Do I Need a Water Filter While Backpacking?

You’ve backpacked before, but only on day trips. This time, you want to plan a multi-day trek. As you compile a list of all the gear and equipment you need, you have a thought. Will you have to purify water with a water filter on your backpacking expedition or is the water you’ll encounter safe to drink?

For any backpacking excursion where you don’t bring your own water, you should use a water filter. A filter is a reliable means of removing biological pathogens, including bacteria like salmonella and protozoan cysts like Giardia lamblia that can make you very sick. You can purify the water as well.

In this extensive guide, we’ll delve into the benefits of filtering your water, the difference between filtering and purifying, and how to filter water. We’ll even recommend our favorite backpacking water filters, so make sure you keep reading!  

Why You Need a Water Filter When Backpacking

For your health and convenience, you’ll want a water filter when backpacking for longer than an afternoon. Let’s talk further about why that is. 

You Can’t Lug a Multi-Day Supply of Bottled Water with You

As we touched on in the intro, it’s one thing if you’re planning a day trip. You can bring a couple of bottles of water to drink as you hike. If you need more refreshments than what you provided, you can stop off at a convenience store on the way home or wait until you reach your house to rehydrate.

Once you’re on an overnight backpacking trip though, and especially if you’re camping for days at a time, you can’t carry that much bottled water with you. You wouldn’t be able to fit it all in your backpack, nor would you want to lug around all the extra weight. 

A water filter allows you to drink from lakes, streams, and other bodies of water. You won’t have to worry about where your water will come from, as Mother Nature provides it all. You will also free up much more room in your backpack that you can use for carrying extra clothing, food, or camping gear.  

Should Reduce Your Risk of Getting Sick

Although the idea of sipping water straight from a stream sounds rustic, in reality, it’s not only impractical but dangerous. Biological pathogens are swimming in that water, and they can get you sick.

A water filter will strain bacteria like shigella, campylobacter, salmonella, and E. coli. You also won’t have to worry about the protozoan cysts Giardia lamblia and Cryptosporidium. 

Bacteria will usually cause nausea, diarrhea (including bloody diarrhea), vomiting, and dehydration. 

These types of symptoms will ruin your backpacking trip quickly. You’ll need a bathroom, so you’ll have to be close to a camp, and you’ll also have to lie down to rest, which will require access to a bed. 

As soon as you’re feeling up to it, you’ll want to make your way home so you can fully recover. 

You Deserve Clean-Tasting Water

Backpacking is all about giving up creature comforts and exploring the wilderness. It’s a brave venture, as you’re foregoing Internet access, social media, and constant connectivity. 

One creature comfort you shouldn’t have to sacrifice is clean water. When your water tastes good, you’ll want to drink more of it, which can ward off the symptoms of dehydration. Remember, dehydration is about more than a dry feeling in your throat. In severe cases, it can be deadly. 

The Types of Water Filters for Backpackers

You can select from several kinds of water filters, some of which might gel more with your backpacking habits than others. Let’s delve into the various kinds of water filters now.

Gravity Filter

A gravity water filter is easy to use. Included with the filter is a reservoir that you fill to the top with water. Next, you need a place to hang the gravity filter. What, you didn’t think it was called a gravity filter for no reason, right?

These filters will cleanse water as it passes through the filter from the top to the bottom. Whether you hang the filter on a cliffside, a tree branch, or a hook on your tent, there’s no manual filtering on your part. Gravity does all the hard stuff, but that will require your time and patience.

One of the biggest perks of a gravity filter is that some models are huge. If you’re backpacking with a group of friends or family members, you can use a gravity filter to cleanse enough water for the lot of you.

Pump Filter

For those who’d rather make water filtering a hands-on process (quite literally, in this case), there’s the pump filter. 

The filter will include an intake hose. One end of the hose connects to a pump and the other goes into your reusable water bottle. You then begin pumping water through the filter and into your bottle. 

Pump filters work in shallow and deeper bodies of water alike. You also have precise control over how much water you feed into the water bottle, which is advantageous. You can select the flow rate of your pump, and that’s another plus.

