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How to Make a Water Filter Without Activated Charcoal

Most of the time, instructions on how to make your own DIY filter specify the inclusion of activated charcoal to filter out harmful pathogens and chemicals. Of course, these methods for making a water filter are only useful when you actually have activated charcoal. Fortunately, there are a couple of ways to make a water filter without it.

To make a water filter without activated charcoal, you need a replacement material that has pores large enough to allow water to pass through, but small enough to catch sediment, pathogens, or other impurities. Sand or ceramic are the best materials to use as replacements for activated charcoal.

In case you want to go ahead and buy some activated charcoal, here is the link to my recommended type found on Amazon.

Along with specific materials that can be used to make water filters in place of activated charcoal, there are a couple of easy DIY water filters that you can construct in the comfort of your own home. Keep reading to get step-by-step instructions on three different filters you can make without using activated charcoal.

Method #1: Using Sand in Place of Activated Charcoal

Pouring From a Water Bottle Filter With Natural Materials

Of the many ways to make your own water filter, one of the simplest methods is the bottle method. This type of water filter is easy to construct, even when you’re in a survival situation in the wilderness. They are also easy to transport and use, which makes them perfect for long-term personal use.

Materials Needed:

In order to construct a sand bottle filter, you will need:

  • A clear plastic bottle
  • Gravel
  • One coffee filter or strip of cloth
  • A rubber band or cordage
  • Sand

You can use any type of plastic bottle, such as a water bottle or a coke bottle, and you can also use liter or 2-liter bottles if you want to filter more water. You will also need both fine and coarse sand to construct this type of filter.


  • Step 1: Begin by cutting the bottom off of the bottle to make a large opening in it.
  • Step 2: Remove the cap from the bottle and attach the coffee filter to the outside of the neck using the rubber band. Make sure the coffee filter completely covers the nozzle.
  • Step 3: Orient the bottle so that the nozzle is facing down, and pour the gravel into the opening so that it fills up the bottle past the neck. The coffee filter or cloth should keep any of the gravel from falling out.
  • Step 4: Pour about 2 inches of coarse sand into the bottle on top of the gravel.
  • Step 5: Pour about 2 inches of fine sand into the bottle on top of the coarse sand. This should create stacked levels of fine sand, coarse sand, and then gravel leading down to the nozzle.
  • Step 6: Place some type of container under the water filter and then pour dirty water through the large opening at the top. Once the water filters down into the container through the sand and gravel, it will be clean and free of impurities!
Photo courtesy of Ryo Chijiiwa

Method #2: Using Ceramic in Place of Activated Charcoal

Another item you can use to make a water filter is a five-gallon bucket. This option is best if you are creating the filter for the homestead in order to filter a large quantity of water.

Five-gallon bucket filters are good for filtering large amounts of water that can be used for a variety of purposes. This type of filter does require the purchase of a few items, but they are inexpensive, and all the parts you need to make this filter can be acquired for under $100.

Materials Needed:

To make a five-gallon bucket filter, you will need:

  • Step 1: Begin by stacking the two buckets and then drilling a 1-inch hole into the bottom of the top bucket and through the lid of the other bucket. My favorite buckets to use are these made by Hudson (Click to see Amazon listing).
  • Step 3: Take the ceramic filter (I recommend this kit) and install it into the top bucket so that the nozzle protrudes into the hole of the bottom bucket. The small pore in the ceramic filter will allow the water to flow through while trapping the sediment, bacteria, and impure minerals.
  • Step 4: Next, drill a 1-inch hole into the side of the bottom bucket near its base and install the spigot into this hole. Alternatively, just buy a bottom bucket that already has a spigot, like this one found on Amazon.
  • Step 5: Fill the top bucket with dirty water, and in about an hour, the bottom bucket will be filled with clean, filtered water. From there, you can use the spigot to get the water.

Method #3: Using Wood to Make a Water Filter

Although sand and ceramic are some of the best materials to use in place of activated charcoal, you can also make a water filter using a piece of wood and a clear tube.

Certain types of trees, particularly sapwood, have xylem tissue that transport sap throughout the tree. This xylem tissue can also be used to transport water, but will not allow sediment or mineral impurities to pass through it. As such, this type of wood makes an excellent water filter. Experiments have proven that, in particular, this type of filter can remove 99% of the E. coli bacteria that naturally occur in water.

In order to construct this type of water filter, you will need:

Materials Needed:

  • 1 branch of sapwood
  • 1 clear tube 6 inches in length
  • 1 metal clamp


  • Step 1: To begin, cut a piece of sapwood roughly 3-4 inches in length and strip the bark off of it. You want to make sure that the piece is small enough in diameter to fit inside of the tube.
  • Step 2: Slide the piece of sapwood into one end of the tube and fasten it in with the metal clamp. Make sure that there is no room for water to go around the wood.
  • Step 3: Orient the tube so that the end with the wood in it is at the bottom and fill the rest of the tube above the piece of wood with water.
  • Step 4: Place a container under the tube to catch the water as it filters through the wood.

This method is a bit slow but can be used to filter up to four liters of water a day per filter.

Final Thoughts

Whether you’re in the wilderness or in the comfort of your own home, it’s important to know that you have clean water to drink that won’t make you sick. To that end, it’s always good to have a water filter on hand. If you don’t want to pay hundreds of dollars, then one of your best options is to make your own.

Although it is possible to make a water filter without activated charcoal, it is the recommended element for most types of DIY water filters. This is because activated charcoal can remove chlorine, sediment, impure organic compounds, and odors from water by binding these heavier molecules to the carbon molecules in the water.

As such, if you have activated charcoal available, then it’s always best to use that when making your own water filter, especially if you’re in a survival situation where you don’t know what type of contaminants are in the water you want to drink. However, if you don’t have activated charcoal handy, you now have three different ways to make a water filter without it!

Useful Recommended Products

Related Questions

Can I use regular charcoal instead of activated charcoal? Activated charcoal has added oxygen which makes it more porous. However, making a filter out of charcoal instead of activated charcoal is a viable option just realize that it will not remove impurities as effectively. Therefore, you may want to run water through a regular charcoal filter multiple times.

Is lump charcoal activated? Lump charcoal is not put through the activation process. There is a chemical process that must be done in order to create activated charcoal. This process does not help coal burn better, so it’s not done in lump charcoal.

Thanks for reading!

For more, check out 8 Practical Ways to Purify Water Without Boiling It.