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How Safe are Backpacking Water Filters?


High-quality backpacking water filters can protect your health and keep you fit and active on the trail. Especially when you trek in remote areas by yourself or in a small group, this item is absolutely essential gear. In past years, many hikers and campers had major concerns about becoming seriously ill from drinking contaminated water. So, are backpacking water filters safe for long hiking and camping trips today? Yes; the best quality ones will keep you healthy for safe, happy trekking, both short and long-term.

Advanced water filtering systems currently available on the consumer market are strictly evaluated and approved for use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. By selecting top-rated filters for backpacking excursions, you can avoid worries about water safety. Currently, filtering drinking water obtained from natural sources while on the trail is safe when you use approved, quality filters.   

How to Locate Ideal Natural Water Sources

You are off to a good start if you use natural water sources that show evidence of good degrees of cleanliness. Wise water source choices – plus a top-rated water filter – will enable you to avoid ingesting any harmful impurities. In this way, you can reduce the risk of drinking even slightly tainted water. Gathering the cleanest water available to you while trekking also prolongs the life of your water filter. In addition, it provides better tasting water for you to enjoy. It is true that neither filtering nor purifying water from natural sources actually alters its flavor. But a good filter can enhance the taste, sometimes significantly, by straining out impurities. Are backpacking water filters safe? Yes, and the best ones can ensure that your drinking water tastes great.    

Important Signs for Identifying Safe Water 

There are important signs you should consider when searching for the best source of natural drinking water while backpacking. They include the following:

Avoid Still Waters. Still waters are risky sources of safe water supplies. Insects, bacteria and germs can thrive in pools and puddles of standing water. Even shallow ponds that appear relatively clear can be unsafe sources for filtering drinking water. This is mainly because water that is not constantly flowing does not undergo natural oxidation processes and is impure. 

Choose Rapid-Flow/White Water. Look for fast-flowing/white water as this will be the cleanest natural source. Since sediment gathers toward the bottom or bed of flowing waters, you should collect water for future drinking from the surface or just below the surface. This practice is also best when collecting your backpacking water supply from slower-moving water. Sediment can clog your filtering system. In addition, it can enable potentially unsafe microorganisms to pass through and into your drinking water. 

Beware of Human or Animal Waste. If you are gathering water from a heavily used location, examine the visible cleanliness of the water. If you have any concerns about its possible contents of human or animal waste, choose another water source. If none are available nearby, only purifying this water can ensure its safe consumption.           

Avoid Water Sources Near Industrial Plants. Refrain from collecting water from a location that is downstream from factories or ranches. Water sources in these locales can have high contents of harmful chemicals. 

Beware of Orange and Red Water. Naturally sourced water for drinking that has a red or orange color contains dissolved tannins. These substances are derived from gallic acid, which can be harmful if ingested. 

Avoid Slot Canyon Pools. Since these pools are frequently the result of flash floods known to kill animals, the water is unsafe for filtering to drink. These pools are normally filled with a variety of debris, sediment and decomposed animals. 

Do Use Melted Snow. The ice-cold, frigid water from melting snowfall is usually safe for drinking, even before it is filtered.   

Major Threats from Drinking Unsafe Water

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), viruses found in North American wilderness regions pose moderate hazards. They are not as dangerous to your health as viruses found in other regions. Any potentially fatal types of bacteria that may be contained in backcountry waters are typically large and caught by filters. These forms of bacteria include Salmonella, E. coli, Cholera, Campylobacter and Shigella. Other bacteria that can be found in backpacking areas are Hepatitis A and Norovirus as well as Rotavirus.

Since such bacteria can be carried by human waste, it is essential to examine drinking water sources carefully. It is also extremely important to dispose of these wastes responsibly by burying them in a cat hole measuring 6 inches deep. You should dig this hole at least 200 feet from any natural water source. The safest disposal method for this waste material is to “pack it out” to a safe disposal location.   

Major Differences Between Filtering and Purifying Water 

Filtering water is the initial step in the process of making water safe to drink. Filters catch and eliminate micro-organisms and other particles from water collections. Throughout most wilderness regions of North America, filtering is sufficient for producing safe drinking water. However, filtering does not sterilize water. Nor does it kill small organisms that can slip through filters, including viruses. If you have any indication that water collected from a natural source may contain harmful wastes, purification is needed. Only by purifying this water can you ensure that it is not contaminated. 

Reliable filters can also strain protozoan cysts from collected water, such as Giardia lamblia and Cryptosporidium. Along with the bacteria discussed above, these are the major threats to the safety of wilderness water in North America. The primary difference between these filters and water purifiers is the size of the microorganisms that each one can eliminate. Are backpacking water filters safe? Yes, when used according to their directions.  

During water purification, any bacteria or other organisms left in water after filtering are eliminated by heat, chemicals or UV light. If you only have a filtering system with you when backpacking, you can still purify water. Just boil it steadily at a high temperature for no less than a minute. This should ensure that the water is now perfectly safe for drinking.     

How Do Water Filters and Purifiers Actually Work?

All water filters have an interior cartridge. This element includes microscopic pores that capture protozoa, bacteria, dirt and debris. Since these pores can become clogged, the cartridge must be kept clean. Some purifiers also have similar cartridges. However, purifiers eliminate viruses and other pathogens with the use of chemicals like iodine or with UV light.

These potentially harmful contents found in naturally sourced water are too small for most filters to catch. Many different filters and purifiers also have cartridges that contain activated carbon. This component is helpful for ridding water of undesirable tastes and for reducing amounts of more serious contaminants. These unsafe substances can include pesticides and chemicals used for industrial purposes. 

