Backpacking water filters – comparative review

If you adventures often take you far and wide, it stands to reason to be well prepared for anything you can prepare for. Warm clothes, a tent and sufficient amount of food are a few obvious ones but how many people would have the presence of mind to think of water filtration system. Sure, there is water most places and you can refill your bottles but how drinkable that water may be, remains a risky uncertainty. With all bacteria, viruses and other contaminants lurking in the water, it is best to go out prepared with a decent water filter. Since there are many of those out there, making it especially difficult to choose the right one for you, we have prepared an extensive comparative review to ease your choice. We will first peek into the different varieties available on the market and will then move on to the evaluation criteria to give you a more structured breakdown how we looked into different models.

Practical aspects of water filters

Everyday city life can be characterized as more stressful rather than physically exhaustive and therefore requires less water and energy intake. When we are undertaking a journey in the mountains for example, the amount of food and water our body requires increases dramatically. This constitutes an issue considering the limited supply of water most of us are prepared to carry on a long journey when other equipment is also vital, meaning you end up with an overall heavy backpack.

In most places in North America and Europe, finding a water source is relatively easy. This is only good news up to a point because not every water source is suitable for drinking. There are various viruses, cysts, bacteria, parasites and other diseases which are normally supplied by the feces of forest animals such as beavers, deer, foxes and others. While carrying a huge water supply is one very uncomfortable option, bringing a nice little compact device to filter the water may be a vastly better solution to the problem.

Types of backpacking water filters

In this review, we will take a closer look into models that fall in four different categories:
Pump filters. Extremely common and somewhat old-fashioned already but still doing the job, these filters use a pump that forces the water through a filter which does not allow for bacteria to squeeze through.
Gravity filters. Those do essentially what pump filters do, but instead of pumping, gravity does the job for us.
Filter Straws. Those models require the person to drink directly through a straw and in this case the water is pressured to go through a filter.
Drops and tablets. These chemical solutions are dropped into the water and they use strong substances to eradicate viruses and bacteria.
UV lights. Although those instruments of purification require an energy source such as batteries or a plug if you get so lucky, they use UV lights to kill viruses and bacteria.

Evaluation criteria
A number of different criteria were chose to give you a better understanding about capabilities of individual models. First and foremost, however, reliability is of top importance because if the device does not work at all, it makes little sense having it in the first place. Whether it’s comfortable to use, too heavy or somehow bulky is of secondary importance because basic effectiveness is what we really buy those for. Later of course, other measures of quality will be examined as well such as the aforementioned weight, ease of use and others like treatment capacity and time before drinking.

Most reliable water filters for backpacking

These two will be reviewed rather simultaneously because they are closely related, although not exactly the same. Reliability refers to the item’s capability to endure and continue working through the pressure of time and difficult conditions. Effectiveness measures what exactly and how well the filter filters if we want to put it simply. We found that MRS Sweetwater can be very reliable. In this category, we can outline that systems like UV lights can be considered less reliable by default because of their own reliance to energy which is in its nature, in limited supply. The most reliable systems present less opportunity for parts to break or somehow start malfunctioning. Systems like Aquamira Water Treatment Drops, Sawyer Squeeze and of course MRS Sweetwater are good examples to look up to when it comes to reliability.

Effectiveness is of course a very important factor in this review because there are many types of dangers and while some are easy to deal with, others can be quite the trouble. Much more if you get infected, of course. The prominent protozoa Cryptosporidium is especially hard to eradicate but there are capable models out there. In case you will be in need of effective virus protection, consider the following options:

UV light systems, such as the SteriPEN Adventurer Opti
Iodine, like the Potable Aqua Iodine Tablets
First Need XL Filter
Chlorine Dioxide tablets or drops. One example is Katadyn Micropur
All other reviewed filters are more than capable of working against cyst and bacteria and also deal with the protozoa which is definitely good news considering the negative outcome if you are so unfortunate to pick some.

Easiest to use water filters for hiking and backpacking


Ease of use generally stands for how easy in the sense of how intuitive are the treatment systems to use without the user being especially technically inclined at the same time. Also, it is important how many steps each product requires the user to take before the final result is clean, ready-to-drink water.

