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Water filtration options for the backpack hunter

MSR TrailShot water filter

Using the MSR TrailShot on a recent Montana black bear hunt. Photo credit: Brady Miller

Why water filtration is important

When I was a kid, I remember longing to drink straight from a creek or other wild body of water. Like hunting for your own food, it was one of those things that captivated me. I loved adventure movies that took place in the mountains and watched folks more than once reach down into a stream with cupped hands, bring that ice cold mountain water up to their mouths, and drink it in. Man, I wanted to do that! Eventually, my wild dreams would come true!

Nowadays, I look back on the few times I did get to drink straight from a stream and consider myself lucky. Not just because I got to live out what I saw in the movies, but because I didn’t get sick. Such a shame, right? We have to worry about getting sick from drinking the purest form of water in existence. It’s unfortunate but true, and something that you need to take into consideration. I’ve heard quite a bit of stories from people getting infected with Cryptosporidium or Giardia—both of which will leave you with way more time in the bathroom than you’d care for. For this reason, I think it is vitally important that you filter or treat the water you are planning on consuming for the duration of your backcountry endeavors.

You cannot get through a backpack hunt without water so pay attention.

Types of water filtration

There are all types of methods and products out there to ensure that you are drinking clean water on your trips. With so many options to choose from, there is definitely one that will work the best for you. I find that I really enjoy using both the pump and the squeeze filters and bounce between the two, depending on the trip; however, I am going to cover what I believe to be the most common ways of treating your water. If you have a method that you prefer over the ones I’ve listed, please leave a comment. I’d love to hear what works best for you.

Pumps

Water filter options for the backpack hunter

Filtering water in a small stream using the MSR MiniWorks EX. Photo credit: Josh Kirchner

I think it is safe to say that water filtration pumps are probably the most common and well-known method of cleaning your water. You have some sort of pumping mechanism with either a synthetic or ceramic filter, which has tons of micropores all over it. These pores are so small that the contaminants found in water cannot fit through them, hence giving you clean water to drink once the dirty water has passed through the filtering cartridge.

MSR MiniWorks Ex water filter

Close-up shot of the MSR MiniWorks EX water filter. Photo credit: Brady Miller

The majority of pumps are set up so you have two different hoses: a dirty hose and a clean hose. The dirty hose is what goes into the creek, or other water sources, and the clean hose goes into your water bladder, bottle, etc. I’d recommend trying to avoid cross-contamination by keeping the clean and dirty hose separate. You could achieve this by using a Ziploc and labeling which is which. You don’t want to accidentally use your dirty hose as your clean hose or vice versa. Also, be sure to dry out your hoses when you get home and not just leave them in airtight Ziplocs. Some of my recent favorites are the MSR MiniWorks EX and the MSR Trail Shot water filters.

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Squeeze/gravity flow

Squeeze or gravity flow water filters

Sometimes the simplest water filter designs can be the best. Photo credit: Josh Kirchner

This is probably my favorite way of filtering water, just because of the simplicity that it offers. When there is ample water available, I use a product called a Sawyer Squeeze. There is nothing fancy about this method. You fill up a bag with dirty water, screw on the filter, much like you would put a lid on a bottle, squeeze the water in the bag through the filter and into your bladder or bottle. That’s it. Easy, very lightweight (3 ounces), and effective. Another very similar filter is a gravity type system. It’s pretty much the same concept without the squeezing. You have a dirty bag that is filled with dirty water. There is a hose that is attached to the bottom of the bag that leads to a filter. With the natural force of gravity, the water flows through the filter into another hose (clean) and into your bladder or bottle. It is a slick and easy system. The one downside of both of these filters is that you cannot let them freeze with excess water inside of them. Doing this will cause the filter to crack and let contaminants through. An easy way to remedy this is to just shake the remaining water out of the filter and put it in your sleeping bag with you.

Tablets/drops

Aquamira water treatment drops while scouting

Aquamira Water Treatment DropsAquamira Tablets or Aquatabs are a great way to stay lightweight when it comes to purifying water. Photo credit: Brady Miller

Another simple way to treat your water is the tried and true method of water purification tablets or drops. These are either iodine or chlorine dioxide. Both will kill the nasty stuff you don’t want to be drinking. It’s pretty cut and dry stuff here. Fill up a water bag or bottle with dirty water, apply the subscribed amount of drops or tabs per liter of water, sit back, and wait. Depending on the product and temperature, you are going to have to wait anywhere from 15-30 minutes to four hours. Most folks just wait the 30 minutes and call it good; others will let their water sit through the night with the drops or tabs. If you are an ultralight minimalist, this is one of the best ways to go. I should mention that no matter what filter I am carrying with me, I always have drops or tabs in my pack as a backup. I definitely don’t want a hunt or scouting trip ruined by a broken filter. This is a great lightweight backup plan.