That said, pump filters are larger and more unwieldy than a gravity filter and many of the other backpacking water filters we’ll discuss in this section. You’d need plenty of room in your backpack for this type of filter. 

You also must clean the one end of the intake hose that’s in a body of water after each use. Otherwise, it can get funky, and not in a good way. 

If you’re tired, the last thing you might feel like doing is manually pumping water, but that’s the only way a pump filter works. You might want to pump water earlier in the day before you expend all your energy or consider another type of water filter altogether.

Straw-Style Filter

A straw-style filter is among the most fun and simple-to-use types of water filters for backpackers. The filter is built right in so there’s no setup or anything. All you do is plunk the straw-style filter into the water and then drink on the other side.

It’s like sipping from a giant straw! 

If you’ve ever seen backpackers use a straw-style filter, it might have looked comical to you. Undoubtedly, you could elicit some giggles out of other hikers who see you do the same thing. That’s a small price to pay for a portable, slim water filter that should fit into any backpack, even if you’re running out of room. 

However, if you want to clean water for a group, a straw-style filter is not the right option. Also, you can only rehydrate when you find a body of water. If you’re hiking at a location in which water is sparse, you might want to rethink this type of filter. 

Squeeze Filter

A squeeze filter entails filling a reservoir with water and then squeezing it through. If the cartridge or reservoir element wears down over time or goes missing between backpacking adventures, you can replace it. 

Squeeze filters are inexpensive and lightweight, and that’s certainly handy. However, most squeeze filters have rather small reservoirs, so if you’re mightily thirsty, this filter might not produce enough clean H2O for you. 

Bottle Filter

The last type of water filter for backpackers is a bottle filter. This is yet another type of water filter that’s very easy to use. Simply fill the bottle with water and a filter in the bottle will cleanse the water that enters. You can change out the cartridge or element at will.

If you have a water filter jug or carafe at home, a bottle filter works the same way. As useful as they are though, bottle filters do take up a lot of room compared to other water filters. You have to carry the bottle with you at all times.

This might not be such a big deal to all hikers, especially if your backpack has a water bottle holder. 

Do You Need a Water Purifier for Backpacking?  

Water filters and purifiers are not the same. The filter, as you know, will remove bacteria and protozoans by catching them and impeding their passage into your mouth. 

Some viruses though are so small that any of the above types of water filters won’t be able to trap them. The viruses can slip right through. 

A water purifier will ensure the removal of viruses like norovirus, rotavirus, hepatitis A, and more. 

If you’re unfamiliar with these viruses, the norovirus can cause flu-like symptoms such as muscle aches, headache, chills, fever, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting. The last thing you’ll want to do is continue your backpacking trip if you have the norovirus. You’ll have to go home immediately.

The rotavirus can lead to stomach pain, fever, vomiting, watery diarrhea, dizziness, dry throat, and reduced urination. 

Hepatitis A is incurable. The virus can cause jaundice in the skin and eyes, dark urine, stomach pains, diarrhea, reduced appetite, lethargy, and fever. 

Do you need a water purifier? Some backpackers only bring one when traveling in parts of the world where the above viruses are more common. Others use a water purifier no matter what, which isn’t a bad idea. 

Here is an overview of the types of water purifiers.

  • Chemicals: Water purifying chemicals can kill off viruses, bacteria, and protozoa, so they’re highly useful. Most chemicals for cleaner water use chlorine or iodine as the base ingredients. You can insert a pill or a couple of drops of water-purifying chemicals into any quantity of water. The more water you have, the longer it can take for purification to occur, up to several hours. Iodine can also sometimes leave a gnarly aftertaste. 
  • Bottle purifier: Like the bottle filter, a bottle purifier requires you to fill it up with water and then let the bottle do the rest. You can ensure that for each sip of water you take, it’s free of viruses and bacteria. The same disadvantages as a bottle filter apply to a bottle purifier, such as the responsibility of having to carry around a bottle all the time. 
  • UV purifier: A UV water purifier uses UV light. The purifier looks like a pen. Put it in the water, begin stirring, and wait for about a minute. When the UV light switches off, the water is clean and ready to drink. 
  • Gravity purifier: Like the gravity filter, a gravity purifier is a hands-off means of cleansing your water. Gravity purifiers won’t clean the water any faster than a filter, so you will have to sit back and wait for a while. 
  • Pump purifier: To purify your water, you can also use a pump. For especially vivacious backpackers, this might be an appealing option. Don’t forget that you have to clean the other end of the hose when you’re done. 
  • Boiling: If all else fails, you can always boil the water to purify it. It only takes a minute of boiling for the water to become clean and drinkable, unless you’re at a higher elevation. Once your elevation exceeds 6,500 feet, boil the water for upwards of three minutes. 

