The best water filter for your first backpacking trip

Across the St. Vrain creek a fallen tree lay, soggy, water rushing over and beneath, Nyla and her friends balancing precariously on top to drop an intake line into the glacier-cold current and then pump the filter over and over and over… first to produce supply for drinking, then again for cooking, and lastly? Well that last one was for fun 🙂

Hydration – carrying extra water and having the ability to get additional drinkable water – is one of the Ten Essential Systems for backcountry adventures such as boating, camping, hiking, or backpacking. Like all of the Ten Essential Systems, hydration is hard to improvise on the trail so you need to have the right tools before you hit the trail.

The different methods of making found water into drinkable water vary but all share a common goal – to treat water that may be contaminated with waterborne pathogens so it doesn’t make you sick. No one likes to think their adventure might make their child sick, which can quickly lead to a bit of analysis paralysis when trying to make the best decision for your family.

Fortunately, for trips in the United States where waterborne viruses are considered rare, all of the methods – chemical purification, ultraviolet light, boiling, and filtration – all effectively eliminate protozoa and bacteria making water safe for consumption. With safety out of the way, how should you evaluate the best hydration system for your first backpacking trip?

As a parent with young children (ages 3 and 7), my main objective – besides staying safe – for our first backpacking trips is to make sure everyone has a great experience so they fall in love with nature and getting out there. Having fun trumps everything. So, I’m not splitting hairs over how many liters my hydration system can generate per minute or the number of ounces it weighs. This would be different if I was planning a trip for myself and other experienced adults when I would be looking at characteristics of speed, reliability, maintenance, etc. What I optimize to for my first backpacking trips with my children is what type of experience the system will provide them. Specifically, I’m looking for something that doesn’t turn my kids off and rather has high playability to get them into a deeper outdoor experience.

With that in mind, let’s go through each hydration system in order of my favorites, least to most.

Chemical purification – liquid, tablet, or purifier

How it works:

The process for purifying water using a chemical treatment – either iodine or chlorine – varies based on the specific product.

In the case of adding chemicals to water, you put a drop of liquid or a tablet into your container and then wait. The wait time can vary dramatically, from 15 minutes to hours. If your water source has particles, you may want to first strain the water.

Another way to treat water with chemicals is with water purifiers, like the MSR SweetWater Water Purifier System ($83.89), that combines a hand-operated filter with a chlorine-based purifier in one, or of similar design, gravity-fed purifiers such as the LifeStraw Mission Gravity Water Purifier ($115.96).

Make or break:

The major drawback to chemical purification is the taste. Regardless of the method, liquid, tablet, or purifier, I don’t want to scare my kids out of the backcountry because they think the water tastes “yucky”.

However:

Even though I don’t carry any chemical purification as my primary system, I do carry a 20-pack of Potable Aqua Chlorine Dioxide Tablets ($10.17) as a backup in case my other system fails and I don’t want to resort to boiling (see below). Since these produce bad tasting water they make a good backup – we’re not going to use them unless we have to! The tablets are cheap, small, and lightweight so it’s hard to ignore the value they bring as a backup.

Ultraviolet light

How it works:

Using ultraviolet light to purify water, such as the SteriPEN Aqua Water Purifier ($49.95), or the CamelBak All Clear Water Purifier Bottle ($72.00) that has an ultraviolet device integrated into the bottle, are such neat human innovations. They didn’t have these when I was a kid! These types of gadgets are super easy to use; you just fill up your bottle, push a button, and let the ultraviolet light neutralize the pathogens for a minute or so depending on the product. Using ultraviolet light doesn’t remove particles or change the taste of water, which could produce unpleasant experiences for kids, but where we’ve tried the ones our friends carry, the streams were clear and we didn’t encounter that problem except maybe a leaf or twig swallowed without protest.

