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How to Purify Water on the Oregon Trail

Westward Ho!

“Go West, young man!” The cry was a popular slogan during the expansion of the American West. Thousands of people migrated from the eastern United States in search of a new start in the unknown wilderness, but first they had to cross the vast plains, following the Oregon Trail from the Missouri River all the way to the western coast. This journey was anything but easy, with threats along the way—wagon accidents, river crossings, treacherous trails, diseases, Indian attacks, wild animals, etc.

When the first European settlers came to America, the American West was as foreign to them as outer space is foreign to us. They knew it existed, but that was all they knew. Beginning with the expedition of Lewis and Clark, the early 1800s saw several brave adventurers who began to set foot into the wilderness that had never been seen by white men. Explorers, mountain men, and traders found their way across the western United States, until finally the infamous Oregon Trail was blazed and the pathway was made open for settlers.

We all remember the popular computer game where one must gather his supplies, wagon, and family and take off on the great adventure, facing death, mishap, foot shortages, and other perils. The game is not far from portraying the truth. In fact, the most common source of death along the trail was cholera, a disease caused by eating or drinking contaminated food or water.

Common Diseases Caused by Contaminated Water Along the Oregon Trail

Today we do not think about the water we drink or the food we eat because of sanitation and treatment requirements. Unfortunately, this is not the case in many countries around the world, where contaminated water is a problem. Drinking contaminated water is a major cause of death in developing countries today, and it was also a major cause of death along the Oregon Trail. In fact, if you have ever played the game, you may remember dying or having a family member die of one of these diseases:


Cholera is a disease caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. It is spread by drinking water or eating food that has been contaminated by the feces of an infected person. It was a common disease along the Oregon Trail, as water was untreated, and it spread quickly. An unsuspecting pioneer could sometimes be dead within hours if contaminated with the disease. The illness is characterized by common symptoms of severe watery diarrhea, sometimes accompanied with vomiting, which quickly leads to dehydration. If not treated promptly, the person may go into shock and die. Unfortunately, pioneers did not have a cure, and the disease could quickly spread throughout an entire wagon train, some losing over half of their people.

Typhoid Fever

Typhoid fever is caused by the bacterium Salmonella typhi, which is transferred by contaminated water or food. Like cholera, typhoid was easily spread, especially since the bacteria could spread to the surrounding water supply by infected feces, which contains a large concentration of the bacteria. The illness causes common symptoms of high fever, aches and pains, diarrhea, and lethargy. The condition usually lasts at least three to four weeks, and before modern treatment was available, the mortality rate was about 20%. Above is a photo of the grave of Martha Leland Crowley, a young woman who died of typhoid fever while on her way to Oregon.


Much similar to cholera, dysentery is a diarrheal illness that is spread by drinking water or eating food that has been contaminated by infected feces. It encompasses a wider range of bacterial illnesses and can be caused by different bacteria. However, the symptoms are usually characterized by watery stools (often with blood or mucus), fever, pain, and dehydration.

Packing for the Trail

With all these diseases facing the Oregon Trail pioneers, it is a wonder that any of them actually began the journey and even more of a wonder that they made it to the end. They wanted a new life, however, so they were willing to face these threats in order to make a new beginning. But they would need several supplies to carry them on the way.

Meet Jacob

Meet Jacob. He, his wife Louisa, and their two children are on their way to Oregon to start a new life farming. Jacob’s family is ready for the journey. They have packed over 1,000 pounds of food, including flour, bacon, salt, sugar, and coffee. Loading all these supplies onto their sturdy farm wagon, they stick in a few farm supplies, throw a cover over the wagon, and they are ready.

Oh, yes…they heard reports of diseases spread through contaminated water, so they brought a little something extra…

Keeping Clean Water on the Trail

Wagon Water Supply

The trip to Oregon was a long, hard journey, stretching over 2,000 miles of rough terrain. A family would need a lot of water to survive on such a journey, but there was usually plenty of water along the way. Lack of water was not the problem faced on the Oregon Trail but, rather, the lack of clean water. Luckily for Jacob’s family, he has brought along the Katadyn Pocket Microfilter.

The Katadyn Pocket Microfilter is a water filtration system specially designed for the trail. It uses a silver impregnated ceramic media to remove bacteria and protozoa, and it comes with a pre filter as well. What makes this filter so great is that it is made of sturdy design to last in even the most extreme conditions, and it filters up to 13,000 gallons—plenty of drinking and cooking water for Jacob’s entire family for the four to six months’ journey to Oregon.

Water for Hunting/Hiking Expeditions

One of the most important aspects of the journey to Oregon was hunting. Hunting ensured a family fresh meat to eat…a pleasant relief after hard biscuits or bread that was mushy on the inside but burnt on the outside. Fresh meat also meant not only a piece of meat or a fresh stew but also protein and stamina for the months ahead.

The Katadyn Hiker Pro Microfilter System is the perfect water filtration system for anyone who enjoys hiking, hunting, or any other outdoor excursions where coming across an unknown water source is a strong possibility. This filtration system uses activated carbon to remove bacteria, protozoa, cysts, algae, spores, sediment, and bad tastes and odors.

Water for Walking

Again, the Oregon Trail stretched across 2,000 miles. Unlike today—when we travel in the comfort of our air-conditioned/heated vehicles with plush cushions and CD players—the pioneers along the trail walked the entire 2,000 miles. Usually the man of the family would guide the animals pulling the wagon (one wagon could use up to 18 oxen to pull the wagon!), and the women and children usually walked alongside. The trail was dusty, dirty, and when it rained, soggy, muddy, and downright miserable!

Imagine walking all day, from sunup to sundown, in the heat of the sun, changing climates, and unpredictable weather. Crossing the dry prairie, one would need plenty of water during the day to keep from becoming dehydrated. However, to protect against harmful bacteria, the Katadyn MyBottle Purifier Bottle is the perfect solution!

This product looks like an ordinary water bottle, but it is much more than just a water bottle. It contains a filter that removes bacteria, viruses, cysts, and protozoa. This filtration system is simple and easy to use and is perfect for any outdoor or indoor activity where you need fresh, pure water.

Emergency Water

One of the first trailblazers for the Oregon Trail, Jim Bridger, stumbled upon a body of saltwater and thought he had discovered the Pacific Ocean. Instead, he had discovered the Great Salt Lake in Utah. This was not the only amazing body of water found near the Oregon Trail. There were also soda springs—natural sparkling water—and poison water holes. We’ve all seen the cartoons where a weary wanderer struggles through the desert and finally finds a waterhole, only to discover that it is poison.

When it comes to severe emergencies, however, when water is crucial for survival, there is a solution: Katadyn desalinators. Katadyn desalinators use reverse osmosis, which removes nearly everything in water—bacteria, chemicals, cysts, minerals, radiation particles, salt, etc. They can be used in unsanitary water and are great for emergencies, especially when on saltwater. Why, Jacob and his family can even take a long drink from the Great Salt Lake with a Katadyn desalinator!

End of the Trail: Reaching Oregon

Thousands of miles across wild, unknown country, with treacherous threats the entire way—was the trail to Oregon worth it? The picture above should be answer enough. Hundreds of thousands of emigrants travelled the Oregon Trail in search of a new land, a promised land where they could begin new lives, build new homes, and fulfill their dreams. Even today, hundreds of years later, wagon ruts can still be seen along the Oregon Trail, the marks left by the lives of remarkable people of courage whose legacy still lives on today.

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