Our Favorite Backpacking Water Filters

To wrap up, let’s discuss some great backpacking water filters you might consider for your own adventures. Keep in mind these are filters, not purifiers.

LifeStraw Personal Water Filter

One of the most renowned straw-style water filters is the LifeStraw personal water filter. This Amazon’s Choice product allows you to dip right down into the water and sip freely. 

LifeStraw promises that their water filter will remove microplastics, parasites, and bacteria, including 99.99 percent of waterborne parasites such as Cryptosporidium and Giardia and 99.99 percent of waterborne bacteria like salmonella and E. coli.

You’ll get up to 1,000 gallons of clean water per filter, which is approximately 4,000 liters. After that, you’ll have to replace your LifeStraw filter. LifeStraw sells the filter in packs of two to five, so it’s not a bad idea to stock up! 

Sawyer Products Squeeze Water Filtration System

Sawyer is one of the biggest names in water filters, so we of course had to suggest their squeeze water filter

This water filtration system includes a syringe filter cleaner, a drinking straw, dual inline adapters (for using with hydration pack bladders), and a 16-ounce, BPA-free, recyclable pouch. 

How does the squeeze filter work? It includes hollow fiber membranes in the filter. When water enters the membranes, each pore in the membrane fills to the core. The water that exits the pores is cleaned to 0.1 microns.

Bacteria such as Salmonella typhi, Vibrio cholerae, Giardia, E. coli, cysts, and protozoans won’t be able to get through, nor will microplastics. Sawyer Products states that their squeeze filter will remove up to 99.99 percent of the above bacteria and protozoans and 100 percent of microplastics.

The filter works for up to 100,000 gallons of filtering, so you will be able to filter a lot of water before this pump needs a replacement!  

LifeStraw Flex Advanced Water Filter with Gravity Bag

Here’s another renowned water filter from LifeStraw, the Flex Advanced gravity water filter

LifeStraw says their filter is usable in five different ways. You can drink right out of the straw-style filter, hang your water in the included gravity bag, connect it to a disposable water bottle, add it to an in-line hydration pack, or drink the filtered bottle.

An included microbiological filter should last for about a year and a half or 500 gallons, whichever comes first. Whenever you take a refreshing drink of water, you can rest assured that your water is free of 99.99 percent of microplastics and 99.99 percent of protozoa and bacteria.  

Katadyn BeFree Bottle Water Filter

Our last recommended water filter for backpackers is the Katadyn BeFree bottle filter. This drinkable bottle measures 4.25 inches by three inches by 10 inches, so it shouldn’t be a space hog in your backpack!

To use, simply fill the BeFree bottle with water from a lake or stream or use the included Hydrapak Flask, which can hold a liter of water. (The flask also collapses when not in use.) The EZ-Clean Membrane within will remove protozoa and bacteria down to 0.1 microns.

That means 99.9 percent of protozoa and 99.99 percent of bacteria are filtered out of your water. Plus, the BeFree bottle includes a Stay Clean Drink Nozzle so you can sip without dirt or grime getting in the way. 

Final Thoughts

A water filter is a must for longer backpacking trips, as you can ensure your water is free of protozoa and bacteria that can make you sick. We’d also suggest considering a water purifier to rid that lake or stream water of viruses. Have fun out there!

Geoff Southworth

I am a California native and I enjoy all the outdoors has to offer. My latest adventures have been taking the family camping, hiking and surfing.

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