Best Water Filter and Purifier for Backpacking and How to Choose

Is this water safe to drink? Probably not, but it will be if you’re carrying a water purifier on your backpacking trip.

Dehydration is dangerous, but drinking dirty water can have unpleasant side-effects. Unless you are a camel or a cactus, you are going to need clean water whilst hiking. On a thru-hike or multi-day trek it’s not always practical to carry enough so you’ll have to drink from rivers and streams.

This guide takes you through the differences between water filters and purifiers, what you’ll need from a backpacking water purifier, what to look for and we review the best water filters and purifiers for backpacking.

Some products will either filter or sterilize, and for the safest water you’re going to need two separate products. Or one product that does both.

At a Glance: Top Recommendations for Best Water Filter & Purifier:

Note: Clicking the above links will take you to further information, current prices and customer reviews on Amazon.

Best Backpacking Water Filter Reviews

Katadyn Hiker Pro Microfilter

Katadyn Hiker Pro Transparent Water Filter, Lightweight, Compact Design for Personal or Small Group Camping, Backpacking or Emergency Preparedness

If you hike with a hydration pack then this water filter is a great addition to your kit.

It will connect directly to your hydration pack tube and allows you to pump filtered water into it without having to remove the bladder from your pack.

The pump action is simple and allows for a really good flow of around 1 liter per minute. It comes with 2 quick-connect hose sets as well as a bottle adaptor.

Just make sure that you store the inlet and outlet hoses separately to avoid cross contamination. While it does a great job of filtering water the connectors and moving pieces mean that there are plenty of opportunities for something to break.

If you use it carefully and store it properly then you shouldn’t have any issues. Also, avoid pumping from very dirty water or pre-filter it if you want your water filter system to last longer.

What We Like

  • Connects directly to hydration pack with ¼ inch drink tubes and water bottles
  • Activated carbon reduces chemicals in water and improves taste
  • Removes cysts, algae, sediment, spores, bacteria and protozoa
  • Light and compact so it won’t take up valuable pack space
  • Filters water really quickly so you are not wasting time on the trail
  • Water tastes great

What We Don’t Like

  • Only filters down to 0.3 micron
  • Not very durable – You need to be a little careful with connectors and handle

LifeStraw Go Water Filter Bottle

LifeStraw Go Water Filter Bottle with 2-Stage Integrated Filter Straw for Hiking, Backpacking, and Travel, Blue

This water filter combines the excellent filtering that LifeStraw has become famous for with the convenience of a great hiking bottle.

The 0.2 micro first stage filter system removes bacteria and protozoa.

The second stage filter uses carbon to remove any odor, taste, chlorine or dissolved chemicals like pesticides that may be in the water.

The bottle has a wide mouth that allows for easy filling from a stream and a convenient mouthpiece incorporated into the lid.

Once the bottle is filled the water passes through the two filter stages and then through the mouthpiece.

Eventually the filters will need to be replaced. You’ll get around 100 liters before you need to replace the carbon filter and at least 1000 liters through it before you need to replace the first stage filter.

The first stage filter is essentially just a LifeStraw and it can be removed and used on its own.​

What We Like

  • No need for a separate filter and water bottle saving space and hassle
  • First stage filter removes 99.9999% of bacteria and 99.9% of protozoan parasites
  • Second stage carbon filter removes odor, chlorine, dissolved solids with zero aftertaste
  • Durable construction
  • Carabiner clip allows for easy attachment to pack

What We Don’t Like

  • Leaks a little when not upright

Sawyer Mini Water Filtration System

Sawyer Products SP128 Mini Water Filtration System, Single, Blue

If you’re looking for a small and budget-friendly water filter system then it’s tough to beat the Sawyer Mini.

The Sawyer Mini is extremely light and filters out anything bigger than 0.1 micron. The flow-rate is a bit slow if you’re using it to refill your hiking bottle but it flows fast enough if you’re taking a sip through it.

It comes with a drinking pouch that you can squeeze to drive the water through the filter or you could use the straw it comes with to drink directly from a water source.

The Sawyer Mini connects inline with your hydration pack or screw onto a standard 28mm water bottle thread.

Sawyer claim it’ll give you up to 100,000 gallons of filtered water but you do need to backflush the filter every 5 to 10 gallons to unclog the filter.

