Fresh, clean water is essential when you’re camping; you’ll want it for drinking, cooking and brushing your teeth at a minimum. The only problem with water is it’s heavy. A one-quart bottle will last you a few hours in warm weather but weighs two pounds – plus the weight of the bottle.
If you’re in a campsite or out with your RV that won’t be a problem, but for backpackers it’s a big deal. There’s a limit to how much you can carry and it isn’t enough to last you more than a day or two.
Obviously the solution is to collect water as you go, but natural water sources are often unsafe to drink. Bacteria, parasites and protozoans can all be harmful, as can some pollutants. A common solution is to add purification tablets, which contain a chemical – usually chlorine or iodine – that kills microorganisms.
These won’t do anything about suspended pollution though, and can also give the water an unpleasant taste. Both these problems can be solved by carrying a good water filter.
Older filters would remove particles from the water, but it still needed to be chemically sterilized. A modern one will remove bacteria, protozoans and most pollutants, so you don’t usually have to add a purification tablet.
Some will even remove viruses, although these are usually very expensive. Viruses aren’t usually a problem in US water sources anyway, although some – particularly Hepatitis A – can be a hazard abroad.
Factors to Evaluate a Good Water Filter
When you’re looking for a water filter there are a few factors to consider. The importance you give each of them will depend on exactly what you need it for – a week at a campsite in the USA has different needs to a long backpacking trip in India. Here are some points to look at:
- Weight and bulk. For backpacking you need a light, compact system for easy carriage – and, if you’re going to need replacement filters for a longer trip, they should be compact too.
- Filter size. The effectiveness of a filter depends on how fine it is. The finer the filter, the smaller the particles it can remove from water. Most modern filters are effective down to at least 0.2 microns. That will extract bacteria, other single-celled organisms and any pollution particles – but not viruses.
- Filters work by catching particles and organisms, so they eventually become contaminated. Some use ceramic elements that can be scrubbed clean but most use replaceable cartridges.
- Flow rate. Water takes time to pass through a filter and some can be very slow. Hand pumps speed up the process, but add weight and bulk.
Balance the features each filter offers with what you need. If one filter will be providing water for a larger group you’ll need a higher flow rate, or else you’ll be spending all your time filtering water, but the weight of replacement cartridges is less important.
If you’re going to be in an area with viral risks either an additional sterilizer – tablets or a UV light – will be needed, unless you pay more for a top-end filter. Luckily there’s a wide choice available, covering all the options. Here are our top-rated backpacking filters:
Top 3 Recommendations
Features At A Glance:
- 100,000 gallon lifespan
- 5 inch long, 4 inch diameter
- Drinking straw
- 1 micron filter
The Sawyer Products SP103 MINI Water Filtration System, Single, Orange is a compact filter that’s perfect for backpacking or in an emergency kit. The filter unit weighs less than an ounce and a half, and can be fitted to a small-mouth water bottle.
That makes it ideal for lightweight camping – you can fill the bottle from a creek, attach the filter then drink directly from a detachable straw that fits into the end of the filter.
With the straw you can also use the Mini to suck water directly from a water source. Alternatively you can fill a bottle, screw the unit on then pour filtered water into a storage container.
The Mini’s cartridge isn’t replaceable, but it does have an extremely good lifespan – 100,000 gallons of reasonably clear water. However it is quite slow, so it’s not ideal if you want to filter a large amount of water in a hurry.
On the other hand that’s not what it’s intended for. For keeping one person supplied with enough water for cooking and drinking it does the job very well.
With a 0.2 micron capacity the Mini will remove any bacteria or microorganism, as well as suspended particles of dirt or contaminants. It won’t remove viruses though, so if that’s a risk in the area you’re traveling it’s best to filter the water into a storage bottle, then either use a UV sterilizer or tablet to eliminate the problem.
Water filtered with the Mini doesn’t pick up any chemical aftertaste, so it’s perfectly pleasant to drink.
The Sawyer Mini comes with the drinking straw and a cleaning syringe. If the unit gets blocked after filtering dirty water the syringe, filled with clean water, can be used to flush it out with a backflow which should wash the gunk off the filter.
