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Best Backpacking Water Filter Options, with a close look at Filtration and Purification Basics | High Sierra Backpacker

Best Backpacking Water Filter Options, with a close look at Filtration and Purification Basics

Alex Wierbinski's picture

By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 13 November 2014

We are going to identify the best backpacking water filter or system of chemical purification for you. To do that we need to identify two things. Your needs as a backpacker and the threats.


Patterns of Use

Selection Criteria

Water Filters

Water Purification Chemicals

Bladders-Squeeze Bottles



The basic threats in High Sierra water are Giardia Lamblia and Giardiasis. There are a number of soltutions available today for water purification through various types of filters and chemicals. 

We are going to explore our backpacking water filtration and purification options, and hopefully find the best backpacking water filter and system best fitting your needs.

The seclection factors for the best backpacking water filter will be the same for all hikers. What changes is how each hiker rates the importance of each factor for themselves.

 Here's the factors covering our various selection criteria: 










Only you can identify which factor is most important to you, or which combination of factors best suites your situation. Your particular balance of factors determines which system will be best for you.


  Hiker Side
Parameters of use

 Every hiker has their own set of standards of water deployment and use, if they know it or not. Your practices are the foundation of your water system. On the backpacking trail that boils down to how much water you filter at each stop, which determines the time & mileage until our next water stop, and finally, how we filter it. I typically personally "water up," rehydrating at each water-break, finishing what remains in my  22oz bottle, then filling it and draining it again, before re-filling it for the next segment of trail.

I typically carry enough water to cover between 7 and 9 miles between replenishments in a lightweight 22oz plastic bottle.

We can call our individual practices the individual hiker's Trail Water System. Let's look at our trail time practices as one part of our daily water cycle, and then let's begin by looking at its end, as we are approaching camp at the end of the hiking day. I want to get things sorted-out and set up for some sustained rehydration, feeding, supporting some observation & relaxation as quickly as possible.

Therefore making camp for me begins with getting water and food into play, into us, and available for the remainder of the evening as quickly as possible: Rehydration of Self, Cleaning of Self, and for food and drinks through dinner and evening. After washing-up and making ourselves "mosquito-proof," we will use the vast majority of water in camp for cooking, hot drinks, and cleaning cookware, none of which requires purification.


Only a small amount of our total water use in camp will be used for acutal drinking water. Thus we need a lightweight jug or tote water system to bring and store a reasonable supply of unfiltered water in camp. 

Note: Added Bonus of having the best backpacking water system is it does "double-duty," also potentially acting as our fire suppression system! Remember, everything possible will happen to you, if you spend enough time on the trail.

Therefore I recommend not purifying the water brought to camp. Personally, I reuse an old  costco thick-walled cranberry juice gallon jug to bring unfiltered water to camp. We will only filter the water we drink. We'll just filter our drinking water out of our jug into our hand bottle when we need it.

The vast majority of our camp water will be boiled up for food and drinks, so it'd just be a wast of time, energy, and filter life to filter it all.

Thus we need a lightweight jug or tote water system to bring and store water our water in camp, for our lunch and rest breaks on the trail, and an appropriate sized drinkng-water bottle for camp and trail use. My field water bottle is 22oz, as that suites typical distance and duration between re-waterings.  

Once we get our water to camp we need to be able filter drinking water as necessary, and not waste our time or filter-life purifying water that will just be boiled for hot drinks and food. 


 Our options for safe water are chemical, different types and composition of filters, and light purification. Filtration is the most common solution. There are numerous types of filter setups, being pumps, squeeze bags, and water bottle/bladder systems.

The Sawyer Squeeze Bag has become popular with the PCT crowd over the past few years.


Factors at Play
I have an approach based on looking for the best combination of simplicity, convenience, long term endurance, weight, price, and taste described above

Member's Choices
It's always good to look at what experienced backpackers have in their packs, and to pick their brains for experiences with the various water systems.


Member's Favorite Water Purification Systems


Complete Water System
"The Alex"

What works for you and I may be different. But the factors upon which we base our decisions will be the same, even when we come to different conclusions about their relative importance.

Approaches to purification break down into a few basic methods. Chemical treatment was the standard approach prior to the advent of the age of filters, which began in the 1970s, if my memory serves me well.


 Chemical treatment can be a good balance of the above factors. They weigh little and are cost-effective. For me time and taste are the chemical deal-killers.

Chemicals take time to work and leave a residual chemical taste in the water. I love the sweet freshness of High Sierra water. No chemicals for me. But chemicals are a valid solution and used by a small percentage of backpackers. Taste puts chemical solutions into the category of "emergency" water treatment for me.

All backpackers using filters should bring a chemical backup in case of filter breakdown.

Here's our main options for backcountry-backpacking water purification chemicals, which are various formulations and packaging of chlorine or iodine. 


Chemical Water Purification Choices

We note the advantages of chemicals, being lightweight and potentially cheap. Though cheap and lightweight, iodine is slow and tastes nasty. The chlorine purifiers are lightweight, quicker than iodine, but more expensive.



AquaMira Water Purifier
Chlorine dioxide based system that treats 30 gallons.

5 min: reasonable
no aftertaste

Very Light: Chems are all "lightweight."

14.99 30 gal/120 L 



"Chlorine-based purifier and Sweetwater filter (review) solution that ensures simple, fast virus protection." I'm not a great fan of the Sweetwater, but it works.

Pump time and chem time: worse of both worlds.
Negligible aftertaste
Weight of pump.




