The Best Backpacking Water Filter and Treatment Systems

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Using the Best Buy winning Sawyer Mini is as easy as scooping water into the collapsible bag, attaching the filter, and drinking. It takes minimal time or effort and is a very reliable treatment system.
Credit: McKenzie Long
What is the best water treatment system for backpackers and campers? To find out, we took 17 of the best systems and compared them in detailed head-to-head tests in this extensive review. The results shocked us: both the Best Buy winner and Editors' Choice are not traditional pump systems! Our conclusion: water treatment has come a long way in the last decade, and there is no one system that is best for every application. However, there are some very fantastic and versatile options out there. Read on to see what is best for your outdoor adventures.

Please also reference our How to Select a Backpacking Water Filter and Treatment System article for more explicit details on the effectiveness of various systems and the possible threats that could be waiting in your water.

Read the full review below >

Review by: ⋅ Review Editor, OutdoorGearLab

Top Ranked Backpacking Water Treatment Displaying 1 - 5 of 17 << Previous | View All | Next >>
Our Ranking #1 #2 #3 #4 #5
Product Name
Platypus GravityWorks
Platypus GravityWorks
Read the Review
Video video review
MSR AutoFlow Gravity Filter
MSR AutoFlow Gravity Filter
Read the Review
Sawyer Mini
Sawyer Mini
Read the Review
MSR SweetWater Microfilter
MSR SweetWater Microfilter
Read the Review
Video video review
Sawyer Squeeze
Sawyer Squeeze
Read the Review
Video video review
Editors' Awards  Editors' Choice Award    Best Buy Award  Top Pick Award   
Street Price Varies $110 - $120
Compare at 3 sellers
Varies $90 - $120
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Varies $19 - $25
Compare at 4 sellers
Varies $71 - $100
Compare at 8 sellers
Varies $40 - $55
Compare at 5 sellers
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100% recommend it (8/8)
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60% recommend it (3/5)
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89% recommend it (8/9)
Pros Fastest treatment time, easy to use, lightweight, requires little maintenance, can treat and store up to 8LCan treat and store 4L of water at a time, made from durable material, fast treatment time, lightweightSmall, lightweight, easy to drink from, can be used several ways, inexpensiveHandle is easy to pump, handle collapses to pack, smaller filter pore size than Katadyn Hiker Pro.Light, compact, comes with 3 collapsible bottles, innovative, fast and easy to use, no moving parts, long lasting, inexpensive
Cons No separate storage for clean and dirty hoses, expensive, hard to collect water from small or non-flowing sourcesDoes not come with a second bag, must filter to a bottle or separate reservoir, does not treat for virusesDoesn't treat large quantities wellVery average in weight, pump speed, price, and filter life.Awkward to drink from, hard to collect water from small un-flowing sources, not easy to use for multiple people or around camp
Best Uses Backpacking, group camping, backcountry trips with a basecamp, car campingbackpacking, hiking, treating water for a groupBackpacking and hikingHiking, backpacking, camping.Backpacking and hiking
Date Reviewed Aug 28, 2014Aug 28, 2014Aug 28, 2014Aug 12, 2014Aug 28, 2014
Weighted Scores Platypus GravityWorks MSR AutoFlow Gravity Filter Sawyer Mini MSR SweetWater Microfilter Sawyer Squeeze
Reliability - 25%
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High Volume Output - 20%
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Speed - 15%
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Ease Of Use - 10%
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Durability - 5%
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Taste - 5%
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Product Specs Platypus GravityWorks MSR AutoFlow Gravity Filter Sawyer Mini MSR SweetWater Microfilter Sawyer Squeeze
Weight (including bag and all things that would be carried) 11.99 oz 14.6 oz 1.4 for filter alone, 1.8 for filter and bottle 13.65 oz 2.7 oz for filter alone
Dimensions 3 in x 9.5 in 4 in x 6 in 5.5 in long 4 in diameter 2 in wide x7.5in long 5.1 oz for filter and 3 bags (Filter) 2 x 5 / (squeeze bags) 16 fl. oz.: 9 x 5 / 32 fl. oz.: 11 x 6 / 64 fl. oz.: 12 x 8 inches
Filter Media Hollow Fiber Hollow fiber Hollow Fiber Silica Depth Hollow Fiber
Filter Pore Size 0.2 microns 0.2 microns 0.1 microns 0.2 microns 0.1 microns
Flow 1.75 liters per min 1.75 liters per min Varies 1 liter per min (75 strokes per liter) 1.7 liters per min
Time to Treat a Liter (Timed Test) 1:00 for 1 liter, 1:50 for 2L system, 3:05 for 4L system (timed) 1:00 for 1 liter Drink through straw, fairly instant 1:36 min Instant, can fill extra, or takes 1:40 min to squeeze through a whole liter
Cartridge Life 1501 liters 1500 liters 100,000 gallons 750 liters 1 million gallons
Effective Against Protozoa, Bacteria, Cryptosporidium Protozoa, Bacteria, Cryptosporidium Protozoa, Bacteria, Cryptosporidium Protozoa, Bacteria, Cryptosporidium, Chemicals and Toxins Protozoa, Bacteria, Cryptosporidium
Filters Particulate? Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Water Bottle Adapter Yes, with 2L version Yes Can attach to a small-mouth bottle Yes Yes

OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review


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Sawyer Mini
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MSR AutoFlow Gravity Filter
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First Need XL
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Sawyer Squeeze
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MSR Miniworks EX
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LifeStraw
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Katadyn Hiker Pro
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Katadyn Micropur Purification
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MSR Hyperflow Microfilter
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SteriPEN Adventurer Opti
$89.95
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CamelBak All Clear
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Katadyn Pocket
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Potable Aqua Iodine Tablets
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SteriPEN Journey LCD
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Water Treatment in the Backcountry
The human body is about 60-70% water by weight. The amount of water a person needs per day varies depending on the temperature, humidity, altitude, and the amount of physical activity the person is engaged in. At rest, the Mayo Clinic estimates men need about 3 liters of water a day, and women need 2.2 liters. But if you are exercising in the mountains, that may increase by 50%, to over 4 liters for men, and more than 3 liters for women. At a weight of 2.2 lbs per liter, most of us don't want to carry enough water for a four-day backcountry trip in our packs (over 35 lbs for men, 26 lbs for women).

Fortunately, we can usually find the water we need in the backcountry from streams, lakes, snow run-off, or spring seeps. The problem is that backcountry water may not be safe to drink without treatment. Giardia, one of the more well known risks to backcountry water sources, is a protozoan parasite readily transmitted via the feces of deer, cattle, beavers, and other mammals. But, other contaminants, such as bacteria, cysts, and a particularly nasty protozoan called Cryptosporidium, are also risks in North American backcountry areas. And, internationally, virus contamination is not uncommon. The answer is to carry a water treatment device that can remove these contaminants, and simply cleanse water as you need it. Carrying a water treatment system is much lighter than bringing all the water you need. And with it, you need only carry enough water to get you from one source to the next.

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Dan Sandberg uses the Katadyn Hiker Pro to filter water from a running stream, Rocky Mountains, Colorado.
Credit: Max Neale

Types of Water Treatment Systems
In this review, we examined 17 different water treatment systems to find the very best. Four different types of systems were represented:

Pump filters — These are very common, and what people usually think of first when they think of water treatment. These devices cleanse water by pumping it through a filter that has a pore size that is too small for bacteria and protozoa to move through it. Example: Katadyn Hiker Pro.

Gravity filters — These products cleanse water by using gravity to push it through a filter, eliminating time-consuming pumping. Example: MSR AutoFlow Gravity Filter

Filter Straws — These models treat water as you drink directly through a big straw, which doubles as a hollow fiber filter. Example: LifeStraw.

