When looking for portable water filters while backpacking, it can be hard to find the best product. There are many available and the process of choosing one can be stressful. Since clean water is essential while backpacking, you want to get a product that will meet your needs, be durable, reliable, and won’t break the bank. To help with this, we’ve put together some tips that you can use to find the best backpacking water filter for your outdoor adventures.

Water Filter Types Explained | Key Considerations

Types Of Filters Explained

You’ll want to consider the type of filter you want. There are many options available, so you want to understand the pros and cons of each type of filter. Some of the options are UV light, chemical drops or tablets, bottle filters, gravity filters, pump filters, and others. Each system has advantages and disadvantages, below, we will talk about each.

There are two main categories of filters: water purifiers, and water filters. Below, we will highlight each type, and the sub-types of filters within them.

Water Purifiers Vs Water Filters

Purifiers usually work by treating water with chemicals to kill all of the bad things. This is the most common method for treating water to avoid viruses. These chemicals, usually iodine or chlorine will also kill bacteria and protozoa.

Filters work by pushing water through a filtration system with small pores to filter out debris, bacteria, and all of the bad stuff. The smaller the pores, the more it can filter out. These types of filters are commonly used for backpacking as they effectively remove the most common bacteria (E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter and others), and harmful protozoans. When traveling abroad, or an areas where you may encounter virus infected water, it is important to have a system that can remove all types of harmful organisms.

Water filters generally don’t prevent viruses, though some filters do have that capability. Some systems are both filters and purifications systems, where they will take care of all bacteria, protozoa, and viruses.

Amazon’s Water Filters | Check REI | Check MSR

Pump Filters & Pump Purifiers

Pump filters work by using a pump to push water from the dirty source, and into a clean container. These filters can be combined with purifying techniques to remove even viruses. These are one of the most common filtration systems for backpackers.

MSR Backpacking Pump Water Filter

MSR Backpacking Pump Water Filter

Pros:

  • You can filter a large volume pretty quickly (not as much volume as a gravity filter)
  • Easy to filter exactly the amount of water you need
  • Replaceable cartridges and filters
  • Can get water from large or small sources.

Cons:

  • Larger pack size (and slightly heavier)
  • Pumping can take a fair amount of work to filter a lot of water
  • Maintenance is needed (filter clearing) to ensure good pumping

Pump Filters On Amazon | Check REI

Gravity Filters & Gravity Purifiers

Gravity filters work by using a bag to scoop up water from a source, and then gravity pulls that water downwards, through your filter medium into a clean water container. These can be combined with purification techniques to clear out viruses as well.

MSR Gravity Water Filter

Pros:

  • Large quantities can be filtered
  • No need to pump – just hang up your water
  • Replaceable cartridges and filters

Cons:

  • Need a place to hang your water
  • Relatively slow process to filter
  • Hard to scoop large quantities of water with a small source
  • Maintenance is needed (filter clearing) to ensure good flow

Gravity Filters On Amazon | Check REI

Chemical Treatment

Chemicals are effective against protozoa, bacteria and viruses. Simply add the necessary amount to your water, and wait. Most systems are typically iodine or chlorine based. It is often available in drops, pills, mixes, or as part of a filtration system.

Iodine Water Purification Tablets

Iodine Water Purification Tablets

Pros:

  • Very easy to use
  • Least expensive filtration option
  • Small pack size (everyone should carry as a backup)

Cons:

  • Takes a long time – 30 minutes, up to around 4 hours to purify
  • Leaves an often unwanted metallic taste (that can be reduced through other add-ins)
  • Not for use by pregnant women or those with thyroid conditions
  • Iodine doesn’t work for Cryptosporidium

Chemical Water Purifiers | Check REI

Squeeze & Bottle Filters

These systems work by simply filling a bag, or bottle with your water, and screwing on your cap. You can squeeze, or suck the water through your filter and immediately drink clean water. Some bottle systems also work with UV purifiers.

Sawyer Squeeze Backpacking Water Filter

Sawyer Squeeze Backpacking Water Filter

Pros:

  • Fast and easy. Can be drinking in a few seconds.
  • Many of these filter systems double as a gravity filter – which allows the best of both worlds.
  • Lightweight and small pack size
  • Replaceable cartridges and filters

Cons:

  • Low water quantities than other methods
  • Maintenance is needed (filter clearing) to ensure good flow

Squeeze and Bottle Filters On Amazon | Check REI

Straw Filters

LifeStraw Water Filtration System

LifeStraw Water Filtration System

Straw filters work just like a straw. You stick one end into your water source, and you can drink clean water out of the other end.

