How to Choose From the Best Portable Water Filters for Backpacking

In Purification by Jeremiah CasteloLeave a Comment

Having the means to filter and purify water for drinking is as critical as having access to a water source.

Much of the water found while camping, hiking or traveling overseas may contain contaminants which compromise the potability of the water. To make the water safe, it is important that the water is decontaminated (or purified).

One of the easiest and most convenient methods of decontaminating water is via the use of portable water filters. These water filters help purify and decontaminate water by eliminating contaminants such as particles, bacteria, viruses, and parasites among others.

why use a portable water filter?

Because of their generally small sizes, they can easily be fitted into a backpack making them the ideal for purifying water while performing activities such as camping, hiking or traveling. In addition, they are an essential component of most emergency aid kits and soldier kits because of their efficiency and convenience. The above uses of portable water filters make them a must-have for every individual especially those who frequently perform outdoor activities.

With the many options available, choosing the best portable water filter for yourself can be a daunting task. The abundance of portable water filter brands on the market today makes it extremely difficult to know which filters are more efficient than others. And because of this, it is important to understand how these devices work, what you should consider when purchasing a portable water filter and the different types of filters currently available on the market and how efficient these water filters are against different types of contaminants.

In this article, we'll cover:

  • The science behind the filtration process – what is activated carbon? What contaminants do filters protect us from?
  • How to construct your own DIY water filter if ever stranded without a proper filter
  • The main factors to consider when selecting a portable water filter – what are the different types of water filters?
  • What are the best portable water filters on the market today, what makes them good, where can I purchase one?




Our Top Picks for Best Portable Water Filters


Best Filter for Removing Pathogens

  • 0.01 Microns
  • Removes Bacteria, Viruses, and Parasites

The Survivor Pro will filter just about every type of waterborne pathogen you'd need to worry about from a freshwater source.  Read our full review at the end of the article.


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Best Constructed and Most Durable

  • Aluminum Casing
  • Built to endure harsh weather conditions

With an aluminum casing protecting the internal ceramic filter, the Katadyn Pocket Microfilter is probably the only filter you'll ever need to purchase. Read our full review at the end of the article.


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How Water Filtration Works


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A water filter is a device that makes water potable and safe for drinking by removing contaminants and impurities found in water via a fine physical barrier. By passing water through a barrier, heavy impurities such as copper, nickel, lead, chromium, chlorine, iron, and mercury as well as some species of bacteria and protozoa, are removed or reduced.

The barrier that most water filters use usually comes in the form of a replaceable cartridge and contains several layers of permeable material. The materials can include a porous cloth for trapping large sediment and activated carbon which impurities bind to. Because activated carbon has such a high surface area, it is extremely effective at trapping contaminants.

What is a Micron?

The efficiency of each water filter is measured in microns. A micron is a unit of measurement which filters use to measure the smallest access point at which contaminants can pass through. "Micron" is actually an abbreviation for "micrometer" and is equivalent to 1/1,000,000 meters, or 0.0004 inches. A human red blood cell is about 5 microns in diameter. Bacteria average around 0.3 microns in size. Most portable water filters have a 0.1 micron filter size and are capable of blocking most bacteria, however, viruses are often small enough to pass through a 0.1 micron filter. Therefore, additional purification methods may be necessary.



Water Filters vs. Water Purifiers


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The words "filter" and "purifier" are often used interchangeably. And while there is a definite relationship between the two, it is worth identifying the difference. In a general sense, water purification is the process of removing contaminants from a water source and consists of many methods: distillation, reverse osmosis, and filtration to name a few.

Contaminants refer to anything that is undesirable for human consumption and can include lead, copper, fluoride, pesticides, bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Filtration is a specific type of purification which uses a barrier to block certain contaminants from going through.

Because filtration is limited by the size of the barrier by which contaminants are being blocked, smaller contaminants such as viruses and certain chemicals can slip through and must be purified by other means. While the term "purification" still technically refers to the overall process of decontaminating water, water purifiers have become associated with the chemical process of destroying viruses and smaller bacteria - contaminants that filters are usually unable to remove.

