In wine there is wisdom.
In beer there is freedom.
And in water… there is bacteria.
While on the trail we can’t survive just on wine and beer. That’s why we need to find a way to filter and purify water while backpacking.
Sure you can try to carry all the water you need, but water gets real heavy, real fast. A gallon of water weighs a little over eight pounds and you’ll need almost a gallon of water a day while backpacking. That means if you’re going on a backpacking trip longer than one night, you’ll have to find a way to purify water.
So what are your options? What types of filters, purifiers, chemicals, etc. do you need to make sure you’ll always be able to purify water while backpacking?
First, we’ll go over the basics of water purification while out in the wild. Then we’ll look at the most common methods you can use to get clean water while hiking.
Water Purification While Backpacking – The Basics
Water Purification vs. Water Filtration
These two words are similar and are often used interchangeably while talking about water filters and purified water. But there is a slight difference.
Water filtration – Filters physically remove bad things from the water – nasty stuff like sediment, bacteria, protozoa, heavy metals, and some chemicals. As a water filter gets filled up with more and more of these things, it eventually needs to be replaced.
Water purification – Water purifiers offer another level of protection. They’ll either filter out smaller things like viruses that might make it through a normal microfilter, or they’ll use some kind of purifying agent to kill anything that’s left in the water. This could be done with chlorine, iodine, or even UV light.
So without making this a reenactment of your 8th grade chemistry class, let’s answer the question you’re probably wondering…
Which Do I Need for My Backpacking Trip – A Purifier or a Filter?
It depends. If you’re going to be in a remote area without a lot of human traffic, then a filter designed to remove sediments, protozoa, and bacteria should be enough.
Don’t get these confused with single-stage activated carbon filters that just remove bad tastes from tap water. Don’t think you can whip out your Brita pitcher to filter some sketchy pond water.
You NEED to make sure that your filter is guaranteed to remove more than just the bad taste. Here’s a good article that helps you decipher the different testing requirements and standards for water filters.
Now if you’re going to be hiking close to home – which is a smart choice for your first backpacking trip – that means you’re probably closer to human traffic (homes, farms, industries). In this case, it’s a good idea to get the extra protection of a water purifier. As you’ll see below, you could do this simply by dropping a water purification tablet into your already filtered water.
So let’s look at a few of the common methods you can use to purify water while backpacking.
Top Ways to Purify Water While Backpacking
Keep in mind that sometimes you may want to combine two or three of these water purification methods, especially if the only water you have is murky and from a questionable source.
Pre Filter – To get the worst of it
If the only water you have access to is a little murky or has a lot of debris, it’s best to pre-filter the water in some way. This will help prolong the life of your more expensive water filter by removing most of the large debris and sediments.
Fortunately, it’s pretty simple and you don’t need any specialized equipment.
Pre-filter your murky water with…
- Pantyhose (It just shows that you should never go anywhere without an extra pair of pantyhose)
- Coffee filters
- Sock (Use a clean sock or else it kind of defeats the purpose of trying to get cleaner water. Plus, not all filters are rated to remove dirty sock taste from your water 😉
After pre-filtering murky water, it won’t be crystal clear but it should look a little better. Then you can move on to one or more of the following methods.
Boil Your Water
If water filters and purifiers were cars, the boiling water method would be like the old farm truck – it’s been around forever, not the easiest to use, but it gets the job done. Oh, and it also uses a lot of fuel.
Boiling your water is one of the most reliable ways to purify water while backpacking. Just bring it to boil for a minute and BAM! You’ve got water with no bacteria, no protozoa, and no viruses.
The downside is it doesn’t remove things like chemicals, heavy metals, or bad tastes. But if you’re hiking in a remote area and can get water from clear streams or lakes, you don’t have to worry about these as much.
Boiling your water also uses up a lot of fuel, so make sure to bring along extra fuel canisters if you’re relying on boiled water as your main source of purified water.
Don’t forget: If you’re at higher altitudes, you need to boil your water longer to effectively kill everything in it. Basically, if you’re above 6,500 feet you should boil it for at least 3 minutes. There’s some fancy scientific explanation of why this is necessary, but all you need to remember is, higher elevations = longer boiling.
This is the favorite of the lightweight backpackers on a budget. A small jar of tablets or purifying liquid weighs a lot less than a filter and can purify several weeks’ worth of water.
Also, if you’re getting water from a really questionable source, it’s worth it to use some chemical purification in addition to a normal microfilter.
Household Bleach: For backpackers on a budget who want peace of mind, just a few drops of regular, unscented household bleach will effectively purify water. You have to let it sit for about half an hour and it’ll have a bit of a chlorine taste, but it is effective.
Here’s a page with a detailed explanation of how much bleach is required to purify different amounts of water.
Premade Water Purification Tablets or Liquids
These are the easiest to use since they’re usually premeasured and easy to dose based on how much water you need to purify. Plus they’re usually made to taste better than simply using a few drops of bleach.
