When you’re heading out into the backcountry, taking enough water for a multi-day trip simply isn’t an option. The beauty of being out in nature is that there’s usually a water source from which you can refill.
However, streams and lakes often have high levels of bacteria or protozoa in despite running clear.
These microscopic organisms can cause illness in humans and ruin a backpacking trip. Even taps and outlets at camp grounds often recommend boiling or filtering water before use.
There is a huge variety of water filters and purifiers types available, differing in size/capacity, ease of use and water processing times.
None of them will be a perfect fit for every kind of trip and and locale but it’s not hard to find one that ticks all your boxes.
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Below we take a look at some of the best options on the market right now, including their strengths and weaknesses.
Regardless of whether you’re trekking, camping or backpacking the world, it needs to be appropriate for travel – light, robust, reliable and affordable.
Most water filters will remove bacteria and protozoa, including Giardia and cryptosporidium, which is sufficient in the UK and US, as well as Canada and most of Europe.
Some developing countries have tiny viruses that are harder to remove, requiring finer grained filters or chemical purification agents such as chlorine dioxide or ultraviolet light.
The water filters below are best-suited to treating larger amounts of water at camp or on an extended break. If you want to filter on the go, take a look at these purifying water bottles.
Type of filter/purifier: Gravity filter
Time to treat one litre: 60 seconds
Katadyn’s foldable camp filter is convenient, easy-to-use and offers amazing value for money. This gravity-assisted filter reliably removes bacteria, cysts and sediments from any water source.
As well as protecting against microorganisms, the system is suitable for use with cloudy water and provides a clear end product.
The Nylon, PU-coated bag is tough and can withstand being hung from any branch, pole or car door that you choose, time and time again.
The pleated glass-fibre filter with activated carbon sits at the base of the bag inside the system, rather than being in-line or attached to the hose.
Note that most gravity filters have the filtration system sitting outside of the dirty water bag.
The activated carbon within successfully removes bad odours from the water to offer fresh-tasting hydration.
Katadyn’s AntiClog Technology uses 0.2 micron glass fibre and the easy-to-clean filter protector lets users treat up to 1,500 litres of safe water before needing to be replaced.
The lifetime of the filter element will be dependent on the water quality and regular rinsing.
It performs particularly well in clear water, but struggles with water that contains high amounts of sediment.
Although Katadyn claims a flow rate of up to two litres per minute, testing shows that its output is closer to one litre filtered per minute.
An adaptor (sold separately) turns it into an outdoor shower – just don’t expect a powerful hosing!
The downsides are that there is no additional reservoir for storing clean water and viruses are not removed.
Type of filter/purifier: Gravity filter
Time to treat one litre: 52 seconds
Platypus’ GravityWorks filter is one of our favourite systems for a number of reasons.
Its fast and portable nature makes setup easy and the convenience of it is hard to beat. Just fill up the dirty bag, suspend it above the clean bag and wait.
There is no pumping or squeezing required yet the flow rate is pretty quick. The water filter connects directly to a water bottle or drinking vessel, filtering just over a litre per minute.
This version is supplied with different bottle adaptors instead of the clean water bladder, so if you want a proper storage reservoir it would be worth purchasing one separately.
The drinking water and waste water tanks are colour coded and Platypus have treated the container with antimicrobial SlimeGuard to prevent any nasties building up.
Unfortunately, the GravityWorks does not remove viruses and the hanging attachments don’t seem to be quite as tough-going as the Katadyn above.
Similar to all gravity in-line filters, you’ll notice it slows down when filled with water containing high amounts of sediment.
If you find it has clogged up slightly, clearing can be done on the go by backwashing.
To ensure you hit the 1500 litres of water from the life time of the filter it is worth giving it a decent rinse after each camping trip.
There is also a four-litre model available but we like the minimalist compact design and weight of the two-litre option.
Type of filter/purifier: Squeeze filter
Time to treat one litre: 40 seconds
If you like to travel light, the Sawyer Squeeze filter is for you. It’s compact, versatile and offers a great flow rate, and better yet is the price tag.
Perfect for personal use, the filter doesn’t leave a weird taste like chemical treatments and has the fastest flow rate on our list.
The three-in-one design lets users drink directly from the water source, connect it to a hydration bladder, or squeeze water into another bottle or storage container.
There aren’t many systems in this price range that can offer such a high level of versatility and portability.
The primary issue is that the squeeze bags that come with it wear down over time, so you’ll need to buy a couple of replacement bags and keep them on hand.
Depending on how long your trips last and how many times you refill, filtration bags need to be swapped out every three to four trips.
One option would be to buy a compatible, stronger bag if you plan to use this filter on long trips or use it with a water bottle.
Thanks to Sawyer’s lifetime guarantee, you can rest assured that you’ve got a product that will go the distance.
Included in the box are two inline hydration bladders adapters, one 450-millilitre pouch, a replaceable pop-up drinking spout, a 17-centimetre drinking straw (with which you can drink straight from a puddle if you wish!) and a syringe filter cleaner.
Sawyer also offer a mini version of this product that weighs in at a tiny 57 grams.