  • Water Filters - Water filters purify water by allowing water to pass through a barrier which blocks contaminants. This barrier – usually made of activated carbon and other natural minerals – can capture sediments, bacteria, and protozoan cysts. Most water filters are unable to filter out viruses which are often small enough to pass through the barrier. Specialized filters with a micron size of less than 0.1 can block viruses.
  • Water Purifiers - Water purifiers are known as the chemical means of killing live microorganisms in the water such as bacteria, viruses, and parasites. These chemical means include iodine, chlorine or bleach, chlorine dioxide, or colloidal silver. Because these chemicals destroy live organisms but do not remove heavy metals and other larger particles, filtration is still a necessary process.
    • Hybrid Water Filters - Some manufacturers of water purification devices have created devices that both filter water of large particles and purify it of smaller microorganisms. Most of these have a pre-filter which captures all sediments found in water, in order to make the process of purification easier and more efficient. Once these sediments have been removed, the water is then purified using chemicals or UV light to eliminate other microorganisms.

    The best approach would be to use both a filter and a chemical means of purifying the water of microorganisms. It is also important to note that because water filters are used to capture contaminants, continuous use will cause contaminants to clog in the filter. It is important, therefore, to clean your filter regularly to maximize efficiency.





    • Kills and prevents mosquito larvae in your rain barrel
    • 100% organic and completely harmless to humans, animals, and plants

    With the possibility of mosquito larvae growing in stagnant water, it is advisable to protect your rain barrel with mosquito drops. These drops are 100% organic and safe, made up of a bacteria only toxic to mosquito larvae. Each drop lasts up to 30 days and covers up to 100 feet of surface area.


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    Types of Contaminants to Watch Out For


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    There are a number of contaminants that are always found in contaminated water. While some are easy to remove, others are extremely difficult and require a combination of techniques to successfully eradicate them. Some of the major contaminants of water include the following:

    • Bacteria - Typically found in human and animal fecal waste, these contaminants are known to be the easiest pathogens to filter out and treat because of their large sizes. Bacteria live in water and can cause diseases to humans if ingested. Examples include E. coli, Campylobacter, Cholera, Shigella, Salmonella, and Coliform among others. Bacteria can be eliminated by all types of filters, UV purifiers, and chemical treatments.

    • Protozoa - These single-celled microorganisms are the most feared of all waterborne contaminants as they cause severe intestinal problems. Symptoms typically start anywhere from 2 – 12 days after ingestion. This group of microorganisms is able to live in cold water for up to a couple of months. Examples include Giardia, Cyclospora, and Cryptosporidium. Cryptosporidium is especially resistant to a number of water treatment techniques because of its hard-protective outer layer. These group of organisms can be eliminated by iodine, chlorine dioxide, and only a handful of filters.

    • Sediment/debris - These include solid stuff like sand, silt, dirt, plant and animal matter, and debris. This can be eliminated by all kinds of filters. This is because they are large enough to be captured by any filter cartridge

    • Chemicals/toxins - These are chemicals usually found in water which are toxic and harmful to humans and animals. These chemicals dissolve into the water and can only be removed using filters that use the activated carbon block filter cartridge. This is because the activated carbon absorbs the chemicals which cannot be captured by normal filters due to their dissolved nature

    It is important to know that the effectiveness of each filter against the contaminants mentioned above depends on the micron size of its filter cartridge. As was mentioned earlier in this article, the smaller the micron size of the filter cartridge, the more effective it is at eradicating contaminants. It is therefore important to know which cartridge best suits your needs before purchasing your portable water filter to maximize efficiency and avoid health complications as a result of ingesting these contaminants.



    Constructing a DIY Water Filter


    If you find yourself in the wild without a water filter, knowing how to construct one can save your life. It is possible to construct one with some simple materials and a little skill. It should be noted that a DIY water filter will filter out large sediment but the water should still be purified for viruses and bacteria.