Safe Water Filter Designs for Different Backpacking Styles and Needs

You can choose your backpacking water filtering system from a variety of designs on the consumer market today. Beginning trekkers can find selecting the best, safest, durable filter somewhat confusing or daunting. However, there are plenty of experts both online and in sports equipment stores today who can help. Are backpacking water filters safe? Yes, they are safe and reliable when you choose the best brands and products. Different types of filtering systems in use on the trail today include the following: 

Pump Filters

B07NYPGMSH -- joypur Water Purifier Pump 3-Stage Portable Water Filter
Joypur Water Filter-Purifier Pump

To use a pump filter, simply insert its water intake hose into a good natural water source. Connect the outlet hose securely to your water bottle or reservoir and start pumping. You can safely collect the exact amount of water needed using your pump filter, even from small or shallow sources. These devices are convenient to use, and their internal cartridge can be replaced as needed. However, they are somewhat bulky and weighty to pack. Pumping can also be tiring after several hours of trekking. The Joypur Water Filter-Purifier Pump safely filters water from rivers, springs, lakes and streams for healthy drinking water. 

Joypur Water Filter-Purifier Pump: This 0.01 Micron 3-stage portable water filtering system with a replaceable filter is ideal for backpackers and campers. 

Gravity Filters

B00G4V4IVQ -- Platypus GravityWorks High-Capacity Water Filter System
Platypus GravityWorks

To use a gravity filter, fill the reservoir with water and hang it from a tree branch or similar place. System components for these filtering designs can vary, but most come with two reservoirs plus an in-line filter. The great convenience of using this type of filter is that gravity performs the work while you relax. In addition, you can process enough water for one or two people or for a large backpacking group. One slight disadvantage is that this water treatment method is slower than pumping water. Also, it can be difficult to fill up your reservoir from shallow or seeping water. The cartridge can be replaced as needed. A top-rated model among popular gravity filters today is the Platypus GravityWorks design.

Platypus GravityWorks: This gravity filter system is ideal for use by backpacking groups, family hikers and solo trekkers alike. Its hollow fiber filter design provides high-capacity water filtering for backpacking excursions of all types and duration.

Bottle Filters

B00B48XM2K - Seychelle Extreme Water Filter Bottle
Seychelle Extreme Water Filter Bottle

These bottle filtering systems contain filtration elements. Some designs work similar to the way in which a coffee press operates to filter water. Others operate on the suction action that results when you sip from the bite valve. This type of water treatment is simple and easy, providing clean water quickly and efficiently. Bottle filters are relatively lightweight and less expensive than pump or gravity filtering designs. The internal cartridge is replaceable. The only disadvantage is that the bottle size limits your supply of safe drinking water. The Extreme Water Filter Bottle from Seychelle filters water thoroughly to ensure safe drinking while on the trail. 

Seychelle Extreme Water Filter Bottle: This lightweight, durable filtering water bottle is ideal for camping and backpacking trips over all types of wilderness terrain. 

Squeeze Filters

B00B1OSU4W -- Sawyer Products Squeeze Water Filtration System
Sawyer Squeeze

These designs have similarities to bottle filters. The difference is that when using a squeeze filter, you fill a small-size reservoir and then squeeze water through the filtering cartridge or element. Clean water is available for drinking quickly. Most models are smaller, weigh less and are priced lower than both gravity and pump filtering systems. However, some squeeze filters can double as a straw or gravity filtration system. The filtering element is replaceable. One inconvenience is that the amount of clean water produced depends on the size of the bottle, flask or reservoir. The Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter wins high ratings as a leading choice for personal use on the trail. 

Sawyer Squeeze: This 0.1 Micron absolute inline filter offers high performance and fits easily in the palm of your hand. It offers simple, efficient use while trekking. 

Straw Filters

B07C56LR6N - LifeStraw Personal Water Filter
LifeStraw Personal Water Filter

These convenient cylinder designs enable you to drink filtered water safely, directly from natural sources. Straw-style models are typically lighter in weight and less costly than either pump or gravity filter designs. However, these devices only provide clean drinking water for one person. Also, filtered water is only available for drinking while you are at a water source location. Some straw filter designs do not have replaceable filtering elements. The LifeStraw Personal Water Filter is a great choice for fast, safe drinking from nearby natural water sources for individual hikers. 

LifeStraw Personal Water Filter: The perfect safe straw filter for drinking directly from natural water sources while backpacking.  

Chemical Water Treatments

Just in case your major filtering system malfunctions or breaks during a backpacking trip, carry a backup method. Boiling water is effective, but it requires stopping to unpack your portable camping cooker for use. By packing a chemical water treatment, you will be prepared for these occasional mishaps. Most of these are iodine products that protect you from nearly all types of protozoa, except Cryptosporidium.

These chemical treatments are low-cost, come in small bottles and are lightweight to carry. However, you must wait from 30 minutes to 4 hours or longer after treatment before drinking treated water. Iodine can also leave an unpleasant taste in the water. To improve the taste, you can add tablets to neutralize the bad taste. Pregnant backpackers and anyone with a thyroid condition should consult a physician before using these iodine-based products. A water treatment product containing other chemicals may be best for some trekkers.                 


Are backpacking water filters safe today? Yes, and there are many choices of safe, effective water filtering systems currently available on the market for use when backpacking.  By purchasing a top-quality water filter brand, you can ensure healthy drinking water throughout your backcountry or wilderness excursions. Equipped with an excellent filtering product, you can look forward to many adventurous, exciting and fulfilling trekking experiences in the future.

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