Drop In The Bottle – Water Treament in the Backcountry

What water treatment should I use?

This question is asked time and time again on hiking boards. Here’s my quick and dirty take on various water treatment methods.

You are going to get a plethora of opinions from people and specific brands of water filter to use, which one is the best, how it just rocks  and blah, blah, blah, blah. Next to knives, this is probably the most discussed topic on hiking boards…yet has the least impact on your trip in relation to other things (Best views, best AYCE buffets, best hot springs, etc)

Having said said,  here’s my quick and dirty take on water treatment. I don’t think there is ANY best gear (yeah..I say it a lot. ’cause it is s true and all the gear wonks on the hiking boards  tend to forget that)..just what is best for you and your style of hiking. 🙂

Updated Fall 2015

My (biased) take:

Steripen:  The main advantage is that it is quicker than other methods. Does not filter out the ‘floaties’ easily (use a bandanna). Sometimes has difficulty with cloudy water (not as much an issue on Eastern vs. Western trails). Somewhat expensive. Does take batteries. Needs to be taken care of a bit more than other methods (like anything electronic  you carry)

Best for if you want the absolute quickest and simplest water treatment and do not beat on your gear.

Filter/Purifer: If weight and bulk is not an issue, this tried and true method of water treatments works well. Quicker than the gravity filter in experienced hands, if a little slower than other methods. There is a clogging issue..but it does filter floaties better than chemicals or the Steripen. In cold weather, you do have a chance with the filter freezing. Be sure to keep your intake (dirty) and outtake (clean) water hoses separated.

Best for people who filter all their water and do not want to worry about electronics and variable water conditions. Tends to be best for someone on the go more than a gravity filter will warrant. Works well for group use.

Sawyer Squeeze Filter: Essentially a smaller, lighter, and inexpensive take-off of the above. Various models. A bladder works as the pump. A bit awkward to use on “trickle” water sources. Does not work well with silty or sediment-filled water.

If you want a traditional filter, but travel solo, and treat all your water, this one works well.

Gravity Filter: Basically the same as the first filter above..but w/o a pump. Good if you spend time in camp and/or don’t mind longer breaks (that can be a good thing. 😉 ) Simple to use..but somewhat time-consuming.

Best for people who tend to spend more time in camp than hike. Really good for the treatment of lots of water at once. Again, works really well in camp.

Chemicals: Iodine, tabs,  Aqua Mira, Polar Pure etc. If you are minimalist and/or do not treat all your water, this method works well.

Best for what I just said above.  🙂

So figure out the basics of your hiking style and go appropriately. I rarely treat my water, tend to go light/minimal and hike more than camp. So chemicals (Iodine tabs in particular) work well for me. Your backpacking style may make for a different choice that is better for you.  🙂


Basic hygiene will prevent more GI illnesses than any other type of treatment.

From http://www.rei.com/expertadvice/articles/hygiene+sanitation.html

“A bigger concern, Backer says, is what medical types such as him call “fecal-oral transmission.” Ew, gross. But it happens. Happens a lot, in fact—and research indicates it causes many more cases of intestinal distress than does ingesting Giardia.”

Waterborne pathogens such as Giardia are not as widespread in backcountry water sources as once believed. A number of researchers and medical experts believe that much water in the wilderness (particularly in remote, high alpine settings) is drinkable without treatment.


Careful attention to personal hygiene can help prevent the spread of infection. Thomas R. Welch in a 2004 editorial in the journal Wilderness Medicine expressed the view that “stopping hand-to-mounth spread is the key to preventing gastrointestinal infection” and that routine universal treatment of water should be de-emphasized.

Summary:  Use a water treatment method that works for you. Treat water when in doubt. More importantly  listen to Mom and wash those hands!!! 😀

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13 years ago

Excellent article! One question, how does one “DON’T FORGET TO WASH YOUR MEAL”? 🙂

7 years ago

First off, just found your site and it’s fuelling my urge to get outside. I really appreciate your writing style, enlightening and humourous – with a lot less elitism! I’ve had an awful experience with a hand-pump filter (looking back it must have been clogged or busted), and a fantastic experience with a gravity filter on a 4 person canoe trip. I’ve generally boiled water or used iodine tabs, but neither are all that fast at getting water ready for drinking. Waiting for that boiled water to cool can seem an eternity, and the iodine tabs I had recommend a… Read more »

7 years ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

On such a solo hike, how much water do you typically carry?

The tablets I found were intended for some large volume like 8L* at a time, the thought never occurred to me that there could be concentrations for bottle volumes…whoops.

*Memory hazy, don’t quote me on that.