Backpacking Water Filters

Learn about what backpacking water filters are available when hiking or backpacking in the wilderness.

For most people, getting a drink of water means walking a few feet and turning on the nearest faucet. However, backpackers and hikers in wilderness areas do not have that option. A weighing and balancing of the risks, advantages and disadvantages is necessary when choosing water treatment options.

Perhaps the safest and least convenient method of water treatment is to "bring your own." For a day or overnight hike where water is scarce, bad, or non-existent, packing a full water bag or several plastic bottles of water may be the best solution.

Another safe but inconvenient option is to boil all water. Authorities disagree on the length of time necessary to kill all of the "baddies" (parasites, viruses, etc.), but many experts believe that boiling water for 15 minutes is reasonably safe. Many campgrounds recommend boiling all water in the back country. Disadvantages include the length of time needed to treat the water, the fuel necessary to boil the water, and the poor taste of the water itself after boiling.

Most experienced wilderness users filter or chemically treat water. Either method offers more convenience than packing water or boiling. A good water filter eliminates much of the risk of parasites, while retaining the water's

natural taste. Some high-priced filters even claim to be able to filter out viruses.

A typical water filter, like PUR or Sweetwater, uses filter cartridges that can be cleaned or replaced when the flow is reduced. The more sediment in water, the more difficult filter treatment becomes in terms of ease of use.

When new, most water filters work reasonably effectively and quickly, treating about a quart of water per minute. As use increases, most people find that filtration slows down and user satisfaction is diminished. When used properly, and in accordance with manufacturer's instructions, a good water filter is one of the best choices for back country treatment of water. Many good filters have pre-filters for removing larger floating particles. Pre-filters often extend the life of the filter.

Chemical treatment of water offers yet another option. Many wilderness veterans swear by the use of iodine tablets or iodine crystals. One advantage that iodine has over filters is weight and bulk. A small bottle of iodine tablets weighs only a couple of ounces and takes up hardly any space in the backpack.

A wet filter weighs more than a small iodine bottle, and takes up space when not broken down into components. If broken down into components, filters take time to reassemble. Additionally, care must be taken to keep the parts of the filter away from unfiltered water. Iodine is easy to use, although some experts question how well it works to eliminate the danger of parasites. As with filters, any person treating water with iodine should follow the treatment instructions on the bottle.

These instructions vary, depending upon the amount of water being treated and the temperature of the

water. There is a longer waiting period for cold water. Disadvantages for iodine treatment include off-taste, discoloration of plastic drinking containers, and failure to remove material floating in the water.

All water in the wilderness is not the same. In addition to equipment, a person treating wild water must carefully weigh the source of the water. In general, many wilderness experts believe that water can be trusted in the following

order (from most safe to least safe): piped spring, spring, stream, river, lake. It's also a good idea to keep in mind whether there is livestock or wild game further up the source from the person treating the water.

Never assume that untreated water is safe to drink just because a person is in the mountains or in a remote place. More than one thirsty backpacker has greedily quenched his or her thirst with unfiltered mountain water only to discover a dead animal or excrement only a little ways upstream.

Before venturing into the wilderness, consider the risks and options which are often dependent upon the terrain. Someone camping for a weekend along a remote location on Lake Michigan has different factors to consider than someone attempting a two week trek in the desert. Most people will also want to carefully consider back-up treatment in case the treatment of choice fails (broken

filter, lost iodine bottle, etc.).

© High Speed Ventures 2011