Chemical drops and tablets — Drops and tablets purify water by adding a chemical to it in order to kill all things living in the water. They have the advantage of killing viruses in addition to bacteria and protozoa. Example: Aquamira Water Treatment Drops

UV light — These mechanical devices purify water by zapping it with ultraviolet light. This also has the advantage of killing viruses. These products require batteries and/or chargers to work. Example: SteriPEN Adventurer Opti


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A comparison of water treatment systems unpacked.
Credit: McKenzie Long

Please refer to our buying advice article, How to Select a Backpacking Water Filter and Treatment System, for more detailed background information on the need to treat backcountry water, contamination sources, and the advantages and disadvantages of different types of treatment methods.

Criteria for Evaluation
When evaluating various treatment systems, the most important factors we considered were reliability and effectiveness, because if your system doesn't work, then there is no use in carrying it. Also, different systems treat for different hazards, and it is helpful to know what your system will be treating for. The second most important factor was weight, because when traveling in the backcountry, it is desirable to have a compact and lightweight system and not to have a heavy and clunky filter weighing you down, or you are likely not to even bring it with you. Next, we compared how long it takes the system to work before you can drink, and this was where we noticed a large difference between methods. We also evaluated how well each system can treat large quantities of water, so groups or hikers needing a lot of water at base camp can select an appropriate treatment method. Read on for more details and comparisons as well as a few other considerations.

Reliability/Effectiveness
Reliability and effectiveness are related, but slightly different. Effectiveness measures what the treatment system actually eliminates. Reliability is a measurement of how heavily you can rely on the system you are carrying, and if you are likely to need a backup system.

Simple pump systems like the Katadyn Hiker Pro and the MSR Sweetwater are easy to rely on. More complicated systems like the UV light purifiers are slightly less reliable because of factors such as batteries or bulbs dying. We found our most reliable systems to be ones where not many things can break or go wrong, so they are easy to depend on: the Platypus Gravityworks, Aquamira Water Treatment Drops, Sawyer Squeeze, and Katadyn Micropur Purification tablets all fill this requirement. The least reliable were the SteriPEN models due to reports of malfunctioning, and the somewhat short battery life, which makes us hesitant to bring them on multi-day trips.

Different water treatment methods are effective on different types of organisms. The main difference in effectiveness in the systems we reviewed is whether or not a system eliminates viruses or the hard-shelled (meaning hard to kill) protozoa Cryptosporidum.

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SteriPEN Journey with the UV light visible and the countdown on the LCD screen. The UV light is effective against viruses as well as bacteria, cysts, and protozoa.
Credit: McKenzie Long

Systems That Treat Viruses
If you plan to travel internationally where water sources have a much higher likelihood of virus contamination, a system that treats viruses is strongly recommended. Here is a quick look at six systems that do treat viruses:
  • Chlorine Dioxide (tablets or drops) like Aquamira and Katadyn Micropur

All the other filters remove bacteria, cysts, and protozoa like Cryptosporidium (which some of the chemical treatments do not eliminate); they also remove particulate (which many of the above treatments do not remove). Usually, protection against bacteria, protozoa, and cysts is all you need for hiking in the mountains of US and Canada. Virus protection is generally considered a need for international travel.

Ease of Use
We measured ease of use based on how intuitive each system is and how many steps each one requires to set-up and treat water. We also considered the frequency of maintenance and the complication of the back-flushing process.

The chemical systems require no maintenance whatsoever, and typically involve adding to water and waiting. It doesn't get much more simple than that.

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The Aqua Vessel is one of the easiest filter systems to use: you simply fill it up and drink right out of the bottle.
Credit: Luke Lydiard
The Aqua Vessel Insulated Filtration Bottle is one of the easiest filter systems: fill up your bottle and drink. Similar to this one are the straw-filters like the LifeStraw and Sawyer Mini, which allow you to drink directly from a stream or creek, or to collect water into a bottle and drink it through the filter later. The runner-up for ease of use is the Platypus GravityWorks. The process of filling up the dirty bag, attaching the hoses, and waiting for it to filter is very painless. It has a three second back-flush process that involves inverting the clean bag over the dirty bag for a moment and no complicated disassembly. Likewise, the MSR AutoFlow is an incredibly easy to use gravity filter.

