How To Choose A Water Filter Or Purifier For Backpacking

Rilor Staff
Update: September 1, 2021
Table of Contents

Do you know how to choose a water filter or purifier? If so, then this guide is for you. 

Backpackers and hikers are required to have a constant source of replenishment. When it comes to this matter, water is an essential resource. Of course, the real challenge here is that when you are in an outdoor setting, potable water is pretty scarce. 

Surely enough, you may encounter streams, rivers, puddles, and lakes along the way. But there's no guarantee that they are safe to be taken in. Even if they have a pristine and unadulterated appearance, there's still a huge possibility of being contaminated with bacteria, heavy metals, and other pollutants.

Fortunately, you can combat this problem by having a water filter or purifier. With these devices, you will process any external water source and make them safe for consumption. 

In this guide, I will discuss some of the essential factors in choosing a water filter and purifier. 

How To Choose A Water Filter Or Purifier

Before we discuss the technical aspects regarding water filters and purifiers, it is essential that we understand their difference first. In this way, you will be able to identify which of them you actually need in your adventure. 

Water Filters And Water Purifiers: What's Their Difference? 

Usually, people use these terms loosely. For many, purifiers and filters are just the same. While it is true that their purpose is to make your drinking water as clean as possible, they achieve these things differently. 

  • Water filter - A water filter is designed to eliminate bacteria and protozoa in the water. These are contaminants that are common in outdoor water sources in the United States and Canada. If you are worried about E. coli, salmonella, cryptosporidium, and shigella, then you should pack a water filter with you. 
  • Water purifier - Meanwhile, water purifiers are designed to eliminate the existence of viruses in the water. It can be done through microscopic fibers, UV treatment, and chemical applications. The downside of most water purifiers is that they cannot screen out sediments. The only water purifier that can deal with these sediments is the MSR Guardian Purifier. 

General Mechanisms Of Water Filters And Water Purifiers

It is also essential that you know these water filters and purifiers work. To do this, you should understand their anatomy. 

  • All water filters include an internal cartridge or component that aids in trapping bacteria, protozoa, microplastic, and other types of pollutants. These elements have microscopic pores to ensure that they can do their job. In the long run, you need to replace or clean these cartridges. After all, they are susceptible to matter build-up. 
  • Meanwhile, water purifiers are using chemicals to eliminate viruses, which are impossible to filter if you just use a physical cartridge. There are also other mechanisms to kill viruses, such as ultraviolet light. 

Keep in mind that a lot of water filters and purifiers are equipped with activated carbon. Activated carbon helps in reducing the smell and odor in the water. This element is also beneficial in removing contaminants in the water--such as pesticides. 

Do You Need To Pre-Filter?

One should understand that there are various elements that can pollute or contaminate water. For instance, debris and mud can easily compromise water sources such as lakes and rivers. 

These particles can become a health concern. At the same time, they also impact the quality of the filter and its overall efficiency in doing its job. If the filter is processing too much mud, its lifespan is drastically lowered. 

If you want to overcome this problem, you may need the service of a pre-filter. Fundamentally, a pre-filter is a component that helps eliminate large sediments and particles from the water. Before you process the water in the filter or purifier, you have to pass it first to a pre-filter. In this way, you can guarantee that your water filter or purifier will not be damaged easily. 

You are free not to use a pre-filter. But there are a lot of benefits if you do so. For instance, it aids in improving the efficiency of chemical treatments. Moreover, it enhances the flow rate of water filters and reduces the need for you to clean the water filter from time to time. 

But if you are using a UV filter, a pre-filter is mandatory. Just as I've said earlier, these water purifiers don't have physical filters to deal with large sediments. 

Types Of Water Filters And Water Purifiers

You have different options when it comes to water filters and water purifiers. Here are they:

  1. Gravity Filter and Purifier

Using a gravity filter and purifier is easy. Simply fill its reservoir and hang it somewhere. After that, gravity will do its thing by pushing the water to the filter before it proceeds to your water container. 


  • They are quick and easy to utilize
  • They can filter large quantities of water at a time
  • Enables storing of clean water
  • Minimal effort on your part


  • Bulky and heavy
  • It's not that easy to fully fill its reservoir
  • You will need to look for a platform to hand the filter
  • Generally expensive
  1. Pump Filter and Purifier

A pump filter or purifier will require you to put it directly to the source and pump water from there. The pumped water will go through the filter before it proceeds to a reservoir or bottle.


