What are the best water filter and water purification treatment systems used by backpackers? That really depends on the quality of the water you need to filter or purify, the number of people you need to treat water for, and your personal preferences. For example, squeeze-style water filters, UV purification, and filter bottles tend to be good for solo users and clear water sources, while chemical purification and pump filters/purifiers are good for larger groups and riskier or murkier water sources. Cost and filter longevity are also worth considering.
|Make / Model||Type||Lifetime (in Liters)|
|Sawyer Squeeze||Squeeze Filter||100,000|
|Platypus QuickDraw||Squeeze Filter||1,000|
|Katadyn BeFree||Squeeze Filter||1,000|
|Aquamira Purification Drops||Chemical Purification||120|
|Platypus Gravity Works||Gravity Filter||1,500|
|Katadyn Hiker||Pump Filter||1,100|
|Steripen Ultra||UV Purification||8,000|
|Grayl Geopress||Squeeze Filter||250|
|HydroBlu Versa Flow||Squeeze Filter||100,000|
|MSR Guardian||Pump Purifier||10,000|
Here are the 10 best backpacking water filters and water purification systems we recommend for backpacking, hiking, and camping.
1. Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter
2. Platypus QuickDraw
3. Katadyn BeFree Water Filter
4. Aquamira Water Purifications Drops
5. Platypus Gravity Works
6. Katadyn Hiker Water Filter
7. Steripen Ultra UV Water Purifier
8. Grayl GeoPress Water Purifier Bottle
9. HydroBlu Versa Flow Water Filter
10. MSR Guardian Purifier
How to Choose a Backpacking Water Filter or Purifier
Many natural water sources contain microscopic organisms that can cause illness in humans. Most water filters intended for backcountry use will remove bacteria and protozoa, including giardia and cryptosporidium from these water sources. This is usually sufficient in the United States, Canada, and the UK. Viruses, often found in international water sources, are hard to remove because they are so small. Finer grained filters called purifiers are needed to remove them. They also can be neutralized with chemical purification agents such as chlorine dioxide or ultraviolet light.
There are a wide number of different water filter and purifier types available. Unfortunately, none of them are foolproof or perfectly suited for all kinds of trips and locales. They also differ in ease of use, the length of time it takes for them to process water, and whether they’re good for solo or group use. Here’s a brief summary of the different types and their strengths and weaknesses, with several examples to illustrate the available products in each category.
Squeeze Water Filters
Squeeze filters are single-stage filters that are good for removing bacteria and protozoa, but not viruses. They’re best used with clear water sources that are low in particulates and suspended organic matter to prevent clogging. Processing speed depends on the size of the “dirty” water bottle coupled with the filter and how much pressure the user exerts to push water through it. However, squeeze filters typically slow down with use and must be back-flushed with a cleaning syringe regularly to maintain their flow rate. Some examples:
- Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter System
- Katadyn BeFree 1 Liter Water Filter System
- Platypus QuickDraw Microfilter System
Gravity and Inline Water Filters
Gravity water filters make it possible to process larger quantities of water at once using the power of gravity. A large water reservoir, called “the dirty bag” is hung from a tree with a hose leading to a water filter. The output of the filter flows out another hose to a clean reservoir, called the “clean bag.” A squeeze-style, single-stage filter is typically used. Gravity filters are good for couples and small groups. An inline water filter uses a similar setup, but the user sucks on the output hose rather than running it to a clean bag. Some examples:
- Platypus Gravity Works 4 Liter Water Filter System
- Katadyn BeFree 3 Liter Gravity Water Filter System
- Sawyer 1 Gallon Gravity Filter System (designed for inline filter use)
Bottle and Straw Water Filters
Bottle and straw filters usually use the same single-stage, hollow fiber filters used by squeeze, gravity, and inline water filter systems. The user sucks water stored in a bottle or directly from the water source through the filter, rather than transferring it to secondary storage. They are best used by individuals in places where water is abundant. Some examples:
Pump Water Filters and Purifiers
