When you set out on a backpacking trip, one thing you should not have to worry about is carrying water. Not only is water heavy, but it is also logistically difficult to carry – especially if you are already carrying a fully-loaded pack on your back. You will definitely need to invest in a water treatment system, but choosing one can feel overwhelming!
First, know that there are several ways that water treatment systems work.
A water filter will remove single-celled organisms and bacteria from the water, while a purifier will inactivate or remove single-celled organisms, bacteria, and viruses from water. Some systems require elbow grease, but others do the work for you. Some of them remove all of the ‘floaties’ from impure water, some of them add a chemical flavor to the water, and some of them do neither. Some systems require batteries or recharging, but have no filters to replace for their entire lifespan.
Breaking down the choices by asking a few questions will make choosing one a lot easier. How do you decide which type is the right one for you?
Things To Consider
The wide variety of choices available in backpacking water treatment systems means that there is one that will be just right for you, but when it comes to making a what choice, there are many things to consider.
The perfect choice for one person might be too expensive for someone else, and the lightweight choice that’s right for you might require too much maintenance for someone else. Since you are the only person who knows your own limitations, goals, and needs, here are some questions to consider when looking at the wide variety of backpacking water purifiers that are available:
Is this device able to withstand the kinds of environments in which I will use it? Will I encounter sharp rocks, cactus spines, and thorns that would potentially puncture a reservoir? Will the water that I encounter be exceptionally muddy or full of algae, requiring a filter?
- Ease of Cleaning and Maintenance
Does this device require special tools to clean or maintain it? Am I willing to spend the time needed to clean and maintain this device, or would a lower-maintenance device be a better fit for my lifestyle?
- Water Taste and Clarity
Is it very important to me that the clean water has no chemical taste, or does a chemical residue not matter to me? Do I need to have silt or algae removed from the water?
- Weight and Size
How heavy is the device, and how much space does it take up in my pack? Am I willing to sacrifice added weight for a device with more features or a different design?
Does this purchase fit my budget? Am I paying for the brand, or for the quality of the device?
How much physical effort am I willing to exert to purify water? How long can I wait for water to be drinkable? Am I willing to wait for water to drip through a system that removes all particles, or does the more immediate drinkability of water sterilized with a UV filter (that might still have particles in it) work better for my lifestyle?
The Pros and Cons of Different Types of Water Treatment Devices
Because there are a variety of different types of water treatment systems available, it can be a challenge to decide which type would be best suited to your needs. Among the types of devices available are pumps, ultraviolet sterilization devices, gravity filters, and straws. Each one has its own benefits and drawbacks, but having the choice of several different types means that you are more likely to find the best fit for you!
Water filter pumps work by pulling water up through a tube and forcing it through at least one or more filters. Many pumps have a ‘pre-filter’ that prevents the murkiest water from entering the filter, which helps protect it. Many pumps also include an activated charcoal filter to help improve the taste of the water after it passes through the filter.
- Pumps work with filters, so they will remove the granules of dirt and organic material in the water that you are purifying.
- There is no limit to the amount of water you can pump at one time, since there is no holding tank or container holding contaminated water. You can pump water directly from a water source, such as a stream or lake.
- The only part of the pump that touches contaminated water is the pre-filter, so the risk of accidentally contaminating the clean part is small.
- Pumps usually clean a very large amount of water before needing to be cleaned or changing a filter.
- The biggest strike against pumps is that they require physical work to clean water, so you must be pressing down and pulling up on the pump handle to draw up water and push it through the filter. This can be tiring and time-consuming.
- The filters will need to be cleaned and eventually replaced, and the filter life can be decreased by using the pump in very murky water. Clogged filters also clean water at a slower rate, which increases the amount of time that it takes to access drinkable water.
Battery and USB Operated Pumps
These devices have all the pros of hand-operated pumps with the additional benefit of not having to do any physical work to move the water through the device. These pumps do have the drawback of having to change and clean the filters and having to keep the batteries charged (or the USB plugged in).
UV Sterilization Devices
A more modern solution to the problem of treating water is UV (ultraviolet light) sterilization. These products sterilize water and make it safe to drink by killing all the bacteria, single-celled organisms, and viruses present in the water. The most common type of UV sterilization device is a pen-shaped rechargeable or battery operated device that you immerse in a container of impure water for the required time.
UV Sterilization Device Pros
- This method of cleaning water is very effective when used correctly, removing up to 99.99% of bacteria and 99.57% of single-celled organisms.
- UV sterilization devices are typically very small and lightweight, so they do not take up space or weigh down your pack.
- UV sterilization is very quick, usually taking only a few seconds to inactivate most of the harmful things in impure water, although most devices advise you to allow the device’s UV light to penetrate the water for a much longer time (1 – 2 minutes) to ensure that the harmful elements are inactivated.
UV Sterilization Device Cons
- Since there is no pre-filtering or straining of the water, any biological elements that were present in the water (including algae pieces and silt) remain in the water after the UV sterilization is done.
- All UV sterilization devices rely on batteries or recharging to operate, so even though most devices will sterilize many liters of water before they recharging or new batteries, you would not be able to sterilize water in the event of the device losing power. That can be a problem in the backcountry!
Gravity Filtration Systems
Another option for treating drinking water is gravity filtration. These systems require the user to fill up a reservoir with impure water, hang it from a branch or other sturdy surface, and allow the water to flow through a filter into a clean reservoir.
Gravity Filtration System Pros
- This type of device is very low-work compared to other systems, since you must only fill the reservoir with impure water, hang it up, and allow the water to drain through the filter. This means that you are able to obtain a large amount of drinking water while you are doing other things, such as setting up a tent or building a fire.
- The filters on these systems do a good job of removing biological elements that might be in the water, so you do not end up with silt or slime in the clean water reservoir.
Gravity Filtration System Cons
- It is possible that you might have difficulty finding an appropriate branch or other strong hooks from which to hang the reservoir of impure water, especially when backpacking in a rocky, mountainous, or desertified area. If there are not sturdy trees, you might be left holding the heavy reservoir yourself, which defeats the purpose of a no-work gravity filtration system!
This kind of water treatment system relies on suction from your mouth or from squeezing the base of the device to pull water up through a filter. While this kind of device offers immediate drinkability, it can be more complicated to clean a larger amount of water at once.
Straw Filters Pros
- Small and lightweight, this kind of device takes up almost no room in your pack.
- Silt and biological elements in impure water are filtered out immediately.
Straw Filter Cons
- The smaller filter size makes filtering a larger volume of water a challenge.
- While filtering a larger amount of water at once is possible, it requires using the straw in a gravity fashion, which means you are limited in all the same ways you would be with that kind of system.
Choose Wisely and Drink Up Without Worries
Staying hydrated while hiking is absolutely critical, because dehydration can quickly cause health problems that you do not want to deal with on the trail!
The importance of hydration while hiking and backpacking is indisputable, but exactly how you obtain that water will depend on the amount of time you want to spend cleaning the water, how long you are able to wait for the drinkable water, how much maintenance on the device you are willing to do, and how much weight you’re willing to give up in your pack.
Only you know the answers to those questions, so only you can make the right choice! It might take some time to choose the right device, but with something as important as clean drinking water, making a choice that you are happy with will make your backpacking that much more enjoyable. Each worry-free drink of water you take on the trail will be well worth the time you spent picking out your device.
What is the most important thing you consider when looking for a new piece of equipment? Let us know!