Water Filters for Day Hiking

The technological advance in hiking gear over the years is stunning. Quick dry clothing, ultra-light backpacks, tiny LED flashlights, multipurpose gear and countless other items have made “ultra-light” hikes possible. Yet one frontier remains that technological advances haven’t conquered.

Mini-Water Filter for Day Hiking
A Sawyer Mini-Water Filter is an ideal water filter for day hiking in Montana and most places in the USA. More info at Amazon.

How to reduce the physical weight of water.

The ugly fact is, despite technological advances, water's weight remains the same. And nothing short of a Star Trek replicator or the invention of “dehydrated water” will change it.

The heavy weight of water poses problems for hikers who strive for “ultra-light” day hiking or who take long hikes through water-scarce terrain.

For day hikers, the weight of water carried is often substantial on longer trips—and can make a simple day hike in the mountains seem like a week-long trek through the Mongolian desert. And for ultra-light hikers, the weight of water carried often makes a mockery of the quest towards ultra-light.

Although technology hasn’t solved how to reduce water's weight, advances in water filtration and purification makes hiking without transporting gallons of water possible. For many hikes—especially in the mountains of Montana—the newer filters (combined with some common sense methods) should allow hikers to reduce how much water they carry on a hike.

This article covers the following topics:

Quick Summary

For those not interested in reading the entire article, here's a quick summary.

  • For hikers, the need to filter water (especially in Montana) is more common than the need to purify water.
  • Personal Water Filters are, for most hikers, more versatile than water purification tablets.
  • Water purification tablets are ideal to "stow away and forget" about until needed. In particular, water purification tablets are ideal for ultra-light day hikers who use waist packs. It is also good practice to put a few water purification tablets with the first aid kit, too.
  • Water purification tablets are ideal for "emergency situations" and also function as a lightweight backup if the water filter breaks (and eventually, most do!).
  • Water purifiers are ideal for international travel. In the US, they have limited use since few water purifiers remove dirt or other "grime" from the water. For day hikers, water filters are much more practical.
  • The Sawyer Mini Water Filter is the best filter for day hikers who need a lightweight filter that receives light to moderate use. Water filter straws do work well too, but lack the utility of water filters.
  • For water filtration tablets, buy tablets that are individually wrapped (not tablets that come in a glass bottle). Besides saving weight and bulk, you avoid having to worry about contanimation of the tablets. See More Water Purification Tablets at Amazon.

Water Filtration vs. Water Purification

Before deciding whether to buy a water filter or water purifiers/purification tablets, it is necessary to understand the differences between water filtration and water purification. A quick summary of the differences is provided below. If you want to really "dive deep" into the differences, read this article at REI.

Water Filtration - Water filters use microfiltration to rid water of harmful bacteria and protozoa, as well as debris such as dirt, sticks and anything else that is "solid." Any water filter worth its name also filters out nasty organisms like giardia.

Water Purification - Use a chemical treatment or UV light to meet an Environmental Protection Agency standard for eliminating viruses as well as bacteria and protozoa. Water purification does not, by itself, remove dirt and other solids in the water. Instead, it kills viruses, harmful chemicals and giardia.

Ultra-Light Water Filter Options for Day Hiking

For general day hiking, hiker's will have three types of water filters to choose from. These include:

Each of these three different types of filters have their uses. Let's examine them more in-depth.

The Personal Water Filter

The personal water filter, exemplified by the Sawyer Mini-Filter, are small, compact and lightweight filters designed for light to moderate use. They are very effective at filtering out giardia, water-borne bacteria and other debris from the water.

Mini-Water Filter for Day Hiking
A Sawyer Mini-Water Filter is an ideal water filter for day hiking in Montana and most places in the USA. More info at Amazon.

Compared with water filters used by backpackers, personal water filters aren't designed for use by multiple people over extended periods of time. Also, personal water filters often require more time to filter water than the larger, backpacking water filters.

Personal water filters are quite versatile. Some models of personal water filters can also function as straws, and allow the hiker to drink directly from the stream. Various attachments are also available that allow for easy connection to a standard 32 ounce water bottle or hydration bladder.

Due to their small size and light weight, personal water filters are the most popular filter used by day hikers. For periodic uses to grab water from a stream or lake, these filters work superbly to "refill the hydration bladder" or to "top off the water bottle."

See More Personal Water Filters at Amazon

The Water Filter Straw

The water filter straw is similar to a personal water filter in many ways. The Water Filter straw is also effective at filtering out giardia, water-borne bacteria and other debris from the water.

LifeStraw Water Filter Straw
A LifeStraw Water Filter Straw. Works well if you know there's water sources where you're going. More info at Amazon.

The primary difference between a water filter straw and a personal water filter is that a water filter straw won't connect to a water bottle or hydration bladder. Instead, to use it the hiker simply puts the straw in a water source and drinks through the straw.

One big advantage of a water filter straw is the lack of moving parts, allowing for durability and reliability. Most water straws are simple to clean, too.

However, the inability to filter water for storage in a water bottle or hydration bottle limits their utility. In other words, water straws work well for drinking water, but not filtering water for storage.

