Looking for the best backpacking water filter for your next adventure? We researched over 70 top treatment systems available in 2019 and purchased 18 for rigorous testing. We tested each product across the Western Hemisphere. We filtered from the super silty waters of the Colorado River to the pristine mountain streams of the High Sierra. We sipped up agua from murky, silty puddles in the deserts of Moab and Death Valley. We even carried these products hundreds of miles while fastpacking and backpacking adventuring through remote terrain. After guzzling gallons of water from questionable sources, we selected several award winners from a wide array of water treatment systems on the market today to determine the best from the rest.
The Best Backpacking Water Filters of 2019
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|Pros||Fast, easy, hands-free filtration, large volume, storage||Lightweight, great price, durable design, fast flow, high volume filtration||Highly versatile, lightweight, in-line use, on-the-go use||Inexpensive, fantastic performance, great durability, versatile functionality, good water flow, lightweight||Inexpensive, highly adaptable, lightweight, easy to use|
|Cons||A little expensive, can't gather from shallow sources, clogs with heavy sediment||Doesn't filter out viruses, no additional storage reservoir||Slow flow rate, easy to lose small pieces||Clogs easily with lots of sediment||Suction required, filter can come loose|
|Bottom Line||A fast and easy to use gravity filter perfect for dynamic duos, solo travelers, and groups.||The best value gravity filter on the market.||This highly versatile filtration system can be used with in-line systems and filters out viruses.||This all-around awesome filtration system is the perfect personal use solution for water treatment.||This adaptor kit turns your favorite water bottle into an awesome water filtration solution.|
|Rating Categories||Platypus GravityWorks||Katadyn Gravity Camp 6L||Aquamira Frontier Max||Sawyer Micro Squeeze||LifeStraw Universal|
|Water Quality (20%)|
|Durability & Maintenance (20%)|
|Treatment Time (15%)|
|Weight & Packability (15%)|
|Ease Of Set Up (15%)|
|Ease Of Filtration (15%)|
|Specs||Platypus...||Katadyn Gravity...||Aquamira Frontier...||Sawyer Micro Squeeze||LifeStraw Universal|
|Type of Filter||Gravity filter||Gravity filter||On-the-go & in-line filtration||On-the-go (straw & squeeze)||On-the-go (bottle lid adaptors)|
|Time to Treat One Liter (Timed Test)||52 seconds||64 seconds||2.5 minutes (gravity set-up)||immediate||immediate|
|Measured Weight (entire kit -- oz)||11.45 oz||11.65 oz||3.15 oz||3.8 oz||3.7 oz|
|Removes Protozoa? (Cryptosporidium, Giardia||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Removes Heavy Metals?||No||No||Yes||No||No|
|Removes Particulates (sediment, microplastics)?||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Filter Pore Size||0.2 microns||0.2 microns||Unknown||0.1 micron||0.2 microns|
|Advertised Flow Rate||1.75L/min||2 L/min||0.5 L/min||Varies||Varies|
|Dimensions||9.4 x 3 in||10 x 6 x 2.4 in||7.5 x 1.8 x 9.5 in||15.5 x 6 x 1 in||8.7 x 4.5 x 3 in|
|Filter Media or Active Ingredient||Hollow fiber||Pleated glassfiber||Unknown||Hollow Fiber||Hollow Fiber/ Carbon Filter|
|# of liters/galloons per lifetime||1,500 liters/396 gallons||1,500 liters/396 gallons||454 liters/120 gallons||378,541 liters/100,000 gallons||264 liters/1,000 gallons|
|Water Bottle Adapter||No||No||Yes||Yes||Yes|
Best Overall for Group Use
The Platypus GravityWorks is an awesome backpacking filter and maintains its podium for its fast and simple design. This gravity system features two super durable bags marked as "clean" and "dirty" to keep microbes out of your water. The transparent "clean" bag ensures that water is, in fact, clean, and can be hung to double as a solar shower or hand washing station. This ultra-versatile system is suited for all sizes of groups, from the solo hiker to a large basecamp.
Unfortunately, this system does not treat viruses and the bags can be hard to close in cold weather. Also, the hanging attachments look a little less durable than other options, with some online users reporting that they can rip out (though we didn't see any issues of the like). If you decide to travel internationally, you can swap out the filter for an in-line option that does treat viruses like the Aquamira Frontier Max or use chemical treatment in conjunction with it.
