Water Filtration for Hikers and Backpackers

Portable water filters for hiking and backpacking come in a variety of shapes and sizes, all of which have their pros and cons. The type of water filtration device you buy should depend on its intended use.

Pump filters can remove pathogens as small as 0.2 micrometers in size. They filter water via a ceramic filter, sometimes with an additional activated charcoal filter. This second filter absorbs toxins and chemical contaminants, so check to see if your ceramic filter comes with a secondary filtration system. These filters are effective in removing most bacteria, but very few viruses, which means you’ll need a secondary means of treating your water after it has been filtered. Most opt for chemical disinfection or UV light.

In recent years, ultraviolet purification has been seeing an increase in popularity. It works by preventing microbes in your water from reproducing, which means that your water is not free of microbes; they’ve just been made inactive. Some studies show it to be effective against viruses as well, although 10-30 times the concentration of UV light is needed. The up side to this filtration technique is that it’s light and easy to use. The down side is that it requires the water turbidity to be quite low, which means that in many circumstances a pre-filtration system is necessary. Also, in order to avoid photo reactivation of microbes, your drinking water must be stored post UV filtration in a dark place until consumption.

There are a variety of chemical water treatments available for disinfecting dirty water while on the trails, but historically hikers have chosen iodine. Although it can be dangerous to your health if consumed in high quantities, a small amount of it over a short time has been shown to be harmless to your health while killing many of the common pathogens in water. It can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour to work, depending on the clarity of your water, and does leave a distinct chemical taste behind when it’s done. This can be counteracted using vitamin C tablets that often come with the iodine tablets you can find at the store, but it’s essential to wait until after the iodine has done its job before adding them to assure clean water.

If you’re up a stream without a pump and end up having to boil your water to kill bacteria, you should allow it to boil for at least 1-3 minutes. This will remove bacterial pathogens from your water supply, although you need to bear in mind that it will not remove other non-organic toxins. In order to absolutely ensure that your water is safe to drink, a combination of the above methods should be used. A ceramic filter pump with an activated charcoal filter, followed by UV filtration or iodine tablets, should do the trick with even the dirtiest water.

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