Pump water filters filter out bacteria and protozoa, while pump water purifiers can also remove viruses. They have hand pumps that force water through the filter and out to secondary storage for future use. While pump filters do require some elbow grease to operate, they usually filter water quite quickly and are suitable for use by couples as well as individuals. Most have a pre-filter at the end of the hose that you drop into the water source to remove particulates and organic matter. This can be very handy when you can’t actually reach the water source, like down a steep embankment. They can also be cleaned and replacement filters are usually available. Some examples:
Chemical Water Purification
Chemical water purifiers are available in tablet or liquid form. The best chemical ingredient is chlorine dioxide, which has virtually no taste or color and kills bacteria, protozoa, and viruses. Chemical purification is best used by individuals rather than couples or groups because it takes anywhere from 15 minutes to 4 hours to fully purify water, far longer than other methods. While it is very lightweight, it is relatively expensive when compared to other methods. Many hikers carry chlorine dioxide as a backup to a second primary filter or purification method, as a result. Some examples:
Ultraviolet Light Water Purification
Ultraviolet Light is an effective form of water purification that neutralizes bacteria, protozoa, and viruses. It is best used with clear water since it doesn’t remove any particulates or organic matter. While UV purification is relatively fast, it’s not good for processing large quantities of water. It also depends on working batteries, which can run out of power. Still, it’s one of the few options that works well for cold water when there’s a risk of freezing a filter or purifier and ruining it.
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Is it KAT-a-dyne or kah-TAH-din?
I’m quickly becoming a huge fan of the HydroBlu Versa Flow with two CNOC Vecto 3L bags. Makes a fantastic gravity filtration and water storage system at 7.8 ounces total, and requires a minimum of time investment. The inspection window and anti-leak caps are thoughtfully designed, and the HydroBlu’s ability to be an inline filter or even a straw filter makes it even more useful.
Is this list in best-to-worst order? If so (having read your reviews of both) what makes you rate Sawyer best and Versaflow next-to- worst?
Everyone’s needs are different – so we pick the 10 best to help direct readers to the best products so they don’t waste time and money on crap. No ranking is implied.
I suspect most readers will see this and conclude Sawyer as ranked first, despite the Hydoblue review that says it is superior. I have been posting about this on lots of fora and social media sites for several years. At outfitter stored, i ask why they only carry the Sawyer, and make dure they know i will shop on line for filters due to their limited selection. The ubiquity of the Sawyer is a mystery.
It’s pretty simple. They were the first to market with a hollow fiber filter with bundled reservoirs and got the biggest market share because of it. That’s the benefit of being first. That said, they do test each filter before they sell it. Platypus is the only other manufacturer that I know of that does the same. So there is a quality benefit as well.
Are Aquatabs equal to Aquamira and Katadyn tablets?
No – aquatabs is does not kill crypto like Aquamira or Katadyn Micropur.
Read about it here.
Thanks, Phillip; I was hoping that’s what you’d say!
That’s good to know. I had Cryptosporidium once, from a municipal water supply that sickened many people. it was an awful experience.
You recommend the Katadyn hiker. Have you ever reviewed the hiker pro and do they both filter the same or is there a difference in filtering.
I’ve not reviewed the Pro, but it’s identical to the Katadyn Hiker, except for the transparent housing. Really. Hard to believe they charge more for it.
I like the Katadyn hiker because you can pump out of small water sources which is difficult to impossible with the bag or gravity types and is easy to pump. You can put a coffee filter over the inlet tube as a pre-filter if necessary. I also have an MSR trailshot and used it on the Colorado Trail but my experience is it can be difficult to pump. I have not had ill affects using either one.
Personal ignorance – Are the Survivor line of filters inherently bad or is there a fatal flaw as to why I never see them mentioned anywhere?
I think it’s primarily a matter of trust before you even get to checking the specs. No one has heard of them and they’re not sold in REI.