This is an effective and compact product, and at $25 (Sawyer Products SP103 MINI Water Filtration System, Single, Orange) it’s also by far the most affordable filter we’ve looked at.
Verdict: With an outstandingly good filter life, tiny size and great price, this is a definite winner for lightweight backpackers.
Features At A Glance:
- 375 gallon filter life
- Hollow fiber filter
- Twin-bag system
The Platypus GravityWorks High-Capacity Water Filter System for Group Camping and Emergency Preparedness, 4.0 Liter is a larger and heavier system than the Sawyer Mini, but at just under 12 ounces it’s still fairly lightweight and the largest parts are the two storage bags, which can be easily rolled up and squashed away in your gear.
The system is available with two sizes of bags – either two or four liters. One is a “dirty” bag, to be filled from a water source, and the other is the “clean” bag. The filter itself sits between the two.
Although the GravityWorks looks clumsy it turned out to be incredibly easy to use. The only tricky part is filling the “dirty” bag, which can be difficult if you’re trying to get water from a small pool. It might be necessary to scoop it out with a cup and pour it into the bag. Once the bag is full, however, you simply zip it closed and connect the filter and clean bag.
After that gravity will do the work. The dirty bag has a strap, so it can be hung from a tree or fence, but it also works fine if you just place the dirty bag on a rock or seat – as long as it’s above the clean bag. The flow rate is also high, at around five minutes for a full gallon. This is faster than almost all the pump systems.
The large bags mean the GravityWorks can double as a storage system; the zip seal on the dirty bag is watertight, so it can be carried full. With the four liter model you can store or carry two full gallons of water – half ready to drink, the other half ready to filter as soon as the clean bag is empty.
While this is a high-capacity system it’s still light and compact enough for a single backpacker to carry – and its storage ability lets you make the most of every water source you find.
It has a 0.2 micron filter that will clear out bacteria and other organisms, but not viruses, so you may need an additional sterilizer. It’s also affordable at around $90-120 depending on the capacity.
Verdict: A clever and effective high-volume filter, ideal for individuals or small groups. You can Platypus GravityWorks High-Capacity Water Filter System for Group Camping and Emergency Preparedness, 4.0 Liter.
LifeSaver Bottle 6000UF
Features At A Glance:
- 1,500 gallon filter life
- Ultrafine filter
- Integrated bottle
This is the most expensive filter we looked at by a long way – expect to pay around $230 retail (I found mine LIFESAVER Water Filtration Filter Bottle Purifier kit for Camping Emergency prep Backpacking Hiking Outdoor System Travel Virus Bacteria & Cyst Removal Bottle 6000UF). This seems excessive at first glance, because it’s a simple-looking bottle with a screw-in filter.
You just fill the bottle with dirty water and insert the filter; clean water can then be drunk straight from the bottle or poured into a separate storage container. The 6000UF is the largest bottle in the LifeSaver range, with the longest filter life; it’s suitable for groups of up to four.
It’s when you look at the filter specifications that the reason for the LifeSaver’s price becomes obvious. The filter clears out particles down to 0.015 microns – it’s twelve times as efficient as the others we tested.
The smallest virus known to science is parvovirus and that measures 0.018 microns, so the LifeSaver Bottle will remove everything from the most contaminated water. Bacteria, viruses, pesticide residue, heavy metals – it gets rid of it all.
The water that comes out isn’t just clean – it’s literally sterile enough to use for surgery. That makes this system ideal for long backpacking trips in remote areas. The filter also has a failsafe system; it becomes totally blocked before it starts to fail, so it’s impossible to drink contaminated water through it.
The LifeSaver Bottle is expensive, but no more than having to buy a filter and UV sterilizer. Modern materials also make it sturdy and light. For foreign exploration or backpacking this is the ideal choice.
Verdict: A top of the line filter, with a high price tag but more than enough performance to justify it. As an outdoor nerd, this is absolutely my favorite survival “gadget”. Well worth the investment. Be sure to check LIFESAVER Water Filtration Filter Bottle Purifier kit for Camping Emergency prep Backpacking Hiking Outdoor System Travel Virus Bacteria & Cyst Removal Bottle 6000UF.
Sam Hardy is an outdoor enthusiast with a penchant for survival skills. He writes about the great outdoors and his favorite equipment here.