How Long Must You Boil Water Before It's Safe To Drink?

Whether you find yourself hiking in the wilderness or without water, thanks to a strong storm that has wreaked havoc on the area's water lines, you may find yourself in need of boiling water to get safe drinking water. It's vital to boil contaminated water long enough to render it safe or you might get ill.

In the case of the latter scenario, local health officials may issue a warning to use bottled water or boil tap water, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Caution should be taken in most instances of using tap water. While tap water can generally still be used for washing hands, a person should be careful not to swallow any while taking a shower. Even wetting a toothbrush and rinsing your mouth with tap water should be avoided while brushing your teeth, per the CDC. 

Ice made using water lines running through an appliance should also be avoided. Even filtered tap water will need to be boiled, advises the CDC. Water needs to reach temperatures of at least 160 degrees F to kill pathogens like bacteria (via Appalachian Mtn Club).

A rolling boil is key

There are important factors when boiling water for drinking: It needs to reach a rolling boil, and it must boil at that vigorous pace for at least one minute, advises the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). If you live at a high altitude (5,000 feet or higher), water must be boiled for at least three minutes. The extra time is that boiling temperatures decrease with altitude, per Appalachian Mtn Club. The rule of thumb is that the boiling temperature is one degree less at every 500 feet.

A rolling boil, per Cooks Info, is when the bubbles in the pot of water are very large and when they move to the top of the water's surface, they break. Bubbles should move rapidly in the water as it is boiled. A trick to boiling water faster is to keep the cover on the pot so that evaporation is decreased, and energy is kept inside. Once the water has been boiled for enough time, it must be allowed to cool naturally. The USDA states to store the water in covered clean containers. When drinking boiled water, it might not taste like the water you are accustomed to. The USDA recommends adding a pinch of salt per quart or liter of water. Another option to improve its taste is to pour the water multiple times from clean container to another.

With a little time and effort, clean drinking water can be easily achieved through boiling.