Read Review: Platypus GravityWorks
Best Overall for Personal Use
Sawyer Micro Squeeze
The Sawyer Micro Squeeze is the new rendition of the timeless Sawyer Squeeze except it's lighter and more compact. It's a super versatile personal filtrations systems that will not work for a large group. It filters as you drink through it and is compatible with the straw and squeeze bottle that it comes with. Of all the on-the-go filters, it has one of the best flow rates. It can be integrated as an in-line hydration system functioning with both gravity filters and hydration bladders.
Trying to store large quantities of water with this filter is not practical. Also, it comes with a lot of small parts, and several of our friends have lost the straw on the first day out. Since it clogs easily, it's vital to backflush it regularly.
Read Review: Sawyer Micro Squeeze
Best Bang for the Buck
Katadyn Gravity Camp 6L
We love the Katadyn GravityWorks for its super-easy-to-set-up design and fast flow rate. It treats vast quantities of water in minutes, making it an excellent option for a large group or solo us. The filling is easy as the water bag has a large opening and can easily be squished down. This system does need to be suspended from a high location and it'll do the rest while you do chores around camp. It's compatible with most hydration bladder systems and can double as a handwash station or shower. It's also an inexpensive system that rivals our Editors' Choice winner for performance.
Unlike other gravity filters in this review, it does not come with an additional storage bag for clean water. Because of the placement of the filter in the bag, it doesn't work well if there are no branches to hang it from. It clogged quickly when filtering water from the Colorado River after a heavy rainstorm.
Read Review: Katadyn Gravity Camp 6L
Top Pick for Hand Pumps
MSR Guardian Purifier
As the luxury model of all hand pumps, the MSR Guardian Purifier offers amazing performance and construction. This purifier doesn't just get rid of bacteria and protozoa but also viruses, making it useful to use all around the world. Pumping is super easy and fast. It is best for personal use or with a small group of up to four people. Its auto-backflush system keeps this filter from being clogged even in turbid water.
The biggest downfall of this purification system is its heavy weight and bulky design. If you're primarily backpacking in North America, we'd opt for a lighter and less expensive product. However, if international travel where viruses are problematic is your primary use, it's an okay option for shorter backpacking trips where weight isn't a big concern.
Read Review: MSR Guardian Purifier
Top Pick for Best Chemical Treatment
Aquamira Water Treatment Drops
If you've got time to spare the Aquamira Water Treatment Drops is a lightweight and inexpensive travel system that is used by many thru-hikers. Treatment is simple: activate the substances, then drop it into your water and wait. Of all the chemical treatment systems, it kills the most stuff, including finicky cryptosporidium cysts. When doubled with a filtration system, it can easily be used anywhere in the world.
Unfortunately, chemical treatment doesn't filter out particulates, so we'd recommend carrying a pre-filter or a handkerchief to do that work. While it's advertised that treatment time is just 15 minutes, which will kill most stuff, you have to wait much longer (four hours!) to get rid of hard-shelled cryptosporidium cysts, a common protozoan in North America. Also, this will leave a slight taste in the water.
Read Review: Aquamira Water Treatment Drops
Top Pick for Fast and Light Missions
Are you going out for a long day in the hills? The Katadyn BeFree is a personal soft hand bottle that fits a high flow filter with a short length inside. Scoop water on-the-go and drink straight from it. It'll filter as you drink, fueled by a soft squeeze and your sucking force. The soft bottle top is adaptable to other narrow bottle tops, making it reusable if it happens to spring a leak. Because the filter is short and the bottle is collapsible, you can roll it up to the size of your palm and stow.
The biggest issue with this product is the durability of the soft bottle. We have had this bottle spring leaks on us pretty consistently over the last five testing periods. So it's not durable. However, since it is adaptable to other bottles, it can be used over and over again. It also only holds 0.6 L of water and can't be used for large storage, so water sources need to be plentiful.
Read Review: Katadyn BeFree
Notable for International Travel
Grayl Ultralight Purifier
The Grayl Ultralight Water Purifier deserves a notable mention as it's a great option for international travel. Designed like a french press, it's a one bottle unit with the filtration cartridge at the bottom of the interior cylinder. Fill up the bottle, press it down to filter the water through, and voila! Water that is clear of all pathogens, heavy metals, and contaminants. This is a great option if you don't want to carry around a bulky filter and would like your water bottle to double as a treatment system that can also remove viruses.
Unfortunately, while we love this idea of this bottle, pushing it down for filtration is hard and hurts your hands. You have to put all your weight onto the unit to force air and water through the cartridge. It also will not work in muddy, murky water. If Grayl could increase the flow on this one, it'd be a much better product. But, it's almost there.
