Water – the fuel for every adventure, and a deal breaker if you don’t have enough. And as with any bit of gear you are about to pack, the weight versus value argument will ensue after you’ve slimmed down everything else in order to keep hydrated. So if you’re off out into the wild and simply can’t manage to carry the suggested 3-4 litres of water that you’ll need per day, then having another means to quenching your thirst is essential.
The use of water filters and portable water purification techniques has revolutionised the hydration issues of backpackers and adventurers over the years, with lots of variations and methods available. And with the availability of fresh and safe water becoming more and more scarce, backpacking water filters have never been so valued.
Some of the best lightweight backpacking water filters and purification solutions are outlined later in the article and include:
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|Aqua Vessel Insulated Filtration||Bottle filter||406g||$$|
|MSR SweetWater Microfilter||Hand pump filter||387g||$$$|
|MSR TrailShot Pocket-Sized Water Filter||Combination hand pump/straw filter||142g||$|
|Platypus GravityWorks||Gravity filter||340g||$$$|
|The Lifestraw Universal||Water bottle adapter system||93g||$|
|The Sawyer Mini||Combination straw/bottle filter||50g||$|
|Renovo Trio||Straw filter||99g||$$|
|Aquamira Frontier Max||Multifunctional filter||28g||$$|
|Aquamira Water Treatment Drops||Chemical water treatment||85g||$|
|SteriPEN Adventurer Opti||UV light purification pen||130g||$$$|
|CamelBak All Clear||UV light purification bottle||355g||$$$|
Before you go replacing 2 litres of liquid with a complex hiking water purification system or some lightweight backpacking water filters, you’ll need to make sure that there’s going to be something to filter when the need arises. Unless you’re planning on spending weeks in the desert, the chances of stumbling upon a means to replenish your water supply are fairly good. But you can’t assume that this will be the case, so plan your route via some known bodies of water to make sure you’re always in the red.
Choosing your water source
Collecting water from flowing streams and rivers is always preferable to the scummy, stagnant water in ponds or lakes, but there are other things to consider too:
- Choose water from as close to the source as possible – spring water coming out of the ground will be your best bet.
- Avoid water that is down river of towns or industry. Waste and pollutants, chemical or otherwise, find their way into the water systems one way or another. So the further away you are, the better.
- Likewise, water near to agricultural land can be a problem. Fertilisers and pesticides soak into the land, and through rainfall and runoff, will get into the streams and rivers.
- Avoid water in marshes and swamps or where algae is growing.
That said, there are times when choosing cloudy looking water from a stagnant pond or muddy puddle will be a better bet than choosing no water at all. If you’ve planned properly then this need not be a decision you will need to make. But as we all know, not all plans are fool-proof and when things go awry, it’s good to have a backup plan up your sleeves.
To make water completely safe to drink, five types of contaminates need to be eliminated:
- Chemical pollutants:from heavy metals to pesticides – often associated with mining, agriculture and forestry.
- Turbidity: visible dirt – sand, silt or mud.
- Viruses:nanoparticles that cause disease in the cells that they infect
- Bacteria: single-cell organisms found everywhere. Some of them cause infectious diseases.
- Parasites: waterborne parasites are single-cell organisms (such as protozoa) or multi-cell organisms (such as worms) that live in or on other living organisms.
Ways to purify water
No one single method of water purification will make the water completely clean and it depends on the water that you are dealing with as to which method(s) you choose. Thankfully, water purification technology for backpackers and campers, has moved forwards a great deal in the last decade, so making do and purifying dirty water to drink isn’t so much of a big deal. Understanding the differences between backpacking water filters vs water purifiers will help with this. There are numerous methods for getting the nasties out of whatever water you decide to use, and the best way to purify water while hiking include:
Boiling water for at least one minute will kill or deactivate all viruses, pathogens, bacteria and protozoa.
Pros: All you need is a camping stove and pan and no other expensive filtering alternatives. A very good method for treating large volumes of water for groups or families.
Cons:Boiling doesn’t remove chemical pollutants that might be in the water. It also takes time and uses up fuel which will have to be carried and will burn at a faster rate in the cold or at altitude.
A water filter is a porous device designed to trap impurities or particles from the liquid that passes through it.
Pros: Easy and quick to use on large amounts of water.
Cons: Viruses are too small to be trapped in the mesh of most filters.
- The Aqua Vessel Insulated Filtration bottle is a great solution for no fuss, on the go, clean water. Fill the bottle and the filter attached to the bottom of the straw will clean the water as you sip. Best suited to day hikers who can re-fill at each water source en route. It also comes with an extra non-filtering straw to allow for fresh water drinking.
A little on the heavy side and it doesn’t remove viruses. It’s also not really suitable for use in cooking or when large amounts of water are needed as the flow through the spout is very slow.
For a high cost filter bottle that removes viruses, check out the Icon Lifesaver.
- Filtration straws are one of the most lightweight water filtering options out there and one of the cheapest too. Originally designed as an emergency water treatment method, the straws are also well suited to time in the backcountry and an excellent rehydration solution for long distance trail runners. The LifeStraw has a hollow-membrane filter that cleanses the water as you sip it straight from the source.
Once again, it doesn’t remove viruses and it can only be used directly from the water source or from a bottle that then holds contaminated water, making it unusable for cooking. LifeStraw have developed the LifeStraw Go Bottle which solves this problem somewhat, but you still can’t transport clean water away from it’s source.
