Water Treatment Basics for Your Next Backpacking Trip

Make a refreshing addition to your backpacking gear list with these Pro Tips on choosing a water treatment system.

Staying hydrated while hiking, camping and enjoying the outdoors is a necessity. Packing water can be tricky when embarking on long adventures or multi-day excursions. A great way to save pack space and quench your thirst is by using a water filter or purification method.

Water purification and filter systems can help you treat water collected from streams, springs or falls. Treating water from these sources can make it safer to drink. This helps keep you hydrated with minimal impact on your pack space.

There are a few water treatment methods you can use when out on the trail. Each has its own perks and best uses. Before you decide on the right approach, prepare yourself by looking up your area’s water systems. Make sure you have water available on your hike in the form of a stream, fall or spring. Also, you can use this time to check for any specific contaminants that might be present in your location.

DICK’S Sporting Goods Associate and outdoor enthusiast Corinna Siebsen details the purification methods you can use.

BOTTLE AND STRAW STYLE

Both bottle and straw-style filters are great for ease-of-use. Siebsen notes the convenience of these styles makes them a great option for all adventurers.

Bottle filters work by filling a reservoir, which in this case, is your bottle. With this system, your nozzle houses a filter or purification element. The suction created when taking a drink pushes the water through the element, giving you quick access to drinkable water.

Straw-style filters are great because you can use them directly at the source. You place the element end in the water and suck a clean drink through. These can also serve as viable emergency options due to their small, compact design.

Both bottle and straw-style methods can be great for solo hikers or in locations where water is easily available. However, these methods have a limited capacity. You can only carry as much water as your reservoir holds – or nothing at all if using a straw. Also, some field cleaning is needed when using these backpacking water filters. Cleaning is necessary to keep your gear working in tip-top shape.

SQUEEZE STYLE

This water treatment option has a lot of similarities to the bottle and straw styles. All are easy to use, very lightweight and provide clean drinking water quickly. Some squeeze styles can even double as straw filters for added convenience.

To use a squeeze-style filter, fill your reservoir with untreated water. Siebsen says the squeeze style takes slightly longer to achieve clean water. You need to physically squeeze the water through the filtration element. Dispense your fresh water into a bottle, flask or other reservoir.

As with bottle and straw-style treatments, squeeze-style systems need regular field cleaning to maintain proper effectiveness.

PUMP STYLE

This water treatment method can be great for groups needing large amounts of water. You control the pump mechanism, meaning you can treat as much or as little water as necessary. Elements are also replaceable to keep your water-gathering abilities fresh and clean. Be mindful, though, that pump filters and purifiers are larger than other methods. This means potentially more weight and required pack space.

Using a pump-style filter or purifier can be easy. First, place your intake hose into your water source. Then put your outlet hose into your reservoir or bottle and begin pumping. Flow rates and pumping actions can differ by model, so be sure to see which one is the right fit for you.

UV METHOD

The Ultraviolet or UV method is different from other water treatment solutions in that there are no filters or pumps. This method uses a pen-shaped tool that treats the water rather than filters it. The UV method purifies the water by killing pathogens through exposure to ultraviolet light. To use, gather water in your drinking reservoir, place the tool in the water, turn on the light and stir until the light goes out. The UV water treatment doesn’t require field cleaning, adding to the perks of this small, lightweight tool.

“The ultraviolet method is great for killing contaminants and viruses in the water,” Siebsen says. “Although, it is not a filter, and so it will not filter out any silt or dust that’s in the water.”

CHEMICAL DROPS AND TABLETS

Chemically treating water with drops and tablets might take longer than other options, but the beauty is in the simplicity. Drop a tab or droplet in your water and wait as the treatment does its job.

Chemical drops and water purification tablets can be effective in killing various protozoa, bacteria and viruses, according to Siebsen. Easy to pack and lightweight, this can be a great backup option for hikers and adventurers. One major downside to using chemicals, however, is the wait time. Some can take upwards of four hours to effectively rid your water of unwanted guests, depending on the targeted pathogen. Also, the chemicals contained in a droplet or tab can leave your water with an abnormal taste. Neutralizers are available to curb this, however.

BOILING

A final water treatment option for adventurers, campers and hikers is boiling your water. Boiling your water can be effective at removing pathogens and other contaminants. The boiling method can also be helpful when snow is your only water source available.

“Boiling is also a great option for when you have silty water,” Siebsen says. “The silt will settle on the bottom and you can scoop fresh water from the top.”

The drawbacks to boiling water are the extra gear and fuel required. This can weigh down your pack and be a burden. Also, it can take a while for the water to cool enough to be drinkable.

Clean drinking water is a must when adventuring outdoors. Use these Pro Tips to help you find the best water treatment method for your environment and needs.

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