December 5, 2016

Muddied Waters: Best Backpacking Water Filters

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When it comes to a long adventure in the backcountry, your water filtration system is going to be one of the most vital things you have in your bag. If you don’t have a way to stay hydrated on the trail, then you’re getting yourself into trouble.

Why You Need a Backpacking Water Filtration System

Best Backpacking Water Filtration System
Best Backpacking Water Filtration System © CreditDonkey

Water is the most necessary thing you’ll need to pack—and it’s also one of the bulkiest. Your entire pack is going to be largely built around the most efficient way to carry several liters of water. The problem is that even the lightest packs and smartest design water bladders are going to add several pounds of weight everywhere you go. You can only carry so much water with you, which is where a filter or purifier comes into play.

Filter vs Purifier

There is a difference between a filter and purifier. They play different roles in treating water, and the one that’s right for you depends on the adventures you plan on taking. A filter does just what its name implies: it stops harmful bacteria and pathogens by filtering them out of the water you’re going to drink. This is where you find pumps and gravity systems.

Purifiers, on the other hand, use chemicals and UV rays to kill or neutralize anything harmful in your water. This is especially useful if you plan on drinking water in third-world countries, because purifiers will usually treat viruses that filters do not. However, this isn’t a concern for most hikers because those viruses only exist in small parts of the world. Because it’s changing the composition, the taste from a purifier isn’t always as refreshing as filtered water.

What to Consider When Shopping

There are several factors to take into account when choosing a water filtration system. We’re going to break down the best options by the method used for cleaning water. They all have different pluses, minuses, weights, costs and preferences depending on the kind of trip you want to take. If you are spending several months on the Appalachian Trail, you’re going to be much more concerned about weight. However, if you are looking to take rugged day trips that get away from civilization, then you might not need to invest hundreds of dollars into your water filtration system.

Best Gravity Filtration

MSR AutoFlow Gravity Filter

MSR already produces some of the best products out there when it comes to camping, cooking, stoves and emergency equipment, so it makes a lot of sense that they’d produce one of the best backpacking filters as well. The AutoFlow Gravity Filter is simple, compact, lightweight, easy to use and clean, and is one of the fastest ways to have clean water at camp.

The advantage of a gravity filter is strongest when you have set up camp near a water source and you have ways to hang the filter to let gravity do the trick. This usually means something as simple as a tree, which will work for almost all backpackers. It might not be the best product if you do a lot of desert camping around the southwest, but it should be fine for everyone else. Speed is really its greatest asset, filtering around 1.75 liters per minute. This is great if you have a lot of water to filter, but can take a little bit of time compared to UV or tablets because you need to set up the pouch and let gravity get to work.

The way the AutoFlow works is by filling the large, 4L bag with water from a nearby water source. You then hang the bag from a height where gravity can do its thing, connect the tube and start filtering just like that. Every couple of complete filters you do, you reverse the tube so that clean water flows back the other way to keep the device clean.

It has a universal bottle adapter so that clean water filters directly into your water bottle of choice and eliminates the need to pump water, which is usually the last thing you want to do on your water break. It cleans 99.99 percent of bacteria and weighs less than a pound. It will barely add any space or weight to your pack and will survive the length of any hike you put it through.

Even though it’s one of the fastest ways to filter water, some people might prefer a UV option or tablets. That’s because those options don’t require as much set-up as the gravity (or pump) filters and do the job just as well if not a little better. A gravity filter like the MSR AutoFlow will clean more water, though, so it’s definitely the way you want to go if you have set-up camp near a source.

Best UV Purifier

SteriPEN Ultra Water Purifier

There are a lot of differences between treating water with a UV system versus a gravity or pump filter. A filter works by stopping pathogens and bacteria from getting through into the clean water. UV is used by large water treatment plants because it effectively neutralize any pathogens, organisms and viruses from causing any harm.

The SteriPEN is an excellent system if you are backpacking, on the move or traveling to third-world countries. That’s because the UV purifier will stop the kind of viruses that most hikers have to worry about. It is also quick, efficient, small and lightweight. The SteriPEN is used by placing it into a container of water and stirring it around for a minute until the light tells you you’re done.

That’s it. No gravity, no bags, no cords, tubes or pumps. Just a pen you place in the water and stir for a little bit. It prevents the same bacteria as a filter system while going a little further by attacking some viruses as well. Even though it looks like this would be the best option for everyone, it does have a few drawbacks worth mentioning.

