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.
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.
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.