So, you’re in the woods right? You’re on a multi-day backpacking trip, it’s the middle of the summer, and you just took your last sip of water.


Although some hardcore survivalists argue that it’s possible to drink unfiltered water if you’re careful about it, and I’m sure that it is, you don’t always have the luxury of choosing which stream you drink out of. Sometimes you’ve got to take what you can get; that means you’ve got to have a handy-dandy water treatment system with you.

So the question is: which water treatment system is right for you? Well, wonder no more! Here’s how to decide:

Your motto: “Make it quick”

If you’re looking for a quick, easy way to filter your water, your best bet is a pump filter. Pump filters use microscopic holes to allow water to pass while filtering out bacteria. They usually have paper or ceramic filters, and if you’re interested in being able to practice field maintenance, then the ceramic filters are the way to go. Both Katadyn’s Hiker Microfilter (which actually has a glass filter) and MSR’s Miniworks Ex Microfilter are great options.

Cons: Pump filters do not protect you from viruses, and are therefore unsafe for out-of-country use, or anywhere viruses may be present.

Your motto: “Less is more”

Looking for the lightest possible purifier? Tablets will be your go-to method. There are iodine tablets as well as chlorine dioxide tablets, but most people would agree that the chlorine dioxide is easier and safer (and tastes better) than the iodine tablets. Chlorine dioxide tablets use a burst of oxygen to break down bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. And don’t worry, there isn’t any actual chlorine in these tablets; chlorine dioxide and chlorine are two different things! Check out Potable Agua to get some good tablets!

Cons: It may take up to 30 minutes for treatment to have its full impact (4 hours for cryptosporidium), and you must continually buy more tablets.

Your motto: “One size fits all”

Electric filters are your best option if you want to be able to filter water everywhere (including out of the country). Ultraviolet light purifiers burst forth a stream of UV rays which kill all bacteria, protozoa, and viruses. It works quickly, usually in less than a minute, and it leaves water pure and clean no matter where you are. The SteriPEN is a great UV light purifier.

Cons: These purifiers do not take care of sediment in the water, so be sure to filter through a shirt (or some type of clothing) before you sterilize. It also runs off a battery, which means you need to carry spares.

Your motto: “The more the merrier”

Wanting to purify a lot of water in one sitting? Go for a gravity filter. Gravity filters work in much the same way that pump filters do, except you don’t pump them. Generally they have large bladders which you can fill, hang, and let gravity work its magic. These are great if you need water for large groups, or you want to filter a lot of water at one time. Platypus Gravityworks is a great option for gravity filters.

Cons: Just like pump filters, gravity filters do not protect against viruses. They may also take slightly longer to filter because of the volume of water, but they usually filter pretty fast.

Now that you know which treatment system is best for you, get it and get out on the trail. Drink from those fresh mountain streams, but remember to use your filters/purifiers, because no one likes puking (or worse) on the trail.

Your Turn: What’s your favorite type of purifier?

# Comments

  • mtbgreg1

    Great article Kelley–super informative. I learned a lot!

    • kjspurlock

      Thanks Greg! Hopefully you’ll never be thirsty on the trail again! 😉

  • mtbikerchick

    For backpacking trips we use 2 types of water treatments. For on-the-go hiking water, we have Sawyer In-Line filters attached to 1L Platypus pouches. Whenever we run low we just stop at the next stream and refill the pouches. The water is filtered as we drink. This works best in the mountains where access to water is plentiful.

    In camp we use chlorine dioxide tablets. We get water treating right away and then by the time we’re done setting up camp at least 1L is ready for making camp margaritas!

    • kjspurlock

      I saw your review on the Sawyer filters! They look super convenient. It’s a great idea to carry two different ways to treat water- some things are better for the trail and others are better for the campground! And, of course, do whatever you have to do to get those camp margaritas going!!

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