First is that because it’s neutralizing any bacteria and pathogens instead of filtering the water, it doesn’t do much for the taste of the water you’re going to drink. Second is that it can’t handle nearly the volume of water that a pump or filter system would use, so if you’re setting up camp with a group of people, you might want to go with another option. Third is that the battery has to be recharged, whereas a filter system doesn’t have such requirements.

That all said, if you are backpacking along a stream or want to clean any water on a trip to a country where you wouldn’t want to drink the tap water, you can’t go wrong with a UV pen, and the SteriPEN Ultra is the best one you’re going to find. It can be charged via the USB cord, packed on nearly any adventure, and will kill harmful bacteria better than the rest.

Best Value

Sawyer Mini Water Filter

Sawyer produces a simple, small and effective filter that lets you drink directly from the source while adding the least amount of weight to your pack. Coming in at just over two ounces and costing around a fifth of the competition, you will definitely get the most for your money when it comes to mini filters designed to fit in your hand.

This unit, which includes a filter, straw and cleaning syringe, allows you to drink directly from a river, stream or lake. Or you can fill a small pouch, attach the filter, and drink directly from that if you are on the go. To clean the filter, simply fill the syringe with clean water and then pump it through the device the way you would normally drink. It couldn’t be more simple and portable.

Downsides to the mini filters that fit in your hand include the amount of water you can take with you. If you have a big trip and water is not easily available, then you might want a larger system. It’s the same if you are traveling with a group of friends and will need more water than what you can suck through a straw near a body of water.

When it comes to getting what you pay for, this is an excellent water filter that stops germs just as much as the highest-end products and is much smaller to transport. It might not be the best option out there when it comes to giant adventures and wanting to transport a lot of water, but it’s a great addition for lightweight backpacking.

Best Lightweight for Backpacking

Katadyn Micropur Purification Tablets

When it comes to weight, even the smallest filters are no match for dropping a tablet into a bottle of water, letting it sit for a little while and then drinking completely clean water. These tablets are purifiers, which means they kill the kinds of viruses that a filter might miss (again, this is only essential in third-world countries, but it’s important to note).

There’s no filter, pump, gravity or batteries needed. You just drop a tablet and let it do its thing. That is, however, also a downside. Because the process is a little time-consuming (up to four hours to kill everything, but usually less than 30 minutes), it limits the amount of water you can filter. If you’re on a backcountry hike for months at a time, you are going to need a lot of tablets and a little bit of patience.

If you have the foresight to treat your water in advance of when it’s an emergency to drink, then you can’t beat the weight, convenience, purification and taste of these tablets, which meets the EPA’s standards for a clean drinking water purifier. They come at a very reasonable cost and get the job done just as well as any filtering system.

Best Large Filtration

Platypus GravityWorks

Take what’s great about the MSR AutoFlow and increase its capacity and speed, and you get the Platypus GravityWorks. It has a similar set-up: you need to fill the pouch with water, find a place to hang it and then let gravity do its thing through the filter, which is easy to clean.

What makes this perfect for a large group that has set-up camp near a body of water is that it can clean four liters of water in just over two minutes. This is perfect if you or your group are cooking or you’re very thirsty from a long day of hiking and you need water but don’t want to make continuous trips back to the source.

It has a simple cleaning system as well. You just reverse the pump so that water flows back through the filter the other way. It’s easy to pack-up because Platypus is famous for making pouches that roll up so that they can fit into any bag. Whether you’re taking it on a backpacking trip for months or a weekend with a large group, the GravityWorks is one of the best options when it comes to cleaning water.

Most Versatile

MSR Guardian Purifier

If you are willing to do a little work and spend some extra cash, the MSR Guardian really does it all. If you love to backpack solo or with one or two people and you do a lot of traveling, then this might be the last water treatment you ever buy.

The Guardian has all the best features of a filter and purifier and can be used with almost any water source for delicious and clean water. You place the fountain into a body of water and then uses the small pump handle to send water through the filter into the water bottle.

Yes, I know I said it’s a pump, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You don’t need to make several trips between camp and your water source if you have a gravity system established. You don’t need to let pills or a UV light do its thing. You simply get close to the water you’re using, pump it directly through the filter, and you have purified drinking water ready to go. And because it’s a purifier, it will kill viruses on top of bacteria, so you can take it on any travels where they might say, “Don’t drink the water.” Thanks to the Guardian, that missive goes out the window.

Some might find the pumping system to be annoying for larger groups, but for what it does, it’s one of the best options if you are drinking a lot of water on either a long hike or a big trip around the world.

Where to Buy Backpacking Water Filters

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