.

We like the Lixada water straw as it can be used directly as a straw or as a filter on a water bottle.  The latter can be useful as it allows you to grab water and go.

Water bottles with built in filter

A limitation of the straws is that they are most easily used directly from your water source.  That is not always convenient.  If you are hiking on a hot day, you need to drink water as you need it.  That usually means carrying the water with you.  This is where filter bottles score.

It’s a simple concept.  Take a good quality, 23oz water bottle, and add a filter straw to the mouthpiece.  Reassuringly, LifeStraw include their impressive claim – “Removes 99.9999% of waterborne bacteria, and 99.9% of waterborne protozoan parasites without chemicals, iodine or batteries”

The Seychelle Extreme is a 28oz bottle with filter.  The claims for the filter are very strong –“This high end portable water purifier allows you to drink from virtually Any contaminated water source in the world (Not Intended for Saltwater Use). The Extreme water filter removes 99.9999% of Bacteria, 99.99% of Viruses, as well as 99.99% of Radiological Contaminants”

Personal Water Filter Pumps

Finally in this section on personal water filtration, a quick mention of personal water filter pumps.  The idea hear is just the same as for the larger, more family camping oriented devices mentioned earlier.  You use a small filter pump to fill you own water bottles.

It is possible to drink directly from the source with the MSR trailshot but it is perfect for filling your water bottles or hydration pack.  It is claimed to be –“Effective against bacteria (99.9999%), protozoa (99.9%)”

Best camping Water Filters?

As you can see, there are many types of water filter available.  For us, we find it is most effective to make all the members of our family responsible for their own drinking water.  For this we favor the drinking bottles with filters.

For camp use – mostly for cooking and cleaning – everyone takes a turn with a filter pump and fills one of the 5-gallon drums.  It becomes a bit of a game.  It’s definitely a key part of our getting back to nature.

Note:  You need to clean you pans, crockery and cutlery in clean water.  Pathogens can live on these quite easily.  They need to be properly cleaned.  While we have never measured it, I would guess that more than half of our clean water goes on cleaning.

2. Water Purification Tablets

Water purification tablets are an essential part of your camping gear.  We don’t like them.  They don’t clear your water like a good filter will.  And, despite all efforts to mask it, water purification tablets leave a taste when used. 

The great benefit of water purification tablets is that they will work even if you filter pump has broken.  If we have to use them we always look for the cleanest, freshest water we can find as the source.  Purification tablets make water safe to drink – they don’t remove all particulate contaminants like a water filter does.

How Many Water Purification Tablets do You Need

You need to do some careful calculations before you trip if you are going to rely on water purification tablets for all you drinking water needs.

  • It takes 1 or 2 tablets to purify a quart of water – depending on brand and tablet composition.
  • For family camping we estimated earlier that you are going to need about one GoWPPPD (Gallon of Water Per Person Per Day)
  • So, for a family of 4 you are going to need around 4 Gallons per day.  That’s 16 quarts. 
  • At one tablet per quart that’s 16 tablets per day.  At 2 tablets per quart it’s 32 tablets per day
  • We reckon on filling a 5 gallon container each day – that’s 20 or 40 tablets depending on brand.
  • For a 5-day trip (about normal for us) that’s 100 or 200 tablets. 

Even if you plan on filtering or boiling all of you drinking water, we recommend taking enough water purification tablets to cover the whole trip too as backup.  These tablets are not expensive and have a long shelf-life.  You should be able to use the same packs for many trips if your other sources of drinking water never fail.

Examples of Top Rated  Water Purification Tablets

Each tab works for 2 quarts of water, and each pack has 50 tablets. One pack is probably good for a 5-day family trip.  Just pop it in, ensure the tablets have dissolved and then wait at least 30minutes.

The Potable Aqua PA Plus is a 2-tablet treatment.  One tablet makes the water bacteriologically safe to drink.  The other bottle is intended to reduce any remaining cloudiness and remove any after taste. 

You need to add 2 of each tablet to each quart of water.  So, based on our ready reckoner of 5 gallons per day for family camping – you are going to need 40 of each tablet per day.  As the PA Plus comes in bottles of 50 tablets, you are going to need 4 – 5 packs to cover your camping trip.

3. Boil It

Boiling water for just 1 minute is probably the gold standard for making it safe to drink.

Why then, is boiling water only our 3rd favored option for making safe drinking water?   There are 3 reasons:

  • Boiling water takes lots of energy.  You can easily use all of your stove gas heating water.
  • Boiling water takes lots of time.  To be able to boil water in the quantity we have talked about you need some big pots or pans.  Each takes a while to bring to the boil.  Waiting for it to cool before you can decant it into your normal drinking water container takes a while too.
  • Boiling water will make it bacteriologically safe to drink.  It doesn’t remove particulate, chemical or heavy metal contaminants.

The energy requirements can be covered if you use your campfire.  You likely have a campfire going anyway, so take a break from your s’mores and boil some water.

You can set the pot next to the fire carefully. However, it would be much safer and easier to set it over the fire (and cook the rest of your meals while you are at it) on a grill. The Texas Heavy Duty Over Fire Camp Grill is one example.

For boiling water we tend to prefer a tripod and pad.  The Camp Chef Dutch Oven Tripod is one example. 

Make sure you follow our guidelines to build you campfire so it is good for cooking (or boiling water).  You might also like to take a look at our guide for cooking over a campfire too.

Let the water boil for at least 1 minute, or 3 minutes at higher altitudes. This process will kill off the pathogens in the water, making it ready to drink. Just let it cool off in a safe location, like on a flat rock or on another grate away from the fire.

When cool, pour it back into the water tank. Repeat this process until the tank is full. If you have multiple pots (and multiple willing participants) this process can go even faster.

Note: Never try to decant boiling or hot water. Let it cool first.


Getting a ready supply of drinking water is vital to your camping trip.  Next to getting a shelter, drinking water is the most important element in survival.

It might surprise you to see that we strongly prefer water filters over purification tablets and even over boiling water.

For us, water filtration gives us the best ratio of time needed to get clean water, and time spent camping.


Keith Longmire

Keith Longmire

I’m the guy that loves camping, insists on family camping trips, and the editor and owner of Campingsage.com

I love camping and the outdoors. Through this site I hope to help you enjoy it too.

About CampingSage

CampingSage is all about comfortable family camping in tents.  It is written by campers, for campers.

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