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Backpacking Water
Purification Best Tips

Backpacking water purification is an absolute must if you are venturing into areas with untreated surface water as your only drinking water source.

Water treatment has unfortunately become the rule for backpackers.

It's the only way to avoid picking up beaver fever i.e.  unpleasant giardia symptoms.

But should a hiking water filter for your hiking water be your first line of defense against dirty drinking water?

Not necessarily.

Let's take a look at the problem of providing safe hiking water on an extended backcountry trip.

  • Lots of surface water looks clean: a sparkling stream cascading down the rocks, for instance.
  • Or a cold, deep, crystal clear mountain lake.
Clear rushing mountain stream over rocks and bouldersShould you apply backpacking water purification methods, or take a chance?

But there are many unseen sources of water contamination lurking in that "clean" water.

For instance, heavy metals or other contaminants leaching from the rocks.

And there are microscopic troublemakers which other people and animals leave behind:

  • viruses,
  • bacteria,
  • protozoa,
  • and worms

from sweat, feces or urine.

Treat it, then drink it

So unless you absolutely have to in a survival situation, don't drink the water without treating it.

[Caveat: If you find yourself in one of the few untouched places on Earth, feel free to gulp down ice cold glacier or melt water by the gallon.]

Which brings us back to the subject of choosing a method of backpacking water purification. 

Regardless of the method you choose, you want it to be:

  • lightweight,
  • convenient to use,
  • easy and inexpensive to maintain,
  • and reliable.

Backpacking water purification option: carry a water filter

I started using an MSR water filter about 15 years ago.

  • My filter is rather heavy, using a ceramic core with a plastic pump handle.
  • It has a plastic tube with a float, which is placed into the water source.
  • The pump handle creates suction to draw the water through the filter, and the clean water flows into a water bottle attached to the other end.

I've noticed several problems with this filter.

The first problem was that I had to pump hard to get enough water flowing through the filter.

I took apart the entire apparatus, cleaned the ceramic core with the recommended abrasive pad, and reassembled it. Not much improvement. I get a good workout every time I pump water!

Another problem was created by my own clumsiness.

I was cleaning the filter in my kitchen sink and accidentally knocked the ceramic core against the metal side of the sink.


That set me back about $80 to replace the ceramic filter.

And when I had murky or debris-filled water sources, the filter clogged often. I had to take it apart, clean off the debris, and reassemble it.


Plus it added time to my preparations for the next day, robbing me of relaxing time.

One more thing: There's no way to know if the filter has failed.

After a week long backpacking trip near Mt. Adams, my hiking companion came down with blastocystis, - even though we filtered all of our water, including our dish washing water.

Obviously, something was amiss.

This filter also will not remove viruses, the smallest of the human pathogens. This is a huge consideration if you are travelling to areas known to be contaminated with human feces.

  • And that's just about anywhere that humans have access to surface water - pristine appearing mountain lakes and streams included.
  • If there's a boot path or game trail to it, there are pathogens in the water.

So I'd recommend looking at the newer filters on the market as you ponder backpacking water purification options. They are definitely lighter, and reportedly faster, for water treatment in the back country than mine.

This is the one I've got my eye on, because of the updated features.

If you want to go as lightweight as possible and still purify your water on a backpacking trip, consider a Lifestraw Go two stage water filtration bottle.

  • Read my review here.

But there's also the LifeStraw Water Filter to consider as a primary method.

  • It all depends on how aggressive you want to be about backpacking water purification,
  • how much you want to pay for clean water,
  • and how much weight you want to carry.

Backpacking water purification without a filter

But you're not locked into carrying a hiking water filter in your backpack.

There are other avenues to clean drinking water:

1. Boil the water.
This means you have to carry more fuel.

If you're camping at high altitude, it will take even more fuel and more time to supply your drinking water & cooking needs.

The good thing about boiled water: it kills all microscopic pathogens, including viruses.

The bad news? Boiled water can taste flat. You might need to add a little something to jazz it up.

Flavored electrolytes might do the trick, AND provide you with skeletal muscle benefits.

2. Chemical treatment.

I remember adding iodine to my drinking water way back when.
It tasted beyond awful!

And I remember adding flavored drink mixes to the water, just to be able to choke it down.

But at least it was a safe backpacking water purification method, right?

Today, you have the option of using chemicals which are a new generation of effectiveness.

  • Read about Polar Pure and decide if it's the right approach to back country water purification for you.

3. UV (ultraviolet) light.

Ever hear of a SteriPen? I'm investigating these right now, and will report what I find.

As a microbiologist, I understand how UV rays can kill microorganisms (mutating the DNA or outright killing the cells). I'm just waiting for some field reports, to confirm that these devices work as advertised.

This is the one I'm considering adding to my hiking gear repertoire for backpacking water purification purposes:

SteriPEN Adventurer Opti Personal,Handheld UV Water Purifier

Bottom line for backpacking
water purification methods

Bottom line for you?

Water is important to a high functioning hiker's body.

Don't deprive yourself of this vital fluid - just be sure it's safe before consuming it.

Choose a primary method of water purification, and also carry a back up method.

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Backpacking Water Purification

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