When is a Pump Water Filter or Purifier Better for Backpacking?

When is a pump water filter better for backpacking?

Pump water filters and purifiers are often better suited for filtering water from muddy puddles, silt-choked rivers, and other sketchy sources than squeeze-style water filters, bottle filters, chemical purifiers, and UV purifiers. Unlike other methods, they use a two-stage process to remove contaminants. While pump filters are heavier to carry than other filters and water purification methods, they have other benefits that are worth considering, including:

  • Faster for group use
  • Prefilters remove glacial till and biologicals that can muck up a filter
  • Long hose makes it easier to filter water from ponds, puddles, potholes, or down steep streambanks
  • Direct connection to bottles and reservoirs reduces the risk of cross-contamination
  • The internal filter element is replaceable

Faster for Groups

If you’ve even had to filter water for two people or more, it’s nice to be able to drop the hose from a pump filter into a water source and pump all the water you need without having to stop, refill a bladder, filter it and then repeat the process over and over, which you need to do with a single-person squeeze filter or gravity filter system. If you’ve ever had to refill all the water bottles in a scout group or for a multi-person camping trip, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

A Prefilter Removes Solids Before They Reach the Filter

Pump-style filters usually have a prefilter at the end of the hose to remove suspended solids or biologicals before they get anywhere near the filter element. This is useful when you need to filter water from a muddy stream or river that has suspended solids in it or from puddles that have moss, tadpoles, and other biologicals swimming around in them. All of these will gum up a squeeze filter or other single-stage filter and make it virtually impossible to use.

A prefilter at the end of the intake hose strains out glacial till, sand, and other biologicals before they ever get to the filter element.
A prefilter at the end of the intake hose strains out glacial till, sand, and other biologicals before they ever get to the filter element, while the hose makes it easier to reach shallow or hard to access water sources.

Long Hose For Filtering Still Water and Hard to Reach Sources

Pump water filters and purifiers have hoses that make it easy to collect still water from ponds, puddles, desert potholes, or streams with very steep banks. Without that hose, you’d have to carry another container to scoop the water into or scramble down a steep river bank repeatedly to get enough water to satisfy your needs.

Direct Connection Reduces Cross-Contamination

Cross-contamination can occur when unfiltered or unpurified water leaks into your output bottle. This can happen because it dribbles down the outside of your filter or because you accidentally touch the threads of the output bottle with “dirty” hands. Most pump filters screw onto an output bottle or reservoir and can mitigate this problem. Almost all of them screw onto a wide-mouth Nalgene size opening, including Nalgene Bottles, Nalgene Soft Canteens, and MSR Dromedary Reservoirs. Some also have adaptors for other bottle sizes.

Direct connection between the filter and output bottle reduces the risk of cross contamination
Direct connection between the filter and output bottle reduces the risk of cross-contamination

Internal Filter Element is Replaceable

While pump filters can be backflushed or cleaned to improve their flow rates, they also have replaceable filter elements so you don’t have to throw the entire product away when the filter wears out. In this respect, they’re less wasteful than other types of water filters or purifiers.

Pump Water Filters and Purifiers Comparison

Make / ModelWeightPore SizeFilter MediaFilter LifePriceReplacement Filter
MSR MiniWorks EX17 oz0.2 micronCeramic2000L$85$40
MSR Guardian17.3 oz0.02 micronsHollow fiber10000L$350$180
MSR HyperFlow7.8 oz0.2 micronHollow fiber1000L$100$40
Katadyn Hiker11 oz0.2 micronGlass Fiber750L$75$50
Katadyn Hiker Pro11 oz0.2 micronGlass Fiber750L$85$50
Katadyn Vario16 oz0.2 micronCeramic, Glass Fiber2000L$95$45
Katadyn Pocket19 oz0.2 micronCeramic50000L$370NA
General Ecology First Need16 oz0.4 micronGlass fiber680L$109$50
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15 comments

  1. Not sure I agree with much of this.
    I started with an MSR pump filter. The cheap plastic housing allowed for too much play and the rubber gasket (odd-sized) blew. No washers in hardware stores and MSR wanted $20 for a 10 cent piece of rubber. Yet another poor design from MSR that has had me swear off their gear. Who needs a headache in the back country.
    Then i went the Katadyn ceramic filter pump. It is indestructible and reliable. But heavy. And sorry, it needs to be cleaned ALOT in sketchy water – prefilter of not.
    Finally, I went platy gravity works. Attachments make it easy to remain sterile. I can fill my Nalgene bottles and water bladder while it still in the pack – no problem. Prefilters can be as easy as using your bandanna.
    Pumping faster than gravity for groups. Huh? Maybe if you carry an electric pumper. Who wants to pump 10-20 liters. Not me. I will let gravity do the work while enjoy nature with my friends. And gravity does do it quickly. The advertised flow rates are pretty realistic.
    Finally, the gravity filters are inexpensive and easily replaceable, with no greater waste than internal filter pumps. Likely less. Need to see data on that one rather than opinions – mine or yours.
    Hose length is a pro? Really? In the past 25 years this has never been an issue.

    • So, in other words you have no applicable experience to refute these points…sorry brother, but you haven’t added to this post.

      • Once you go gravity, you never go back

        I guess a lot like you.
        Wait – I guess you offer mindless snark.
        And I actually offer 25 years backpacking/backcountry experience in the desert southwest where water is precious and scarce.
        Go back to your couch and enjoy your chips and soda.

