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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
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We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

Why trust BestReviews?
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.

Buying guide for best backpacking water filters

Last Updated October 2019

Experienced backpackers know that even pristine-looking lakes and streams can harbor bacteria that may make them sick and ruin an enjoyable trip in the backcountry. In the past, that meant packing extra drinking water or carrying water treatment tablets that gave water a foul taste.

Now a plethora of lightweight, easy-to-use water filters are available that remove most contaminants and bacteria to give backpackers clean water that tastes just fine. That said, picking the right backpacking water filter for a trip is important. The filter’s size, type, and weight all affect the weight of your pack and the time it takes to filter water.

Our shopping guide will give you all the key information you need to determine the best backpacking water filter for your hiking needs. For our top five picks, see the matrix above.

How do backpacking water filters work?

Backpacking water filters are handheld devices that filter tiny debris and bacteria from natural water sources. Water is drawn through the filter using either a pumping action or by creating suction (just like sipping through a straw). Once it’s filtered, the water is ready to drink.

Water sources at higher elevations, away from grazing cattle and heavy foot traffic, may be safe to drink from directly. But it’s a calculated risk that can be eliminated by filtering the water anyway.

Components of backpacking water filters

  • Intake: The part of the backpacking filter that draws in water from the natural source.

  • Filter chamber: The part of the device that surrounds and protects the filter.

  • Water filter: The most important part of the backpacking water filter, this component is made of materials that filter out leaf bits and bacteria like Cryptosporidium and Giardia lamblia.

  • Reservoir: In some types of filters, untreated water is stored in a container or expandable bag. After filtration, the filtered water might be stored in a second reservoir or in a backpacker’s water bottle.

  • Outlet: Filtered water is pumped or poured from the filter chamber to a storage container (or drunk directly) through the outlet. In some backpacking water filters, such as bottle filters, the outlet has a bite valve or a cover to control access to the water.

Key considerations

There are several types of backpacking water filters available. The biggest difference is in how they operate and their size.

Straw filters

These cylinders allow backpackers to quickly sip water from a clear stream or lake. One end goes in the water, the other end in the mouth, and water is sucked through the filter. These ultralight filters are convenient but have a shorter service life.

Squeeze filters

For hikers looking for ultralight filtration on the go, a squeeze filter is a flexible option. Users fill an expandable reservoir with water, attach the filter cylinder to the opening, and then squeeze water through the filter element. Hikers can drink directly from the filter’s outlet or squeeze the water into another container.

Bottle filters

Similar to squeeze filters, hikers can fill the bottle reservoir with water and attach the filter to the top of the bottle, then drink from the filter outlet. Some models also have UV or chemical purifiers built in.

Gravity filters

Backpackers can easily unroll a gravity filter, fill the expandable reservoir with water, hang it from a tree branch, and let water flow downward through the inline filter and into a second reservoir. The advantage of these filters is that hikers can process a gallon or more of water at a time – although the process takes more time than pump-action filtration.

Pump-action filters

These work by placing an intake hose into the water source and working the pump to draw water through the filter to the outlet. The flexible intake hose makes it easier to access water, especially in the shallows. Even better, pump-action filters are usually easy to replace.

EXPERT TIP

Oxidized leaves and other organic materials can leave filtered water with a slight aftertaste, which is harmless but may be annoying. Consider a filter with activated carbon (charcoal) to remove some of these off flavors.


Staff  | BestReviews
EXPERT TIP

If you’re still nervous about water quality after filtering and want to purify it, consider buying a separate ultraviolet light purifier. This battery-operated device zaps viruses and bacteria quickly.


Staff  | BestReviews

Features

Pre-filtering

If a water source contains lots of debris that may clog or damage the filter, backpackers should use a pre-filter. This removes larger particles from the water before they reach the main filter. A pre-filter also makes cleaning easier and can extend the filter element’s service life. Consider purchasing a pre-filter if your chosen device doesn’t come with one.

Purifier

For clear, running water, an additional purifier isn’t needed, but if backpackers know they’ll be in an area where the water is cloudy or polluted, a purifier will kill bacteria and viruses that aren’t filtered out.