  • They can be used in shallow water sources
  • You can use them to process small quantities of water
  • Comes with replaceable cartridges and filters


  • It is physically taxing to use them
  • They require extensive maintenance
  • They can be bulky or heavy
  1. Botter Filter and Purifier

With a bottle filter, you simply fill it with water and drink into its mouth directly. They are just like your water bottle, except for the fact that they include a cartridge or filter inside them. Because of this design, they are a convenient choice for various backpacking and outdoor trips. As long as you can encounter water sources along the way, these bottle filters and purifiers are extremely useful.


  • Compact and packable; ideal for backpacking trips
  • Works well for single-person usage
  • A perfect choice if your destination comes with a lot of water filters


  • Cannot filter water fast
  • Can only filter water in small quantities
  • Not for group use
  1. Straw Filters

If you want something that is super light and compact, I suggest that you get straw filters. When it comes to portability, they are way better than bottle filters and purifiers. Their construction is akin to a straw. The only difference is that there's a filter cartridge inside them to cleanse the water you drink. With straw filters, you can directly drink from a water source. There's no need for a reservoir or container. Hence, it is an excellent choice for mountain bikers, trail runners, and hikers. 


  • Compact and lightweight construction
  • Ideal for single-day trips on areas with numerous water sources
  • Great backup for water filters in multi-day backpacking trips
  • Extremely affordable


  • Doesn't have any means for water storage
  • Not a suitable choice for destinations with limited water sources
  1. UV Purifiers

A UV purifier eliminates viruses through the aid of ultraviolet rays--hence, its name. But it doesn't rely on the heat of the sun, though. Instead, the device is equipped with a component that generates UV rays to cleanse water. In a nutshell, UV purifiers work faster than traditional chemical purifiers when it comes to purifying water. But at the same time, you need to be hands-on when using them. 


  • Speedy process of purifying water
  • Ensures that your drinking water has no viruses
  • Lightweight and easy to pack
  • Don't produce unwanted taste or odor


  • It does not come with physical filters
  • Require the use of batteries on their operation
  • It doesn't work well when processing large quantities of water
  1. Chemical Purifiers

A chemical purifier is an effective choice if you want to deal with viruses, bacteria, and protozoa. Using it is pretty easy, too. You simply need to pour the chemical into the water and let it sit under the prescribed time. Most of the chemical purifiers today are using chlorine and iodine as their base. Moreover, they either come in pills, drops, and mixed agents. 


  • They are easy to use
  • Packable and lightweight
  • Inexpensive
  • Great for backpacking on international destinations


  • Does not come with physical filters
  • They add taste to the water

Matters About Portability And Weight

Since we are talking about water filters and purifiers for backpacking, it is essential that we put these factors into account. If the water filter and purifier are too big and heavy for you, you will have difficulties bringing them. For leisure camping, packability and bulkiness may not be a problem. But for backpacking and backcountry trips (where weight is an issue), you would need a water filter or purifier that is light and compact.

But always remember that larger water purifiers and filters work better than their smaller counterparts. So this is still something that you have to keep in mind, especially if your destination has questionable water sources. 

The smallest type of purifier that you can bring is tablets, drops, and pills. For filters, it would be these bottle filters and straw filters. Bringing these two on your journey might give you enough peace of mind. But then again, if you need a foolproof solution, you would really need those bulkier purifiers. 

Flow Rate Of Water Filters And Purifiers

There are cases where you'll encounter the term "flow rate" when choosing filters and purifiers. Specifically, this term refers to how fast water can travel through a filter. It is commonly addressed as liters per minute. 

Taking this factor into account is quite essential. After all, if you want to remain hydrated all the time, you need to have immediate access to water. If a filter's flow rate is slow, you will need to wait for several minutes before you can drink from a water source. Oppositely, filters that have a high flow rate can give you access to clean water minus the waiting time. 

But of course, you have to remember that the figures provided by manufacturers are just estimates. Sometimes, the actual flow rate may be faster or slower, depending on the quality of the water or the age of the filter. 

In Summary

Learning how to choose a water filter or purifier for backpacking is indeed essential. This particular knowledge will guarantee that you can utilize the water resources around you, preventing you from being dehydrated in the middle of your jaunt. There are various options to take, so you have to pick based on your needs and preferences. 

Remember that you need a water filter when you need a defense against bacteria, protozoa, and sediments. For viruses and chemicals, water purifiers are the way to go. 

As much as possible, don't fetch water from muddy and murky water sources. Go for flowing sources, instead, such as rivers. You can guarantee that they have minimal contaminants and pollutants that you need to filter out. 

Don’t forget proper hygiene, too, to avoid waterborne and foodborne illnesses.

That's it for now. If you have other inquiries, feel free to ask me in the comment section below.

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