A Guide to Backpacking Water Filters

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For first-timers (or even for seasoned veterans), choosing a backpacking water filter can be a little overwhelming if you’re not sure exactly what it is you’re looking for.

This guide should help give you an insight into why you might need a portable water filter, how they work and what to look for when buying one.

Why You Need a Backpacking Water Filter

When you think of taking a backpacking adventure into the wild, you may imagine yourself coming across a babbling brook or a sparkling stream on a long, hot summer’s day. You might think about how nice it would be to fill your water bottle with this beautiful clear water and how it would quench your thirst in the sun.

Drinking from a streamOne of the true pleasures of backpacking and hiking is heading out into the middle of nowhere and discovering a beautiful pond, steam or waterfall that few others will have witnessed.

What many people don’t imagine, however, are the nasty microorganisms lurking in the water that will make you sick and give you diseases (such as Hepatitis A). Thankfully, these nasty germs can be easily removed by using a water purifier, and water cleaned with a backpacking water filter.

These harmful microorganisms and bacteria aren’t visible to the human eye (such is their size), but this doesn’t mean they’re not powerful. Getting ill is never a nice experience, and even less so when out in the wild (where sickness can be potentially fatal).

Water is a basic necessity of human life, and if you’re hiking for a long period of time the chances are you’ll need to drink more than one bottle of water, which is why portable water filters are so useful. They allow you to fill them up with dirty water and get clean, drinkable water out the other side.

These days backpacking water filters, are extremely lightweight, compact and easy to use (compared to even 10 years ago). Whereas in the past some backpackers might have resisted carrying a water purification system, they’re now small and light enough that there is no excuse not to bring one along.

Water Filters vs. Water Purifier

I often hear people use the terms ‘water filters’ and ‘water purifiers’ as if they’re the same thing. It’s important to make the distinction between the two at this point.

Backpacking water filterA water filter does not remove or kill germs from the water, whereas a water purifier does.

So what does a backpacking water filter actually do then? As it filters water it removes any debris and organisms that happen to be in the water.

Note that some water filters double up as water purifiers (meaning that as well as having a filter they also induce a chemical or electrostatic process on the water to remove harmful viruses).

What to Look For in a Backpacking Water Filter

When buying a portable water filters there are several things you should look out for/consider:

Cartridge/Filter Type – This is the part of your filter that actually filters out all the debris and unwanted organisms, therefore it’s important to get the right one. Their price is often affected by their quality, level of construction and the materials they’re made from. Most filters are made from fiberglass or ceramic materials. Some filters can only be used once, whereas others can be reused (and as a results are generally more expensive).

In water purifiers, the filter is also the part where the water will be purified. This is typically done through a chemical or electrostatic process. Note that some chemical purifiers use an iodine resin which is something that should be avoided by pregnant women or by those with thyroid problems.

Lifespan – The life expectancy of a backpacking water filter is something you should consider before buying if you expect to be using it a lot. Each water filter will typically have a number of times it can filter water (or a number of liters of water it can filter) before needs to be serviced.

Pore Size – The ‘pore size’ refers to the size of the holes in the filter. The ‘absolute pore size’ is what you should look for, and refers to the largest thing that is allowed to pass through the filter. For example, if the absolute pore size is 0.2 microns (which is the industry standard), no particle larger than 0.2 microns will be able to pass through the filter.

Output – The ‘output’ of a water filter refers to the number of liters that can be filtered on any given minute. These numbers are usually just estimates, but they’re still worth paying attention to. Note also that the output of a water filter will decrease over time as the filter becomes more and more clogged up.

Weight – As I mentioned earlier, most backpacking water filters are fairly light these days, but if you’re especially worried about the weight of your pack (and you want to keep it as light as possible) pay attention to the weight of each filter.

Pump Strokes & Pump Force – If you’re buying a hand operated water filter, these numbers are very important. Pump strokes refers to the number of pumps in an out that you’ll need to do to get a liter of clean water. Pump force relates to the level of force you’ll need to apply per stroke (usually measured in ‘pounds per stroke’). The higher these two numbers, the more you’ll have to work to filter your water.

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