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Dry foods, check.

Gear and emergency kit, check.

Your sense of wanderlust has taken over and you are ready to step out into the outdoors for your backpacking experience. However, there is a pending need – you are going to get parched during most of your trip and you will definitely need to keep your fluids up. How do you make sure you hydrate and stay safe at the same time?

Water filters and purifiers may serve the same purpose but they differ greatly in the application. The difference boils down to the fact that while water filters get rid of microorganisms like bacteria, water purifiers utilize chemicals that kill lethal contaminants like viruses and protozoans.

Water filters

It is common to hear people use the terms water filter and water purifier interchangeably. These two, although similar in purpose, are different. However, if you want to stay on your feet and hydrated, either of them will come in handy.

Water filters are designed to make clean water out of dirty water. They are built to separate bacteria and microorganisms out of the water. They have microscopic pores that separate large enough microorganisms leaving you with drinkable water.

Since you can’t lug around a bulky jar of water for the entire trip, finding a relatively clean source of water is the first step of making sure your water filter isn’t just a fancy carry-on. It’ll save you the hassle and cost of having to get bottled water. Not to mention it leaves less of a carbon footprint since you’re not leaving single-use plastic everywhere.

Charcoal has long been used as a natural water filter. Carbon absorbs most of the harmful elements in water to make an effective water filter. However, using charcoal while backpacking may not really be feasible.

Gravity filters

Lifestraw Flex
Photo by LifeStraw

These are a great option if you are looking for a quick drink from a clean source. The dirty water goes in one section, filters through a tube, and empties into a lower section. One end needs to be hoisted up on a high surface. This is one of the best methods if you want to collect a lot of drinking water. It is common to see a group of backpackers use one of these bad boys.

However, if you are alone, it is a space-taking utility that might cost you valuable bag space. As a group, it can be a valuable resource.

Two viable options in the Lifestaw Flex Gravity Bag as shown above, or the Platypus GravityWorks Filter.

Pump filters

Survivor Filter
Photo by Survivor Filter

Pump filters such as the Survivor Filter PRO are ideal for solo travelers who need a quick top-up. While it’s a small effective device, the maintenance needs of a pump filter may outweigh its benefits. It might take two liters at a time but you have to clean out the cartridges frequently to make sure you don’t gunk it up over the course of your trip.

Modern filtrations products such as the Lifestraw are steadily gaining more popularity over traditional pump filters.

Water purifiers

Potable Aqua

If you are in unfamiliar territory and you want to up the protection ante, consider water purifiers. Water purifiers are chemical elements that you use to do away with microorganisms more lethal than bacteria. Viruses can pass through water filters. And that is when you break out the water purifiers. They are effective against bacteria, debris and they kill viruses as well.

Water purifiers mostly have iodine or chlorine. These 2 chemicals leave an overwhelming aftertaste in your mouth – and it’s not the kind you’d like. Although water purifiers work, using them alone doesn’t solve the debris problem in your water. So how do they stack up against each other?

Seasoned backpackers must have come across the popular tablet ‘Potable Aqua’. This purifier does its job in half an hour. The time span and ease of use make it a great option for groups and solo travelers. However, this is best used with clean filtered water.

Get a filter or purifier

A water filter is typically lightweight. You need to make sure it can eliminate traces of E.Coli, protozoa, salmonella, and cholera. Some water sources may also be rife with microplastics, all the more reason to bust out your trusty water filter.

A water filter is okay if you trust the water source to not have any fecal matter. Most groundwater undergoes natural filtering. However, just to be safe, give your water filter a work out every time you need to refill.

On the other hand, more ‘exotic’ locations whose water source is unknown are best suited for water purification. This is because most viruses get transmitted through human and animal contact. Currently, there are some water filters that blur the line between filters and purifiers. They act as purifiers and filters while eliminating the terrible taste. Getting such a combo would be a win for you as a backpacker.

Pro tips

  • Carry both water filters and purifiers especially if you are unsure of your water sources.
  • If you’re using a water filter, check its flow rate and filter capacity. You can use this criterion to determine the best option for group travels and solo missions.
  • Make sure the water filter you pack is compatible with your water storage.
  • The taste will be a big issue if you use water purifiers. Consider having neutralizing tablets or mixing your water with flavored electrolyte drinks.
  • Carbon filters are highly effective against awful tastes and odors. There are some water filters that already come fitted with carbon filters. You can also buy separate carbon filters. However, carbon has a limited lifespan.
  • Pre-filtration is important if you don’t trust the water source. You can use a Ziploc bag if the water is highly sedimented. You can also use sieves to filter debris out of the water. However, if you find yourself without Ziploc bags or sieves, clean cloth or bandana should work.
  • UV filters are more innovative filters that work faster than most of the products you will find. They are also super convenient to carry around. You’d be doing yourself a great service by getting one for your backpacking trips.
  • Squeeze filters are great as a backup. However, make sure the water you take has been pre-filtered.
Kelvin Mwathi