Solid footwear, a comfortable hiking backpack, a first aid kit, and a few days’ worth of food are all essential items to have with you on the trail, but nothing is more important than having a safe water source. You won’t last three days without water (more like one or two if you’re outdoors), but water alone is not enough: It needs to be clean – not just of particulate matter like dirt and sand but of bacteria, protozoa, and viruses as well.
Furthermore, it’s almost impossible to bring enough water with you for an extended hike if you’re not moving by vehicle, and if you’re in the wilderness far away from sources of clean drink, then the water you encounter outdoors may not be safe. Streams, ponds, and other freshwater bodies may look and even taste clean while in fact being host to a myriad of bacteria, parasites, and other pathogens that can be a serious – even fatal – problem when you’re hundreds of miles away from civilization.
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That’s why a durable, reliable, simple, and efficient water filter is an indispensable tool in any outdoorsman’s kit. There are a number of great ones on the market today, and we’ve rounded up the best ones below (most of which are surprisingly inexpensive). Given how important a clean source of hydration is, there’s no excuse not to have one in your pack, so read on.
Portable filters move water through a filtration medium in several different ways: via pumps, squeezing, sucking, or even gravity. Typically, a filter system is designed to be used in only one way, but the Sawyer PointOne water filter is our favorite due to the fact that it can be used both as a personal filter (which you drink directly through) or as a pump that allows you to dispense filtered water directly into a separate container.
This two-in-one versatility, paired with excellent filtration that removes more than 99.99% of bacteria and protozoa (and 100% of microplastic contaminants), makes the Sawyer PointOne our top recommendation for most people. It’s also very affordable at $40 for the whole kit. This includes the water filter itself which you can attach directly to the included squeeze bag or to your own bottle, a bucket and a faucet adapter for hooking the PointOne up like a dispenser, and a syringe for cleaning.
Theis a popular personal water filter you’ve probably heard of, but for around $20, we think the Sawyer Mini system is a better and much more convenient option. It’s similar to the PointOne in functionality and filtering capabilities, but this pocket-friendly device is designed solely to deliver filtered water directly to your mouth: Simply fill up your bottle or the included squeeze bag, attach the Sawyer, and drink the cleaned water right through the filter (just note that some squeezing is required to move the liquid through the filtration medium).
This is a considerably better system than the LifeStraw, which requires you to drink directly from the water source (good enough for an emergency situation, but not for hiking and camping). The main drawback with the Sawyer Mini filter is that the included squeeze bag isn’t made to last forever; thankfully, the filter itself can screw onto standard-sized bottle and canteen mouths, so that’s hardly an issue. If you don’t need a filter that can dispense water to multiple containers at once, the Sawyer Mini filter is by far the best bang for your buck.
Another great option for carrying filtered water with you – and one that actually purifies water along with filtering it (meaning that it neutralizes viruses as well as bacteria and protozoa) – is the Grayl Ultralight bottle. The Grayl purifier works almost like a French press: Fill it up, attach and press the filter down, and within about 15 seconds the filtration cartridge will have removed nearly 100% of contaminants from particulate matter to water-borne pathogens. You’re ready to safely slake your thirst.
It bears repeating that unlike most other portable filtration systems (including the similar), the Grayl offers true water purification by removing more than 99.99% of viruses – not just bacteria and protozoa like normal filters do. This makes the Grayl a good piece of kit for globetrotters, as you never know what sort of pathogens you might encounter in foreign lands. It’s a little expensive at $60, but given its purification capabilities, the Grayl Ultralight water filter bottle is worth it.
Most of our picks are primarily designed for personal use, but the advantage of a pump system like the Survivor Filter Pro is that it allows you to fill up multiple containers at once in a relatively short amount of time. This is something you typically can’t do with “at the source” units like the Sawyer Mini and LifeStraw filters (which do their thing while you drink), and it’s great if you’re supplying water for multiple people or just filling up a couple of your own canteens in one go.
Another advantage of this water filter is that it’s very efficient and portable, doing its job more quickly than even our top pick, the Sawyer PointOne. We like the PointOne for its multi-use versatility, but for filling containers up with filtered water, the Survivor is simply a better choice – just place the filter hose in your water source, start pumping, and you immediately have clean, ready-to-drink water. It’s a little pricey at $65, but the Survivor Filter Pro is a field-proven design (and it’s still cheaper than other pump designs).
For a more stationary camping water filter setup, a gravity-powered unit like the LifeStraw Family 1.0 purifier is a great choice for delivering higher volumes of clean water for several people. Like the Grayl bottle, the LifeStraw Family 1.0 is both a filter and purifier, removing more than 99.99% of bacteria, protozoa, and viruses along with solid particulate contaminants.
Its filter lifespan is rated to 18,000 liters or 4,755 gallons (with a flow rate of 9-12 liters per hour) before the filtration medium needs replacing, so the aptly named LifeStraw Family gravity purifier can provide a family of four with enough water for up to three years. That’s a good thing to have in an emergency situation, so it’s certainly good enough for camping trips. It’s not as backpack-friendly as our other picks, but for only $75, the LifeStraw Family 1.0 purification system gives you a lot of clean water for your money.
Purification tablets aren’t a “filter,” but these have been a staple for sportsmen, soldiers, and other adventurers for decades and Potable Aqua is the top name in the game. These Potable Aqua tablets utilize chlorine dioxide to kill bacteria, viruses, and protozoan cysts in unclean water (one tablet purifies one quart), just bear in mind that they take 3-4 hours to do their job before the water is safe to drink.
Purification tablets aren’t a substitute for a good water filter – you still need a way to remove particulate contaminants from your drink (you can use cloth, like a cotton bandana, to filter out some of it in a pinch), but if your primary filter is unavailable or simply doesn’t take care of viruses, these are vital to have in your pack. You can also use these tablets in conjunction with one of the above non-purifying filter systems for making sure that water from especially suspect sources – such as in or around urban areas – is safe to imbibe.
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