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Back Country Filtration

One of the things that I love about this industry is how many ways it affects people of all different types.  Even after nearly 20 years, I still get amazed, when I stumble across yet another really important part of our industry that I hadn’t given any significant  thought to previously.

I love to be outdoors and I struggle at times to disconnect, so last year, in an effort to find a way to do both, I took a beginner backpacking class from a local outdoors group (quick shout out to SOLAR).  I could spend an entire article telling you all of the things that I learned that I didn’t know before about throwing 35lbs on my back and hiking through the wilderness, sleeping on the ground and not showering for days.   As counter-intuitive as that sounds, I absolutely fell in love with it and am working on a goal of 250 miles this year.

Hydration is critically important when back-country hiking but so is the weight of the pack on your back.  That 35lbs I mentioned in the last paragraph would make some of my hiking friends cringe and spontaneously begin a tirade about how unnecessarily heavy my pack is.  These are people that cut the ends of their toothbrushes off to reduce pack weight.  To be fair,  I do carry a couple of unnecessary luxuries with me.  I like to be comfortable when I’m miserable.  A gallon of water weighs 8.35 lbs (or if you’re talking hiker’s language, a liter of water weighs 2.2 lbs.)  So if you are looking to reduce pack weight, water is one of the best ways to do it.  The trick is finding the balance between staying hydrated and not carrying too much weight.

I did a 21 mile weekend hike this summer at Jordan River, Michigan.  On the first day, the temperature rose to 101 degrees with an extremely high humidity level.   I drank nearly 6 liters of water during the day one 11 mile trek and another 5 the next day.  Had I carried all 11 liters with me, it would have added nearly 25 lbs to my pack.   That, even for me, is far too heavy.  Instead I carried 1 liter with me and took a 1lb water filter so that I could replenish my water supply as needed using running streams and rivers.  Fortunately, there were a lot of easily accessible water sources on this trail.  Sometimes water sources may be limited on a trail so a hiker is forced to carry more water, but the amount required can be reduced with a water filter.

When I got to part about filters in the class I took, my ears obviously perked up.  It was interesting hearing the instructors talk about the filters from outside of the water treatment industry.  They talked about things like durability, speed of filtering, size, field maintenance, and obviously weight.  It was just assumed that a filter would reduce the risk of bacteria, protozoa and viruses.  There was little focus on microns or filter media type except when it came to field maintenance or weight.  So I decided it would be fun and interesting to combine the two worlds.  I reached out to several of the largest and most popular backpacking filter manufacturers that people from the SOLAR club were using and asked them to send me samples so that I could test and review them for myself from the perspective of an industry expert and a hiker.  I enlisted the help of my fellow backpackers and asked them to give me the real world opinions of the filters being used in the field.  You can see a chart of all of the filters we reviewed at the end of this article.

Backpacking filters and “purifiers” fall into a few different categories, each with their own pros and cons and I have discovered that the passion for each type varies from hiker to hiker.  I do have my favorite but I’m more willing to sacrifice weight and ease of use for quality of water.  I’m a guy who normally only drinks reverse osmosis water.  I don’t like tannins in my water and I like it to taste good, even if I believe it is safe to drink.  It’s true, I hold onto a little of my water snobbery, even while deep in the wilderness.  There are some people who are equally fanatical about weight and size.  Many long distance hikers won’t carry a filter at all because of the weight.  They instead will use chemical or in some cases portable UV systems.  I did not review any of these treatment methods but if you’re interested, there is a ton of info on them with a quick Google search.  It should be noted that backpackers and manufacturers view the word “purify” differently than many of us in the industry do.  In the backpacking world, a system is generally considered a purifier if it treats viruses as well as bacteria and protozoa.

Pump Filters — These are probably the most common, and they come in a variety of quality levels and size.  Basically, these units clean water by pumping it through a filter of varying types of media, that has a pore size that is too small for bacteria and protozoa, or in some cases viruses, to move through.  I tested several of these this year including the MSR Guardian Purifier, the MSR  Hyperflo Microfilter, and my favorite, General Ecology’s First Need Purifier.  Though it’s pricy, I really like the MSR Guardian purifier.  It pumps water fast and packs up nicely.  It is easy to field maintain also.  But it does not remove tannins from the water like the First Need does at a 3rd of the price.  The first need actually comes with a small thing of blue food coloring so you can test the filter.

Gravity Filters — A lot of hikers in my outdoor group swear by these filters.  You basically fill up a bag and allow gravity to push the water through the filter.  The nice thing about them is that you don’t have to stand by a stream and pump water.  Instead, you fill a bag and hang it in a tree to filter while your setting up camp or taking a break.  They weigh less and take up less space in a pack.  I tested the Platypus Gravity Works 2.0L filter.  Also, the General Ecology First Need Purifier mentioned above can be used with its carrying case as a gravity filter.

