Trekking Tech: Boil Toil

in steemstem •  last month

In the quest for pure water, even the most ideal techniques of primitive hydration collection can result in water that is contaminated with microbial pathogens. When the risk is just too great for drinking bottles of bacteria or vessels of viruses, treatment is necessary.


Though many forms of treatment exist today that can be used by backpackers to procure sterile water, one method is both ancient in its origin and reliable in nearly any environment. This was alluded to by our one and only @alexander.alexis in his perceptive reply to the primitive hydration post. For those of you who neglected to read the title of this post, the treatment technique we are discussing today is known as boiling.

Boil Style


The process of boiling water is one that we should all be intimately familiar with. It is not only used to purify what we drink, but is also used in cooking dry foods like rice and pasta. All it takes is some water, a heat source, something to contain the water while it boils, and a little patience.


This fire needs more fuel. Image modified from Source

Fuel the Fire

It does not matter what the source of heat is so long is it burns hotter than 100 degrees Celsius (the boiling temperature of water at sea level). Historically, humans have harnessed the power of fire by burning wood, peat, coal, oil, and other biological fuel sources.


A very cute concept. Image modified from Source

If you are hiking in a forest, wood and grass are both going to be a good bet - coal, peat, and oil generally need to be mined and they can only be found in certain places. There are also landscapes that are largely devoid of fuel sources (such as tundras, deserts, and alpine environments). When journeying through these areas, it is advisable to carry a condensed fuel source such as white gas, compressed butane propane blends, alcohol, or a solid fuel tablet.



There ain't much for burnin' in these parts.

Vouch the Vessel


In addition to a good heat source to boil the water, it is necessary to have some sort of vessel or container that can hold the water while it is heated and boiled. There are a wide variety of stainless steel, aluminum, and titanium cookware for the modern backpacker to replace the heavy iron pots of yesteryear.


Time to do the dishes. Image modified from Source

If you want to go more traditional, water can be boiled in a wooden vessel or a clay-lined pit by using a technique of transferring heat through stones. Simply cook the rocks in a fire for a bit and then transfer the stones to the vessel. The stones will locally heat and boil water, and with enough rocks the entire vessel can be boiled and made safe to drink.

Hold Steady

In order to ensure that this method of water treatment effectively destroys all microbial threats, you must be patient. It is advisable to bring water to a full rolling boil for at least one minute in order to have confidence that all of the potentially harmful microbes have been killed. With the exception of some extremophiles, microorganisms generally cannot survive temperatures higher than 60 C.


This boil is rolling. Image modified from Source

Let It Chill

One of the biggest downfalls of the boiling method of water treatment is that the water is not immediately drinkable. This might be a good thing if you plan to cook or make a hot beverage with the water, but if the weather is warm and you just want a cool, refreshing drink, you will have to wait a considerable amount of time for the water to equilibrate with the ambient air temperature.



A seriously addictive drug. Image modified from Source

Boiling in Summary


Effectiveness: High
Expense: Low
Effort: Moderate
Efficiency: Moderate
Durability: High
Taste: Great

Boiling is highly reliable and should always be an available option for water treatment while backpacking.

All photos by the author or modified from stated source.

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I guess you should include 'speed' in the summary list (unless it's included in 'efficiency'). It's a rather slow process: gathering the fuel source, lighting it, waiting for the boil, waiting for it to get back to room-temp (or forest-temp)... I guess it serves one best to boil a lot and store it, but that just adds backpack-weight for both the cookware and all the bottles.

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You nailed it, efficiency is my term for the time required. Boiling is indeed incredibly slow if you have to build a fire, especially if you are dealing with damp fuel sources or do not have an ignition source. However, you could make yourself a cup of tea with a good backpacking stove in just a few minutes...

Boiling in bulk is certainly the most efficient way with a campfire as the heat source, but it comes with its own problems as you described...hiking with extra unnecessary weight is truly a burden. It is great backup plan, but not my primary choice while backpacking.

Thanks for your thoughts and insights! It is always a pleasure to field comments from you!