Type of filter/purifier: Squeeze filter
Time to treat one litre: Immediate output
Katadyn’s BeFree is a soft bottle filtration system that is best suited to day or overnight hikes, rather than major expeditions.
This one-litre foldable hydration bag can be rolled up to fit in jacket or trouser pockets or the outside of a backpack.
Effective against microorganisms but not viruses, the bottle can be filled up from most water sources and works just fine with cloudy water.
The filter removes bacteria, cysts and sediment with a pore size of 0.1 micron.
The filter lasts up to 1000 litres before needing replacement and does a good job of creating fresh-tasting, clear water.
The internal EZ-clean membrane can be easily cleaned by shaking or swirling fresh water and disinfectant around.
Its flow rate is great but the soft construction just isn’t built to withstand squeeze filtering five or so litres per day over and over again.
If you regularly use soft bottles, you’ll know that it’s hard to find a durable soft bottle.
Of all our water filters, the Katadyn BeFree bottle scores lowest on the durability front, making it a problematic companion for major backpacking trips.
Although it won’t hold up to the rigors of multi-day backpacking trips, its lightweight and affordable nature makes it a great option for shorter jaunts.
The good news is that the screw top filter is compatible with other soft bottles that you can pack as a backup option.
Type of filter/purifier: Ultraviolet purifier
Time to treat one litre: Around 90 seconds
SteriPen is a well-known portable purifier manufacturer and you’ve no doubt met adventurers or backpackers with one.
The lightweight system uses ultraviolet light to provide purified, safe drinking water and is perfectly sharable within a large group.
The Adventurer Opti uses an optical eye to sense the water, so you just need to dunk it into a glass or water bottle, stir for a minute or two, then drink.
One click purifies one litre and two clicks purifies half a litre. The integrated flashlight is a bonus for when you’re trying to purify your water late at night.
SteriPen and independent lab studies indicate that the device destroys 99.9999% of bacteria, 99.99% of viruses and 99.9% of protozoa.
The water can be drunk as soon as the smiley face lights up, indicating that the treatment has been successful.
However, it is a steriliser, not a filtration system, meaning that metals, particulates and chemicals will not be removed from the water.
So although the water will be safe to drink, it will taste the exact same as when you started the process.
As such, this is only an option if you’re going to be drinking from freshwater sources or taps/fountains. Cloudy, sediment-containing water may also impact its effectiveness.
The reliance on battery power also isn’t ideal, particularly for those travelling in hot/cold climates where batteries deplete at a much faster rate.
The SteriPen comes with two AA batteries but investing in some rechargeable ones will save you money in the long run.
You’re looking at around 60 one-litre treatments per set of batteries and 8000 treatments before the UV lamp starts to falter.
If you’ve got enough room in the budget, consider the slightly pricier Steripen Ultra, which is USB rechargeable.
Type of filter/purifier: Straw filter
Time to treat one litre: N/A – Immediate output
The LifeStraw is an affordable, lightweight filter that’s good for backpacking trips that have continuous access to water sources or use in emergency situations.
The magic straw within protects users against bacteria, parasites, microplastics, chlorine and organic chemical matter such as pesticides, herbicides and vastly improves water taste.
The fast on-the-go filtration system has a hollow fibre membrane that removes 99.9999% of bacteria and 99.9% of protozoa (but no viruses), whilst an activated carbon capsule removes bad odours and tastes.
Keep in mind that two-part filter systems usually need replacing at different times. The LifeStraw filter will clean a minimum of 4000 litres of water and the carbon capsule 100 litres of water.
However, the water is still safe to drink after the carbon capsule stops working, as it only removes bad odor and taste.
Water flows easily, with hardly any more effort than a normal drinking bottle – for at least the first six months of use.
The biggest issue with the LifeStraw is that you have to lay on the ground to use it or dirty your reusable bottle with contaminated water.
Alternatively you could buy the LifeStraw bottle system but you’ll only be able to store small amounts at a time.
As such it’s incredibly useful but some people may not choose to use it as their primary treatment method for backpacking.
A big plus for anyone with a global conscience is that for each LifeStraw product purchased, a school child in a developing community receives clean drinking water for one school year.
Type of filter/purifier: Gravity filter
Time to treat one litre: 65 seconds
A surprisingly robust gravity filter from miniwell (particularly given the cost), this is a great option for those who are just getting into backpacking expeditions.
The miniwell system uses a 0.1 micron ultrafiltration membrane (medical grade) to remove 99.999% of bacteria.
It also creates a completely clean and clear product that tastes like bottled water rather than something you’ve collected from a murky pond.
Ultra-low pressure membranes ensure a fast flow rate. As the flow rate slows down, a quick backwash with fresh water can vastly improve it.
When water collected from the source is particularly cloudy, users should wait for sediment to settle then filter the water above the sediment.
The slidelock reservoir has a wide-mouth opening for fast, easy filling. Just dunk and scoop in any river, stream, lake, etc.
The carrying handle is a convenient extra and the tress strap lets you suspend the system from a tree trunk – ideal when you can’t find an appropriate height branch.