The Miniworks, the Pocket, and the Hyperflow lost points for having complicated maintenance routines. The MSR Hyperflow, though easy to pump water, has a rather complicated back-flush process that involves reversing small valves. Moreover, MSR instructs that users should back-flush every 8 liters, which is quite (ridiculously) often. Both the Miniworks and the Pocket are fairly intuitive - simply open up and scrape clean the ceramic filter - but this process, which also needs to be done fairly often, can be a pain.

The SteriPEN is very simple to use: you push a button and the screen smiles at you when it is finished. The main concern with this purifier is that the batteries need to be monitored and replaced frequently.

The fastest (and most awkward) way to use the Life Straw is to drink d...
The fastest (and most awkward) way to use the Life Straw is to drink directly from a stream or other water source.
Credit: Luke Lydiard

Treatment Capacity
Depending on how frequently you travel into the backcountry or how many people you need to treat water for, you will likely want to consider how much water can be treated by your chosen system. Once again, different methods have different limitations.

Pump filters allow for a seemingly endless amount of water. You can pump as much or as little as you need. All filter units need to be replaced eventually, but for the short-term, these allow for clean water for a single person or a group for multiple days on end.

Chemical treatments are not as cost effective for long-term or large capacity use, but are light and easy for personal use. You can spend $15 on drops or tablets, and that leaves you with a limited number of liters to be treated. Then when the chemical runs out, you need to buy more.

UV purifiers can only treat one liter at a time. This works just fine for immediate drinking needs for one person, but for large groups of people or treating water at a camp, the process becomes slow and annoying.

Straw filters have a similar limitation. They can be an excellent choice for personal use, but since they only filter water as you drink through it, they do not work for groups or camps.

Gravity filters excel at treating water for groups of people. They usually include 2L or 4L bags, and can quickly treat this amount of water at once. It takes under five minutes for the Platypus GravityWorks to treat an entire four liters! These filters are ideal for groups and trips that involve a basecamp, since they also provide a way to store water and have it at the ready for cooking.

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The three bags for the three gravity filters we tested. (L to R) The 4L MSR AutoFlow, 2L Platypus GravityWorks, 4L GravityWorks. Each one seems durable and fairly easy to use.
Credit: Luke Lydiard

Time Before Drinking
Imagine this common scenario: You are backpacking and come to a stream crossing where you can refill water. Your next water source will not be for another six miles, so you need to maximize this source. Ideally you will drink a good amount of water now, and fill up all of your bottles and/or bladder reservoirs now to carry with you to drink until the next source. This is when the time it takes to treat water really matters. The Katadyn Micropur chlorine dioxide tablets take four hours to effectively purify water, and there is no realistic way you will waste your day waiting for the tablets to activate. Even Aquamira drops, our lightest system, takes an hour to fully treat for everything. Both of these chlorine dioxide systems kill most pathogens in the first 15 minutes, but that still requires a wait time that cuts into precious hiking hours.

The most immediate systems are the straw filters, the Aqua Vessel, and the Sawyer Squeeze, where you can drink directly through the filter. However, the water flow through some of these filters is slow.

Most pumps can filter a liter in a little over a minute, which is preferable, and they can treat unlimited amounts of water, unlike the systems that are limited by a specific bottle or container.

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Water flowing from the dirty bag of the Platypus GravityWorks with Clyde Minaret in the background. It takes 4 min 50 seconds for this system to filter an entire gallon, which is faster than all of the pump systems, and even the SteriPen for this volume.
Credit: McKenzie Long

The fastest systems actually surprised us: the Platypus GravityWorks and the MSR AutoFlow. At first we thought a gravity system would require the most waiting around, but in fact, it worked the quickest, taking one minute to filter one liter and 3:05 for an entire gallon through the GravityWorks. And better yet, you don't have to actually sit there and pump it, so you can fill it up and let it start working while you take a snack break or set up camp. Even though chemical treatments are simple, the pump and gravity filters are actually the best for a hiker on the go.