Make or break:

When I watch children interact with ultraviolet light purifiers, their interest fades once the novelty is lost. Since only one child manages the device, the opportunity for collaborative play is diminished (and sometimes squabbles arise!). There isn’t a lot of skill mastery or teachable moments with ultraviolet light that they don’t get from flashlights. And try explaining to a child how ultraviolet light scrambles the DNA of pathogens to render them inactive to make the water safe to drink! Overall, not super fun. 

Boiling

How it works:

Boiling brings the temperature of water high enough to kill viruses, bacteria, and protozoa. The process is straightforward – you just bring water to boiling and let it boil for at least one minute (to be safe). Plan to bring more fuel than you would otherwise to ensure you have enough for boiling water as well as cooking.

Make or break:

The very major downside of boiling is that other than sunburn, the most common burn in the backcountry is from spilled hot water (NOLS Wilderness Medicine). If a burn is bad enough you’ll be evacuating your child. Because my children are young and are still spontaneously clumsy, this alone makes boiling an unacceptable solution for me. As well, the steps to boil water isn’t an unique experience that my children will not already be exposed to from cooking in the backcountry (i.e. pouring ingredients into a pot, lighting a stove, waiting) so this solution holds little appeal with the exception that it is important to know about in case of emergency.

When considering:

All that being said… the very awesome Jetboil stoves, like the Jetboil Flash Personal Cooking System ($99.95), with the integrated stove and pot reduce the chances of spilling and if you’re on a short trip it seems like they might be a decent option. They are very efficient and so they burn less fuel than other stoves and are super fast at heating up water. They do have a pretty small capacity so if you have a family of four, for example, and you need to fill everyone’s water bottle plus obtain water for cooking a meal you’re looking at boiling multiple pots worth (not to mention cooling them).

Gravity filter

How it works:

So elegant: fill a “dirty” bag with water, connect a hose with an inline filter to a second “clean” bag and raise the dirty bag up higher than the clean bag. Water drips down from dirty to clean going through a filter on the way. The Platypus GravityWorks Filter System 4-Liter ($119.95) is one of the highest rated examples of these gravity filters for speed, ease of use (especially cleaning) and works well with their reservoirs making for a pretty slick system.

Make or break:

While I haven’t used a gravity filter yet, I expect they would provide an unique teachable moment where your children can learn about how gravity works. But I don’t believe that watching water drip will hold my children’s attention very long which means less playtime and a diminished opportunity for using water filtration as a method to enhance the trip.

Note to self:

When the experience of purifying water gets tiresome and the children are older, do yourself a favor and get one! Let gravity do the work 🙂

Straw filter

How it works:

Another brilliant human invention, the dip-and-drink products like Sawyer Mini Water Filter ($19.97) make getting clean water very immediate. You just insert one end into the water source and drink like you would through a straw. The water moves through a filter or in some products a purifier and into your mouth, cleaning the water. Some products in this category include ways to connect the straw to either a gravity filter setup or to use it like a hand-pump type filter, by squeezing the water through the filter and into a container.

Make or break:

Overall straws are becoming more versatile but still lack in their ability to produce enough quantity to allow them to be my primary system. Like the ultraviolet light treatment, they tend to be operated by just one person and like gravity filters the fun dissipates quickly. Overall, they don’t seem all that playable.

But for those with extra room:

There are very few things I would take extras of but in this case I imagine my children would enjoy the novelty of being able to walk up to a stream, dip and drink. The Sawyer Mini Water Filter is tiny and would make a nice stocking stuffer that could be sneaked onto our packing list.

Hand-pump filter

How it works:

First, a “dirty” intake hose is placed into the water source. Then the user (your child :)) pumps a handle to pull water into the filter where it is strained through a microfiltration cartridge. The water exits the filter and is pushed out your “clean” hose and into your water bottle, bag, or pot. Many intake hoses also include a pre-filter, which prevents sediment from entering the system. The cartridge inside the filter has micro-porous holes that stop bacteria and protozoa pathogens from passing through, while allowing small water molecules to do so easily. MSR MiniWorks EX Microfilter ($63.95) or Katadyn Hiker Microfilter ($60.77) are good – and inexpensive – examples in this category.