Obviously given the price, you can’t expect it to last as long as some of the more expensive competitors on this list and the flow rate suffers big time with heavily turbid water.
There are various product options including water filter with bucket connector, collapsible soft bottles or storage reservoirs.
Weight: 5g for 10 tabs and packaging
Type of filter/purifier: Chemical purifier
Time to treat one litre: 30 minutes
Purification tablets are simple and effective and can be relied upon whatever the water source.
Although they aren’t the fastest-acting option in our lineup, they offer much broader protection – killing bacteria, viruses and protozoa such as Cryptosporidium and Giardia.
Simply add one tablet to one litre of suspect water for rapid disinfection. Within 30 minutes, users have safe drinking water that has very little in the way of chemical aftertaste.
Each pack contains 100 effervescent tablets, allowing you to treat 100 litres of water.
The active ingredient in the tabs is 8.5 milligrams of Sodium Dichloroisocyanurate (NaDCC) – an organic chlorine donor with a superior disinfection capacity to sodium hypochlorite.
They are light and easy to transport but should be kept as dry as possible, even though their packaging is foil lined.
The biggest issue is that they will leave turbid water just as cloudy as you found it. Although it might now be clean enough to drink, it won’t be pleasant.
As such, chemical purifiers are best used with tap water or that from a clear source.
If you will be camping in the same place for an extended period of time and want to treat larger quantities of water, consider these high-powered Oasis tablets that treat 20 to 25 litres each.
The pack contains 10 strips of 10 tablets, allowing the user to treat around 2000 litres of water.
What to Look for When Buying a Backpacking or Camping Water Filter
It’s not as easy as crowning the best water filter or water purification treatment system, because so much of it depends on individual preference, the source and quality of the water you need to filter or purify as well as how many people you’re catering for.
Below we have pulled out some of the key considerations to help you make the right decision and purchase for you.
Filter vs purifier
The only difference between a filter and a purifier is that the latter also removes or kills viruses.
This is generally not an issue in Western countries, but if you’re heading off on an international backpacking trip, or anywhere that people or animals could have contaminated the water, you’ll want a filter and purifier to provide bacteria- and virus-free water cleaned of sediment.
In a nutshell, squeeze-style water filters, UV purification and filter bottles are perfect for individuals and clear water sources, whereas chemical purification and pump filters/purifiers are better for larger groups and riskier water sources.
Here is a quick breakdown of what’s what.
Gravity water filters
Gravity filters, as the name suggests, use the power of gravity to process unclean water.
The first reservoir – the dirty bag – is suspended from a tree with a hose leading to a water filter.
The output of the filter flows down to a second reservoir – the clean bag.
These filters are great for couples and small groups but are relatively slow and limited by the size of the reservoir that can be hung overhead.
Pump filters and purifiers
These systems have hand pumps that force water through the filter and out to a bucket or reservoir for future use.
Many have a pre-filter at the end of the hose that you drop into the water source to remove particulates and organic matter.
Although they require a bit of input, they filter water much faster than gravity filters.
Squeeze water filters
These single-stage filters remove bacteria and protozoa but not viruses, so should be used predominantly with clear water sources.
Processing times vary with the dirtiness of the water and are prone to clogging with particulates. Regular cleaning is required to maintain their flow rate.
Bottle or straw filters
These filters also use single-stage, hollow fibre filters. The user sucks water stored in a bottle (or direct from source) through the filter, rather than it being transferred into a reservoir.
Users can choose between tablets or liquid drops, generally containing chlorine dioxide, which kills bacteria, protozoa, and viruses.
Generally the chemical has no taste or colour, though when left in the bottle for a while it definitely has a slight chlorine scent to it.
Although this is one of the most effective and safe solutions, chemical purification takes anywhere from 15 minutes to four hours to fully purify water, which is far longer than other methods.
Ultraviolet light is another full spectrum water treatment, neutralising bacteria, protozoa, and viruses.
It is much faster than chemicals but is not great for processing large amounts and is dependent on working batteries.
Like tabs or drops, it is best used with clear water since it doesn’t remove particulates.
Ease of treatment
This will tie directly into which type of purifier or filter you opt for. You don’t want your treatment method to be long and arduous because you’ll be doing it multiple times a day.
Figure out the water source you’ll be working with and how many people will need access to the cleaned water and go from there.
If you’ve got access to sediment-free water, tablets or drops are one of the most hassle-free solutions.
Size and weight
As with any piece of backpacking equipment, the portability of your system should be taken into consideration.
If you’re hiking solo you can probably afford to choose a small, lightweight option that sits in the top of your backpack.
However, a heavier filter is likely to be more durable and be able to filter water for bigger groups in shorter amounts of time.
Cost and filter longevity
There is a balance to be found here.
Often the more expensive filters or purifiers will have a longer lifespan or higher number of treatments, therefore offering good value for money.
Chemical treatments tend to be the lowest cost option, whereas UV water purifiers tend to be on the more expensive side.
Whatever you do, don’t set off on a trip with a filter or purifier that is on its last legs, because you could put yourself and your group in a risky position.
Backpacking Water Filters – Amazon BEST Sellers
Last update on 2020-11-24 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API