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As you can see from the bubbles, the AutoFlow works FAST!
Credit: McKenzie Long

Weight
Weight is a huge concern since you will most likely be lugging your water treatment system with you on long hikes. Hiking is more enjoyable with less weight on your back, so wisely selecting a treatment system that does not weigh more than your sleeping bag is a huge plus. Rather than go by the manufacturer's specs, we weighed each system individually, including all the accessories and carrying cases that would be brought with them into the backcountry, to give you the most accurate idea of how much the system actually adds to your pack.

The lightest systems are usually chemical treatments, which are compact and almost unnoticeable in your pack. Aquamira Water Treatment Drops weigh 3 oz with their carrying caps. If you only want to bring a couple individually wrapped chlorine dioxide tablets, the Katadyn Micropur tablets only weigh 0.02 oz each, and the iodine plus taste neutralizers weigh 2.27 oz for both bottles. The Sawyer Mini is also one of the lightest systems, rivaling the chemical treatments with a 1.4 oz weight for just the filter, proving even lighter than two full bottles of Aquamira. Next comes the LifeStraw at at 2.7 oz and the Platypus GravityWorks at 11.9 oz. The heaviest and bulkiest systems were by far the First Need XL at 22 ounces and the Katadyn Pocket at almost 24 ounces.
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Comparison of water treatment sizes while packed.
Credit: McKenzie Long

Durability/Uses Before Maintenance
The MSR Miniworks, Katadyn Pocket, Sawyer Mini last quite a while before needing a replacement filter - they treat 2,000 liters; 13,000; and 100,000 liters respectively. The Sawyer Squeeze, according to its specs, can last for a million gallons, which is a lifetime of water treatment. Both gravity filters last for 1,500 liters. All of these are long-lasting, reliable options.
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The long lasting ceramic filter of the MSR Miniworks EX can take many cleanings before needing to be replaced.
Credit: Max Neale

The filter with the shortest life is the Aqua Vessel, which treats approximately 370 liters, followed by the First Need XL, which treats around 560 liters.

The only system that had reported issues of durability was the SteriPEN, which one pair of hikers said was ruined after getting rained on, and other users reported random malfunctions and glitches with the light unit.

Taste
Though taste is not a huge factor to consider when purchasing a water treatment system, there is a noticeable difference between certain treatment methods. The chemical treatments all change the flavor of water slightly. Iodine is famously horrible, but the taste-neutralizing tablets do a fairly good job of counteracting it. Chlorine dioxide does not add an entirely unpleasant flavor to water, but it has a small background, pool-like taste to it.

Many filters actually improve the taste of water by cleaning out chemicals and heavy metals. The SteriPEN is the one system that doesn't change the flavor at all, positively or negatively.

Editors' Choice Winner: Platypus GravityWorks
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Luke Lydiard using the Platypus GravityWorks to rehydrate after coming down from Clyde Minaret in the Ritter Range. The whole system works surprisingly fast, so is useful even for hikers on the go.
Credit: McKenzie Long
As we performed our tests on the multiple filters contained in this review, we were surprised by the results. Unexpectedly, the pump-free Platypus GravityWorks pulled into the lead, earning the status of Editors' Choice by being the fastest filtering system, fairly lightweight, and very simple to use. It also requires little-to-no maintenance with a filter effective for 396 gallons (1,500 liters) and no moving parts that could break. It is one of the most versatile systems because it gives you the option of treating small or large amounts of water quickly, allows you store and carry water in the clean and dirty bags, and it can be used for a camp of multiple people or for just a single hiker. It does not treat for viruses, but we find this filter to be extremely useful and effective for hiking in the backcountry in North America. We also like to have a reliable system that does not involve ingesting chemicals.