    Materials Needed:
    • Large cylindrical container
    • A pan for collecting water
    • A clean porous cloth
    • Fine sand
    • Coarse gravel
    • Charcoal (if available)
    • Sturdy twigs and sticks

    1. Place twigs above pan in a criss-cross pattern to support the container. Ensure that the twigs are strong enough as the container will be heavy.
    2. Poke holes in the bottom of the container with a knife as to ensure proper drainage.
    3. Place the container on top of the twigs and fill it about 1.5 inches high with coarse gravel. Place a cloth on top of the gravel layer.
    4. If charcoal is available, grid it up to a coarse powder with rocks and fill the next layer with it to about 2 inches high. Cover it with a cloth.
    5. Fill the top layer with fine sand to about 6 inches high (leave some space for the water to be poured in). Cover the layer with cloth and secure it by placing a few pebbles around the perimeter.
    6. Fill the container with water and allow it to to drain.
    7. Repeat the filtration process several times until the water is free of sediment.
    8. Purify the water by boiling to eliminate pathogens.


    Things to Consider When Purchasing A Portable Water Filter


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    There are a lot of factors which you should consider when purchasing a portable water filter. These factors are discussed below.

    Weight / Size

    The first and most important factor to consider when purchasing a portable water filter is the weight and size of the filter. For a filter to considered portable, it must be convenient and easy to carry around when performing outdoor activities such as camping, hiking or traveling. It is therefore important to take the size of the filter into consideration before choosing a brand or model. While most portable water filters are compact, small and relatively easy to fit into your purse or bag, their weights still vary according to the type or model, materials used and type of filtering technology used. It is therefore important to carry out your research first to know which one is best suited for the activity you wish to carry out.

    filtering bacteria and parasites

    As has been discussed earlier, water filters also differ with regards to their efficiency against bacteria, parasites, viruses and other microorganisms. While most filters can guarantee the elimination of sediments, bacteria and protozoan cysts, there are only a handful of filters that eliminate viruses and parasites. Some filters are hybrids of purifiers and filters making them the ideal filter as they eliminate both sediments, bacteria and protozoan cysts as well as other viruses and parasites. Depending on the activity you wish to carry out, it would be important to know how effective the portable water filter you wish to purchase is against viruses and parasites.

    Micron size

    Another very important factor to consider is the micron size. A micron which is an abbreviated term for micrometer amounts to 0.0004 inches (or a millionth of a meter). The micron is also used to rate cartridges for sediment removal in water filters. The micron size of a filter is, therefore, very important as it can give you an insight into the effectiveness of the filter. Generally, the smaller the micron size, the more efficient the filter. Most water filters are perfectly capable of capturing bacteria but are almost incapable of eliminating viruses. This is because viruses are very tiny with sizes that range from 0.004 to 1.0 micron (about 100 times smaller than bacteria). Knowing the micron size of a filter will help you determine whether some additional form of purification (chemical or UV light) is needed before ingestion.

    Filtration speed

    Each portable water filter is unique when it comes to filtration speed. While some are capable of producing about 20 ounces of water within a minute, some are capable of producing just a few ounces within the same timeframe. If you need to use the filter while camping or traveling with a group of people, then you should consider purchasing a filter that produces clean water quickly.

    Capacity / Filter replacement

    The size of the filter is also a very important factor to take into consideration when purchasing a filter. This is especially important if you are looking to camp or travel with a group of people. Generally, the larger the water capacity of the filter, the bigger and heavier the device. In addition, it is important to know how frequently you will be expected to change the filter cartridge of the device. Filter cartridges have varying lifespans with some lasting just a few days while others can last a couple of months. Nevertheless, high-quality filters usually carry long-lasting cartridges. Some allow you to filter up to 100,000 gallons of unsafe water while others allow filtration of only about 270 gallons of water using a single cartridge.