Hand pump backpacking water filters
- Hand pump filters are one of the most common forms of water filtration for backpackers and have the ability to filter larger amounts of water than straws and bottles. The MSR SweetWater Microfilter is an easy to use and reliable hand pump water filter. It has a collapsible handle for compact packing, boasts a smaller filter pore size than other similar products, and is a strong contender for the best water filter pump.
A little heavy compared with other filtration devices and it takes a bit of elbow grease to work the pump. It also doesn’t filter viruses.
For one of the only filters that protects against viruses, take a look at the First Need XL.
Pocket hand pump straw filters
- New in 2018, the highly innovative MSR TrailShot Pocket-Sized Water Filter is one of the most versatile options available. Combining on-the-go straw filtration with a hand pump enables users to drink straight from the source as well as filter water into bottles. At only 1402g it is super lightweight, especially considering its versatility, making it an ideal option for backpackers, trail runners and bikers.
Takes a bit of work to get the water flowing!
Gravity water filters
- This type of filter lends itself well to groups of backpackers where water is needed in high quantities and for cooking – one of the best water filters for camping. The Platypus GravityWorks is one of the quickest and most hassle-free ways to filter water and then store it. It is also a lightweight option for the amount of water that it can process.
It is one of the most expensive filtration devices, doesn’t protect against viruses and collecting water from small or non-flowing sources can be challenging.
Other types of water filtration systems
- This powerful little 2-stage filter is a game-changer for travellers and backpackers wanting to top up their water suppiles en route. The adapter kit fits with most water bottles, from wide-mouthed Nalgenes to slim Hydroflasks. Removing almost all parasites, bacteria and microplastics, the Lifestraw Universal may just be the most versatile water filter system for everyday use.
Doesn’t deal with viruses.
- One of the lightest filtration systems available and probably the best mini water filter. Good value and easy to use with a collapsible bladder that can simply scoop up water and then be sipped through a straw style filter. The Mini is inexpensive and will last for up to 100,000 gallons of water filtering.
Not great for treating large volumes of water and it doesn’t take care of those pesky viruses.
- Another ultralight backpacking water filter, and relatively new on the water filtration scene, the Trio has a filter pore size of 0.05 compared with 0.1 provided by the Mini and boasts one of the most advanced water filters available. It has a pre-filter to strain larger particles and the carbon filter section helps to treat some viruses as well as the other usual organisms lurking in the water. The versatility of this lightweight filter makes it an appealing option for backpackers – it can be used as a gravity filter, a straw, screwed on the top of a bottle or inline with a bladder.
It has a shelf life limited to around 260 gallons and the carbon filter will degrade over time and exposure to air. Not great for filter water for large groups. Doesn’t treat all viruses.
- This new addition to the Aquamira line is the most versatile of all the water filtration systems out there. The interchangeable components and the Universal Quick Connect (UQC) fittings mean that it can be easily connected to a hydration reservoir in your backpack, used a straw like the Trio, connected to water bottle valves and used as an inline gravity filter. The Frontier Max also boasts to be the only truly certified water filter in the outdoor industry dealing with viruses, bacteria, cryptosporidium and giardia.
The components can be easy to lose as they don’t all connect together at the same time.
Chemical water treatment
Chemical water treatment methods, most commonly contain iodine or chlorine dioxide with the latter becoming more popular in recent years as it is not harmful to ingest regularly.
Pros: Not only is this method the most lightweight option available, but it also kills off any viruses lurking in the water.
Cons: They take up to 4 hours to treat water and you are left with water that may be safe, but doesn’t taste great. If the water is really murky, it will need straining first to decrease the turbidity.
Water treatment drops
- Aquamira Water Treatment Drops are an excellent option for lightweight backpackers or those travelling in areas of questionable water sources. They work faster than other chemical treatment methods and the liquid drops treat more water compared with their pill equivalent of the same price.
Slow treatment time compared with other water purification methods and adding more chemicals to your body may not be preferable for some people.
UV light purifiers
This water purification device uses UV rays to blast microbes and organisms in the water. This neutralises them leaving them not dead, but with jumbled DNA that prevents reproduction and renders them harmless to humans.
Pros: The clever UV rays zap all the baddies in your water, including viruses.
Cons: UV light purifier systems are expensive and require batteries that need replacing or charging.
UV light purification pen
- UV pens are much more lightweight than filters and a reliable way to purify your water. The SteriPEN Adventurer Optiworks by dipping the pen into a bottle of water and stirring for around 90 seconds whilst the rays work their magic! It’s hand size makes in one of the best UV water purifier for backpacking.
It can only be used with wide-mouthed bottles and the batteries wear down quickly. Risky if you are in the middle of nowhere. You will also need to strain water before you treat it.
UV light purification Bottle
- These work in a similar way to UV pens but the water is treated in the bottle as you drink it. CamelBak have developed a bottle that uses this technology, but their All Clear bottle has the benefit of a solar charger or mini USB adapter to recharge the batteries.
The whole system (with the battery chargers) is a little on the heavy side and it takes around 5 hours to recharge the power. The lamp and battery need replacing once they reach their shelf life and as with the SteriPEN, the water will need to be strained prior to treatment.
Ultimately, the best way to purify water while hiking and backpacking comes down to personal preference and where you find yourself needing to purify water. Do your research in the area you’ll be exploring most frequently to see what lurks in the waters. This will help you understand what sort of treatment the water will need.
And for those who might find themselves up a very dry and dehydrated creek with no means to filter your water, there are a few more options to avoid death by dehydration:
In the ideal world, you won’t need to use any of the above methods, but it’s good to know them – just in case.