Everyone knows that boiling water kills the “stuff” in it.
But how long should you boil it?
Before preparing this post, we boiled it for 20 minutes. We had read it somewhere and we faithfully boiled away – for the past 5 years.
But we were wrong. 20 minutes is excessive.
How Long Do I Have to Boil Drinking Water?
Not all boiled water is the same.
Boiling water for tea is one thing. Boiling it to remove bacteria, amobeas and other pathogens is something else entirely.
You need a rolling boil for 1 minute to kill the little bugs for elevations under 2000 meters (6,562 feet) altitude. Live above this altitude and you’ll need to increase this to 3 minutes.
Here are our sources:
- US Center for Disease Control: “Boiling can be used as a pathogen reduction method that should kill all pathogens. Water should be brought to a rolling boil for 1 minute. At altitudes greater than 6,562 feet (greater than 2000 meters), you should boil water for 3 minutes.”
- Modern Survival Blog: “Water temperatures at 160° F (70° C) kill all pathogens within 30 minutes. Water temperatures above 185° F (85° C) kill all pathogens within a few minutes. In the time it takes for water to reach the boiling point (212° F or 100° C) all pathogens will be killed, even at high altitude. The moment your drinking water reaches a rolling boil, the water has already become safe to drink.”
While we generally filter our water we use tap water for cooking. Until recently we were only using tap water if it would be on the stove for 20 minutes or more – as we obediently followed the imaginary 20-minute boiling rule. Now we don’t use any filtered water with cooking.
Why Boil Water?
The US Center for Disease Control notes: “Except for boiling, few of the water treatment methods are 100% effective in removing all pathogens.”
Safe water is one of the biggest concerns for travelers and expats. There are two types of threats in drinking water:
- Organic contamination: protozoa, bacteria, viruses. Boiling water can eliminate these contaminates. Well, they aren’t actually eliminated – they just die. You will end up consuming and digesting them but they won’t cause you harm, if the water is boiled correctly.
- Toxic contamination: chemical contamination such as pesticide / herbicides, pollution and chemical spills. No amount of boiling will remove these contaminants. You’ll have to filter or choose another water source.
It’s not that all water abroad is bad (although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that 90% of the world’s water is contaminated). It’s just that it is different from home.
Locals seldom have trouble with their water supply. Visitors can get sick from water that locals drink regularly.
What do we do?
At home (in Ecuador’s Andes mountains) we use a water filter. It is a six stage, 4 gallon filter that provides enough water for our family of three. The primary filter stage is the micro-ceramic dome. This traps and filters dirt, debris, contaminants (such as pesticides and herbicides) and bacteria. Read our full water filter review.
When we are on the road, we buy bottled water, juice or soda. If we are at a restaurant, we generally order bottled water or hot drinks. Based on the rule of a one-minute-boil most tea and coffee should be safe.
Some short term travelers and new expats like to live-like-a-local. We did too – for a while. And during that time, we all got parasites and amoebas – multiple times. I had food poisoning and had to be hospitalized. Now we are more responsible. If you’ve ever traveled with stomach problems you know that it’s worth avoiding.
As we were planning our move to Ecuador we didn’t really know what to expect. We bought a UV water sterilizer pen and a 2 part chlorine mix. Although these are great tools for back-country backpackers and jungle explorers they are not necessary for travelers living in an established town or city – at least not anywhere we’ve been.
How To Have Safe Water
As I was writing this post, I discovered a couple of products that are now on my wish list. I want the first item for my backpack and the second item for a backup house system.
Lifestraw Personal Water Filter: Filters up to 1000 liters of water without chemicals. Works on the same principal as the ceramic filter – by not allowing pathogens to pass through the microscopic holes. Costs: $19.99 on Amazon.
Katadyn Pocket water microfilter: This is a more serious piece of equipment. It will filter 50,000 liters and the filter comes out so it can be cleaned. The pump will output 1 liter per minute and it weighs just 550 grams. Costs: $369 on Amazon.
On the Lighter Side: How to Boil Water
As I researched this post, I found some bizarre articles. Here are my favorites from page one of Google:
- In this video, you’ll find out how to make traditional homemade boiled water. Discover how easy it is to bring …
- Is all boiled water the same? No! Learn about boiling water for pasta, boiled eggs
, and more.
- One of our favorite recipes at Epicurious is, essentially, a recipe for boiled water. It has nearly 800 comments – some amused, some indignant, …
- If you’re boiling water to cook with (and not just for fun) you’ll be adding something to it, so be sure to leave …
- Boiling means bringing water to 212 degrees Fahrenheit for cooking. But you don
‘t need a thermometer to boil water. The process to boil water (or any other kind …
- How to Boil Water. You just heat the water until it starts bubbling.
Now it’s your turn
How do you handle drinking water while abroad? Do you buy bottled, boil or just drink from the tap?