    Ease of use

    Most portable water filters are small and compact but that doesn’t mean they are easy to use. While some models are very easy to set up and use, and just require that you draw water through the filter straight into your mouth, others come with a detailed guide on how to use the device. To avoid using the device incorrectly, it is important to carry instructions with you.

    Cost

    Setting up a budget before starting your search for a portable water filter is the best way to find one that accurately matches your budget. Portable water filters, just like most products, vary in price. While some cost about $100 or less, others are priced at hundreds of dollars. Again, like most products, the most expensive model isn’t always the best as there are a good number of relatively cheaper, more efficient alternatives available. So, it is possible to get a small and efficient unit at a relatively cheaper price.

    Maintenance/Cleaning

    This is another very important factor to take into consideration when purchasing your portable water filter. As previously mentioned, filters make water cleaner and safer for drinking by capturing the contaminants found in the contaminated water as it passes through the filter cartridge. Continuous use of the device without cleaning leads to clogging of dirt and other contaminants which can negatively impact the efficiency of the product. It is therefore important to know how the filter is cleaned, how frequently it should be cleaned and how frequently cartridges are expected to be replaced before purchasing a particular filter model.



    Know the Different Types of Portable Water Filters


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    Bottle Filters

    This is yet another very popular portable water filter. Apart from the fact that it is easy to use, it can also be used simply as a bottle when you don’t need to filter your water before drinking. This can be done by removing the filter’s cartridge and using just the bottle. While most bottle filters use fiber filters to decontaminate water, some specific models instead use solid block activated-carbon filters.

    Some models work like the straw filter relying on suction to draw the contaminated water through the filter. Others like the activated-carbon block filter work differently. With this model, a uniform matrix is created using activated carbon which has been treated and compressed. This activated carbon absorbs chemicals and is more efficient at capturing parasites and bacteria. Also, because activated carbon is made up of millions of extremely small pores found between its carbon atoms, it is a very efficient filter cartridge especially since a single gram of activated carbon presents a surface area of approximately 2,000 meters on which contaminants can be trapped.


    Pros
    • Effective at reducing dissolved contaminants such as arsenic, heavy metals, and other contaminants found in water.
    • Effective at capturing bacteria and viruses.
    • Activated carbon block filters allow beneficial minerals in the water
    • Does not require electricity 
    Cons
    • Fails at reducing dissolved salts like nitrates and fluoride
    • Fails to reduce cadmium


    Straw Filters

    As the name suggests, these filters are exorbitantly large when compared to normal straws but work exactly like straws. Currently, the straw filter is the lightest and most portable filter available. Most of them average 25-30cm in length and 29-35mm in diameter, with the ability to filter somewhere between 700-1000 liters of water. They are extremely easy to use as all you have to do is draw in the water into your mouth through the straw. In order to work, the filter requires a more powerful draw than is required for a regular filter.

    The cartridges used in the straw filter are made up of several tightly-woven hollow fiber membranes, through which the contaminated water passes before reaching the straw you are drawing on. Most straw filters use 0.2-micron-sized cartridges which captures bacteria, viruses, and parasites found in the water as it moves up the straw and into your mouth. In addition, all sediments and contaminants that float on water are captured as they are too large to go through the 0.2-micron holes. This makes the water that enters your mouth from the straw filter safe and potable for drinking.


    Pros
    • Efficiently captures sediments and particles that cause water to smell or taste poorly.
    • Efficiently captures viruses, bacteria, protozoan cysts, and
    • Efficiently captures all sediment and debris.
    • Does not require electricity
    Cons
    • Regular change of cartridges as holes easily get clogged with sediments, particles and other contaminants.
    • Limited efficiency with regards to the removal of dissolved contaminants such as heavy metals, chlorine, and


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    Pump Filters

    While they are not as small as the straw and bottle filters, pump filters are still small enough to take up just a small amount of space in your backpack. With this method, a small lead line is connected from the filter to the water source and another from the filter to the recipient. The water is drawn using a small hand pump.