Incidentally, I just bought a pair of their soft bottles on Amazon to see if they’re any good. Haven’t used them yet.
BeFree is only 32 g (no caps) which I think is by far the lightest. I also like the faster flow when working properly and large opening fills faster. After many years and a good amount of use mine did eventually slow down to around the speed of my Sawyer. I think my Sawyer has slowed down too, but was never near BeFree. I’d like to see actual flow rate comparison for new BeFree, Platypus, and Sawyer. The Platy claimed flow of 3L/M vs 2L/M for BeFree is compelling if that is actually true.
I own the Platypus Quickdraw and absolutely love it. I have not been able to compare it to others because I just got started hiking this year and this is the only filter I have bought. In my opinion it is quick and does a great job. Took it on a 3 day trip on the AT from Three Forks to Hawk Mtn and filtered water for me and my senior aged cousin. Took no time at all to filter 4 liters of water.
tried different squeeze filters and they didn’t relly suit. I ended up with a katadyn vario..Ueah it is heavier but it screws directly on to a big mouth bottle or bag, is fast and it takes out all those tannins. I know ir is just cosmetic but having clear water rather than filtered water that resembles tea is a bit of a psychological boost sometimes.
The speed means I carry a smaller bottle and filter when needed which offsets the weight. It is also handy for hikingbwith others.
Nothing wrong with pumps.
Hiking in the southeast, a BeFree (or similar filter) is great while hiking because of the pretty reliable availability of water right along the trail. I’ve begun using the BeFree and Aquamira on trips, with the AM for in-camp treatment. I also have a Guardian, largely for home emergency use. But I used it last October in southeast Utah and because of flash flooding, the water was amazingly muddy. Eventually, the Guardian clogged – it’s self-cleaning ability was overwhelmed. Not the fault of the filter, though. Just something to keep in mind. I wasn’t prepared to strain my water before filtering.
I own 5 of these filters and use is based on assumed quality of source. For a sobering treatise on water purification, I recommend watching the YouTube videos of the Gear Skeptic. It will take a couple hours but the quickest summary is those 9’s to the right of the decimal point are important. As backcountry usage and urban development increase, I think those parts per million of unwanted organisms will only increase and past success of a filter of choice may not continue. Off topic, I don’t get obsession of saving a minute or two filtering and boiling water. Most times, what’s the hurry?
Crypto comes from human feces. As humanity expands into the countryside, there will be more human waste leeching into the water supply. That’s when you should think about purification methods, not just filters. Purification: chlorine dioxide tablets, steripen, or pump purifier. Take your pick.
I use the Sawyer Mini and Squeeze filters. They’re easy to use.
But, if you want a good filter and feel good about your purchase then you should know, that Sawyer has donated over 1 million Squeeze filters to over 80 developing countries throughout the world. They work with non-profit groups to setup and train villagers to use the Squeeze in combination with 5-gallon buckets to provide clean drinking water.
A good list. Our scout group is doing a 5-day backpacking trip on Isle Royale N.P. in late May. The NPS recommends a water filter + chemical treatment or water filter + UV treatment.
There is no Sawyer that really EVER got 100,000 liters of use. Every one of these lightweight filters, either Sawyer, BeFree ect dies very early even with perfect use and seemingly pristine clear alpine streams. Honestly I always take an extra BeFree as a backup, and more times than not, end up needing it on long trips. I did hear of a guy who made a Sawyer last a whole AT thruhike, but don’t count on it. Be realistic. It’s a series of tiny filter tubes with near microscopic pores. Thus it WILL clog. My issue is if I don’t use it for 3-4 months (usually don’t winter section hike), these micro-filters dry out and without a LOT of white vinegar and hot water rehab, are unusable. Just wanted to reiterate what you have indicated in other articles. For me, just way too many failures over many years to rely on just one filter unless it’s a short weekender trip.
10 years ago, they claimed that the filters could process 1 million liters of water! They were forced to change that one.