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Best Water Filters and Purifiers For Hiking and Backpacking

Clear, sparkling, free flowing mountain streams are not necessarily as pure as they appear.  Sure it is possible to drink from backcountry streams and not get sick, but is it worth the risk?

Mountain streams can be tainted with Giardia, Cryptosporidum, Campylobacter, and a number of other microbes that can leave you ill with stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea, and fatigue for a month and even longer.  Bacteria and viruses get into the water by animal or human feces and there is no way to tell if water is safe to drink just by looking at it.

To reduce your rick of waterborne illnesses in the backcountry, either carry in all the water you need or treat the water with a hiking filter or purifier.  There are plenty of other ways to purify water such as boiling or adding iodine tablets, but I recommend purifiers and filters since they are quick and efficient, leave the water tasting natural, and most importantly, are effective at ridding the water of protozoa and bacteria.

What’s the difference between hiking filters and purifiers? Both hiking filters and purifiers remove bacteria and protozoa from contaminated water, but typically only purifiers can remove viruses.  Viruses are a lot smaller than bacteria and protozoa so they are too tiny to get trapped by a filter alone so a purifier uses chemicals, electrostatic charges, or UV light to kill viruses.  Viruses are relatively rare in the North American backcountry, but may be more of a threat is less developed countries.

When selecting a water filter for hiking or backpacking it is a good idea to consider the filter’s effectiveness, speed, weight, size, and ease of use.  Here are the specifications of some of the best hiking and backpacking filters and purifiers available.

Katadyn Hiker Pro Water Filter

Katadyn’s Hiker Pro Water Filter is a classic hiking and backpacking filter.  Water is drawn up through a pump and then runs through a pleated 0.3-micron glassfiber filter to eliminate 99.9% of bacteria and protozoa and then a carbon core absorbs chemicals and pesticides to improve water quality and taste.  The pleated filter can handle waters filled with silt and mud and a pre-filter keeps out the large contaminates enhancing the lifespan of the main filter.

Effectiveness: Filters 99.9% of bacteria and protozoa
Speed: 1 liter per minute
Weight: 11 ounces
Size: 6.5 x 3 x 2.4 inches
Cost: REI: $79.95 & Amazon: $69.95
Why it Rocks:

  • Lightweight and easy-to-use design
  • Quick-connect fittings allow direct attachment to hydration pack or water bottle
  • Includes field maintenance kit and cleanable filter protector to extend cartridge life


  • Does not protect against viruses

MSR MiniWorks

The MSR MiniWorks filters out bacteria and protozoa in a similar fashion as the Katadyn Hiker Pro.  The MiniWorks has been engineered for heavy use and can filter up to 2000 liters of water its ceramic/carbon Marathon EX element.  The carbon element also filters out pesticides, pollutants, iodine, and chlorine so you could treat your water first with iodine or chlorine and then filter with the MiniWorks to be especially safe without compromising taste.

Effectiveness: Effective against bacteria and protozoa
Speed: 1 liter per minute
Weight: 14.6 ounces
Size: 7.8 x 3.8 inches
Cost: $79 & REI: $89.95
Why it Rocks:

  • Carbon core removes unpleasant tastes
  • Filter can be easily cleaned to maximize field life
  • Bottom attaches to an MSR Dromedary Bag or Nalgene water bottle for ease of use


  • Does not protect against viruses

Sawyer Complete Water System

The Sawyer Complete Water Purifier System is the first portable filtration device that can filter out viruses mechanically.  A 0.02-micron fiber filter physically removes bacteria, protozoa, and viruses.  Simply fill up the gray reservoir with unfiltered water, attach the hose, and watch gravity filter that water into the blue reservoir.  A great option if you plan on hanging out at camp and tire of hand pumping water a liter at a time, the Sawyer Complete can filter 4 liters of water with very little effort.

Effectiveness: Effective against bacteria, protozoa, and viruses
Speed: 1 liter in less than 2 minutes
Weight: 20 ounces
Size: 20 x 10 inches
Cost: REI: $209.95
Why it Rocks:

  • Only hiking filter system to remove viruses physically
  • Can attach drink tube and bite valve and use reservoir as a regular hydration system


  • No pre-filter to filter out large contaminants
  • Lacking carbon filament to remove unpleasant tastes

SteriPEN Journey Water Purifier System

Like other SteriPEN purification systems, the SteriPEN Journey uses ultraviolet light to purify water protecting you from over 99.9% of viruses, bacteria, and protozoa.  The journey is fast and easy to you – just insert the SteriPEN in water, press a button, stir, and enjoy once the lamp turns off.  A step up from the classic SteriPEN Adventurer,, the Journey has an integrated LCD screen that displays the battery life, tracks the number of uses, and counts down the time until your water is safe to drink

Effectiveness: Effective against bacteria, protozoa, and viruses
Speed: 1 liter per 90 seconds
Weight: 4.5 ounces
Size: 7.2 x 1.6 x 1.2 inches
Cost: Amazon: $99.95
Why it Rocks:

  • Lightweight and compact
  • No pumping, aftertaste, chemicals, or filters


  • Less effective when filtering cloudy or silty water

[Photo courtesy of akeg]