Read Review: Grayl Ultralight Water Purifier
Why You Should Trust Us
Jessica Haist and Amber King are both senior OutdoorGearLab Editors that love to explore in the backcountry. Both are from Toronto, Ontario and both work in outdoor education. As educators, they spend lots of time in the woods, backpacking along trails and exploring remote locations. Jessica lives in California and on her free time, you can find her playing at the local granite crags, sucking up rays of the sun, or riding trails on her mountain bike. Amber lives in Colorado and is an avid ultrarunner who likes to fast pack. She runs/hikes long distances with her camping gear and sleeps in places in between. Just last summer she fastpacked the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve in Iceland, carrying only 10 lbs of gear for four days while filtering water along the way.
In our testing, we've run and walked hundreds of remote trail miles, glugging gallons of water filtered and purified from some questionable sources. In our testing, we comparatively test each product through an unbiased lens. We compare the anatomy of each system, dissect the pros and cons, and evaluate whether or not a system is reliable enough to place our lives on it. Our recommendations come from experience in the field and home-based experiments that comparatively test the performance of each product.
Analysis and Test Results
A great backpacking water filter or treatment system will keep you healthy while embarking on missions that lead you far into remote areas. While you're just traveling abroad or going deep into the woods, this piece of gear is a must-have for any seasoned backpacker. It'll protect you from dangerous critters like Giardia and Crypotsporidium found in contaminated water sources in North America. Waterborne viruses are more problematic internationally and a good purification system will keep you protected from infection. In our testing, we look at six different metrics, that we think, are the most important to consider. This comparative review article outlines key recommendations and, will hopefully, lead you to the best system that will support your ambitions.
Price to performance ratios is a super important consideration. Our best buy winners highlight the best-valued products. The Katadyn Gravity Filter is a favorite choice for base camps or processing large quantities of water for the solo or group travelers. Other high-value considerations that didn't win awards include the Sawyer Mini, light and compact personal on-the-go system. Of the purification systems, the Aquamira Frontier Max offers the best value and can be used with any in-line system or on its own.
When considering this metric, we specifically look at what the treatment system can get rid of and the overall taste or odor of the water. We went to shallow puddles, smelly swamps, and pristine streams to see what each could do. Those that remove everything including heavy metals and pesticides triumphed in this category.
Water purifiers that remove all contaminants did best in this metric. Those that could also remove smells and heavy metals did even better. We are most impressed by the bottle based Ultralight Water Purifier by Grayl and the Aquamira Frontier Max. Both can remove all harmful microorganisms, viruses, heavy metals, and particulates. Both use activated carbon which removes tastes and odors. The MSR Guardian, our favorite hand pump purifier, can remove all the microorganisms, but can't take out heavy metals, tastes or odors. As a result, we'd recommend either the Ultralight or Frontier Max if you'll be pulling from smelly international waters.
UV light purifiers also effectively eliminate water pathogens. Imagine sitting on a beach in Mexico with a tequila-infused beverage with ice. Unsuspectingly, you get sick. Why? Ice is typically a huge source of sickness for travelers. The SteriPEN Ultra, a UV purifier can be put into the glass and swirled around to destroy pathogens that could cause an infection. Unfortunately, UV light purifiers won't remove particulates, smells, or metals and don't score as high as other purification models.
Water treatments like the Aquamira Chlorine Dioxide Water Treatment, our favorite chemical treatment, can kill most microorganisms but sadly adds a gross taste to the water. The Aquamira drops are fantastic because they kill all organisms (with enough time) while both the Potable Aqua and MSR Aquatabs can only destroy viruses, bacteria, and some protozoans. The active ingredients in these treatments, however, cannot get rid of Cryptosporidium as the drops do. Also, they have the best "chemical" taste of all three options.Water Filtration
Backpacking water filters (not purifiers) can remove bacteria, protozoans (giardia & cryptosporidium) but don't remove viruses. The best filtration systems can remove chemicals, heavy metals, and odors using activated carbon embedded in the core of the media.
Of the backpacking water filters out there the Katadyn Hiker Pro and Lifestraw Universal doesn't only offer protection from microorganisms but also removes chemicals like pesticides to improve the taste of the water. The LifeStraw Flex can remove lead which is a unique property.
Filters that utilize a hollow fiber filtration media, like the Platypus GravityWorks, our Editors' Choice winner, are plentiful in this review. If it doesn't have a carbon core, don't expect it to improve the taste of water or remove chemicals.