Make or break:

From assembly, to operation, to maintenance, using a hand-pump filter requires more work than any of the other systems. And this is what I love about it! Setting aside time with the family on your first backpacking trip to “make water” is a phenomenal use of time in my opinion. Because filters include so many moving parts they can be operated by up to three children at the same time. One child can operate the “dirty” intake hose, placing it in the stream; a second child can pump the water; a third child can fill bottles, bags, and pots with the “clean” hose. Then they can switch jobs. Since using this type of filter requires being at the water source for the whole duration of the effort, they’ll be crouching streamside, touching, listening, and seeing their surroundings. Just what I want!

Of all the systems, I believe the hand-pump filter has the highest playability – it’s a fun, elaborate, system to use and engages children in what one might call work but looks like play. Due to its mechanical and analog nature, hand pumps provide a teachable moment where the audience is captive, enjoying a first-hand experience. You can introduce ideas about stream ecology, physics, and collaborative effort.

The hand-pump filter certainly will not be for everyone. Maybe you don’t want to sit around while your children spend time “making water” and you’d prefer more of a hands-off approach. Maybe you’re all about speed or want something that has less moving parts and will not break easily. In our case the hand-pump filter was a great success – at every opportunity the children journeyed to the creek and took turns manning different parts of the pump to produce water.

My Picks

The first water filter I bought was the Katadyn Hiker. I chose it because of how well the brand is rated overall and second because the Hiker model at $60.77 was inexpensive compared to other models in the product line. I figure that our family is just starting to backpack and that our preferences will likely change as our children age and our trips evolve. I like the Katadyn Hiker because it has adapters to connect to our Platypus Hydration bags (also connects to CamelBak hydration bags) and an end for filling pots. The children helped me assemble it and were able to handle the system entirely themselves.

As you go up in price with hand-pump filters, you will see improvements in the capacity, speed, reliability, pore size, and in some cases the integration of a purifier. Given that we do our backpacking at high elevations in the Rocky Mountains here in the United States, and there is mounting research that the water in these areas are less contaminated than previously thought, I’m not concerned about the 0.2 micron of the Hiker model and that it doesn’t filter out viruses. The playability of the Hiker and the lack of a chemical taste make it a winner in my book. My children are not turned off; they are engaged. But if you want a product that removes viruses (while staying with a hand-pump style), you can jump up to the MSR Guardian Purifier ($349.95), which has a filter pore size of 0.02 microns and treats for viruses – but pricier than other systems.

I’d love to hear about the experience of others on their first backpacking trips. What hydration system have you found works the best for your family?

****

Back at the soggy log in the creek, something draws the children’s attention and the three of them stop for a moment. Maybe it was a bird, or a moose, or a bear? They glance at the pool upstream and then pivoting their heads look at the boulders downstream, adjusting their stance on their slippery perch. The wind rustles through mountain tree boughs and the creek gurgles, inviting them back to the simple task at hand.

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2 replies
  1. Wil
    Wil says:

    My favorite is https://sawyer.com/products/sawyer-squeeze-filter-system-sp131/ they also have a smaller version. They weigh very little, there are no moving parts and Cai enjoys squeezing the water. It is also pretty fast. We carry a water bottle each and choose the size of squeeze pouch dependent on how far it will be between water as we can carry extra water in it. No bad taste and water is ready as soon as it is filtered. You can even use it like a straw. Only down side is these kind of filters fall apart with cold water – 32F. So I tend to boil in winter (bring lots of fuel).

    Reply
    • Jason
      Jason says:

      That looks great, Wil. I love how compact it is and not having moving parts is a huge win. Seems like a great choice for backpacking (when weight matters) 🙂 I’ll see if I can try it out next year!

      Reply

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