When backpacking, you *can* bring all of your water with you, but that can be very heavy. It’s far easier to get water on the trail. While some may think filtering or purifying water isn’t necessary, that’s a gamble I would only make in a life-or-death instance. But with so many options, which treatment is best?
I’m not even going to consider boiling water in this post, as it takes forever and uses so much fuel that it’s really not a viable option. It’s best to treat your water to make it potable. Water treatment can be divided into two categories, filters and purifiers. Filters physically strain out bacteria and protozoans, like giardia (aka beaver fever), e.Coli, and salmonella; but are not small enough to filter out viruses like hepatitis A or norovirus. Viruses must be treated by purification. The best way to treat water depends on where you’ll be drinking the water. Viruses are more common in less-developed countries, so if traveling solely in North America, filters should offer adequate protection.
Even in North America, not every hike will promise potable water. One notable such hike in Washington is Ancient Lakes, a hike with campsites in Eastern Washington. While there is a lake there, it is highly unadvised to drink the lake water due to the potential of agricultural runoff that may have gotten into the lake and cannot be removed by filter. Make sure to research water potability before hitting the trail when backpacking–and no, you cannot use saltwater. Personally, I prefer a creek or waterfall over a lake people covered in DEET and sweat have swam in, but on some hikes, beggars can’t be choosers.
Once you know you’ll have a freshwater source of some sort, you’re ready to get filtering. Filters fall into a few different categories: pumps, straws, gravity filters, squeeze, and bottles. Each one has their pros and cons.
We have a pump filter. It was selected by the boyfriendo, his reasoning being that as pumps have been around the longest, they’ve likely undergone the most improvements compared to newer systems. Basically, a bobber in the water is connected to a hose that you manually pump water through to filter, which deposits the clean water into whatever reservoir you provide. Pumps can vary in price, but expect to pay around $100.
Pros: Screws right on to a Nalgene, can easily measure exactly how much water you’re grabbing. Works even in very shallow creeks of water.
Cons: Manually pumping, especially if filling a lot of water at once, can get very tiring. According to REI, our filter is 85 pumps per liter, which means to fully fill my 3L water bladder and the boyfriend’s bottles, that’s over 400 pumps. Not ideal for my carpal tunnel!
Gravity filters, as the name implies, have gravity push the water through the filter instead of manual labor like pumping or squeezing. They can hold a very large volume of water, which can be nice if a big group is backpacking or if you’re staying in one site for awhile. Depending on the volume collected, these range in price from $50-$150. I also own one of these (purchased after getting tired of pumping) and it’s nice to have options depending on the water source.
Pros: Once the water is in the bag and hung up, your work is done. Nice to have a large volume of water at hand. My filter, the Katadyn BeFree, filters out 2L a minute!
Cons: Need to have a place to hang the bag, and will be difficult to fill if the water source is shallow or slow-moving.
Bottle and Squeeze Filters
Bottle filters are also as their name describes, a filter inside of a water bottle. You dunk the bottle (or hold under the water source) to fill it, and as you suck out water through a bite valve or a straw the purification occurs. They cost typically around $40-$50. Squeeze filters are similar, only instead of ‘sucking’ the water through the filter, you squeeze it by kneading with your hands. Squeeze filters range in price from $25-$50.
Pros: Convenience of an all-in one, filter as-you-go system, often more lightweight and smaller compared to above systems (I know of some campers and hikers who give Sawyer Squeezes as stocking stuffers!).
Cons: Bottle filters typically hold 20-30 ounces, and depending on the model the Sawyer Squeeze pouches hold 16-64 ounces, so you will likely be filling them frequently or need to have multiple bottles or reservoirs on hand to stay hydrated.
The most popular straw filter is LifeStraw. You dunk one end of the straw in the freshwater source, and the other in your mouth. Simple enough, no? The filter part of a mini Sawyer can also be used as a straw. At around $20, straws are the cheapest option.
Pros: Cheapest option, and likely the most lightweight and small option as well.
Cons: You cannot reserve this water for later, you have to drink it while it is in front of you. Also, best advised to not share your straw with others.
As mentioned above, we own both an MSR pump filter and a Katadyn BeFree gravity filter. It might be overkill to own two, but I hated having to pump away forever with the MSR. However, if the water source is a trickle, like we experienced at Cape Alava, filling a bladder with the Katadyn would have been a tedious process as well. Between drinking water and water for cooking dehydrated food, we go through a lot in the summer even on one night trips. The amount of water you’ll need is definitely something to consider when shopping for a water filter.