Aqua Vessel Insulated Filtration Bottle was among the easiest models we came across. All you need to do is just fill your bottle and have a drink. Nothing more, nothing less. LifeStraw and Sawyer Mini are straw models that allow you to simply drink directly from the water source or pick some water up with it and store it in another container for later use. Very handy indeed, even tiny waterfalls are eligible direct sources of water now. MSR AutoFlow is as automated as the name suggests since this is a gravity filter that just requires you to put water in. Not a lot of exertion there at all. Example to the cotrarcy could be the SteriPEN which involves a simple enough method – just a small button to push but the batteries it requires and the frequency they need to be changed causes this model to lose out to the others.

Biggest backpacking water filters

Treating potentially dangerous water always takes some time and depending on the kind of travel you undertake, it may take different amount of time.

Pump filters are getting the job done time and again through their seemingly endless capacity. One is free to choose exactly how much water will be pumped and that could be a small or very large amount. This way, the needs of an individual, even a whole group could be satisfied through a single device.

Tablets and drops are a rather expensive way to deal with potentially harmful water sources but we can point out those are good for the short term. If this journey is a bit of an exception to the general rule and you don’t normally

UV lights work well but they need batteries which run out. Another disadvantage when treatment capacity is concerned is that large groups of people will have to wait a long time before getting much needed water and in this regard, UV lights provide a degree of annoyance.

Gravity filters are great for large groups of people. Platypus GravityWorks for example can treat about 4L of water for less than 5 minutes.

Duration before drinking
While tablets are fairly effective for treatment for bacteria, the duration they take to purify the water is rather long. If the next source of water is far away or you are thirsty now, having to wait for as long as 4-5 hours of the tablet to do its course could be a huge obstacle, let alone inconvenience. In this regard, straw filters such as Aqua Vessel, and the Sawyer Squeeze are your best bets. The process is literally instant and you can have filtered water as you drink from the spring. Pump filters can handle about a litre per minute which is relatively fast and hassle-free if you don’t mind the pumping. Platypus GravityWorks and the MSR AutoFlow happened to be the fastest of all, despite being gravity pumps. This fact was indeed a bit surprising but we can not keep our eyes closed to the truth.

Most lightweight water filter systems for backpacking

With the great amount of things we have to carry on a long journey, it is no surprising that many manufacturers of equipment opt for lighter and lighter versions every year. And they should. Tablets and drops are of course the lightest possible options, very easy to carry and store in your backpack. As discussed previously, they do suffer from some very annoying limitations. The Sawyer Mini is also very light, although it will always take a bit more space than the tablets. First Need XL was one of the heaviest we tried, only coming second to the Katadyn Pocket going to as much as 24 ounces.

Most durable water filters for hiking or backpacking

Katadyn Pocket, Sawyer Mini may be a bit heavy but they can outlast most of the competition. If you need a more durable model that could do as much as 2000 litres before needing a filter replacement, one of these would be a proper choice. Sawyer Squeeze claims it can last for a million gallons which is unrealistic to reach for one person in a lifetime, so we can assume, for all practical purposes that this is a lifetime guarantee. Aqua Vessel had a remarkably short life with its modest 370 litres.

In this category, it is important to point out that some tablets and other chemical solutions to water purification can and will alter water’s taste. This may be quite annoying in some cases, although in recent years manufacturers have done a better job neutralizing unpleasant taste. There are additional chemicals available able to tackle bad taste from purification tablets but a few would go the extra mile in this exact fashion.

Aquamira Water Treatment Drops offers a very effective way to handle water filtration if you have a limited budget. For as little as $15, you can get a journey’s supply and not have to worry about weight and space in your backpack. MSR Sweetwater Microfilter did very well indeed and if you are serious about travelling multiple times and needing a way to treat your water, this model will do you justice. It is easy to use, comparatively lightweight and is properly handled in a very competitive amount of time. Whatever you end up choosing, remember to always have one way or another to filter your water.

Best portable water filters for backpacking
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