    The type of cartridge used in pump filters depends on the model and manufacturer. Some use fiber filters, while others use ceramic filters. Some combine one of these filtration techniques with a block activated carbon filter. Fiber filters work like the hollow membrane filters of the straw filter. Ceramic filters are also great at mechanical filtration and are especially effective against asbestos. Most pump filters have a micron size of 0.5 – 1. However, because of the micron size, some bacteria and viruses can pass through the filters. This explains why some manufacturers combine it with the activated carbon method.


    Pros
    • Improves the smell and taste of water
    • Activated carbon filters can be used for up to a year before changing
    • Beneficial minerals in the water are not eliminated.
    Cons
    • If not regularly cleaned and changed, the filter may act as a breeding ground for captured bacteria.
    • Some bacteria are able to pass through the carbon granules, which are large.


    Gravity Filters

    This type of filter is ideal for trekkers, campers, and emergency preppers because it doesn’t require a constant water supply to function and doesn’t require electricity. It is also perfect for travelers journeying to remote areas where clean water is difficult to come by.

    With this type of filter, two containers are placed above each other. Water is then poured into the container placed on top of the other. Gravitational pull causes the water to seep through a filter into the container below. At the bottom of the container below is a tap which can be opened to access filtered water. The gravity filter uses a combination of ceramic and activated carbon filters to decontaminate water and because of this combination, the filtered water is free and safe for drinking.


    Pros
    • Does not require electricity.
    • Greater efficiency at removing bacteria, protozoan cysts, viruses, and
    • Activated carbon filters make it effective at removing chlorine, pesticides, herbicides and other man-made contaminants.
    • Filter cartridges can last up to a year before replacement.
    Cons
    • It is larger in size than other types of water filters.
    • Has multiple components.


    UV Filters

    These filters are not common and are less frequently used than the other four filters mentioned above. Running on batteries, this filter type is also efficient at removing bacteria, viruses, protozoan cysts. In addition, it also improves the taste and smell of the water being decontaminated. However, because they use batteries, they are costlier to run than the others.


    Pros
    • Works faster
    • Improve the taste and smell of the water
    • Beneficial minerals remain in the water
    • Effective against viruses, bacteria, parasites and protozoan cysts.
    Cons
    • Costlier than other portable water filters since it runs on batteries
    • The dirtier the water, the less effective the filter as sediment and debris can negatively affect the efficiency of the filter.
    • Ineffective against chemicals like chlorine, or heavy metals.

    The Best Portable Water Filters for Backpacking and Outdoor Survival




    • Pump Filter
    • 0.01 Microns
    • Filter Capacity: 26,000 Gallons
    • Weighs 14 oz.
    • Removes Bacteria, Parasites, Viruses, Heavy Metals
    • 3-stage Filtration System
    • Lifetime Warranty

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    Our top pick for best portable water filter goes to the Survivor Filter PRO for its filtering capability and lifetime warranty. While most portable water filters on the market operate on the 0.2 micron level, the Survivor Filter PRO has a 0.01 micron size – 20 times more effective at removing microorganisms. Independently tested at multiple USA labs, this filter removes viruses, bacteria, parasites, and heavy metals. It has a triple filtration system which includes a dual hollow fiber membrane and carbon filtration.

    While filters with a small micron size of 0.01 tend to have a slower flow rate, the Survivor PRO filters quickly at 500 mL per minute. It is sturdy and well built – manufactured from ABS material and food-grade activated carbon, with a steel rod inside for extra support. It is BPA-free of course, and comes with a 100% money-back lifetime guarantee.




    • Pump Filter
    • 0.2 Microns
    • Weighs 20 oz.
    • Filter Capacity: 13,000 Gallons
    • Removes Sediment, Bacteria, and Parasites
    • Extremely Durable
    • Will tolerate a wider variety of water conditions than most portable filters can

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    The Katadyn Pocket Water Filter is, by far, the most well-crafted portable water filter on the market. It has a very durable aluminum casing which protects the internal ceramic filter. It can endure a variety of harsh weather conditions and will remain functional is snow, sand, and mud. Its robust design allows it to pump even the murkiest of waters and produce clean, clear water on the other end. It has a 0.2 micron size – capable of removing sediment, bacteria, and parasites. Being 20 oz. in weight and 10 inches in length, the Katadyn Pocket Filter is slightly larger than most portable water filters but is still a perfect for backpacking and hiking. The durability and efficiency of the Katadyn Pocket Filter justify the higher price tag, making it the only portable water filter you'll ever need to buy.