Here are some good choices.
Pump Filters and Purifiers
Pump-style filters have long been the choice of serious adventurers looking to purify water while backpacking. They’re easy to use and let you quickly filter a day’s worth of water.
Just dip the one hose in your water source, place the other end in your water container, and pump away. The hose makes it really convenient to get water from a variety of sources, like a stream or even a hole in the ground.
Below are two examples of quality water filters that will be able to handle water from most sources you might find while hiking in the backcountry. They’re small, relatively inexpensive, and only weigh a pound or two. Plus, they let you filter about a quart of water per minute (depending on how fast you pump).
For the ultimate in backcountry purified water check out this MSR Guardian Military Grade Water Purifier. Yep, that’s right, PURIFIER. It can treat up to 10,000 liters of water and has a super-advanced filter that physically removes even viruses, so there’s no need to use any extra chemical purification.
Bottle and Straw Filters
When you first see a filter straw you probably think, “WOW! What could be easier? I just put it in a stream and sip perfectly clean water!”
But, the first time you try to drink water out of a stream while lying face down on river rocks you realize it’s a little harder than you imagined. That’s why a lot of the filter straws come with attachments that let you add a water bottle to one end for easier drinking.
You can also get water bottles with a filter built right into them. One thing you should keep in mind is that it takes quite a bit of effort to suck water through a filter bottle or straw. You’ll probably have sore face muscles after a day of sucking water through one of these.
However, they are a convenient solution for shorter backpacking trips where you don’t want to carry an extra pump filter. And some are designed to make it easier to drink water through the filter.
Here are some nice options for filter bottles you can take on your next hiking trip.
Katadyn BeFree Water Filter Bottle – The collapsible bottle is nice. You can squeeze it to push the water through the filter and out the mouthpiece.
LifeStraw Flex Multi-Function Water Filter – This has a straw filter you can use to drink straight from the stream, or you can add it to the included water bottle. It even has threads that let you screw it on the top of most standard water bottles.
What about a water purifier bottle?
Check out the innovative design of the GRAYL Ultralight Water Purifier. You fill the bottle with water, push the filter down like a french press, and voila! You’ve filtered everything from heavy metals to bacteria and viruses. It’s truly one of the easiest ways to purify water while backpacking.
Gravity Filters and Purifiers
If you’re camping with a large group of people and you want to filter a lot of water without worrying about getting muscly arms from so much pumping, try a gravity-fed water filter.
Just fill the reservoir with water, hang it from a tree limb, and let gravity do the work. A gravity filter might be a little slower than a pump water filter, but it’ll treat your water while you’re doing other things like setting up your campsite.
Here’s an excellent choice for a gravity-fed water filter.
And for some extra peace of mind, try this family-sized gravity fed water purifier. The large version can purify over three gallons at once so you’ll have enough for the whole family and to share with any thirsty critters who decide to visit your camp.
A Few Final Tips for Purifying Water While Backpacking
Make sure you keep your purified water bottles clean. All that pumping you did to purify your water doesn’t do much good if you put it in a dirty water bottle. Wash your bottles daily and rinse them with purified water.
Keep your hands clean. Same reasons as above. All the work you did to purify your water can be in vain if you simply forgot to wash your hands after answering nature’s call.
Follow the directions on your filter or purifier. Not all filters work the same. Some need to be replaced more often. Some need to be rinsed every so many gallons. So make sure you read and follow the directions so you know you’re treating your water correctly.
Be mindful of where your toilet areas are. It seems obvious, but don’t forget to keep your toilet areas well away (and downstream) from any place you’re getting water.
Be careful in freezing temperatures. Some water purifying chemicals take longer to work in cold water. (Once again, read the instructions.) And a water filter that’s left to freeze overnight can crack and break leaving you up the creek without a paddle (or filter). Just stick the filter in the bottom of your sleeping bag overnight if it’s going to get well below freezing.
What should I do if my filter breaks? If you’re on an extended backpacking trip and something happens that leaves you without any kind of filter or chemical purification, use the “old farm truck”. Pre-filter the water through some fabric if needed and then boil it for at least a minute.
Try to choose water from a clean source. Although you’ll be filtering it, it’s better to be safe than sorry. So try to avoid…
- Gathering water from streams or rivers right after it has rained. The rain washes surface contaminants into the river which can increase the amount of bacteria in the water and make the water look like chocolate milk.
- Water with animal traffic and droppings nearby
Not a good place to get water.
- Water with a lot of foam or scum.
- Water directly downstream from farms or populated areas
If you have to get water from one of these sources, it’s best to take all the necessary precautions and use both your filter and some chemical purification.
Now That You Know How to Purify Water While Backpacking, You’re Ready for Your First Backpacking Trip!
Even if you’ve already got an overnight hiking trip or two under your belt, be sure to check out my guide with 7 Tips for Conquering Your First Backpacking Trip.
You can even get a free printable to help you plan your first backpacking trip!
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