To settle an argument, I’m pitting the Sawyer Mini vs LifeStraw in the battle of the backpacking water filters.
Last year I was hiking into Kalalau Beach along the Na Pali coastline in Hawaii with a few friends. It was one of the most breathtaking vistas I have ever seen. The hike itself is a challenging 11 miles, but we wanted to stay a couple of days, so we brought in all our gear.
Less than halfway through the hike in, my mate announces that he hasn’t brought anything to treat water. I was tempted to give him my foul-tasting iodine tablets, but luckily someone had a spare LifeStraw.
Two popular water treatment systems on the market today are Sawyer’s Mini Water Filtration System and the LifeStraw personal water filter, two similar products that often draw comparisons, so I will measure the two side by side.
Overview of the Sawyer Mini vs LifeStraw
First of all, the biggest difference between these two products in terms of functionality is that the Sawyer Mini is a versatile filtration system which can be used in various ways while the LifeStraw is just a straw.
The LifeStraw filters out harmful particles in real time as you suck up water from a fresh source such as a natural spring, river, or lake. You can also fill up a wide mouth water bottle and use the LifeStraw to drink directly from that.
It is a handy device, but it is helpful to understand the major difference between the LifeStraw and the Sawyer Mini before digging into the specifics.
Both the Sawyer Mini and the LifeStraw boast their unique, proprietary filtering technology. Sawyer’s Absolute Micron Filtering Technology utilizes tiny U-shaped micro-tubes that allow water to enter into micro-pores while other harmful particles are unable to enter. Check out an overview here:
LifeStraw has their advanced hollow fiber technology. Rather than the U-shaped micro-tubes, elongated fibers run the length of the straw. These filter out harmful particles as the water passes through micro-pores by way of suction.
How they stack up to each other
In some ways, comparing the filtration capabilities between the Sawyer Mini and the LifeStraw is like the 3,000 lb. horse making fun of the 3,001 lb. horse; the differences are minute.
Nevertheless, there is a strength in the Sawyer Mini’s efficacy. Whereas LifeStraw’s technology has been rated to 0.2-micron pore size, the Sawyer Mini rates at 0.1. Though both products meet EPA drinking water standards, the Sawyer Mini has the slightly superior filtration technology.
Not surprisingly, the Sawyer Mini removes a slightly higher percentage of harmful products based on independent lab research: “99.99999%” of all bacteria: salmonella, cholera, E.coli, and “99.9999%” of all protozoa: giardia and cryptosporidium.
LifeStraw filters out “99.9999%” of bacteria and “99.9%” of protozoa. Seriously? Is this really a difference?
For most backpackers, the difference between the two is too minimal to notice (especially as both meet EPA standards).
Here the Sawyer Mini rates higher than the LifeStraw. The Sawyer Mini is rated to filter up to 100,000 gallons of water. The LifeStraw, only 1,000 gallons. This is a significant difference. And don’t worry; you’ll know that the filter has outlived its usefulness when water stops passing through.
- Company Update: Even though LifeStraw’s longevity still pales in comparison to that of the Sawyer Mini, the 1,000-gallon filtering capability is an increase from the previously stated 264 gallons (based on further independent testing).
The Sawyer Mini is 5 inches long by 1 inch wide, and the LifeStraw is 9 inches long by 1 inch wide. Both weigh only 2 ounces. The differences are nearly inconsequential; both market their products as ultra-lightweight water filtering systems.
LifeStraw is great in that it allows you to drink straight from the device; the Sawyer Mini is a filter, not a straw. However, the Sawyer Mini includes an attachable straw with the shipment (as well as a drinking pouch and cleaning plunger).
Additionally, the Mini can operate as an in-line filter for hydration packs. Or as a pre-filter system (see “Pro tips” below). Finally, the Sawyer Mini has a 28 mm thread, so it can screw on to most standard water bottles (think Smartwater, not Nalgene bottle).
There is clearly greater versatility with the Sawyer Mini.
LifeStraw recommends that you backflush your filter by blowing back into the straw in order to remove any remaining water trapped in the filter. The Sawyer Mini, on the other hand, includes a cleaning plunger to give a more thorough backflush.
The Sawyer Mini is a little more expensive than the LifeStraw, but not by much. Keep in mind, though, that the longevity of the Sawyer Mini can reach up to ten times that of the LifeStraw.
Both companies strive to use their technology and platform for good around the globe. Sawyer International gives specific steps you can take to make a difference through their company here.
However, this is the category in which LifeStraw really shines. For every LifeStraw product purchased, a child in need receives safe drinking water for an entire year. In fact, LifeStraw began due to a need for filtering Guinea worm larvae out of contaminated water (read more of their remarkable story).
What they don’t do
Both the Sawyer Mini and LifeStraw are good at filtering out biological contaminants and are effective in most every natural body of water in North America.
However, they don’t filter viruses (found more commonly in developing nations) or water tainted by dissolvable substances (metals, chemicals, etc.). So, if there is a threat of these other forms of contamination, these would not be the primary products for you.
- Don’t let your filter freeze. If you’re hiking in freezing temperatures, you’ll still want to make sure that the filter stays warm enough so that water does not freeze to the fiber and crack it.
- Bring along a water container. The LifeStraw pictures seem fun, just dipping the straw straight into a fresh stream, but that will get tedious quickly. Make sure you can bring water along after you leave that stream behind. Plus, though the Sawyer Mini includes a 16 oz. drinking pouch, you might find a larger container better for long hikes.
- As mentioned above, though both of these filtration systems are great, they don’t filter everything. Many backpackers use Sawyer Mini as a pre-filter and bring along other filters with absorbent mediums that trap dissolvable substances. You can greatly increase the longevity of those other filters by pre-filtering with systems like the Sawyer Mini which works as an in-line filter (LifeStraw would not work for this).
- Look through other water filter products if your specific needs aren’t met by the Sawyer Mini or the basic LifeStraw. It’s hard to beat the ultra-lightweight component of these systems, but certain trips might demand more advanced filtration methods or versatility.
- Always have a backup. It can be a nightmare getting caught without some sort of backup in case your original breaks, stops functioning, or falls off a cliff (hey, it happens). Even unpopular iodine tablets can be great to pack along in case of an emergency.
Final thoughts: Is there a Clear Winner?
Though the Sawyer Mini outrates the LifeStraw in filtration, versatility and longevity, everyone’s needs are different. Both products perform wonderfully within the limits of their capabilities. LifeStraw’s story, of a more immediate social impact upon purchase and cheaper price might be more attractive. It all depends on what you’re looking for and the trip you’re about to take.