What We Like

  • Attaches inline to your hydration pack
  • Screws onto most disposable bottles (28mm thread)
  • Filters down to 0.1 micron so it’ll remove even the smallest of silt particles
  • Very light and compact not taking up space in your pack
  • Filters 99.99999% of bacteria and 99.9999% of protozoa for those times when you have to drink the dirty river water.

What We Don’t Like

  • Flow is a little on the slow side for impatient people like me

MSR Sweetwater Microfilter

MSR Sweetwater Microfilter

Some pump water filter solutions can be overly complex but the this water filter system from MSR hits the sweet spot between function and simplicity.

It’s ideal for light to moderate use while backpacking or camping. The pump handle is simple to operate and with the 4 to 1 leverage it makes it easy to pump just over 1 liter per minute.

It has a 80 micron stainless steel pre-filter and a carbon core which helps to get rid of any odor or taste the water might have. It has good quality silicone hoses that are color coded to prevent any contamination.

Cleaning in the field is easy. The water filter system comes supplied with a cleaning brush and once you’re done you simply fold the handle away to pack it up compactly into the supplied stuff sack.

We really liked that the water bottle adaptor fits a few different bottles including a wide mouth Nalgene.

What We Like

  • Removes 99.9999% bacteria and 99.9% protozoa
  • Activated carbon core ensures fresh tasting, odor free water
  • Lever action pump is simple to use and offers good through flow
  • Very lightweight – only weighs 11 ounces
  • Decent cartridge life of 750 liters

What We Don’t Like

  • Not suited to supply more than 1 or 2 people with water

Platypus Gravity Works

Platypus GravityWorks 4.0 Liter High-Capacity Water Filter System for Group Camping and Emergency Preparedness

If you’re looking to filter water for your whole camping party without the hassle of pumping then the Platypus Gravity Works is just the ticket.

Their tag line for this product is “Fill, Hang, Relax”. Hang the unfiltered water reservoir a little higher than the clean water reservoir and in under 3 minutes you’ve got around 4 liters of clean water.

The filter cartridge uses hollow fibre technology which results in a highly effective filter in a very small package. They’re expensive to replace but they’re good for around 1,500 liters so you won’t have to buy another cartridge in a hurry.

If you’re particularly sensitive to water taste or odor then you can buy the carbon element which splices in after the filter cartridge. It’s going to cost you a bit extra but it’s worth it for the improved taste.

In-field cleaning is pretty simple and all it takes is a quick back-flush for around 4 minutes

What We Like

  • High capacity gravity feed is ideal for supplying a group of family
  • Removes 99.9999% bacteria and 99.9% protozoa
  • Delivers 4 liters of filtered water in 2.5 minutes
  • Filter cartridge only needs replacing after 1,500 liters

What We Don’t Like

  • Filter cartridges are pricey to replace but fortunately they last a long time
  • Carbon element sold separately

MSR Autoflow Gravity

MSR AutoFlow Gravity Water Filter for Camping and Backpacking, 4-Liter

This is a well constructed and easy to use gravity water filter that comes in either 2L or 4L sizes. The wide opening makes it easy to scoop up water from your source and then gravity does the rest.

The flow rate of 1.75 liters per minute make this a good option if you’re supplying more than just for your personal use. In this updated model MSR have changed the closure system to improve packability. T

They’ve also used a better food grade lining to make sure that your water doesn’t get any taste or odor added to it from the reservoir. It has a little squeeze activated clamp on the end of the outlet so you can fill your bottle on demand.

With this hanging from a tree it’s like having a tap right there in your camp. The bottle adaptor fits most water bottles and makes it easier to refill bottles without spilling precious water.

What We Like

  • Reservoir made from high durability film
  • Closure system and hose layout allows for compact packing
  • Reasonable speed – 1.75 liters per minute
  • Easy to clean
  • Food grade lining ensures better tasting water

What We Don’t Like

  • Doesn’t come supplied with a clean water reservoir

MSR Guardian Purifier

MSR Guardian Military-Grade Water Purifier Pump for Backcountry, Global Travel, and Emergency Preparedness

If you’re looking for the most hardcore water filter that removes a lot more than other backpacking water filters then the Guardian is a great choice.

