In order to safely and effectively travel in the backcountry it’s critical to avoid illness. One potential source of infection is through water borne pathogens and there exist many methods of water purification.
One of these methods is water filters – a physical filtration system whereby pathogens are filtered out of water using mechanical water pressure and a filter.
There are many methods of effective water purification such as boiling, chemical, UV, or physical filtration. Which method you ultimately choose is a function of many considerations.
Now I’m going to help you decide on a backpacking water filter and recommend a few top performers:
- Sawyer Products Mini Water Filtration System
- Katadyn Pocket Water Filter
- Katadyn Hiker Microfilter
- MSR MiniWorks EX Microfilter
- Chemical Treatments
Here is an overview of the water filters with full reviews and our buying guide below.
The 3 Best Backpacking Water Filters
Backpacking Water Filter Reviews
There are so many good things to say about this water filter that it’s hard to know where to start…
The ease of use and simplicity are also top selling factors. Simple fill a bag with water, attach the filter, and squeeze the water from the bag, through the filter, and into your drinking bottle.
Viola! Gravity filters and pressure filters have been around for ages and the Sawyer Squeeze Mini is basically an in-line pressure filter.
To clean it out you just back-flush some clean water through the filter in order to wash away any debris caught in the filter.
The filter its self is rated for up to 100,000 gallons of filtered water but it’s pretty doubtful you’re likely to test that – that’s a whole lot of water!
These filters have exploded in popularity and you’re guaranteed to find hundreds of rave reviews and other users on the trail the next time you’re out backpacking and since it can filter a lot of water its also an ideal camping water purifier.
Despite the name, this filter won’t be fitting into your pocket readily. It’s actually quite a large and relatively heavy filter.
So why is it on the list?
This filter made the list because I have worked with it in various backpacking expedition programs where the filter has seen years of heavy use and still functions well.
This is a rugged and durable filter which will clean water sources thoroughly and effectively. The filter can be broken down completely into its constituent parts for thorough cleaning and sanitation.
All metal and rugged plastic construction mean that there’s virtually zero chance of destroying or breaking anything.
The most common injury I’ve seen on these filters is a bent pump arm – which can easily be broken down and replaced with a quick call to Katadyn for replacement parts.
What’s the biggest drawback?
Replacement filters are well over $100 but the ceramic filter inside this pump is one of the better filter units on the market. The ceramic filter element can be cleaned using a brillo or Scotch Brite pad and will last a very long time.
Eventually, however, the ceramic filter will wear down with successive cleanings and need to be replaced. Definitely not one of the cheapest options but one of the best portable water filters on the market.
The first water filter I ever purchased and used was a Katadyn Hiker Pro (effectively the same filter) and it lasted a few years before the output nipple broke off when I attempted to remove the hose.
That being said, the filter is entirely plastic and more fragile than, perhaps, other comparable filters.
One major upside is the low initial cost to buy as well as widely available and inexpensive replacement filters.
This portable water purifier does a good job while avoiding excessive clogging and cleans easily.
To clean the filter, you just need to unscrew the filter element, rinse it out, and set it to dry (or bleach it if needed). A single circlip holds the pump arm on to the body of the filter and you’ll need to disassemble, clean, and lube it after each trip.
If you can find the filter on sale or at a discount, it’s definitely worth it to get started.
Another ceramic element filter, this time from MSR. I’ve used this filter before and had mixed results – it’s one of the ones that tends to clog quickly.
However, if you’re using it correctly and filtering water that’s not too full of sediment then it’s a great filter. This one operates using a lever arm instead of a direct pump handle in a vertical fashion.
This is a feature I fail to use, however, as my water bottle (Platy Plus Bottles) don’t fit the adapter. If you’re a heavy Nalgene die-hard, then this might be a good feature for you.
It’s pretty easy to disassemble and clean and, once again, you’ll have to scrub the ceramic filter on occasion to clean off the filtered sediment and debris.
At a much lower price and with more affordable replacement cartridges than the Katadyn Pocket, this filter might be an economical choice. Be aware, however, that it is a less durable all plastic construction but being lightweight makes and excellent hiking water filter.
Runner Up: Chemical Treatments
While this article is all about physical filters for water purification, I’m going to take a minute to address chemical purification. Various forms of chemical purification exist from Iodine, AquaMira, and bleach. Chemical purification does nothing to remove physical sediment so if the water is dirty, you’ll be drinking the dirt.
However, chemical purification, when used properly, will kill all pathogens in your water. Advantages include price (for some forms), utility, weight, and bulk.
Chemical purification options can be quite affordable and, while AquaMira will eventually add up to exceed the cost of some filters, the benefits can outweigh. Personally, after much research, I have chosen to migrate to unscented pure bleach for purification and use this method exclusively (for about the last 3 years).
When done properly bleach is safe to drink (due to dilution) and effective at killing pathogens. My motivation? I can pay less than $5 for a gallon of bleach which will purify hundreds of thousands of gallons of water, transfer it into a one ounce dropper bottle weighing mere grams, and have enough purification for weeks on the trail at a time.
Choosing the Best Water Filter
Size and Weight
For backpacking size and weight definitely matter but they’re not always the end of the story. All else being equal, an intelligent backpacker would choose the smallest and lightest of all options when picking a piece of gear.
Some of the lightest and smallest options for purification are not filters at all – chemical purification is one of the most compact forms of water purification and UV pens can be quite compact.
Mechanical filters all have a filtering element which must eventually be replaced. In some cases, the filter and unit are disposable and must be replaced entirely when the filter has met the end of its life span. In the case of UV purification, batteries must be recharged or replaced. For chemical water treatment, the chemicals themselves will eventually run out.
Filter Pore Size
Pore size, for mechanical water filters, refers to the size of the holes in the filter through which water is squeezed. The idea is to have a pore size smaller than the pathogens you’re filtering yet large enough to permit the passage of just water.
Before purchasing a mechanical filter be sure to review the pore size, usually measured in microns, against the size of the pathogen you wish to filter out. Not all filters can filter out every type of pathogen – surprisingly.
If you’re heading in to areas of stagnant and dirty water or areas where suspended sediment is extremely high, you’ll have a lot of trouble with mechanical filters. One of the biggest issue is that the filter its self will quickly get clogged with dirt, sediment, or suspended particles in the water which get filtered out.
I’ve had filters get clogged so quickly before (in relatively clean water) that I have to clean them after each liter of filtered water. This is a huge pain in the ass and can be a problem even when the filter is used properly. In these cases, pre-filtering the water by straining through a cloth can be helpful.
If all else fails, you may want to consider a purification method which is physically unaffected by sediment such as chemical.
Water purification is a broad category containing filters, chemicals, UV, and boiling among others. All of these methods, when done right, will purify your drinking water. Filters, however, are a specific category of physical “screens” in various forms which filter out pathogens as water is forced through them.
Which type of purification and, further, which filter you choose is entirely based on your level of knowledge, risk tolerance, budget, and preferences. Drinking unpurified water is a great way to end up very sick or contracting parasites – not that I haven’t done it myself but I advise against it!