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Best Backpacking Water Filter and Treatment Systems

Backpacker Water Filter and Treatment Preferences
What are the best water filter and purification options for backpacking? We put that question to 565 backpackers in a recent survey on SectionHiker.com to get an updated view into the types of solutions that backpackers use today.

Most Popular Water Treatment Methods

Over 39% percent of the backpackers we surveyed use a Sawyer Mini or Sawyer Squeeze, with the Sawyer Mini being the more popular of the two by a small percentage. That’s quite an amazing adoption rate since these products didn’t exist until a few years ago. Based on a passive hollow fiber membrane, most backpackers use them to filter a reservoir of dirty water and transfer it into a clean bottle or water bladder.

Chemical water purification was the next most popular treatment method used by 24% of the backpackers surveyed. Aqua Mira Drops were far and away the most popular chemical treatment method accounting for nearly 60% of use. Other more popular methods include Potable Aqua Iodine tablets and chlorine dioxide tablets like MSR Aquatabs. It’s interesting to note that chemical purification methods are often carried as a backup method to a primary water treatment solution (55% of the time) such as squeeze-style filters, gravity filters, or ultraviolet treatments.

The next most popular method were pump filters at 16.7%, which are preferred when hiking with a partner or a small group instead of solo since they filter water so quickly. The most popular pump filters were the Katadyn Hiker Pro and MSR Sweetwater water filters, although many backpackers also liked other MSR models including the MSR Hyperflow and the MSR Miniworks. Many backpackers who use pump filters have been using them for many years and feel that the added weight of carrying them is worth it in terms of filtering speed and long-term value.

To our surprise, gravity filters proved to be the next most popular method accounting for 8.5% of the backpackers surveyed. The Platypus Gravity Works water treatment solution was by far the most popular product followed by the Sawyer Complete system. The use of a gravity filter was also popular when hiking with partners or in a group.

We were also surprised to see how relatively few backpackers use a Steripen system that uses ultraviolet light as a water purification method, just 6.1% of those surveyed. Backpackers using straw filters like the Lifestraw was also quite low, only 5.4%, which is understandable since it doesn’t work with a storage system like a bottle or reservoir and is mainly carried as an emergency backup. Bottle-based filters, such as the Grayl, which only work when drinking from a specialized bottle, accounted for the lowest percentage of backpackers, less than 0.5% of those surveyed.

Boiling water to purify it and not treating it at all also scored at less than 1% of those surveyed.

Sawyer Squeeze and Sawyer Mini Water Filters
Sawyer Squeeze and Sawyer Mini Water Filters

Best Water Treatment System

Why do backpackers prefer one water treatment systems over another? Based on this survey, we found that it really depends on the quality of water where you hike, how many people you need to filter water for, how long you feel like waiting, and how much faith you put into your primary water treatment method not to fail.

For example:

If you are a backpack in areas with clear stream or lake water and are hiking solo, a squeeze-style solution like the Sawyer Mini or Sawyer Squeeze, or an ultralight purifier like the Steripen all make sense. Clear water won’t clog the simple Sawyer filters or leave behind “floaties” when you use a Steripen. These methods are less desirable however if your water sources have floating solids or sediment in them.

If you backpack with one or two partners, a pump solution is preferable since you can rapidly purify enough water to “keep going” without requiring a longer stop. Pump style filters with pre-filters such as the Katadyn Hiker Pro are also preferred if your water has been standing or has a heavy sediment content. Such pump filters work in two stages: the pre-filter removes suspended solids and sediment, while the primary filter removes harmful microorganisms and bacteria.

If you backpack with your family or in a group where you need to resupply water for multiple people, a gravity filter is probably the best solution since you can filter a large batch in bulk without much physical effort like pumping. The Platypus Gravity Works was the preferred system in our survey for its ease of use. It also has a backflush capability so you can easily clean the filter if your water sources clog it up or slow down the flow.

What about chemical purification methods? While some backpackers use Aqua Mira Drops or Potable Aqua Iodine tablets exclusively, the majority of the backpackers we surveyed use chemical purification as a backup or emergency method in case their primary water treatment method fails. For example, hollow fiber membrane filters like the Sawyers clog up over time, pump filter hoses tear, and Steripen batteries run out. Carrying a backup chemical purification method makes a lot of sense, since they’re so light weight. Some backpackers also augment their primary water filtration method if it doesn’t remove viruses, by treating their filtered water with a chemical purifier as a second stage treatment.