Activated carbon

Look for a water filter that includes activated carbon, which helps improve the water’s taste and may filter out pesticides and other chemicals.

Hygiene

The most expensive, high-tech water filter in the world will not make up for poor hygiene in the field. Designate “dirty” and “clean” water containers and keep them separate, clean your hands before using the filter, and practice Leave No Trace methods to keep natural water sources clean.

Backpacking water filter prices

Backpacking water filters range widely in price and can have a noticeable impact on a hiker’s budget. Squeeze filters and straw filters, both designed for solo backpackers, are at the budget end, ranging from $20 to $39.

Bottle filters and smaller pump filters are prevalent in the middle range, from $29 to $49. And filters that handle larger capacities or systems that include purification elements like UV light are found in the highest price range, between $54 and $90, with a few outliers at the $180 to $250 mark.

DID YOU KNOW?

It takes a few extra seconds for water to travel through the filter, no matter the type. Pump-action or squeeze filters can be sped up with a little muscle.

Tips

  • Clean your hands and sanitize them if possible before unpacking and using your backpacking water filter.

  • A pre-filter will strain out larger debris that can clog intake hoses. If your filter system includes one, use it every time.

  • Before hitting the trail, find out about water levels and potential contamination issues by checking online hiking communities or stopping at a ranger station.

  • Always draw water from the cleanest, clearest water source you can find.

  • Be careful not to suck up sand and debris from the bottom of the water source.

  • If you have time, allow muddy water to settle by scooping it into a pot or designated reservoir and letting it sit for several hours or overnight before filtering.

  • Carry a few water purification tablets with you on every trip, just in case you’re unable to filter the water.

  • Boiling water for at least five minutes will purify it, but that takes time and uses up fuel canisters.

  • Clean the filter element as directed by the manufacturer during and after each backpacking trip.

  • If the filter outlet begins to collect gunk, clean it out by removing the filter element and rinsing with clean water.

Other products we considered

The LifeStraw Go Water Filter Bottles caught our attention as a versatile option for hikers, combining the filter straw with a water bottle reservoir for filtering on the go. They also come in a handy two-pack. We also liked the budget-minded Active Gear Guy Portable Water Filter Kit, which combines a water bottle reservoir, a filter straw, and optional purifier tabs in a handy roll-up package. And the rugged reservoir bags of the NAQWA SWR Gravity Filter should hold up well on long hiking trips. Plus, the tubing is made from medical-grade silicone, so it’s BPA-free.

In most cases, backpackers in the U.S., Canada, and Europe only need a water filter; adding a purification system is overkill.

FAQ

Q. When should I choose a water filter over a water purifier?
A.
That depends partly on where you’ll be backpacking. In the U.S. and Canada, the most common pathogens to worry about in backcountry water sources are bacteria like salmonella, Campylobacter, shigella, and E. coli and protozoan cysts like Giardia lamblia and Cryptosporidium. These microorganisms can be trapped by a water filter.

In parts of the world that are less developed, viruses like hepatitis A, norovirus, and rotavirus and similarly tiny organisms will slip right through a water filter, but a water purifier will kill them. Water purifiers use either a chemical like iodine or ultraviolet light to kill viruses and bacteria. A combination purifier/filter is recommended when traveling in less developed countries.

Q. How often should I clean my backpacking water filter?
A.
Check the instruction manual or manufacturer’s website for precise cleaning instructions. In general, you should clear debris from the filter before it builds up. In some systems, filters can be cleaned with a soft brush (like a toothbrush). After each trip, disinfect the system by flushing it with a solution of one capful of bleach to one quart of water, then let it air dry completely.

Q. Can I make my water filter last longer by drinking less water during a backpacking trip?
A.
You’re going to need plenty of water while backpacking, even in cool weather – more than four liters per day during strenuous exercise. No one wants to carry that much water (four liters of water weighs about nine pounds). Instead, buy a backpacking water filter that will handle daily use throughout your planned trip, and drink as much water as you need.

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