When I purchased my first water filter 12 years ago the process was an entirely different game. There weren’t a ton of options, which fortunately eliminated any potential, pre-purchase anxiety. Let’s be honest, you know the feeling. As of recent years, I’ve spent most of my time in the backcountry solo. Because of that, I’ve been a fan of Sawyers’ mini filter. In my hunt for a new system that’s friendlier to a larger group, I caught up with Travis over at Sawyer for an expert opinion. “I use the full size Sawyer Squeeze filter as my workhorse. The increased surface area and flow rate are definitely worth the nominal weight upgrade from the mini.” Off his advice, I brought along Sawyers’ new SP131 as I headed into the Sierras this past weekend. The adaptability was unbeatable. On the trail, I drank straight from the pouch to hydrate, without depleting my water supply on board. Then I simply hooked the filter straight up to my hydration bladder using the connection couplings and refilled without having to remove the bladder from my pack. At camp, or when I was in need of a large capacity refill, I threw the large pouch into the mesh bag and voila, a gravity system. Here’s to helping you find your workhorse and 6 important points to consider during your search.
Having peace of mind that I can rely on and easily maintain my treatment system is my first priority. During your search, consider that anything with multiple or moving parts can potentially break. Complex systems which require batteries or bulbs, such as UV light purifiers, will be of little use to you if something dies and you don’t have a backup batteries. This is especially a point of concern if you are in a cold environment where battery life is cut short. It is in my experience, that the least complicated systems, with the least amount of working parts are the most reliable and require the least maintenance. Tablets are extremely reliable, and I always carry a bottle for backup. However, their treatment capacity mixed with time and taste make them a poor first choice. Please accept my deepest apologies tablet enthusiasts. Pay attention to product reviews. No system is going to be perfect. However, there is rhyme and reason to why products receive repeat bad reviews, take notice.
2. Speed & Capacity
How quickly does your system treat your water? For filters you are concerned with the flow rate, which is usually broken down into liters per minute. Anything with 1.5-2 liters per minute is about as fast as you are going to get. Typically, the larger the filters surface area the faster the output. UV Light systems usually take about 90 seconds to treat 1 liter of water. Treatments such as tablets or drops require a certain amount of time before you can drink the water which can range from 15 minutes to several hours.
When adventuring with comrades or establishing a basecamp, it is ideal to be able to treat a large capacity of water. If you depend on a system such as tablets, there is a maximum amount of water you can treat depending on your tablet supply. With UV Light, you can treat as much water as you’d like, but are restricted to doing so at 1 liter per 90 second increments. Gravity systems and pumps usually excel at both speed & capacity. It’s just a matter of which you’d rather let do the work, your arm or gravity.
We already covered flow rate, which touches on convenience. Now consider ease of use and maintenance. Gravity, squeeze & straw filters top the charts when it comes to ease of use. Forget pumping or stirring. With gravity filters you just fill with water and hang, ideal for basecamps or large groups of people. Squeeze filters, such as my before mentioned Sawyer Squeeze, can be converted to gravity or just require a squeeze of the pouch. Straw filters couldn’t be easier, sip straight from the source.
Filters become plugged, as they should, if they are doing their job at collecting everything you don’t want to drink. Therefore, being able to conveniently fix or maintain your system while on the trail is important. This includes backwashing and cleaning the filter, patching up tears or replacing tubing. Be sure to check the maintenance routines for cleaning and backwashing filters as some require more work then others.
4. Life Span
Companies will lay out for you how many liters or gallons a filter is expected to last and some do offer warranties. Any filter which can be backwashed and cleaned will have a longer life expectancy. Certain factors, such as freezing temps and sediment heavy water can shorten the life span of your filter. Be sure to read your systems care instructions. Disinfecting tablets and drops do have expiration dates. UV light pens have an activation limit and most pens will tell you when you are running low. Some companies, such as Steripen, offer a free replacement and the end of your pens life cycle.
Effectiveness is the systems ability to filter out potentially harmful contaminants. It would seem this should be higher on the list, as it’s the cause of purchasing a treatment system to begin with. Hear me out. I have yet to find a filter which doesn’t effectively filter water to a standard which is acceptable for use in the US and Canada. Therefore, when I’m staring at a wall of filters at my local outdoor supply store, it is very, very likely that every system on that wall is equipped to do the job of eliminating bacteria and protozoa. If you want to dive into pore sizes and do individual comparisons, remember that the smaller the pore size of the filter, the more contaminants you are filtering out. Smaller equals better.
Filters do not purify. When traveling abroad, especially to third world countries or anywhere there has been a recent or current virus outbreak, a purifier is a necessity. Iodine tablets, Chlorine Dioxide tablets or drops, & UV Light are other appropriate options.
6. Taste, Weight & Price
I personally make taste and weight my lowest priorities when considering a water treatment option. That, coming from a girl who does most of her backpacking solo and counts every ounce. A few extra ounces, when it comes to my drinking water, is not nearly as important to me as the above mentioned points. As for taste, outside of chemical treatments, there are few options that are going to change the taste of your water so drastically, for the worse, that you’d be offended. And then there is price. Budget is a very personal matter and I hesitate to put a price tag on other peoples priorities. I will say this. If you are dropping a great deal of money, I would recommend doing your research to be sure the company stands behind their product.
Cover photo: Austin Trigg