    • Straw Filter
    • o.1 Microns
    • Filter Capacity: 100,000 Gallons
    • Weighs 2 oz.
    • Removes: Sediment, Bacteria, and Parasites
    • Lifetime Warranty

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    The Sawyer Mini is a very versatile personal filtration system in a compact design. Weighing at 2 oz., this portable water filter fits in the palm of your hand and can filter up to 100,000 gallons of water with a single cartridge. It is perfect for backpacking, hiking, international travel, and emergency preparedness due to its compact size and efficient filtration capabilities. With a micron size of 0.1, it can effectively remove bacteria and parasites including Giardia and Cryptosporidium from any fresh water source. It passed the highest level of testing standard with absolutely no pathogen breakthrough.

    The Sawyer Mini can be attached to the squeeze pouch and drank directly through the straw or dispensed into a water bottle. It can also be used to drink directly form the water source or screwed onto a standard plastic water bottle – perfect for suspect water overseas. It comes with a lifetime, money-back warranty.




    • Straw Filter
    • 0.2 Microns
    • Filter Capacity: 1000 Gallons
    • Weighs 2 oz.
    • Removes: Sediment, Bacteria, and Parasites
    • 1 purchase supplies 1 child with drinking water for a school year

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    The Lifestraw is a slender, lightweight straw filter which has gained much popularity among hikers, backpackers, and international humanitarian causes. Its simple and compact, yet efficient design allows it to be transported easily and used among a variety of fresh water environments. It has a micron size of 0.2 making it capable of filtering out bacteria and parasites. All testing has been done and verified in US laboratories. It has a filter capacity of 1000 Gallons which equates to roughly 4 years of regular use. The proceeds of each purchase will support one child with access to clean water for a whole school year.




    • Straw Filter
    • 0.1 Microns
    • Filter Capacity: 100,000 Gallons
    • Weighs: 2 oz.
    • Removes Sediment, Bacteria, and Parasites
    • Lifetime Warranty

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    As the name alludes to, the HydroBlue Versa is a very versatile straw filter capable of removing bacteria and parasites with its 0.1 micron filter. It has a capacity of 100,000 gallons and a lifetime, money-back guarantee. The HydroBlu is categorized as a straw filter but, in fact, can function in a variety of ways. It can be used to drink directly form the source through a straw, it can be set up as a gravity filtration system to accommodate multiple users, and can also be attached to a bucket for larger quantities. The HydroBlue is popular among outdoors enthusiasts and emergency preppers.


    Conclusion


    Having a portable water filter on hand will certainly reduce your chances of contracting any waterborne pathogens when drinking from freshwater sources. While most portable water filters will remove sediment, bacteria, and protozoa, viruses are often too small to catch. Even though viruses in North American freshwater sources are rare, combining a portable water filter with water purification tablets is the safest approach.


    Thank you for taking the time to read our article on the best portable water filters. We'd love to hear your feedback in the comments section below. If you've found this article to be useful and are interested in learning more, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.

    References

    References

    Bacteria World. (n.d.). How Big is a Micron? Retrieved from http://www.bacteria-world.com/how-big-micron.htm

    How Stuff Works. (2009, February 17). How Water Filters Work. Retrieved from https://adventure.howstuffworks.com/outdoor-activities/hiking/water-filter.htm

    Kortman, P. (2017, October 12). Selecting A Portable Water Filter: Backcountry vs. International Travel - Business Connect World. Retrieved from https://businessconnectworld.com/2016/10/20/selecting-portable-water-filter-backcountry-vs-international-travel/

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