A Note on Water Turbidity
It's essential to plan for water sources that might be saturated entirely with silty sediment (called highly turbid). For example; the Colorado River that has carved out popular backpacking locations like the Grand Canyon is one of the most turbid rivers in the world. If you live close to it, you've seen it transform from a clear greenish color to what looks like chocolate milk shortly after rainfall.
Most backpacking water filters and purifications systems cannot deal with the amount of sediment and silt in water sources like this. Most fail because they clog with residue, except some like the Katadyn Gravity Filter. The only system that held up in these conditions is the MSR Purification System, another reason it's one of our favorites. It utilizes an auto backflush that cleans the filter with every pump.
Durability and Maintenance
Reliable backpacking water filters are durable in construction. You don't want to be without a filter simply because it gets dropped. You also don't want to spend hours maintaining it. New products are coming out all day that are high quality and reliable with minimal durability.
The most durable and reliable products are chemical treatment. Each comes in either jars or prepacked packets that can go into a plastic bag. They have no moving parts, don't require maintenance, and don't expire. If you want 100% reliability, this is it. Aquamira Treatment Drops is a favorite of ours.Gravity Filters
Of this group, the Katadyn system seems to be one of the best constructed. The bag, unlike the Platypus and MSR is far more resistant to punctures and has a lot less going on. The filter is easy to clean and doesn't clog easily. The other gravity filters have thinner filters that need a lot of backflushing to ensure consistent treatment rates. Also, the Katadyn Gravity Filter and MSR can be flipped entirely inside out to dry (avoiding microbial growth). The Platypus models can't do this.
These models are pretty durable in general until they get clogged. The MSR Guardian is a super durable backpacking water filter and we'd trust it to function anywhere we go. It auto cleans, even in turbid water, offering the best reliability in terms of hand pumps. The Hiker Pro is good, too, but some online users report it getting clogged and breaking when clogged and under pressure. As a result, if you're considering this filter, it needs to be backflushed on a regular basis.
We are super impressed with the Sawyer Micro and Mini, both lasting up to 10,000 gallons and well built in nature. The Mini needs less maintenance than the Micro, but it's recommended to keep the syringe around if they do clog in high sediment conditions. This is our favorite, and seemingly most durable on-the-go system.UV Light
One of the most unreliable systems simply because it needs a power source. The battery life is supposed to last 50 liters, but we've seen it short out much faster than that. The SteriPEN Ultra is a cool idea in nature, but ultimately not one we'd trust on long backpacking trips because it has a reputation for not working consistently.
In this metric, we consider how quickly you can get water from the source to a filtered state. To test this, we noted if water filtration is instantaneous. If not, we performed three-time trials and averaged them to determine an average time to filter one liter. The fastest times did best in this metric.
The most immediate backpacking water filter systems are the straw filters that you can drink through immediately from a water source. The Sawyer Mini and Micro, Aquamira Frontier Max, and Lifestraw Flex are a few of our favorites. Water flow is typically slower but very much based on the construction of the input, filter body, and straw or bite value. For example, the Sawyer Micro and Aquamira Frontier Max have comparable flow rates, not requiring as much effort as the Sawyer Mini or the laborious Lifestraw Personal Straw.
These backpacking water filters use a collapsible bottle or pouch, offering a little water storage. The Sawyer Micro and Mini both have this adaptability, but our favorite is the Katadyn BeFree for its fast flow bite valve that delivers water quickly. This makes it a favorite among trail runners because water collection takes no time and treatment is instantaneous.
Most backpacking water filter pumps are pretty quick to use unless they get clogged up. The Guardian is the fastest we've tested, adding it to its Top Pick status, filtering a liter in 37 seconds. The Katadyn Hiker Pro by comparison filters a liter in just 53 seconds. Most pump filtration systems can filter one liter in just under a minute.Gravity Filters
Comparable in the rate of flow, gravity filters are nice because you conveniently don't have to pump or do anything once they are set up. They can process large quantities of water, making them highly effective for small to large groups. All of the gravity filters are super close in treatment time. The Platypus Gravity System is the fastest, filtering one liter in 52 seconds. The Katadyn Gravity Camp filters one liter in 64 seconds. The MSR Base Camp is close behind at 69 seconds. Overall, gravity filters are rad. It's the best way for a backpacker to go because of their quick processing speed.
Weight and Packability
Weight and packability are important. If you're carrying less weight, long hikes can be more enjoyable. To assess this metric, we weigh each system and look at its relative profile. We tested them with hydration vest, backpacking backpacks, and regular packs. The lighter and easier to pack and store, the better the score.