About the Survey

This survey was run on the SectionHiker.com website which has over 240,000 unique readers per month, so a large pool of potential respondents. Readers were incented to participate in the survey in exchange for a chance to win a raffle for a piece of backpacking gear. There were 660 people who responded to the survey, but 95 responses were removed as being irrelevant, reducing the number of recorded responses to 565.

While we’re confident that the results are fairly representative of the general backpacking population based on the size of the survey results where n=565 people, we can’t claim that the results are statistically significant. There are also a number of ways in which the results could be biased including: backpackers who read SectionHiker.com might not be representative of all backpackers, backpackers who read Internet content might not be representative of all backpackers, backpackers who respond to raffle incentives might not be representative of all backpackers, our methods for recording responses might have been unconsciously biased, and so on. The author is an expert in statistical analysis, survey, and experimental design and is sensitive to these issues. However, given the size of the respondent pool and the strong consensus among user responses, we believe that the survey results published here will be useful to backpackers and hikers who are interested in learning about the water treatment methods used by their peers.

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31 comments

  1. In the uk I tend to source my water from taps in low level farming areas. Due to the chemicals that can be used on the land. I upland areas I use my tried and trusted,Millbank Type Water Filter Bag. Takes all the thick sediments out, then use tablets. In Scotland it is less a problem in the Highlands. Though I once filled a water bag from a Scottish stream and put a couple of tablets in and sealed it up. Used it to cook with and drink. On the following morning I noticed I’d trapped a moth in the water
    bag when filling the previous day. The moth was still alive and I had no ill effects.

  2. Another UK perspective: I use Oasis tablets and have done for years. No nasty taste, cheap as chips and recommended by the World Health Organisation.

  3. Good work in complying the survey data results. It’s always is nice to see what others in the backpacking/hiking community are doing. Thanks.

  4. You separate Sawyer (mini and squeeze) filters and gravity systems into two groups, However I think you will find that many people use Sawyer filters in a gravity system. Many will also use them as an in-line filter (like a Lifestraw). The versatility of the mini and squeeze certainly contribute to their popularity. I use a Mini. Sometimes I use it in gravity mode, sometimes in squeeze mode, and sometimes I drink right from the filter.

    • But an insignificant number of respondents used it that way and those that do use a sawyer gravity system use one of the sawyer gravity filtering products instead…I’m just reporting on the findings. You do make a good point about the systems flexibility.

  5. Interesting results, but pie charts just plain suck :) From a data persons point of view, this should have been presented in a table where it would be clear what fractions go with what type of water treatment.

    Really surprised by the number of people using a Sawyer, I was under the impression that a lot of backpackers had gone back to chemicals.

    “If you backpack with one or two partners, a pump solution is preferable since you can rapidly purify enough water to “keep going” without requiring a longer stop.”

    I find this reasoning to be weird. My friend and I both have minis, we filter our own water at the same time so it ends up being both quicker and lighter to avoid a pump filter.

    I use a jury-rigged gravity system with a mini for just myself sometimes and if backpacking with my kid.

    • and google docs pie charts suck more than most. but we’re a low budget operation. :-)

    • I am a Boy Scout leader, and we use both Sawyer Squeeze and pump systems. I have mine as a gravity feed system (based off an article from here!), but you don’t have to keep refilling the bag, so the pump is a bit faster.
      In camp, however, the Squeeze set up as a gravity system is popular, since no pumping.

  6. I wonder if anyone is still using Polar Pure? I used it 12 years ago and it recently popped back up on amazon. Effective, light, serious longevity, but slow.

  7. Interesting Stats Philip.

    Did you have many (or any) survey responders that use bleach or colloidal silver?

    My progression has been: Pump (in the 90s and early 2000s), Steripen, bleach, and for the past couple years colloidal silver.

    Colloidal silver is used (and sold as a water treatment additive) outside of the US pretty regularly and its availability can be at ‘the corner store’ in some parts of the world we have lived.

    Over the years, I’ve begun to care less and less about floaties and the look of the water…especially with desert hiking.

  8. I carry a life straw on short hikes, and a general ecology purifier on longer trips. In the winter time I just boil from a stream or melt snow.

    • I rarely hear about the General Ecology filters. I’ve used one for years, the First Need Deluxe…. its been surpassed in weight in recent years and the newer filters are supposed to be purifiers but the GE stuff pioneered non-chemical purifying and has many believers throughout the world traveler population, especially in tropical locations.

  9. I use a modified Sawyer Squeeze/MSR Gravity Flow system. The MSR filter airlocks ALL the time, in my experience, and was quite frustrating. So I ditched it and substituted the Sawyer filter, which always works and is fast! Apparently Sawyer uses a different kind of membrane than MSR (which is disappointing, because I’ve always held MSR in high regard).