Pros:

  • Immediate availability of water form all sizes of a source.
  • Very lightweight and cost effective

Cons:

  • Small quantities of water only
  • No storage of water – it is only available while you are at the source
  • Some straw filters don’t have replaceable filters

Straw Filters On Amazon | Check REI

Ultraviolet (UV) Purifiers

UV treatment device is inserted into the water bottle cap, and left sitting for 60 seconds or so.

Steripen Ultra UV Water Purifier

Pros:

  • Very lightweight and small
  • No cleaning or maintenance needed

Cons:

  • Only small water volumes at a time
  • Murky or dirty water will not be effective. So pre-filtering water is necessary if water is cloudy.
  • Extra batteries need to be carried.

UV Filters On Amazon | Check REI

Boiling – The Classic Method

We of course can’t forget the tried and true method of boiling. Water should be boiling for at least 1 minute. At elevations above 6,500 feet, your water should be boiling for at least 3 minutes.

Pros:

  • No additional filters required
  • Great backup method

Cons:

  • Need to have canister with enough fuel for boiling
  • Hard to boil large volumes of water.
  • Need time to boil, as well as time to cool water.

Other Considerations

Water Quantity

If you are filtering water just for yourself, you need less water. If you have filter just as a backup in case you need more water, that is also a different use case. Some also may be in charge of gathering water for a camp or large group in which you need to be able to filter large quantities. Squeeze to drink filters, pump filters, or smaller gravity and bag filters are great for yourself. Straw or bottle filters are fantastic as emergency backups for yourself on day hikes, and large gravity filters are best to filter large quantities for a group of people.

Speed of Filtration

Pump, squeeze to drink, and gravity filters work pretty fast. You’ll get water very quickly. Chemical purifiers can take between 30 minutes to a few hours to effectively neutralize water. Simply, know your situation, and how fast you’ll need to get water to choose the right system.

Effectiveness

One of the most important things about getting a backpacking water filter is how effective it is. Besides drinking clean water, you want to make sure the filter will remove any harmful ingredients. There are quite a few pathogens that can live in water and cause some pretty severe issues. In order to ensure you don’t get sick, you’ll want to make sure the filter can take care of as many of these as possible. This is even more true for those that aren’t sure what kind of pathogens might be present in the area.

If you are traveling to a country where waterborne viruses are possible, you will need a filter or purifier with chemicals to kill viruses, or a filter rated to filter out viruses. In the U.S., many backpackers will bring filtration that kills bacteria and protozoa, but not viruses, since the most common waterborne illnesses in the U.S. can be handled by removing the bacteria and protozoa.

Traveling Location

Another consideration is the traveling location. Not only will you want to think about the actual location, but you’ll also want to consider what you’ll be doing and what part of the area you’ll be in. This information can give you a lot of insight, such as what kinds of pathogens are common and what kind of water is normal in the area. Some places might only have muddy sources, while others might have natural springs. Once you know this information, you’ll have an easier time finding the water filter that works the best for you and your needs.

Price

Some people might find that this consideration isn’t very important, but you also want to take price into consideration. This is even more true when you consider that some filters can be quite expensive. The last thing you want is to spend all kinds of money on a product that doesn’t even work for your situation. Try to figure out how much you want to spend and look at filters in that price range. If at all possible, try and have a little wiggle room so you can buy a more expensive filter if you need to.

Size

You’ll also want to consider the size of the filter. Most people who are backpacking don’t have a whole lot of extra room. They also don’t want to carry around a bag that ends up heavier than it needs to be. As a result, make sure you look at the size of the filter. To help you make a decision, you should look at the bags you’ll take with you and see how much room it already has, as well as how heavy they are. From there, you’ll be able to find a filter that isn’t too big or heavy. The great thing is that most filters are quite light and some are extremely compact.

Filter Media

Finally, consider what kind of media the filter is made out of. Common materials are fiberglass, ceramic, silica, and activated carbon. Each of these is great for certain types of water and some do a better job at filtering than others. If possible, try and research the types of water in the area you’ll be traveling so you can figure out what type of media you should get.

By using these tips, you should have a pretty good idea about what to look for when trying to decide on a portable water filter. You never know what kind of bacteria or disease water might have, so being able to filter them out is essential. The last thing you want is to become deathly sick while you’re backpacking, especially if you’re somewhere remote. Remember to do as much research as possible before making your final decision or purchase.

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