It’s built rock solid and was originally designed for military use. The pump handle is solidly constructed and delivers water a lot faster than other pump water filters. With a rate of 2.5 litres per minute this works just as well for personal use or for larger groups.

We really like that it doesn’t require any cleaning. With each pump stroke it goes through a self-cleaning cycle.

It has a nipple at the bottom to connect a hose for easy filling of a container or camelback as well as an adaptor that screws onto nalgene compatible bottles.

It filters down to 0.02 microns so it will filter out viruses. It comes at a high price tag but this offers significantly better filtering than the cheaper solutions. This is one of the best water filter units we’ve seen.

What We Like

  • Military grade water filter removes protozoa, bacteria, particulate and even viruses
  • Very fast – pumps 2.5 litres per minute
  • Extremely rugged – withstands freezing and drops
  • Pump is self cleaning – no backwashing required

What We Don’t Like

  • High Price Tag
  • At 17.3oz it’s a little heavier than other pump filters

Katadyn BeFree

Katadyn BeFree 0.6L Water Filter, Fast Flow, 0.1 Micron EZ Clean Membrane for Endurance Sports, Camping and Backpacking

This cheap water filter bottle is ideal for a day hike, trail running or even longer hikes where you have plenty of water sources along the way.

The bottle has a fairly wide opening for quick refilling and the mouthpiece and filter screw securely into place.

The water flow through the filter is fast enough to get a good drink of water without having to suck on the mouthpiece.

Cleaning is easily done. Simply shake and rinse the filter in water to get rid of any debris. Just remember to avoid unfiltered water contact with the mouthpiece.

Scrunch the bottle up and it’s small enough to stash it in your pocket or that last little spot in your pack. At only 3.2 ounces this is a great lightweight, compact and cheap water filter solution to add to your daypack.

What We Like

  • Collapsible soft bottle flask packs down really small
  • Removes 99.9999% bacteria and 99.9% protozoa
  • Filter is easy to clean
  • Price

What We Don’t Like

  • Only filters down to 0.1 micron – not a virus filter

Sawyer Squeeze

Sawyer Products SP2129 Micro Squeeze Water Filtration System

This is a compact, highly packable and easy to use water filter solution.

The kit includes 3 reusable water pouches (12oz, 16oz, 32oz), screw on filter, drinking spout and cleaning syringe.

The pouches are collapsable and roll up really small. The filter can be used with the pouches but also screws onto a standard water bottle.

The small mouth of the pouch does make it a little slow to fill unfortunately. It’s ideal for one or two people for fast and light trekking.

Fast fill hydration pack adapters are also available now so you can use the squeeze filter to refill your hydration bladder without having to remove it from your pack.

To backflush the filter you need to be sure to bring along the syringe. If you clean it regularly you may never have to replace the filter because they claim a life expectancy of 1 million gallons.

What We Like

  • Filter screws directly onto water bottle
  • Filters pretty quickly at 1 liter/minute
  • Price
  • Very easy to use

What We Don’t Like

  • The mouth of the pouch is a little small so it takes some time to fill
  • To backwash the filter you need to remember to pack the supplied syringe

SteriPen Adventurer Opti UV Water Purifier

SteriPen Adventurer Opti UV Personal Water Purifier for Camping, Backpacking, Emergency Preparedness and Travel

The SteriPen Adventurer is for serious hikers that want a lightweight, compact water purifier that is easy to use.

It uses UV to kill the microorganisms in the water so there’s none of the aftertaste, waiting time or allergy issues that you get from using iodine or chlorine.

You simply press the button once for 1 liter or twice for half a liter and then stir your water with the SteriPen. Once the light turns off your water is safe to drink.

It only takes around 90 seconds to purify a liter of water. The UV light kills the DNA of the microorganisms so they can’t reproduce once inside you.

This product is so effective that it’s the only water portable water treatment device to receive the Water Quality Association’s gold seal.

Because you need to stir the water it’s only practical to use with a wide-mouth bottle.