  2. Scoutmaster here. A pump filter really is much faster for group filtering (20L) than a gravity filter. You just sit there and pump whereas with a gravity system you have to fill it 5 times, hang it, etc. Believe me that takes forever. We found this out the hard way and now carry and MSR Guardian on our Scout trips.

    • Eagle Scout here (long ago). Ah yes, large numbers of boisterous adolescents. With energy to burn.
      I dunno, for the platypus, flow rates of 1 liter per minute or more are standard, so 20 liters does not take long, with very little energy expenditure.
      Admittedly, with the advent of gravity filters I gave up on pump filters long ago. I see now that reported max flow rates have improved over time for pump filters, especially on those that use filter types pioneered by gravity flow devices.
      Platypus back flush takes only 5 sec although I see the msr guardian is self-cleaning. Hope that avoids the need for filter scrubbing.
      It seems the pricing for the MSR guardian is outlandish.
      That said, I really can’t talk as i own the katadyn pocket. It sits in the back of my gear closet now. For many years. No need to go back to it.
      Cost, ease of use, reliability, weight are the big pros for me and keep me in gravity world.
      Note: I get no renumeration for my gravity flow enthusiasm. ?

  3. When I did the AT 16 years ago there were not many choices for filters. I used a Katadyn pump but I put a coffee filter over the intake with an elastic and that prefiltered even more especially Where the water was not clear.

  4. The long hose on my First Need helps me fetch water that I can’t reach. Recently I was walking along a canal with steep backs and ran out of water. But I was able to get more by dropping the hose down the bank and pump it up through my purifier.

  5. I use both types as well. One suggestion for the pump filters is to put a coffee filter around the prefilter tied off with a girl’s hair band (the kind that holds girl’s ponytails in place—they are waterproof and resist breaking).

    The coffee filter over the prefilter keeps glacial till and other small particulates such as sand from getting to the system and wearing it out.

  6. I did a trip that involved a lot of glacier silt using Sawyer squeeze and Platypus filters(it was a group trip). All our water was glacial runoff and usually cloudy. Over 10 days we put 10-15L through each filter. I worried the filters would clog up with all of the silt but it was not a problem at all. In fact the contamination I get from relatively clear waters from Ontario clog those filters up faster in my experience. The glacial silt flushed out with no trouble at all.

    Sample size of 1, perhaps we got lucky, I world love to hear if others have seen the same.

    • A few years ago, I did a five day kayak trip down the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande with a couple brothers in law. The river is very silty, so much so that you can hear the grit against the sides of your boat as it flows past. We used Sawyer Mini filters and they flushed out very well. We had to backflush for every couple liters we filtered but those filters didn’t clog up with the silt and quit working. We’re still using them.

  7. I marvel at how little experience people have with pump filters. Yes they are heavier than sawyers but they are sometimes, as Philip describes, a much better tool for the job. You should try one sometime. Light is not always right. I’ve filtered plenty of horrible muddy water off the sides of boardwalks with a First Need like the one in the top picture which I wouldn’t think of trying to put through a Sawyer. Prefilters rock.

  8. Douglas A Stephens

    Spent 5 weeks on the Noatak and Colville Rivers in Gates of the Arctic National Park and NPR-A this summer. Without fail I was able to find a pool of clear settled out water at every campsite. While I personally use Aquamira (which, btw, can disinfect silty water with enough dosage and/or exposure time) this means that any type of filtration system would have worked just as well. I enjoyed the daily ritual of walking the river bank or gravel bar searching for the appropriate pool to use. This worked even during a major flood event after 30 hours of rain. I see this as a skill that makes equipment choice less critical.

    What I’m wondering is if anyone has actually had to drink silty glacial water. Does it really mess with you digestion/innards? If one can actually drink glacially silted water after purifying with aquamira, it would make my system more robuts. I wouldn’t want to make a habit of it, just curious to know what the consequences would be for the short term.

  9. We have used our MSR mini for years and marvel at its engineering and convenience; however, we have an unsolved incident from a recent hike in Prince Albert National Park that left us relying on purification tablets (yuk!) for the next day or so. Always take a back-up unless you like stopping to watch water boil. Anyway, we had pumped likely drinkable water (tested monthly by park staff) from a northern wilderness lake through a boiled and properly dried out filter, as per instructions, in good condition. When we drank the water only minutes later we got a “burning” sensation in the back roof of our mouths. Water bottles were clean. I inspected the system and all was good. I cut the filter open and it appeared fine inside and out. We’re baffled. Park staff are baffled. Sadly, MSR did not respond but maybe they’re working on it. I expect some sort of bad chemistry related to the ceramic filter but so far have no certainty. The old filter was easy to replace when we got home and I don’t think I’ll boil and store a used filter again. Still love the filter though.

  10. 20 years ago I did two trips to Aconcagua in Argentina. We were with guides. At high altitude (17,000 ft. +) the only water we could get was from the melting glacier. We had to wait until well into daylight for the sun to melt the ice enough for us to fill up with water. The runoff was so silty and gravelly that filters were useless they would clog almost instantly. AS I recall, the chances of giardia or anything at that altitude was non existent so the water went untreated. What happened then was that everything we ate (instant oatmeal, mashed potatoes, etc.) was chock full of gravel so with any solid freeze dry meal it was best to chew very cautiously and sparingly. Nothing happened to us at all. Eating gravel was the least of our worries. Some said that the glacial water itself could make you sick, but I never saw or felt any evidence of that. For all I know, silt and gravel, while visually unappealing, may very well be good for you.

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