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Water Purification in the Banff National Park Backcountry

by K Gordon Schultz
Banff National Park - finding safe water

Water Purification in the Banff National Park Backcountry

Unlike the delicious glacial water you can lap up at the Columbia Icefields halfway between Jasper and Banff, not all wild water is safe to drink in the backcountry of the Canadian Rockies. Here are some of the best ways to find and purify your water.

Finding Safe Water

For short trips, it’s best to bring water from home or from a source you trust. For longer trips in the backcountry, or when climbing, choose water sources from fast-moving rivers or from the deepest parts of a lake. Safe drinking water can also be found at high altitudes in the mountains, as consistent, intense sunlight can kill bacteria (but not viruses!). Avoid stagnant water, shoreline water, or water close to human campsites or habitats.


The most effective method of purifying water, but not always the most practical. Filter water before boiling–water found at higher altitudes often contains silt. The water should boil for at least a minute plus one more minute per one thousand feet of altitude.

Purification Tablets

Disinfection with tablets is the next-best option if boiling is impractical.  You’ll need two containers: one for water treatment, and one for keeping the purified water. Chlorine tablets are cheap and readily available in stores. Always follow the directions, and let the water stand for stand for 30 minutes after adding the tablets. Iodine tablets (or drops and crystals) are also effective on bacteria and viruses, though are not recommended for people with thyroid problems or iodine sensitivity. Note that water will probably still need to be filtered to kill all protozoa. Purified water will have a funny taste: you can mask it with sugary drink crystals or orange juice, but only after the treatment time is passed.

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