SteriPEN

Unfortunately, while living in Arizona I have not had a ton of opportunities to use a SteriPEN while out hunting. Since water is kind of scarce, I usually don't have the luxury of filling up a Nalgene full of water. But I have been really curious about them and I know a lot of people have had great success. The SteriPEN operates by purifying the water with ultraviolet light to destroy bacteria and protozoan cysts. Additionally, unlike pumps and filters, SteriPEN's are effective against viruses. They do run on batteries, so it might be a good idea to keep some spares on hand, but they do mention that you can easily purify 100 liters of water without changing batteries. 

Other filtration methods

Boiling water in the backcountry

Along with the different filters and methods I’ve outlined above, there are some other ways to get the job done as well. You could boil all of the water you plan to consume by using a lightweight backcountry stove. Boiling kills anything and everything in your water. While this is effective, I myself wouldn’t coherently make the decision to use this route. Unless I was in a pinch, boiling all of the water I plan on drinking is just a lot of work. Backcountry hunts are hard enough as it is and I would rather spend all of the time I can hunting and focusing on that task instead. Maybe it would work for you, but I’d rather not have to boil. Another lightweight and simple option is to use a LifeStraw.

Pack it in!

Another route is none of the above. No, I am not telling you to risk it and just drink straight from a stream (although you could definitely do that). I am telling you that you could pack water into a predetermined location before the season. We do this often here in Arizona due to the lack of water in areas where we like to hunt. By doing this, we don’t have to worry at all about the chore of filtering water and can just get back to camp at night and refill for the next day. It involves some work beforehand, but it is worth it. If you do this, make sure you stash your water either in the shade or you could even bury it. You don’t want the sun constantly blasting down on your gallons of water. I am not sure of the validity of this, but I’ve heard it said that the chemicals from the plastic can be released into the water when the sun is constantly on it for a long period of time. While I’m not sure how true that is, we try and play it safe. If you're concerned about weight, a great option is to use MSR DromLite Bags.

In closing

There you have it! I hope that what I’ve written here will help you decide what road you want to go down as far as water filtration is concerned. In the backcountry, water is life—and not just for the animals we pursue. Having a solid system that is going to deliver and keep you hydrated is crucial. Lots of folks never get sick from drinking “dirty water.” I say, “Good for them.” After all of the effort I put into preparing for hunting season, I don’t want that to be ruined by an easily remedied mistake. Whether it is tablets or a pump, be prepared and be smart. The season is almost upon us and I am giddy with excitement!

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9 Comments

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Josh K. - posted 2 months ago on 06-26-2018 08:53:55 am
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@Beau

Thanks Beau! Sorry to hear about you gravity fed filter. That's a bummer. Hope you get it figured out soon! Season is right around the corner! Best of luck to you!

Josh K. - posted 2 months ago on 06-26-2018 08:52:31 am
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@Tom

That's awesome Tom. It seems like such an easy way to take care of water. Kind of jealous of those that get to run something like that exclusively! Good luck out there this year!

Josh K. - posted 2 months ago on 06-26-2018 08:50:44 am
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@Chad

Great question man! I wish I had an answer for you. I personally have never encountered anything like that. That's a bummer to hear about for sure.

Josh K. - posted 2 months ago on 06-26-2018 08:51:24 am
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@Dan

Thanks Dan! Glad you enjoyed it! Arizona can definitely be tricky!

Beau M. - posted 2 months ago on 06-25-2018 09:28:57 am
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Great review! I am in the process of testing and exploring new options. The gravity fed filter system I had been using failed twice in the last two years from the filter plugging up with contaminants. Back flushing and the other cleaning methods did not work well in this case, and should be noted.

Tom V. - posted 2 months ago on 06-24-2018 08:30:44 pm
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I have used the steripen exclusively the last 5 years and and have not gotten sick despite some nasty water. The main problem is having enough clearance to fill the nalgene bottle.
Best, Tom M.D.

Chad O. - posted 2 months ago on 06-23-2018 09:43:51 pm
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Do any of the filtration systems on the market filter out chemicals, or liquid contaminants, such as fuel, motor oil, or antifreeze? I have seen some remote, spring fed, water sources that have a film on the surface. Mind boggled on how it could be contaminated I find myself searching for another water source.

Jacob M. - posted 2 months ago on 06-23-2018 07:02:32 am
Gunnyson, CO
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+1 for the sawyer mini. I buy one in the spring and toss at the end of the season.

Dan L. - posted 2 months ago on 06-22-2018 09:15:20 pm
Corona de Tucson, AZ
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I love this article. Finding water on a multi-day hunt (especially in early season) is a whole other animal down here in Arizona. You really have to do your homework. Thanks for the great article, Josh.