What We Like

  • Compact and lightweight so very little excuse to leave it at home
  • Reusable for up to 8000 liters – that should keep even the thirstiest of us hydrated!
  • Kills 99.9% of harmful microorganisms, – Giardia, Cryptosporidium, viruses, protozoa and bacteria
  • Uses UV so there’s no aftertaste or allergies due to added chemicals
  • Water sensor can be used as a flashlight
  • No wait time – sterilizers a liter of water in 90 seconds

What We Don’t Like

  • Battery operated so you have to make sure your batteries are charged
  • Has to be used with a wide mouth container

Potable Aqua PURE Water Purifier

Potable Aqua Pure Portable Electrolytic Water Purifier Device

Whether you need to purify 1 liter of water for yourself or 20 liters for your hiking party this great water purifier has you covered.

It uses mixed oxidant technology to purify the water. You simply mix a brine solution made from any salt and any water and pour it into the little slot.

Once you select the volume of water you want to purify and start the reaction it uses electrolytic action to produce chlorine and other oxidants from the brine. Once the reaction is complete you pour the solution into the water and wait 30 minutes before it’s safe to drink.

There are two storage compartments in the device for salt but it’s a good idea to pack a little extra if you’re going to be out for a while.

The purifier can be charged either via the USB port or by using the built-in solar panel and a single charge is good for around 150 liters.

There are no replaceable parts and the only consumable you have is normal table salt so it’s really cheap to use.

The ability to scale between small and large quantities makes this great for a hike or even in your bugout bag.

What We Like

  • Treats anywhere between 1 to 20 liters at a time – so great if you are car camping or going backpacking with a group
  • Kills 99.9% of bacteria and viruses including Giardia and Cryptosporidium
  • Charges via USB or built-in solar panel
  • 60,000 liter lifetime with no replaceable parts
  • No pre-filtering required
  • No bad taste added to water
  • Very durable and fits into the palm of your hand

What We Don’t Like

  • Takes 30 minutes to purify water
  • High price tag

Potable Aqua Water Purification Tablets

Potable Aqua Water Purification Tablets With PA Plus - Two 50 count Bottles

If you want a simple and cheap way to disinfect water then these iodine tablets are a good option. The tablets are really simple to use.

Simply add 2 tablets for every liter of water that you need to purify, shake the bottle up and then wait for 30 minutes.

Iodine tablets are very effective at killing microorganisms in water but usually leave you with water that has a brownish color and a horrible taste.

To remove the iodine taste and color simply drop 2 of the PA Plus tablets into the treated water and after 5 minutes you’ll have purified water without the horrible taste and color.

This is not a long term water purifying solution and should rather be used as your backup plan rather than your primary water purifying solution.

Also, if you have an iodine allergy then you’ll want to skip these.

Once you open the bottle the tablets in the bottle will only be good for 12 months but they’re cheap so buy a few bottles for your hiking and emergency kit.

What We Like

  • Cheap and lightweight – easy to keep in your backpack for emergencies
  • PA plus additive removes iodine taste and color that you normally get with these tablets
  • Small bottles take up little space in pack
  • Simple to use
  • Very effective at killing viruses, bacteria and parasites

What We Don’t Like

  • Only really intended for short term or emergency use
  • No good if you have an iodine allergy
  • Takes 30 minutes to work

Katadyn Micropur MP1 Purification Tablets

Another simple and cheap way to purify water on the go, these chlorine dioxide tablets are a worthwhile addition to your backpack.

Killing viruses and bacteria by the simple addition of a tablet to the water, these are a good alternative to iodine. Personally I hate the taste of chlorine, but I prefer that to a dose of Giardia.

It’s as simple as popping an individually packed tablet into one liter of water, waiting for 15 minutes – or 30 minutes if you are worried about Cryptosporidium.

They won’t filter silt or other suspended particles, so step away from that murky river water full of hippo-poop!

I wouldn’t use these as my primary water sterilization method, but they make for a good backup, and are lightweight enough to keep in the bottom of your backpack.

What We Like

  • Affordable, lightweight and easy to forget about in the bottom of your pack
  • Great for emergency sterilization of water from suspect sources
  • Effective at killing viruses, parasites and bacteria
  • Doesn’t taste as bad as a dose of Giardia

What We Don’t Like

  • Takes 30 minutes to work
  • Won’t filter water at all, so best used with a clear source of water

Our Favorite: Best Backpacking Water Filters

We love the Steripen. It’s not a solution for large volume water purification, but for personal use on a hike it’s great.

