Now a days, at least in the United States, there are no longer any rivers or streams considered pristine enough to drink straight out of.
Every water source is potentially (and probably) contaminated with harmful bacteria such as giardia and cryptosporidium. Those little bugs can make any hiker sick enough to have get off the trail and sit toilet side for days or even weeks.
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Luckily for hikers and backpackers everywhere, there are plenty of lightweight, easy to use, water purification methods out there.
5 Water Purification Methods for Backpackers
How Aquamira works:
Aquamira drops are a two part combo of chlorine dioxide and a phosphoric acid activator that work together to kill bacteria in your water.
Before you get squeamish about putting ‘chemicals’ in your water, keep in mind that chlorine dioxide is actually what many municipalities have used to treat their citizens water since the 1940’s, so unless you have a well, chances are, you are already ingesting chlorine dioxide on a regular basis.
I personally love Aquamira Drops and bring them with me on all my backpacking trips, and day hikes, just in case.
- The bottles are small and ultralight.
- Aquamira is inexpensive and pretty easy to find in trail towns and sporting goods stores.
- It won’t discolor your water or give it a funny taste. The company boasts that it improves the flavor of water.
- The instructions, while simple, are not fool proof and I have seen many hikers misuse this product, which will decrease its bacteria killing power.
- The total process takes 20-35 minutes for your water to be ready to drink.
- I have heard of one instance of Aquamira leaking in a hikers pack and through the fabric. So I do always keep mine in its own ziploc baggie now.
How gravity filters work:
Gravity filters have one upper bladder to hold contaminated water, which then flows down through a filter with activated charcoal bits which physically removes particles and bacteria, and then flows into a lower bladder designated for clean water.
- Your water is ready to drink very quickly, usually in just a couple minutes.
- They are very easy to use.
- They are great at treating large amounts of water, if you’re hiking in a group.
- They do require some maintenance, cleaning, and filter cartridges replaced and need to backwashed to keep everything flowing freely.
- Parts can break or filter can freeze on the trail, rendering the filter useless.
- They’re kind of expensive, in my opinion.
- They’re kind of heavy, weighing in at about 12 ounces.
How pump filters work:
Pump filters treat your water the same as gravity filters, but instead of gravity doing the work for you, you put the tube of the filter in a water source and manually pump the water up through the filter and then it flows out into your water bottle.
- You can pump water out of shallow places that a bottle or bladder might not be able to scoop water out of very well.
- The water is ready to drink as soon as it comes out of the filter, there’s no wait time.
- These are usually cheaper than gravity filters.
- Same with gravity filters, parts can break on the trail, potentially leaving you without clean water.
- They need to be maintained, backwashed, and filter cartridges replaced.
- It can get really tiring to use if you have to pump several liters of water.
- They’re kind of heavy, in my opinion, weighing in at about 11 ounces.
How the Steripen works:
The SteriPen uses ultraviolet light to kill off bacteria and purify your water, and is certified for purification by the water quality association.
UV purification isn’t something out of science fiction movies – it’s actually a common practice used to kill off harmful bacteria in the apple cider you drink every Fall.
- It’s ultralight, weighing in at just under 3 ounces.
- It’s fast, treating a liter of water in 90 seconds.
- It’s very easy, and relatively fool proof to use.
- Can be used with basically any water container, nalgene, or bladder.
- It uses batteries, so you may have to carry extras in case they die on the trail.
- It doesn’t filter out particles or sediment, but does come with a pre-filter… or just use a bandanna.
How iodine tablets work:
The tablets release titratable iodine into your water, which, over the course of 30 minutes, kills any bacteria like giardia and cryptosporidium.
- Like aquamira, these are very small and ultralight bottles to carry.
- They are cheap and readily available at most sporting goods stores.
- The PA plus tabs take out the iodine color and taste from the water.
- They are very easy to use.
- They are only intended for short term, or emergency, use.
- Even with the PA plus tabs, the water still has a… ‘taste’ to it.
- Water is ready to drink after 35 minutes.
In a real pinch, you can boil any questionable water for seven minutes, just to be safe.
I wouldn’t rely on this as your sole method of purification though, because it can burn up a lot of fuel and takes quite a bit of time to boil it, then let it cool down enough to drink.
For more backpacking how-to’s, check out these posts:
- How To Poop In The Woods
- How To Pick A Good Campsite
- How To Assemble Your Own First Aid Kit
- How To Take Care Of Your Backpacking Gear
Let me know what your favorite water purification method is in the comments below!