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Any time you plan an outdoor activity lasting more than a few hours you’re going to need to consider water. It’s essential for cooking, washing, and drinking, and without it, you’re going to be in serious trouble. If you are going for some days, it might not be comfortable to bring a lot of tiny water bottle units.
Also, bringing some liters of water will add a lot of weight to your backpack. Depending on the weather you’re going to need a bare minimum of four pints a day, and usually more like double that, and a pint of water weighs a pound.
You can carry enough for an overnight trip but go out for any longer and you’re going to need to pick up more supplies as you go, including some gallons of safe drinking water. If you plan to stop at campsites there might be not contaminated water available there but often you’re going to have to collect it from natural sources, which might be safe to drink but still have some bacteria and parasites.
Bottom Line Up Front: YES, the Lifestraw Personal Water Filter really does work. In fact, it’s one of the easiest to use best value filters on the market (available here via Amazon).
The problem is that natural water sources are often far from safe. In the developing world, millions of people die every year from waterborne diseases and even in the USA, you can have a pretty bad time if you drink from the wrong place because of all the bacteria and parasites.
Bacteria, viruses and protozoans all thrive in water and can cause nasty – even lethal – infections and contaminated water can also contain particles of toxic metals or industrial pollution. It’s vital to make sure any that you collect is safe.
There are several ways of making water safe, with sterilizing tablets and boiling being two of the best known to make sure you get some safe drinking water. They’re not perfect though. Both will kill microorganisms but they won’t remove suspended particles, and the water they produce doesn’t taste great either. Boiling leaves it flat and deoxygenated, while tablets leave an aftertaste of chlorine or iodine.
Luckily you can now get highly effective filters or a portable water filter capable of removing virtually all contamination from water. Not only are they safer than boiling or tablets, they’re also faster – and most of them don’t affect the taste of your water source.
Water filters come in all shapes and sizes, and there are a few things to consider before buying a portable water purifier. Some key points are:
For backpacking, a personal survival water filter kit or your bug-out bag the best option is usually a lightweight one-piece filter that will eliminate everything down to protozoa. We think the best, and certainly, the best known, on the market is the LifeStraw Personal Water Filter. For larger-scale systems, check these out.
LifeStraw now make a family of filter units but their best-known product is the original LifeStraw Personal Water Filter.
This was developed for disaster relief organizations and for distribution in the developing world, but as it’s priced at around $25 it’s become very popular with backpackers and preppers as well. It’s a disposable unit – you can’t replace the filter when it becomes clogged – but with a 1,000-liter life that’s not a big problem, you will be able to filter some gallons of water.
The best thing about the LifeStraw is its simplicity. It’s just a lightweight (but very tough) plastic tube with a mouthpiece at one end and a hole at the other. The inside is filled with a microfiber filter cartridge. It’s nine inches long, an inch in diameter and weighs just two ounces, so it’s ideal for ultralight backpacking, and using it couldn’t be easier.
You just stick the open end in the water and suck it up through the mouthpiece. Even a muddy stream or stagnant puddle will give you fresh, clean drinking water with a LifeStraw, and it’s a very quick process.
With larger filters, you usually have to set it up, fill the reservoir and wait for the water to flow through into a collection bottle, but with the LifeStraw you just remove the protective caps and drink.
As you’d expect from such a simple design using the LifeStraw is a breeze. The instructions say you should stand it with the open end in the water for a minute before starting to drink, so capillary action will start water moving up through the fibers, then take five sharp sucks to get it flowing.
That’s good advice; do it that way and the water will flow freely. If you’re really in a rush you can just submerge the end and suck hard until water starts coming out. It takes a little more effort, but it works.
In fact, it works really well. The LifeStraw can deliver water at a good rate, fast enough to let you drink normally. It also doesn’t leave any after taste because there aren’t any chemicals involved in the water purification process.
If the water you’re drinking is very muddy the bottom of the filter can sometimes get clogged, but blowing through it should clear it out and let you continue drinking.
Safety is a vital consideration with the best water filters, and this one scores highly in that department. The filter size is 0.2 microns, which is pretty small. Any suspended particles – mud, algae and anything organic – are guaranteed to be caught. Most bacteria are from 0.5 to 5 microns across so it’s also very efficient at trapping those.
The occasional one might get through but it’s rated at 99.9999% effective against bacterial contamination; that means you have essentially no chance of being infected.
Protozoans are larger than bacteria but some of them release small spores which aren’t as easily filtered; even so, the LifeStraw is 99.99% effective, which again means there’s no real risk.
The filter does have limits. Viruses range in size from 0.3 microns (which it will catch) down to just 0.2 microns, so it isn’t really effective against them.
The good news is that while this could be a problem in some developing countries you don’t usually have to worry about viruses in US water sources. What you might encounter is chemical contamination, and it won’t filter that out either. If you suspect the water contains industrial pollution don’t try to filter it with your LifeStraw.
The only real drawback with this filter is that you can’t use it to produce clean water for cooking – you can only drink directly from the mouthpiece. We tried holding it upside down and trickling water in the bottom, but without the suction, it drips through very, very slowly.
If you want to fill bottles with potable water get a Sawyer Mini, but if it’s drinking water you need the LifeStraw is very hard to beat. It’s tough, effective, affordable and extremely simple; every backpacker should carry one of these, and make sure to stash at least one per person in your bug-out bag or emergency preparedness kit. If you want to feel good about the purchase,
LifeStraw uses a share of their profits to donate large community filters to villages in the developing world.
Verdict: An economical and effective filter that’s equally good for outdoor sports or emergency use – and weighs next to nothing. You can check it out here, at this Amazon listing, or at REI.com right here (members receive dividend).
For a full overview of our top recommended water filters for hiking, check out this page. Otherwise, the following two are similar to the Lifestraw and might do the trick for you.
Even the smallest viruses get filtered out, along with suspended heavy metals and most pollution.
Sam Hardy is an outdoor enthusiast with a penchant for survival skills. He writes about the great outdoors and his favorite equipment here.