I love the no-fuss operation and the fact that there’s no waiting time and this solution doesn’t involve adding any chemicals into the water.

If you’re needing to filter water for several people then the Platypus Gravity Works would be the top choice.

I also really like the LifeStraw Go water filter bottle.

The convenience of having the filter built into the bottle is great. The fact that it has both a standard, and an activated carbon filter definitely puts it ahead of most other backpacking water filters.

This is my go-to water bottle for when I’m out on a day hike or traveling to parts of the world where the water is less sanitary.

For backpacking trips it works well, but if I was setting up base camp for the family, I’d go for a larger device.

Best for Budget

If you’re looking to save some money then the Sawyer Mini water filter is your best bet.

Check out our head-to-head comparison between Sawyer Mini vs Lifestraw.

You get excellent filtration in a compact and cheap water filter. The only drawback is that it’s a little slow and needs backflushing every now and again.

I’d recommend this one if you go camping occasionally and don’t want to spend the extra money.

If you don’t mind a foul taste to your water, it doesn’t get much cheaper than the water purification tablets from Potable or Katadyn.

Normally we wouldn’t touch the stuff because the color and taste of iodine or chlorine treated water is just horrible.

With the PA Plus tablets added you get safe drinking water that tastes and looks (relatively) good without having to spend a lot of money.​ The Katadyn is a good alternative if you don’t want to use iodine.

Portable Water Sterilizer and Filter Buying Guide

Why Treat Water When Backpacking?

Sitting next to a stream of water while taking a break from your trail run or hike is a great way to relax. But don’t be fooled by how crystal clear that water looks.

Pretty much all surface water is contaminated with either bacteria, protozoa, viruses or all three. A study done in 1992 found that about 97% of the lakes and rivers in the USA were contaminated with either the protozoan parasites cryptosporidium or Giardia or both.

While that sounds pretty scary you’d probably be ok drinking from a lot of the streams you cross on your hike. But every time you do it’s basically a lottery. If you manage to ingest one of these bugs the rest of your backpacking experience is not going to be as much fun as you expected.

Better safe than sorry.

Backpacking Water Sources

Here are a few things to consider when choosing where to fill your bottle:

  • If there’s no inflow or outflow and it’s just a puddle of standing water then it’s best to avoid it.
  • If you know there are beavers in the water then avoid it, unless you like a little giardia in you.
  • If the stream passes through animal pastures or cultivated farmland chances are the water has animal waste or pesticides in it.
  • Waterfalls sound like a good source, but the water will contain more suspended solids in it than the pool it flows into.
  • If you’re downstream from a town where there’s mining or other industrial activity then you want to avoid using water from large rivers.
  • If the water is a steady moving stream passing over rocks and roots it’s probably the safest bet.

Water Pollutants

Before you can choose the best way to make your water safe it’s important to know what makes it dangerous.

In general the things you want to remove from the water are bacteria, protozoa (parasites), cysts, viruses, dissolved chemicals and particulate like sediment.

There are a number of potential water contaminants to look out for with the following being the main culprits:

  • Chemical – pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals and volatile organic compounds (VOC)
  • Turbidity – tiny suspended solids in the water make it hazy or milky in appearance
  • Viruses – hepatitis, meningitis, gastroenteritis are just a few of up to 100 potential water borne viruses. These are the smallest pathogens and are really tough to filter. The main source is often water that is contaminated by sewage
  • Bacteria – These are about 10 times smaller than protozoa and include the likes of E. Coli, Salmonella and Leptospira.
  • Protozoan Parasites – These are the largest bugs you’ll find in your water and are the easiest to filter. Giardia and Cryptosporidia are the main culprits in this group.

What System Works on What Pathogen?

