Water Filtration Options for the Trail

In the backcountry, sleep is a luxury, food is a nicety but water is imperative. When in the wild, one is exposed to the elements and likely exerting themselves in a manner outside the norm. Knowing where to locate water and how to treat it so that it’s safe to drink is a critical skill to offset these realities.   Locating the water is only half the challenge however. Having done your map study and read trail notes all over the interweb you know what your route offers regarding water sources (don’t bet on this however) and as you move where to expect the next stream, spring or river. Treating said water to ensure you don’t have any microbes that will give you “the mung” (giardia, salmonella, cryptosporidium, etc.) is the other half of the equation.

Ounces equals pounds and pounds equals pain. For every 1 liter of liquid add 2.2 pounds. This forces us to carry only a finite amount. Any multi day trip or emergency scenario requires a plan to replenish your supply. As a “best practice” in the backcountry, we each carry at least three liters and weather, terrain and consumption dependent do everything we can to stay “topped off” during our trips. Water carry and management is also a consideration. To ensure we can accomplish this, we also carry multiple methods of carrying liquid (Camelbak, Nalgene and collapsible Platypus bottles) and just as importantly pack out redundant water filtration options.

Below are some of the options you have that are proven and all under $100 USD:

A popular method of filtration is the pump like water filter and the 11 oz. Katadyn Pro Hiker  is my preference. Easily employed, the activated-carbon core filter is contained in a robust plastic case with a pump handle at the top and two hoses. The bottom hose offers a teardrop like supplemental filter at the end that you drop into the source that is capable of filtering larger contaminants before it runs through the main filter. The other hose is where the filtered water flows through one of a number of adapters that fit different water collection receptacles. From a level of effort perspective, the Katadyn pumps 1 liter of water every 48 pump strokes so it takes no time to fill a larger Camelbak or Nalagene.

For cleaning the filter after repeated use, Katadyn offers their own cleaning solution, but we simply use 1 tablespoon of bleach in one liter of water and run it through the pump. We leave it out in the sun to dry after. Katadyn also sells a replacement element for the Pro Hiker that works with other filters as well. The original filter is effective to up to 1150 liters filtered.

As with all gear that is life sustaining, redundancy is key. Having two Pro Hikers is obviously an option; however, it adds weight and bulk and we have other less bulky methods available. Using ultraviolet technology, the SteriPen Ultra is a good alternative or complementary tool to the pump method. The SteriPen is powered with an internal, chargeable battery capable of filtering up to 50 liters without recharge. The operation of the SteriPen is simple in that you scoop water into a water bottle and place the device into the water and turn it on; stirring the filter for about 90 seconds. The LED screen on the SteriPen will tell you if when it is complete (with a big smiley face). You can set the device to filter 1 liter or ½ liter.

The SteriPen Ultra can be used up to eight thousand times and is 99.99% effective against a host of bacteria and protozoa. It also protects against cholera, dysentery, typhoid and botulism.

Two points that make this not my “go to” option are that fact that it is electronic, thus requiring a charge (car, solar panel, etc.) and an even larger concern, it requires “clear water.” The SteriPen is not effective in “cloudy” water or with high levels of sediment. For the amazing water sources offered at Yosemite, not an issue; however, we have filtered springs that were far from “clear” with positive results using a pump that would have been a non-starter for the UV technology of SteriPen.

To mitigate weight, maintenance and potential breakage or malfunction, one can simply avoid a pump or device and use tablets for water purification. The days of the gross halzone tabs used in the military are over, making way for products like Katadyn Micropur Purification tablets. Promising the same level of protection from the creepy crawlies in your water that UV or pumps offer, the 30 count pack weighs .9 ounces and equals a filtered output of 30 liters (equal to 10 fills of a large Camelbak). One tablet is needed per quart. The biggest obstacle to the tablet option is the wait time for it to take effect. Thirty minutes for Giardia and four hours for Cryptosporidium, so the end user should plan accordingly when thinking of when to “top off” and gauge water stops on their route.

This option is also an excellent “Go Bag” addition due to its three year shelf life, weight and lack of maintenance.  Thinking of extreme situations like Katrina, one can find themselves like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, “water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.” When natural or man-made disaster compromises sewage and water supply simultaneously, one can understand the need to have a simple, light option available to care for your family and pets.

A few other options in water treatment include life straws, gravity filtration bags and bottles with filters installed. Numbers of reputable companies have products that fall into one of these type collection/filtration methods.

Water filtration through gravity is a thru-hiker favorite and allows for multi-tasking. Popular models are the Sawyer Complete Water Filtration System and the Platypus GravityWorks Filter system, although there are plenty of others on the market as well. Boasting all the same capabilities to combat bacteria, giardia etc. the end user simply fills one bag and hangs it up as he or she continues setting up camp. The water runs from the “gray” water bag to the reservoir bag completely filtered and ready for use. It can provide up to 1.3 liters of clean water a minute. We haven’t personally used this system but would love to try it soon.

The Life Straw, which is a back up option on our packing list, is incredibly light and packable. Another “Go Bag” must have, the Life Straw is a mere 2 oz. and easily used. It is also one of the most inexpensive options we found. Simply pull the straw out and drink directly from the source or collect water in a Nalgene and drink. The filter offers the 99%+ protection level against all the same creeping crud the other filters do and is able to clean up to 1000 liters without replacement. To clean and avoid clogs, simply blow into the straw. Cons of the Life Straw include the inability to use with water bladders, cannot filter quantities of water for cooking, inconvenient “on the go” and not helpful for four legged friends.

Several companies offer a water bottle with internal filter system loaded within. The Katadyn MyBottle is a good example of this technology. Just shy of 10 oz. empty, the MyBottle filter acts almost as an Life Straw system within the bottle itself. The filter is married with the mouthpiece, so the user fills the bottle from the source and drinks. Like the Life Straw, this method doesn’t offer the ability to filter clean water for cooking or topping off your bladders, etc and there is a great deal of complaint from people regarding the squeezing required to drink. The MyBottle holds 24 ounces of water and can be used 155 times before the filter needs to be replaced. As all filters reviewed, the MyBottle and other like models prevent the wide majority of bacteria and protozoa.

Taste may be a chief complaint for any filtering options discussed when dealing with backcountry water. This might sound like a small consideration, but if you don’t “want” to drink, you won’t and it WILL cause you issues down the trail. Consider supplementing your packing list with something like Mio FIT or Powerade drops to add flavor and electrolytes.

Water collection, carry, filtering and conservation are all terrific topics for any outdoor person to read up on and research. Go beyond this short blog and dig into the topic. See how it applies to your sport, activity or planning needs, then share with others.

Hope you found this helpful. Stay safe.




Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means when you make a purchase, we receive a tiny bit of compensation at no added cost to you. We only promote products that we use and love, and any purchases you make go toward the cost of this blog. Thanks for all of your support, and if you ever have any questions about any of the products featured here, please comment and let us know!




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