Filter Straws — These models treat water as you drink directly through a filter straw, which doubles as a hollow fiber filter.  They are inexpensive, small, light-weight and in my opinion good if you don’t have anything else.  I tested a couple of LifeStraw products.  The LifeStraw Universal comes in a bottle adapter kit and is cool because you can just fill a water bottle and put the filter in it.  The LifeStraw Flex comes with its own collapsible bottle and both will filter as you drink.  It is not a great option for use with high volumes of water but is nice for drinking water only, especially if water sources are readily available. The thing I didn’t like about the LifeStraw Universal or the LifeStraw Flex was that the filter takes a ton of space in the bottle which means less water in the bottle.

Squeeze Filters – There are some members of my backpacking group who really love these filters.  You fill a bag and squeeze the water through a filter into a bottle, sorta like rolling a toothpaste tube.  Though I did not officially test one, I am familiar with Sawyer’s squeeze filter.  They are light weight, comparably less expensive and easy to field service.

Chemical Drops and Tablets — These are a favorite of the ultra-light hikers who don’t want the extra weight of a filter.  Here chemicals are added to the water which kills all things living in the water. They have the advantage of killing viruses in addition to bacteria and protozoa, but they can also taste horrible and they don’t do anything for silt or color.  I did not test any of these products.

UV Light — I’ve never actually seen one of these used on a trail but I know there are some ultra-light hikers that use them.  These devices zap the water with ultraviolet light deactivating living organisms. But, they require batteries and/or chargers to work and are not going to be as effective with colored water which I have found to be very common in the woods.  I did not test any of these products.

Before I end this article, I need to say that I was superbly impressed by how nice and willing to help every company I reached out to was and frankly, I don’t think you can go wrong with any of them in terms of quality and service.  It really does come down to a person’s budget and preference.

Even if you never plan to go out and do this kind of stuff, I think it’s pretty cool how big our industry is.  It’s so easy to get stuck in our own little softener/reverse osmosis world that we miss the other parts of our industry.  It seems to me that if you’re a dealer and you want to set yourself apart from your competition, maybe consider expanding a bit into some of those other worlds.  If you’re a sales professional, learning about every aspect of our industry only serves to give you an advantage over your competition.

Put all that aside and I can honestly say that I have rarely been more at peace than when watching a sunset over a mountain lake miles and miles away from roads or civilization and sipping a bottle for freshly filtered water.  I’d strongly recommend the experience.

Gravity Filter

ManufacturerFilterPore SizeWeightComments


.2 micron6.3 ozPros:  Fast filtering, no pumping or squeezing, excellent price point, light weight, easy to pack

Cons:  Have to have a place to hang the bag, hard to use with only one person

These filters are almost as fast as a pump with a lot less effort but back flushing them can be a bit of a pain.


Pump Filters

ManufacturerFilterPore SizeWeightComments
General EcologyFirst Need XLE Purifier.4 micron16 ozPros:  Fast filtering, self-cleaning, can be used as a gravity filter, filters color, excellent price point

Cons:  Heavy, hard to stabilize water intake in moving water

Moti-Vitality’s favorite choice mostly because of the price point and its ability to remove tannins.   It fits a standard Nalgene bottle but also a Gatorade bottle.

MSRGuardian Purifier.02 micron17 ozPros:  Fast filtering, self-cleaning, excellent micron rating

Cons:  Heavy, Expensive, does not filter color

Moti-Vitality’s second favorite, mostly because of price.  It is durable and pumps really fast.  Though its slightly heavier than the First need, it packs easier.

MSRHydroFlow Microfilter.2 micron7.8 ozPros:  Self-cleaning, light weight for a pump filter

Cons:  Carrying case is not user friendly, pumping a lot of water is tiring, float on intake flips over in moving water causing air to be pumped

The filter is designed to fit a Nalgene bottle but is difficult to fill anything other than a Nalgene unless a tube extension is used.

Straw Filters

ManufacturerFilterPore SizeWeightComments
LifeStrawFlex.2 micron1.7 ozPros:  Very versatile, can be used as a straw or gravity filter.  Very lightweight and compact.  Will screw right to a standard water bottle

Cons:  Not good for large quantities of water.  Will clog fast if water doesn’t start mostly clear

The filter has to lay on its side which may allow it to become dirty.  Having an extra set of hands or a clean surface while prepping the filter would be helpful.

LifeStrawUniversal.2 micron3.3 ozPros:   lightweight, Has adapters for several water bottle types, no pumping or waiting

Cons:  Not good for large quantities of water.  Will clog fast if water doesn’t start mostly clear, takes up room in bottle

This is good for day hiking but I would not typically recommend it for long back-country trips.