  • Chemical – Removing chemicals from water is extremely difficult, if not impossible with anything that would fit into your pack. A water filter that uses activated carbon is your best bet to remove some chemicals and it will also remove bad odors and tastes.
  • Turbidity – These suspended solids may be too small for you to see but they’re big enough that pretty much any water filter will remove them. Even the cheaper ones.
  • Viruses – To filter out viruses your filter needs to have pores smaller than 0.1 micron and very few do. Most regular water filters are in the 0.2 to 0.3 micron range so the virus will pass straight through these filters. The alternative to filtering the virus is to either boil it or purify it with something like iodine, chlorine or UV light
  • Bacteria – The majority of bacteria are large enough that most good water filters will filter them out. That’s why you’ll see the some of the best water filters being able to claim that they remove 99.9999% of all bacteria.
  • Protozoan Parasites – These are harder to filter than bacteria but not as tough as viruses. If your filter meets EPA standards and has a 0.2 micron or 0.3 micron filter then it will filter out the Giardia and Cryptosporidium bugs
drinking stream water after purifying

Water Filter vs. Water Sterilizer for Backpacking​

A water filter will normally only remove things that are around 0.1 to 0.3 micron or larger depending on the filter. This is fine for removing bacteria, protozoa, cysts and particulate.

Even the best backpacking water filters will not remove viruses from water. Viruses are smaller than 0.1 micron and can only be killed by sterilizing with iodine, chlorine or UV light.

A good water sterilizer will kill bacteria and viruses but can’t remove dissolved chemicals from the water.​

So should I get a water filter or a water purifier? If you want to be 100% safe you’re going to need both.

If you’re traveling in a developing country where sanitation isn’t always the best then packing both is worth the real estate it takes up in your pack.

If you’re backpacking through the countryside in the US and you’re far away from any potential sewage contamination then a filter should be all you need.

How Water Filters/Purifiers Work: An Overview

A water filter uses a membrane or tiny hollow tubes to block contaminants while allowing water to pass through. The size of the holes (pores) in the filter determine the smallest things it can filter.

Dirty water goes in the one side and clean water comes out the other. A filter will not be able to remove dissolved chemicals like heavy metals or salt from the water and the majority will also not be capable of removing viruses.

The filter needs to be periodically cleaned to keep it from becoming clogged and eventually will need replacing.

A water purifier doesn’t actually remove anything from the water but rather it kills any bacteria, parasites or viruses in the water.

If you scoop up some slightly muddy water from a pool and purify it you could drink it safely but it’s not going to taste great. Whatever bugs were in it will be killed but you will still have the particulate suspended in the water.

Your best approach is to filter the water to remove as much as possible and then to purify it to kill anything that made it past the filter.

Even with the best water filter and purifier you still won’t be removing heavy metals like chromium or lead so choose your source carefully

Chemically Contaminated Water vs. Particulates​

Standard water filters use very fine microfibers to trap particulate and bacteria.

They can’t remove dissolved chemicals, odors or bad tastes from the water. To remove these you’ll need a filter that uses an absorbent medium like charcoal, also sometimes referred to as activated carbon.

This will absorb chemicals like pesticides, herbicides and other Volatile Organic Chemicals (VOC), heavy metals, bad tastes and odors that would otherwise pass through a standard filter.

Is There a Difference Between Filtered & Purified Water?

Filtered water will look perfectly clean but that doesn’t mean that it’s safe to drink. It may still contain viruses.

Water that is purified may not always look the cleanest but whatever viruses or bugs are in it will be dead so it will be safe to drink.

Filtered water will usually taste better than water that is simply purified because the particulate will have been removed from it.

Water Sterilizing Methods​

Water purification is typically done by either treating the water with UV light or adding chlorine or iodine to the water.

There are pros and cons for each of these methods.​

UV Light

Works really fast and there’s no need for long waiting times after treatment. With cloudy water it may be necessary to pre-filter the water to guarantee the inactivation of all microorganisms.​

Chemical Purification​

Water sterilization tablets are either made of Iodine or Chlorine.

Iodine is very effective at purifying water but leaves you with water that really doesn’t taste great. Some people have an iodine intolerance or allergy. If you take Lithium, if you have thyroid problems or if you’re allergic to shellfish then chances are that you’re allergic to Iodine.

Adding Chlorine to water is also very effective. You don’t have as big a taste issue but in both cases it takes around 30 minutes to purify the water.​

My main issue with these is that I don’t like the addition of chemicals to my water. And in order to get rid of the foul taste, you add further chemicals.

However, when given the choice between a filthy intestinal infection, or a few chemicals, I’m happy to purify my water with these tablets.

Regardless of purifying method you use, remember that they will not be able to remove dissolved chemicals from the water. They merely kill any bacteria in the water.

