It’s crucial to have access to clean drinking water when heading into the backcountry. To accomplish this, you first have to make a choice. Pump filter, gravity filter, straw filter, UV light, or chemicals.
Below I’ll break down my leading choice from each category. They’re all reliable products, but they each have their shortcomings. My goal is to make the selection process a little easier on you.
Best Pump Filter (Nick’s Pick)
The MSR Guardian ($340) is pricey, but it’s the most high-tech yet easy-to-use piece of gear I have.
- It’s fast, you can fill-up a nalgene in about :45 seconds.
- It’s reliable, it’s built to withstand heavy use, freezing, and drops.
- It’s safe, not only does it filter bacteria and protozoa, it also filters viruses. Removing viruses usually requires chemical treatment or UV lighting.
- But most importantly, it cleans itself, which is a deal-breaker for me!
I’ve owned other pump filters and they eventually get the job done, but when
you’re kayaking in murkey river water, you’ll find that you have to scrub your filter clean every few liters, and that can get old real quick.
With the Guardian, this isn’t an issue. The geniuses at MSR designed it to clean itself. With each stroke, about 10% of the water is used to help flush the filter clean.
I purchased mine about a year and a half ago, shortly after they hit the market. Yes, it was expensive, but I now have the peace of mind on the trail, the river, or if I find myself stuck in a natural disaster zone as I did after Hurricane Katrina.
The MSR Guardian is on the heavy side (22 oz.) and it does come with a hefty price tag, so if you’re not looking to break the bank, you may want to read on.
Best Straw Filter (Best Buy)
The Sawyer Mini ($21-$25) is lightweight (1.4 oz), and inexpensive, but it’s not for everyone. The Sawyer Mini is great for the Ultralight backpacker that’s only required to gather water for themselves.
The mini can be used to drink directly from the source, like holding a filtered straw in a stream.
Or it can be utilized with a collapsible bag/bottle.
Sharing this filter with a friend is doable, but it’s a pain. The Mini is intended to be a personal filter.
You also need to make sure the Mini does not freeze. That can damage the hollow fiber membrane.
After some moderate use, you’ll be required to flush out the filter with the included cleaning plunger. It doesn’t take long, but the extra pieces make it a little clumsy.
If you’re filtering some questionably murky water, you may find yourself flushing frequently.
Since the Sawyer Mini only costs around $20-$25, it makes sense to get one for an emergency bug-out-bag. Even if you already have a quality filter.
Best Gravity Filter (Best for Families or Groups)
If you’re looking for something affordable, lightweight and good for groups, I’d recommend the Platypus GravityWorks ($70-$120).
The Platypus looks big, but the bags roll-up and it only weighs 12 ounces.
The gravity filter consists of two bags. One for dirty water and one for clean water. Fill up the dirty bag, hold it or hook it above the clean bag, and a filter works with gravity to do the rest.
No pumping is required, and you can treat 4 liters (just over a gallon) in about 5 minutes.
The Platypus is a smart design, the dirty bag can be unzipped wide open but the clean bag cannot. This design makes you less likely to dip the clean bag in a stream or lake.
The Platypus typically lists for $120, but I’ve seen the price drop to as low as $70, which is a steal.
Like the Sawyer Mini, you need to make sure the filter portion of the Platypus does not freeze. You can prevent this by wrapping the filter in some clothes at night or put it in your sleeping bag.
Also, like the Sawyer Mini, you’ll need to flush the filter now and then.
UV Lights (International Travel)
For me, UV water purification is suitable as a supplement to filtration. With the exception of the MSR Guardian, water filters don’t kill or block viruses. Viruses in the water are not a problem in the United States, but they can be an issue in other countries.
The SteriPEN Ultra is designed to destroy germs’ ability to reproduce and make you sick; The SteriPEN claims to destroy over 99.9% of bacteria, viruses, and protozoa.
What bothers me about the SteriPEN is that you don’t see anything happen.
If you’re going to be hiking in a foreign country, you may want to use a filter and UV Light. Or you could just use the MSR Guardian.
Chemical Treatment (Emergencies and “Plan B”)
Chemicals are not my primary source of treating water, but I keep some in my pack for emergencies and peace of mind.
Aquamira Water Treatment Drops are cheap and lightweight. I’ve never had a filter fail, so I’ve never had to rely solely on chemicals. However, I have used them to augment purification because the water I was pumping was just that awful.
Why not always use Chemicals you ask? Well, they make the water taste funny. I suppose I could get used to it, but I’d rather not.