Potable Aqua Plus
An iodine based tablet that works on all bacteriologically impure water.
For use only when drinking water is of questionable quality. Is not for use on a continuous basis.

35 min
Included iodine taste-modifier...
12.99 treats up to 25 quarts=6.25 gal



Polar Pure
Pure iodine crystals in a special bottle.
Indefinite Shelf Life.

One Hour 20 min: Very Slow
Aftertaste !
24.99 down to 19.99
Very Cheap "1c per L." 



To the time it takes for the chemicals to work, and the chemical taste we mentioned above we can add the vunerability of chemicals to get wet and ruined. Keep your purification powders dry!


Then we've got filters. There are two basic types of filters that divide themselves into what I call "hard" and "soft" filters. This refers to the composition of the filter material.

"Hard" filters are ceramic, composite plastic, and somtimes even a dense metal mesh. "Soft" filters are paper.

Examples of Hard filters are the MSR Sweetwater and MSR mini-works pump water filters, the Soft are used in the PUR/Katadyn filters.

National Forest and Park trail crews use a huge version of the Pur Hiker, being an inline paper cartridge feed by a hand pump. It's a hundred times bigger, but the same principal.


Then there are a number of different deployments of filters. We have in-line filtration systems such as the Sawyer "squeeze bags" (review) and "bladder" filter systems and the old standard filter-pumps.

I've owned and used both the Sweetwater and MSR mini-works extensively in the field. Both are good filters, and are not failure risks, but both are hard to pump and filter slowly when clean and clog easily, as is typical with all "Hard" filters.



They are frustrating and a waste of time.


My Choice

The PUR/Katadyn Soft filter is easy to pump and maintains good flow in all water conditions. I have an old PUR Hiker from before Katadyn bought them that still works like a champ.

PUR/Katadyn Soft filter

Hand pumps are the most common form of purification used by backpackers.

I bought my old "pur hiker" for 25 bucks a couple of decades ago. Though the color has changed with Katadyn, the filter housing and cartridge both appear essentially unchanged from my old Pur Hiker.



The Sweetwater and MSR are pains in the ass to pump and slow. The PUR/Katadyn sometimes has its internal check valve get stuck. This is what happened when the pump handle just slides up and down with no resistance.


 A sharp rap of the bottom of the unit against a boulder can dislodge a stuck check valve. 


Either the check valve is stuck or we've lost the seal on the pump chamber. Thus it's a good idea to service, or at least clean and inspect your pump before and after every trip.

Clean and lubricate the pump chamber and seals. Wash out the exterior of the filter.

Clean, inspect, lubricate, and service your water system after every trip, and inspect and test it before beginning the next trip.


Filter Housing/Water Transport
 The advent of bladders and squeeze bags has put the filter unit in whole new "in-line" positions. Now we have a whole series of water containers married to in-line water filter cartridges.
These cartridges are mostly screwed onto a bladder, topping a squeeze bag, or capping a water bottle.

These are good systems if you are willing to adopt the bladder-squeeze bag water system on trail and in camp.
   Squeeze bags and bladders come in sizes (up to 64 oz) that allow us to bring a big load of unfiltered water back to camp for bulk use while still allowing us to only filter (squeeze-out) what we drink.
We can uncap the bladder and pour unfiltered water for boiling uses prior to filtration.

Squeeze bags are the lightest system, allow good capacity of water transport on trail and in camp, are reliable to 700 miles of distance (see review below), and are cheap compared with other purification systems.

I've got good reports from PCT hikers on squeeze bags, and lots of them also prefer bladder water systems as well;


Sawyer Squeeze Bag On-Trail PCT Hiker Review


Squeeze bags are becoming more popular every season, though it seems like the peak of bladder use has been crossed, and is diminishing!


Various Water Systems at REI



 The material used to construct the squeeze-bags tears. Rolling and unrolling them breaks down the top seam of the bag which can split after 700 miles of trail use.

More info on this as available.  Post up your use experiences and stats on the Squeeze-Bag Page.
I hope Gone Slow and Mountain Man (Trail Guide) can email me with more info on their experience.

 Finally, we've seen UV light being deployed for purification by Steripen.


UV-Light Purification Systems 
I've been watching Steripen use on the long trails for a while now, and it seems like a reasonable, if a bit complex solution for our purification needs. There are three weaknesses I can see, being batteries, conductivity, and a bulb.

Batteries run out, conductivity between the electrodes is lost, and bulbs burn out. I am just a bit nervous about the complexity of the Steripen, though they seem to perform well on the trail, despite a few issues.



Electrode corrosion, see the steripen article.



This is the Water Filter Forum. Members are invited to post up TRAIL NOTES about their good, bad, and ugly experiences with water purification. Review your favorite and most despised water purification systems.

Unknown hikers who don't want to register cannot post up articles, but your experiences can be added here through the comments link below.


Also See:

Complete Water System
"The Alex"



High Sierra Backpacking Gear List



Gear Preferences of Experienced High Sierra Backpackers:

Tahoe to Whitney Members Favorites

Best Internal Framed Packs

Best Ultra Light Packs

Best Backpacking Boots

Best Backpacking Socks

Best Trekking Poles

Best Backpacking Stoves

Best Backpacking Cookware

Best Backpacking Water Purification

Best Backpacking Tents

Best Sleeping Bags

Best Sleeping Pads

Best Backpacking Shirts & Pants

Best Backpacking Camp Chairs 

Best Backpacking Guitar 


Happy Trails !


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