Types of Water Filter System

Gravity Filters

These use a pouch, or water reservoir, with a filter at the bottom of the pouch. Water is scooped up into the pouch and then it is hung from a point higher than the bottle you need to fill. Gravity forces the water through the filter and down the pipe.

Gravity filters are the easiest and quickest water filters to use when supplying larger amounts of water to a group of people. The filter will remove bacteria and parasites but not viruses and you can usually put a charcoal cartridge inline with the filter to remove odors and taste.

If you’re camping somewhere in the US then this is a solid choice. Your water source needs to be deep enough to scoop with the pouch so it doesn’t work well with shallow sources. If you’re looking to move fast and light then you may want to look at a more compact filter.

Squeeze Filters

Basically a filter that screws onto a flexible water pouch. Once filled, you squeeze the pouch and it forces water through the filter. These are great for personal use for a quick drink while on a trail run. The water pouch collapses and stashes easily into your pocket. It’s a good option to fill your own bottle but too small and slow to supply a larger group. Also, there’s no charcoal in the filter so you’re stuck with the taste and smell of the water you scooped up.

Pump Filters

Instead of using gravity this filter has a lever attached to it that pumps water through the filter when operated. Water is taken up through the inlet hose, it’s pumped through the filter, and exits through a hose on the outlet side. The handles can be a little fiddly to use sometimes and it takes a lot more elbow grease to get your water than a gravity filter does. The pros are that you can pump water up from a really shallow source and the filter takes up very little space in your pack. Most pump filters will only remove parasites and bacteria while the more expensive units like the MSR Guardian will filter out viruses too. Some of these filters also incorporate activated charcoal to remove odors and taste. As soon as something has moving parts there’s a chance something will break. Some of these filters have durability issues with the handles and o-rings.

Straw Filters

Probably the most famous of these is the LifeStraw. It’s a plastic tube with a filter inside that you suck water through as you would with a regular straw. These are the ultimate in personal use, lightweight and compact water filters. They will remove bacteria and parasites but most won’t remove viruses. If you spend a little more for the LifeStraw Mission or Family 1.0 models then you’d be able to filter viruses as well. These are really easy to use but only really supply enough water for personal use. Cleaning is easily done by blowing instead of sucking so that excess water is backflushed through the filter. Eventually the filter gets clogged and it’s too difficult to suck water through it. After around 4,000 liters you’ll need to dispose of it and buy another as these don’t usually have serviceable parts.

Water Bottle Filters

If you already have your favorite water bottle but want to be sure the water is safe to drink then simply screw on one of these filters to the mouth of the bottle. Upend the bottle and gravity forces the water through the filter and into your mouth. These work well on the trail but the small amount of water they filter make them unsuitable for supplying your camp. The filter will remove parasites and bacteria but not viruses and the absence of carbon in the filter means you won’t be improving the taste of the water much.

Water Purification Methods


Boiling your water will kill all parasites, bacteria and any viruses as well. It doesn’t affect the taste of the water and it is very effective and cheap way to make it safe to drink.

It’s a good option if you’re camping but not practical when backpacking or hiking. The amount of fuel and time you need boil the water makes this a very inefficient process. You’ll also need to wait for ages before the water is cool enough to drink.

Chemical Treatment

Treating your water with chemicals like iodine, chlorine or oxidizing agents are all easy and effective ways to kill any bugs or viruses in the water. These chemicals can alter the taste of the water though. Iodine in particular gives the water a pretty unpleasant taste.

Chlorine doesn’t affect the taste nearly as much but Giardia as well as Cryptosporidium can be Chlorine resistant so you will need to filter the water before purifying with Chlorine.

It does take a little while for the chemicals to do their job so you’ll need to wait 15 to 30 minutes before drinking the water. Water treatment tablets are fairly cheap and take up very little space in your pack so they are a good option if you insist on packing super light.

UV Purification

Exposing water to UV light kills 99.99% of all harmful bad guys in water including bacteria, parasites (including Giardia and Cryptosporidium) and viruses. It uses no chemicals and doesn’t affect the taste of the water.

It also works a lot quicker than chemical purifying. If the water has a lot of particulate in it then it does reduce the effectiveness of this method. There are some great compact UV light water purifiers that you switch on and just stir the water in your bottle for a minute or so.

