Whether you’re going on an afternoon hike or a cross-country backpacking excursion, you’re going to need clean, purified drinking water. While reusable water bottles and hydration packs have been exploding in popularity in recent years, your capacity is limited to what you’re willing and able to carry. Fortunately, there are seemingly endless options when it comes to portable water filtration and purification, but this can also make picking the right system challenging.
Filter vs. Purifier
There are several important factors you’ll need to decide on when choosing a portable water filter or purifier. The first distinction is water filtration vs. water purification. Water filters physically strain out suspended particles and organisms like protozoa (giardia) and bacteria (E. coli and salmonella). If you’re traveling within the U.S. or Canada, a water filter should be adequate. Water purifiers, on the other hand, typically use chemical reactions to kill off smaller microorganisms, like viruses, that can slip through water filters. If you’re planning on visiting less developed parts of the world, you should definitely bring along a water purifier to prevent yourself from getting sick.
The quality of the water source is important in determining what type of system to buy. Since water purifiers typically use chemicals added to the water to kill off bacteria and viruses, it won’t remove any suspended particles like dirt. Murky or standing water should always be pre-filtered before purifying in order to remove these particles.
Pump filters and purifiers differ in design, but generally, include a hose to insert into the water source and a hand-crank pump to move the filtered water into your bottle or reservoir. Pump models are generally easy to use, even in shallow water, and typically have replaceable parts to extend their lifespan. On the other hand, physically pumping your water can be time-consuming and arduous, and they do require a bit of field maintenance. With that being said, these have been the most popular and widespread types of water filtration devices for years.
There are many great pump filtration models, but the leader of the pack is definitely the Katadyn Hiker Pro. Easy to use, reliable, and fast-pumping, the Hiker Pro is the pump of choice for backpackers around the world. The filters can be a bit expensive to replace, but the ease of use and ability to fill any water bottle or hydration pack, all while remaining light and small, make this a great choice for any type of adventure.
Probably the best choice for longer backpacking treks or group camping outings, gravity filters allow you to clean large quantities of water quickly and with minimal effort. All you have to do is fill the reservoir with water, hang it from a tree or other elevated position, and let gravity do the work. However, filling these filters can be difficult unless you have a deep water source and they are generally the heaviest and bulkiest option.
The Platypus GravityWorks filtration system is a great choice if you’re looking for a quick and easy gravity filter. The design features two water bags (one for clean and dirty water) which can also serve as water storage. Since it can filter and store up to 8 liters at once, it’s a great choice if you’re on a long journey or traveling with a group.
Similar to gravity filters, squeeze filters use a small reservoir to hold unfiltered water and then attach to the filtering element. All you have to do then is squeeze the water through the filter, either directly into your mouth or into a water bottle or reservoir. While this is a good lightweight option, the quantity of water you can filter is limited to the size of the reservoir.
Probably the best value of any filter or purifier on this list, the Sawyer MINI Water Filtration System is an excellent choice if you’re looking for something small to take with you in case of emergencies. To use, simply attach the included 16-ounce water bag or a compatible water bottle and squeeze. You can either drink the filtered water directly or squeeze it into a clean water bottle or hydration pack. The versatility of this system makes it great for just about everyone, especially for only $20.
These ultra-light filtration devices allow you to drink water directly from the source. In order to use a straw filter, you need to physically lower yourself to the level of the water and slurp. This means that storing filtered water in a bottle or hydration pack usually isn’t an option, so you’ll have to be somewhere that has frequent sources of water.
LifeStraw first came onto the market with filtration straws a few years ago, but their new model, the LifeStraw Flex, is definitely their best so far. Super lightweight, the Flex is a slightly-more-versatile model of the traditional filter straw. The engineers at LifeStraw have designed a mechanism allowing you to screw the straw directly onto a water bottle or hydration pack so you can bring extra water with you and no longer have to stoop down to water level every time you want to take a sip.
Bottle Filters and Purifiers
Growing in popularity recently, thanks to the ever-increasing unpopularity of disposable plastic water bottles, are filter bottles. To use, you simply have to fill your water bottle with water and then sip through the straw. These are similar to straw filters in that you can directly and immediately drink the water, but the bottle comes with the added convenience of being able to take water with you when you leave the source. These models typically require field cleaning, though, and the amount of water you can take is limited to the size of the bottle. While probably not the best option for a week-long backpacking trip, bottle filters and purifiers are perfect for day hikes and everyday use.
A great option if you’re looking for a filtering water bottle is the Katadyn Befree. All you have to do for clean water is fill the one-liter bottle, screw on the lid, and start sipping. The straw has a filter built in so you don’t have to do any work. The one-liter size makes this a good option for trail running, but puts limits on those trying to do some serious backpacking.
Ultraviolet lights can be used to filter microorganisms out of drinking water. These battery-operated devices work like a purifying stirring stick, generally taking a few minutes of UV exposure to rid your drinking water of viruses and bacteria. Since UV models only purify the water instead of filtering it, you’ll need to find a relatively clean water source, unless you don’t mind drinking murky water. Additionally, since they are electronic devices, you’ll also need to consider the added weight and bulk and hassle of batteries or charging mechanisms.
The SteriPen Ultra Rechargeable UV Water Purifier has been leading the pack of UV purification devices for years. The UV light will fully destroy all microorganisms living in your water with a simple 90-second stir. What it won’t do, however, is remove any suspended particles so if your water is dirty, you’ll have to filter it beforehand. This is a great high-tech option for those who have to have the coolest gadgets, but if your batteries run out in the backcountry, you better have a backup means of filtration unless you’re ready to go thirsty.
Similar to UV lights, certain chemicals are known to kill dangerous microorganisms when added to drinking water. Iodine- and chlorine-based purification methods are available in drops, tablets, or electronic systems. These are generally super lightweight and offer a great back-up just in case your primary means of filtration breaks. On the downside, these products usually leave a chemical-like taste in the water that can only partially be removed by taste-neutralizing tablets. Also, like UV purifiers, you’ll need to filter the water beforehand if you’re drawing from a murky water source.
Aquamira Chlorine Water Treatment drops are a great low-cost option for water purification chemicals. If you’re going to be traveling somewhere that viruses are an issue, these drops will ensure your water is bacteria-, protozoa-, and virus free. You’ll definitely want to pre-filter any dirty-looking water beforehand, though.
The oldest and lowest-tech method of water purification is still boiling over an open flame. More than likely, you’ll already have the proper equipment to boil water with you on your backpacking trip, so the only resources you’ll need more of are fuel and time. This is a great method to use when you need drinking water for multiple people. Cooling large quantities of boiling water down can take hours, though, especially if you’re somewhere it’s already hot.
There are a lot of factors that go into deciding which water filter or purifier is right for you. Additional variables include the flow rate, weight, bulk, the life of the filter, and the quality of the water wherever you will be traveling. Before making a selection, make sure to research water conditions before heading out to make sure reliable sources haven’t run dry. Whatever method you choose, it’s always a good idea to have a lightweight backup option, like water purifying chemicals, just in case your primary filter malfunctions. Drinking fresh water from a stream is one of life’s simple pleasures, just make sure you’re prepared so it doesn’t end up being your last.