This filter was closely followed in scoring by the MSR AutoFlow Gravity Filter, which is a very similar system.

Top Pick Award for Ultralight: Aquamira Drops
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Aquamira Water Treatment Drops and mixing caps lined up with the premixed parts A and B, waiting the required five minutes before adding to water.
Credit: Veronica Long
If you are on a seriously small budget, and the initial price of a filtration system is setting you back, the cheapest method would be a chlorine dioxide treatment such as the Aquamira Water Treatment Drops. Fifteen dollars gets you two single ounce bottles of drops and treats 30 gallons. This is such an effective system, and so lightweight, it earns our Top Pick for Ultralight oriented users. This system is small, extremely light, and can treat a large or small amount of water. It eliminates viruses and also has the added benefit of killing Cryptosporidium if you wait for an hour, which iodine, the other leading chemical treatment, does not. Aquamira is the top choice among ultralight backpackers and long distance hikers.

Top Pick Award for Best Pump Filter: MSR Sweetwater
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Using the MSR Sweetwater to refill at Iceberg Lake in the Mt. Whitney region.
Credit: McKenzie Long
We decided to give a second Top Pick Award to our top performing pump filter, since filters can treat unlimited quantities of water as well as extract water from small and hard-to-reach sources when a gravity filter would be hard to fill. Even when using Aquamira, if the source is small and silty, getting the water into your bottle may be a challenge. The MSR Sweetwater Microfilter pulled ahead of other pumps in areas such as ease of use, weight, and simple maintenance. Overall, we felt that the Sweetwater was a high performing pump filter for the price, and because it is fairly light, it is still likely that hikers would carry it into the backcountry with them. If you look at our figures below, it averages out to almost the same cost per liter treated as the economical Aquamira drops.

Best Buy Award: Sawyer Mini
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Drinking through the Sawyer Mini with it attached to the included 16 oz bag. If you brought the included straw you can also drink directly from the source, like you can with the Life Straw.
Credit: McKenzie Long
The Sawyer Mini only costs $25, lasts for 100,000 gallons, and it's one of the lightest and smallest treatment methods contained in this review. At 1.4 ounces for just the filter, or a total of 2.4 ounces if you also carry the straw attachment and a 16 oz soft bottle, this filter makes an almost inconsequential addition to your pack. Versatile enough to be used several different ways, we like the Mini over the LifeStraw, which can only be used as a straw. The Mini can be used as a straw to drink directly from a source, it can be screwed onto a small-mouthed bottle to drink from, or it can be attached inline to a hydration bladder hose. This gives a user several options, which we like. At this price and weight, we see no reason not to protect yourself from possible water contaminants while in the backcountry.

The primary downside to this budget-friendly filter is that is does not treat large quantities of water well. If you need to treat water for more than one person, check out our Editors' Choice winner or the other gravity filter, the MSR AutoFlow.

For comparison's sake, we did the math for you for the most cost effective methods:
  • The Sawyer Mini, treating a claimed 100,000 gallons, ends up costing a measly 0.00025 cents per liter.
  • The Sawyer Squeeze, treating an estimated million gallons, costs far less per liter than any other option, a mere 0.002 cents per liter.
  • The Katadyn Pocket, though by far the most expensive at the outset costing $370, treats 13,000 gallons, which averages to 0.7 cents per liter.
  • The Miniworks treats 2,000 liters, so it only costs about 4 cents per liter pumped.
  • The Platypus GravityWorks, which has a filter life of 1,500 liters, averages out to a cost of 8 cents per liter.
  • The Sweetwater, treating 750 liters, costs around 12 cents per liter pumped.
  • The Aquamira Water Treatment Drops, which treat 30 gallons per package, end up costing around 13 cents per liter.
  • Katadyn Micropur Purification tablets, though cheapest at the outset, costs about 43 cents per liter to purify.

Dream Backpacking Gear List
Check out Dream Backpacking Gear List to see our ideal backpacking gear items.

McKenzie Long
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