The drawback is that these work with batteries so make sure you’ve got a fresh pair in and a backup just in case. This is probably the best water purifying option for personal use but these devices can get a little pricey. The UV bulb will also eventually need to be replaced if you use it a lot.

Types of Water Filter

The kinds of filter media used in water filters are generally hollow fiber, ceramic, fiberglass, silica depth. Each of these have their respective pros and cons.

Hollow Fiber

Excellent area-to-weight ratio means you get very effective filtering in a small, light package that’s good for around 1,500 to 2000 liters. The higher surface area also offers a higher flow rate than other filters do.

Hollow fiber filters are less durable, so you need to treat them carefully or make sure the housing is designed to protect the fibers when dropped. Replacement cartridges are expensive.


Offers excellent filtering, high flow rates and long lifespan (around 2000 liters). But it’s heavy and needs regular scrubbing to prevent it from becoming clogged. The ceramic filter wears down from cleaning and will eventually need to be replaced.


If the pore size is sufficiently small this offers good filtration at a low price. It clogs easily though, is more fragile than ceramic, and the flow rate isn’t as good either. Lifespan reduces significantly if used with silty or turbid water.

Silica Depth

Offers excellent filtering at a good price point. Reasonable flow rate, but not as good as you get from hollow fiber and ceramic. The lifespan of these filters runs to around 750 liters.

What is Micron Size for Water Filters?

When a water filter specification mentions “microns” it’s an indication of how effective the filter is at removing the bad stuff from the water. The figure quoted refers to the size of the pores in the filter and give you an idea of what the filter will stop and what it will let through.

Bacteria range anywhere from 0.2 to 60 microns while viruses are around 0.005 to 0.3 microns [source]. The smaller the pores, the better it will filter, but the longer it will take.

The Role of a Pre-filter (Do I Need One?)

The lifespan of your water filter is highly dependent on the amount of turbidity or silt in the water. If the source you’re using is clear then there’s no need for a pre-filter. If the water looks murky or you can see that there’s a lot of sediment in it, then it’s best to use a pre-filter.

Simply pouring the water through a t-shirt or bandana will do a fairly good job of removing most of the sediment. Your water filter can then handle the rest. It will require less backwashing and will last a lot longer.

Taking Care of your Water Filter

It doesn’t matter what type of water filter you buy, it will eventually need replacing. There are a few ways to make it last longer:

  • Backflushing your water filter regularly will ensure an optimum flow rate and will extend the life of your filter cartridge. Make sure to properly clean the outlet side if it comes into contact with any dirty water.
  • Choosing the right water – Filtering clear water will extend the life of your filter so choose water as close to the source as possible and avoid muddy pools.
  • Replacing the filter – Once your filter gets clogged it needs replacing. Trying to force water through a clogged filter can put strain on the seals and other components.
  • If you’re going to store your filter between hikes first filter chlorinated water (from your tap) through it to kill any bacterial blooms. Then leave in a warm, dry spot (not in sunlight) for about a week to dry properly before stashing in a cupboard or draw.
best water filter for backpacking
Glacial water on Everest Base Camp Trek

Choosing the best water filter comes down to how much water you’re going to need and where you’re getting water. For fast and light trekking small water filters like the LifeStraw or a squeeze filter are fine. If you’re catering for a bigger group then get a pump filter with a decent flow rate, or a gravity filter.

If you’re hiking in the US, far away from any human settlements then a good microfilter that goes down to 0.2 microns should be all you need. Cryptosporidium and Giardia are the main things you’ll need to avoid.

If you’re going to be near popular camp spots or traveling in developing countries, either be sure that your filter removes viruses or be sure to purify the water after filtering it.

When considering the cost of the filter be sure to consider the total cost of ownership and not just the initial purchase price. The lifespan of the filter cartridges and the cost to replace them can make a big difference.

This Water would need filtering to remove the silt before sterilizing.

In Summary

To cover all your bases you’ll need both the best portable water filter as well as the best portable water sterilizer in your kit. If you absolutely have to choose then go with a good two stage water filter.

You are more likely to encounter bacteria and parasites on a hike than viruses, and filters are a lot easier to use when you’re on the move.

Just don’t get careless with the water outlet of the filter, and make sure that the clean water side never comes into contact with suspect water.

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