    Six years ago, MSR was the only company (that I know of) providing a dirty bag with a wide open top, making for easy filling. I see that the Platypus Gravityworks now also uses a wide open dirty bag. Dirty bags with the round fill holes were not nearly as easy to fill.

    I am also a destination backpacker. We get to our camp, fill the dirty bag, and let it filter while we set up camp (of course, a 4L bag is filtered in less than 6 minutes, usually). We bring an MSR dromedary bag for clean water, which makes it really convenient around camp, especially when the water source is not nearby. And this is just for the 2 or 3 of us. Most water in Colorado is fast-moving and relatively crap free. (Just not giardia free!)

    I’m sure most ultralight campers wouldn’t dream of bringing a “heavy” MSR dromedary bag, but mine is bulletproof, having been used regularly for some 15 years. I teamed it with the MSR Miniworks pump which screwed on to the wide Nalgene opening on the dromedary (or screwed on to a wide Nalgene bottle). Now I screw the gravity system onto the dromedary and it inflates on its own. It even doubles as a water jug on dayhikes sometimes, using the straps to sling it over my shoulders.

    To each his own!

  10. You know you don’t have anything in your method to get the chemicals actually out, right? A millbank bag just filters very big floaties, tablets are good against virusses/bacteria. Boiling also is anti bacterial, and some virusses.

    To filter chemicals, you need an active carbon filter somewhere in there.

    • As I said use water from taps found in farm houses. In high lands,(above the tree line to you). It is generally safe just to take out the sediment and use tablets. I once collected water in a zip lock Platypus and added tablets. Next morning I found a moth in the bottom. It was still alive as was I, no tummy bugs. In December I was given a Swayer water filter and with a short piece of tube have linked it to a Platypus, to make a gravity fed system. Will be trying it out next trip.

      • Oh, I’m not saying it’s not safe enough, I might have misread the part of the chemicals, thinking you meant you were worried about them in the tap water too. That’s why i added that you don’t have anything removing chemicals in your setup :)

      • Hey! What’s the downer with chemicals? My body is made of chemicals.

        Just saying.

        :-)

  11. I only use the Sawyer on Day hikes or as a Backup.. I refuse to give up my First Need Deluxe of some 20 years now without a failure……

  12. I’m wondering what you thought about the MSR Guardian purifier or if you’ve had a chance to take a look at it. So far I love it and have found it to be excellent. The only drawback is the weight, but given that you can pull water from more sources than other options I think it’s worth it.

    • I have carried a Hiker Pro with me for years and it has worked fairly well. It can be a chore to pump and doesn’t work well in shallow water but I’ve never had a problem with getting sick … and I’ve used it with some pretty sketchy water sources while bushwacking throughout Ontario.

      However, its getting old and I was looking for a replacement, which led me to the MSR Guardian which I just ordered this morning. I too was concerned about weight and pack size, but I am willing to overlook these issue to have a reliable way to provide safe drinking water.

      Now with that being said, any mechanical device can fail so I also carry a supply of Aquamira pills in my emergency kit.

    • Too expensive and overkill for anything short of a major expedition to another planet. I’d buy the first need which is 1/3 the price.

      • You are probably correct that the MSR Guardian is overkill for weekend backpackers like myself. However, I do a lot of bushwacking in lowland areas where clear, running water can be difficult if not impossible to locate and I believe the Guardian will provide me with more options.

        Plus, with an estimated 10K L service life, I am hoping that it will serve me well for many years to come.

  13. A the end of the day if it tastes off it probably is off. As far as the multitude of water purifiers on the market goes, you pays your money you made your choice, IMHO.

  14. Will be interesting to see the reviews & experienced users opinions on the new “MSR Guardian” On paper it looks spectacular in terms of speed of filtration, what it filters down to in size, self cleansing etc etc … just expensive, in MSR’s opinion that expense is justified by what it can do. For where we are its hard to find any water (no mountain feed streams) – so what is available could be very poor quality.

  15. I use a steripen, and like it (i don’t love it). The sawyer seems great, but the one thing that holds me back is that it breaks when it reaches freezing temp. A few summers ago i was in the sierras and it got that cold at night. Are there any ways around that? I thought maybe you could put it in a glove or something, but ideally i’d like to hook it up to a gravity system.

  16. Been using Sawyer in-line on Platy bag for 4 years.Recently clogged possibly due to dry climate.Have always used clear stream or lake water then back flushed after trip.Sawyer says to soak in vinegar water and back flush,if that doesn’t work they will replace.

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