Monday, April 22, 2013

Water Purification on the Trail

Last weekend, some of the older scouts in my son's troop participated in a "District Backpackoree," which was essentially a multi-troop camping event in which the troops backpacked to different spots in a county park and stopped at activity stations along the way.

Although I could not participate, I was asked to help put together a presentation these boys would make about hydration while backpacking.  A patrol would be given coordinates to the boys' location, and then receive information about different types of water purification systems from these older scouts.

The week before I had hiked with a couple of recent PCT through-hikers and discussed water purification.  I learned, for example, their opinion that purification is much more important on the PCT than on the AT, because there is so much more range land out west.  Having cattle nearby can create for some nasty bugs in the water, while the Appalachian Trail often stays further away from development.

As a hiker who cannot afford to miss work because I ingested some bug out on the trail, I am not going to take a chance on the purity of my water.  My goal is to bring plenty of water, but there are times when I do not bring enough, such as when it is hotter on the trail than I anticipated.  This happened to me recently on a hike in the Three Ridges Wilderness.  Though I filled from a spring on the trail I did not drink the water, as my Steri-Pen did not work correctly.  And though my friend said that he would not filter at this spring, I wasn't going to take the chance.

So the timing was right to look again at some options for purification on the trail.  Here are some options I considered.  There are definitely other options out there as well!  

Lifestraw shown with packaging.
Tennis ball included to give idea of Lifestraw's size.
The LifeStraw is a small tube with specialized water filters inside. Place one end in unfiltered water (a glass, water bottle, river, or puddle!), and suck the resulting clean water up through the top. A Lifestraw is used by one person only and is not to be shared.  The filtration process is powered by suction, similar to using a conventional drinking straw, and filters up to 264 gallons of water, which the company claims equals a person's intake in a year. 

LifeStraw removes a minimum of 99.9% of waterborne protozoan parasites including giardia and cryptosporidium.  This product was chosen by CNN as one of “Ten Ideas That Will Change The World” and was Time Magazine’s “Best Invention of the Year” in 2005.  It costs $22 from Amazon.

After reading raves about this product, I decided to pick one up for myself.  It is incredibly lightweight!  It is going in my hiking pack and is my new backup hydration system.  With this, I can collect water in a widemouth container like a Nalgene, then suck the water through the Lifestraw to take in purified water.  It could not be easier, though the sucking may be hard.  And, as this video shows, you can drink some really nasty water through this unit.  Video.

A great gift for hiking friends!

Pros: Easy to use.  Very lightweight – weighs 2 ounces.  Needs no batteries.  Has no moving parts.  Easy to clean.  No need to wait for purification or pumping.

Cons: Should not ever be dropped.  Cannot store filtered water for later use or for cooking.  Cannot be shared with others.  It does not filter heavy metals or desalinate.  Does not last forever - the filter expires after 3 years.  

I currently own my second Steripen, which kills the bad critters using an ultraviolet lamp.  My first model never worked very well, and the company sent me a second model for free after I returned the one I bought a second time.  I am pretty sure I spoke directly with the company's president after that experience!  So they get top ratings for customer service.  My current model is the Steripen Adventurer Opti.   The downside of this model is that it takes expensive CR123 lithium batteries, and they seldom seem to work!

According to one reviewer on REI: 

The CR123 lithium batteries start at 3.25 volts. They are "dead" at 2.9 volts. Actually, they still have 90% of their power left but the electronics in the SteriPen are designed to only use 10% of each battery.  

This would explain why my unit always seems to work when I test it in my kitchen, but does not work on the trail.  But I cannot confirm the accuracy of this statement.

The manufacturer claims the Steripen purifies 16 oz. in 48 seconds and 32 oz. in just 90 seconds. The UV lamp provides up to 8,000 one-liter treatments.

Pros: Easy to use.  Lightweight – weighs 2 ounces.  Easy to clean.  No need to wait for purification or pumping.  Kills viruses in addition to bacteria.

Cons: Should not ever be dropped.  Does not work for water with many particles floating – requires another filter. Batteries need to be checked regularly.  All electrical devices can fail.  Some models use expensive batteries and cannot use rechargeable batteries.

Frankly, I think they are too slow and have way too much going on with hoses everywhere and parts to put together and cleaning and back flushing. They are good for larger groups, such as scouts, as it is cheaper to have one big pump than to issue Lifestraws to every hiker.  They are often the heaviest treatment method, and weight can be distributed among the entire group.

I think Tablets take too long to make water available. They can be good to have as a backup system as they are very lightweight.  There are also systems using drops of a mix of liquids, which work quicker (tablets need to dissolve), but cannot be mixed in advance.

Sawyer Squeeze
Pros:  Very lightweight.  Filter fits platypus soft bottles and soda bottles.  

Cons: Freezing may harm the filter, so not recommended for winter use.  There are also complaints online about the bag that comes with this product, but the thru-hiker mentioned above loves this product and uses it with a standard plastic soda bottle.  I have never tried one, so I list it here as another potential option for folks.  


  1. I think I like that LifeStraw water filters. Sounds reasonable and oh-so-convenient to use. :)

  2. Nowadays, we are getting polluted water for drinking that is main cause of several diseases. So, it is necessary to make it pure with the help of above mentioned water purification process.Get Rid of Soap Scum

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  3. Thanks for the great tips and reviews! Camping can be an enjoyable and safe experience when you have the right gear and equipment. Having clean and potable water is crucial to survival and it shouldn't be set aside. Using portable filters made by reputable manufacturers is necessary, but learning how to purify water from scratch is also a skill that we need to learn. It's one of the basic survival skills and one that will come in handy someday. For more of this, you can hop on to some water treatment methods here

  4. The LifeStraw has been one of my favorites ever since it came out on the market. But, over time, I learned about a few more models worth mentioning. It all depends on your personal choice, but some expert tips are a good way to make sure you will end up with a water filter that will fit your needs. Here is a great article on that subject, and also offers reviews of some of the best backpacking water filters you can find:

  5. Household water purification is no solution to the refinement of all water supply which gets into any town, however in real life residents must deal with the water contaminations that reaches the house and make sure that what they drink is safe. There is a legal impurity levels that happens to be regularly found in water, however, many ignore and think that it is not high enough to safeguard the health of folks that consume it. Boiling of water could heighten and densify pollutants, therefore a much more outstanding formula needs to be found

  6. Just as a pool skimmer removes leaves and other debris from the pool, a water filter catches all of those microscopic impurities and holds them in the filter while the clean, fresh water you desire flows through it. penapis air

  7. Interesting inventions for water purification are dealt about but not specified whether they are usp purified water systems or not. It is, hardly, more expensive to buy but has no compatibility.


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