For ultra-light day hikers that use waist packs, another unexpected drawback of water filter straws are their size. While lightweight (just two or three ounces), some water filter straws are surprisingly long, and are often difficult to fit inside waist packs.

See More Water Filter Straws at Amazon

The Backpacking Water Filter

Designed for overnight hikes or supplying water for larger groups, backpacking water filters are rugged, versatile and reliable. Numerous models are available to choose from, including gravity-fed filters that require no pumping.

Katadyn Hiker Water Filter
The Katadyn Hiker water filter. A superb filter for backpacking and group camping, but not ideal for day hiking due to bulk and weight. More info at Amazon.Com.

But for day hikers, this type of water filter poses a few problems.

The first problem is the filter’s weight. Even the lightest of backpacking filters tend to weigh at least a pound. While an extra pound in a daypack isn’t a huge issue, for ultra-light hiker’s using waist packs that extra pound often feels like a ton.

Moreover, backpacking water filters are bulkier—often substantially—when compared to personal water filters. Between the larger filter, the larger pump, the hoses and the attachments, backpacking water filters take up much more space in the pack than personal water filters or water filter straws. The increased bulk for day hikers using daypacks isn’t substantial. However, the increased bulk of backpacking water filters often prevents them from even fitting inside a waist pack.

Overall, backpacking water filters are ideal for what the name suggests - overnight hiking. They also work well for camping, especially group camping. But for day hiking, personal water filters weigh less, have less bulk, and are just as effective for filtering water.

See More Katadyn Backpacking Water Filters at Amazon.Com

Water Purifiers for Day Hiking & International Travel

For international travel where water quality is dubious, water purifiers often are a necessity. This is especially true in countries such as Thailand where tap water isn't fit to drink. For international travelers, the ability to purify water to avoid getting sick from tap water is a large benefit.

CamelBak Water Purifier
A Camelbak Water Purifier, which works with UV light. Ideal for international travel, but not for hiking in Montana. More info at Amazon.Com.

For hiking in Montana or elsewhere in the USA, however, water purifiers are more problematical.

The problem with water purifiers is they fail to remove debris from the water. All streams, rivers and lakes in Montana have various types of debris floating around. The debris can be anything from sand, tiny pebbles, dust, flies, decomposing leaves to fish turds. In short, while the water in Montana might look clear, there is still debris in the water. Since a water purifier does not “filter the water,” any debris put into a water purifier remains there, even after the water has been purified.

A second problem with water purifiers is the time needed to work. Depending on the water’s clarity, the temperature of the water, and the chemical or UV process used, purifying a liter of water might take anywhere from a few minutes to four or more hours.

In a nutshell, water purifiers are superb items for international travel to countries with dubious water quality "out of the tap." But for day hiking, there's far better options.

See More Water Purifiers at Amazon.Com

Water Purification Tablets

Water purification tablets use a chemical process to purify the water. The chemical used to purify the water varies, but Iodine, Dicloroisocyanate, and Chlorine Dioxide are all commonly used.

Water Purification Tablets
Individually wrapped water purification tablets are excellent for emergency use. More info at Amazon.Com.

The biggest advantage of water purification tablets is their size. A typical tablet is no larger than a standard aspirin.

Water purification tablets suffer from the same problem as standard water purifiers—their inability to “filter out” dirt and other objects from the water. Water purification tablets also work slowly. Depending on temperature and water clarity, to purify a liter of water takes a minimum of thirty minutes. Finally, depending on the chemical used for purification, fully purified water might have a slight chemical taste (especially true with Iodine tablets).

Water purification tablets work well to create drinkable water. However, the time needed to purify water and the inability to remove debris limits their use to emergency situations for hikers. Because of their tiny size, every hiker (dayhikers and overnighters) should carry a few water purification tablets in their pack or first aid kit. Just be sure to buy individually wrapped tablets (don’t buy a whole bottle of tablets).

See More Water Purification Tablets at Amazon

Which to Choose

Which method a hiker uses to obtain drinkable water depends on the size of their pack, whether they are day hiking or overnight hiking, how many people are in the group, and other personal considerations.

But here's some general rules:

  • Personal Water Filter – Works well for most day hikers because of its small size, lightweight and versatility. Ideal for use in Glacier National Park and other areas in Montana.
  • Water Filter Straw – Works well for hikers who do not need to store water and know they’ll be passing by water sources during their hike.
  • Larger Backpacking Water Filters – Ideal for large groups and hikers taking overnight trips. For groups of two or more, consider getting a gravity-fed water filter.
  • Water Purification Tablets – Ideal for emergency situations. Put a few in your pack or first aid kit, but don’t depend on them during a normal day hike.

Where to Buy

Offline, personal water filters and water purification tablets are available at sporting good stores that sell quality, technical gear. Stores that usually carry water filters and water purification tablets include Cabela's, REI and Eastern Mountain Sports.

Online, Amazon is an excellent place to purchase all types of water filter and water purification products.

Other online retailers that sell a wide selection of filters and water purification products include: