Water Purification Options for Backpacking

Whether you are a hiker, backpacker, hunter, or angler, anytime you head into the backwoods for an extended period of time it is a good idea bring a water filter or purifier with you. It’s important to stay hydrated during all your outdoor adventures and it’s often impractical to carry enough water with you.

There are many types of water filters and water purifiers on the market. Each one has its benefits and pitfalls. Use this guide to find the right water purifying system that fits your adventures.

Why Use a Water Treatment System?

Even the clearest, cleanest looking lake or stream isn’t quite as clean as it appears. Floating in that crystal clear water are contaminants invisible to the naked eye.

In North America, bacteria and protozoans like Giardia, E. coli, salmonella, Cryptosporidium, Shigella, and Campylobacter are the primary contaminants in unfiltered water.

If you are traveling abroad, there are other water-born bacteria and viruses to be concerned about in addition to the bacteria listed above. Hepatitis A, rotavirus, and norovirus are just a few prevalent viruses.

There are also relatively harmless bacteria that your gut is not accustomed to. These microorganisms may cause mild to moderate digestive issues as your body overreacts to what it thinks are harmful or invasive.

When you are in the backcountry, even a mild case of diarrhea can become a serious situation very quickly. What might be a mild inconvenience at home should be taken very seriously in the backcountry. Dehydration and weakness may become an issue in a matter of hours.

Water Purifier vs. Water Filter

The simple difference between a water purifier and a water purifier is the size of microorganism it filters out.

A water filter strains out bacteria and protozoans like giardia, E. coli, and other common microorganisms.

A water purifier filters out all the usual microorganisms but goes one step further to kill viruses that are too small for water filters to catch.

How water filters work:

All water filters and most purifiers have an internal cartridge that has microscopic pores. The pores trap bacteria and debris as the water passes through. Over time the tiny pores get clogged.

All filter cartridges have a “maximum capacity,” meaning they are fully effective for a certain number of liters. Small, lightweight water filters designed for backpacking typically need to be replaced after 750 to 1,000 liters.

How water purifiers work:

Most water purifiers have an additional layer of chemicals like iodine to kill the viruses and bacteria that are too small for the cartridge to catch. Some purifiers use ultraviolet light instead of chemicals.

Many filters and purifiers use activated carbon in some part of their system to take out any unpleasant tastes. The activated carbon also helps remove pesticides, industrial chemicals, and other contaminants.

Types of Water Purifiers

There are several types of water purifiers on the market that can be used alone or in conjunction with a water filter.

Chemical treatments:

Iodine or chlorine tablets are the old-school water purification method. These tablets effectively kill bacteria and viruses in about 30 minutes. The downside to using iodine or chlorine tablets is the unpleasant taste it adds to your water. They also tend to make your water bottles smell like chlorine or iodine for a long time.

Some people get around the funny iodine taste by adding vitamin C or ascorbic acid after 30 minutes to neutralize some of the taste. Potable Aqua makes a water purification tablet and “PA Plus,” which removes the iodine taste.

The downside of chemical treatment systems is that you must wait about 30 minutes for the chemicals to work effectively. One tactic to get around the “waiting game” is to bring two or three water bottles and have one or two in the purification process as you drink from the third. That way you are never stuck waiting around for all your water to finish going through the purification process.

Also, iodine is not effective against Cryptosporidium, though chlorine does kill it after about 40 minutes. Before you use chlorine or iodine tablets, be sure you are not allergic to either chemical.

UV water purifiers:

Ultraviolet water purifiers look a lot like writing pens and are quick and easy to use. Just turn the pen on, put it in your water and stir gently until the light turns off. Most UV purifiers take between 60 and 90 seconds to purify one bottle of water.

UV purifier lamps last for several thousand treatments but they do require batteries. If you choose to use a UV purifier, make sure to pack backup batteries.

UV water filters do not help clean dirt particles out of the water and if the water is cloudy the UV light may be significantly less effective. In order to make sure all the pathogens are killed you should pre-filter the water of particles and debris.

UV pens are also not very effective for large quantities of water. The UV water purifier is perfect for one or two people looking for an ultra-light water purification option.

Types of Water Filters

There are several popular styles of water filters. Pump filters, gravity, filters, and straw and squeeze filters are three of the most common styles.

Pump filters:

Pump filters are perhaps the most common type of water filter system. They are very versatile and can be used solo or for large groups. The perk of pump filters is that they are very intuitive and easy to use. Simply put the intake hose into the water source and start pumping.

Pump and gravity filters are probably the easiest filters to avoid cross contamination (introducing unfiltered water into your filtered drinking water). The downside of pump filters is that it can be a little tiring to pump-filter a lot of water. They are also slightly heavier than other options on the market.

Gravity filters:

Gravity water filters are easy and require significantly less effort than pump filters. Simply fill the bag with water, hang it up at least at shoulder height, and let gravity work for you! The filter cartridge is at the bottom of the bag. As water flows through the filter it fills your water bottles.

Gravity water filters are often slower than most pump filters but they work just as well. Gravity filters are also a little lighter than pump filters. However, they do not work well in freezing temperatures and you will need to be sure to have a way to hang the filter bag high enough.

Straw filters:

If you just need something to keep with you for emergencies or for a quick drink while out hunting, hiking, or fishing, a straw filter might be ideal for you. A straw filter works just like a regular straw. Simply stick it into the water source and suck water through.

The downside is that you need to get close enough to the water to use the straw. This may require you to lie down on your stomach next to the water source. You also won’t be able to fill a bottle with filtered water.

A straw filter is really only useful when water is very easily accessible at all times. They are also handy additions to an emergency preparation kit or as a backup filter option.

Squeeze Filters:

“Squeeze” style filters are just like regular water bottles except there is a filter built into the cap. Simply fill the bottle with water, screw the cap on, and start drinking.

There is a risk of contaminating the cap with unfiltered water if you aren’t careful while filling the water bottle but they are effective little filters and far more versatile than straw filters. Bottle filters also allow you to carry water away from the source, unlike straw filters that can only be used at the water source.

Squeeze filters are best for solo adventures since it would be difficult to filter enough water for multiple people (unless you are willing to share one water bottle among the group). They are also best for areas where water is readily accessible.

Bottle filters:

These are a relatively new type of filtration system. Bottle filters work a lot like a French press with the filter built in. You push the water through the system and the bottle serves as your filter and water bottle.

These handy little gadgets are versatile, lightweight, and very portable. However, it does take a little effort to push the water through the filter cartridge. I place mine on the ground and gently press down with my body weight.

These filters are best for solo use, as it would take a very long time to filter water for multiple people. They are probably also more ideal in areas where water is very accessible and you can filter whenever you need to refill your bottle.

Choosing A Water Purifier Or Filter

Here are some questions to ask that will help guide you to the best water purifier or filter for your adventures.

How many people will likely be in your group?

If you plan to primarily adventure solo, a small, lightweight and low capacity filter or purifier will work well. If you plan to filter water for two or more people, consider purchasing a slightly larger system with greater capacity.

Where will you be going?

If your travels are primarily around North America, a water filter will likely be more than enough protection. If you plan to travel outside North America, consider purchasing a water purifier that kills viruses and smaller microorganisms or adding a UV purifier system to your water filter.

Read information about common water-borne bacteria and viruses in the regions you plan to travel around. Make sure your filter will handle those microorganisms.

How available will water be?

If you are planning to take a long canoe trip, water availability will probably not be an issue and you can choose whatever filtration system you prefer. If you plan to hike the Grand Canyon or a desert area then a straw or squeeze filter is not an ideal choice. Make sure the filter you choose will work in all the potential scenarios in which you might find yourself.

Do you have a favorite water purification method? Share in the comments!

Water purification options for backpacking

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