Of all the treatments out there, chemical treatments are by far the lightest. If you're planning a long thru-hike or huge trail run, they're a great choice. Of the treatments, the MSR Aquatabs are the lightest but taste terrible. The Aquamira Treatment Drops is the best because it treats all microorganisms and is still lightweight.
The lightest filtration systems out there are on-the-go systems like the collapsable Katadyn BeFree (2.10 oz) and Lifestraw Personal Filter (1.75oz). The lightest purifying on-the-go filter system is the Aquamira Frontier Max (2.45 oz). Of the gravity filters, our Editors' Choice, the Platypus Gravityworks, is the lightest and most packable.
Ease of Setup
We measured ease of setup based on how intuitive each backpacking water filter system is and how many steps each one requires to set up. We also consider how easy it is to access different water sources.
For setup, on-the-go filtration systems like the Katadyn BeFree and Sawyer Mini & Micro earn the highest points. They can access most water sources and they are ready to go without any setup. You may just have a little trouble accessing water from steep banks.
Hand pumps are also relatively easy to set up and offer great access to all sorts of water sources. The Katadyn Hiker Pro, in particular, is a favorite because it's tiny intake can grab water from the smallest nooks and crannies. The MSR Guardian works well for this, but its particulate screen is larger, making it harder to reach shallow sources. All pump filters are good for reaching water over steep banks.
Gravity filters require more effort to set up because you need a place to elevate them. In some cases, you can put it on a rock on a slope and that'll do. In other scenarios, you need to hang it. They typically earn a lower score in this category. Reservoirs that are very flexible with large openings. like those found in the Katadyn Gravity Filter, can get water from most water sources. However, because you have to scoop up water, a trickle or deeper pool needs to be sufficient to collect water. Shallow pools are harder to reach.
Other purification systems like chemical treatment require little to no setup. Simply unscrew the top of your favorite treatment and put the drops (after activation) or tablets into your water. The SteriPEN Ultra is also simple: you push a button and the screen smiles at you when it is finished.
Ease of Filtration
In the ease of filtration metric, we look at the amount of effort required physically get water through the backpacking water filtration system. While we don't score storage capacity, we note how much water each system is designed to store or not store.
Gravity backpack water filters are by far the best systems when it comes to ease of filtration. As soon as it's set up, the process is completely hands off. All gravity filters in our review earn top points, all being easy to filter. These filtration systems can move lots of water quickly, making them a top choice for groups. One difference is the height requirement to filter. The Katadyn Gravity works needs a full suspension while both the MSR BaseCamp and Platypus Gravityworks can be laid on a hill or over a rock.
Some come with storage vessels like the MSR Basecamp and Platypus Gravityworks. Others are simpler like the Katadyn that have a simple hose running from the bag to a storage vessel. All prove to adapt nicely with a hydration bladder and can be filtered into a bottle if needed.Hand Pumps
Hand pumps are a little harder to use as you need to use muscle pump water through. The MSR Guardian has a large handle that makes pumping easier while the smaller design in the Katadyn Hiker Pro takes more effort to get used to, but it's cheaper. While these filters are fast, it can be a tiring process, especially if you have a big group. That's why these filters are ideal for solo use or small groups of up to four people.
You can store as much as you'd like to pump. All you have to do is bring a vessel with you. The Guardian has a screw on adaptor bottom that fits a Nalgene. The Hiker Pro has a bottle adaptor that fits onto most wide-mouthed lids.On-the-go Filtration
On-the-go backpacking water filtration systems are typically easy to set-up but are propelled by either sucking or squeezing forces. Of the on-the-go systems, the Katadyn BeFree, Sawyer Micro, and Aquamira Frontier Max are the easiest to suck through when in straw style. Others are harder, like the Sawyer Mini that gives you very little water for each suckle. We also love the Lifestraw Adaptor Kit that allows you to turn a personal water bottle into a filtration system.
These systems don't offer much when it comes to water storage. The Sawyer products both come with a storage pouch and are also compatible with regular sized plastic bottles (in case you lose the pouch and find some treasure trash on the trail).
The Katadyn has a few different sizes and compatible with other soft bottles. But for the most part, they are designed to be carried when water sources abound. Either that or you can fill up a "dirty bladder" and carry it around with you, drinking on the go.
There are a lot of different backpacking water filter options out there. Ultimately, you need to determine if you need a filter that is best for on-go applications, or if you're willing to take on a little more weight to carry around a hand pump or gravity filtration system. Just remember, before you go anywhere, be sure to research the water sources and what kinds of pathogens you may contact. It's also not a bad idea to carry a chemical treatment as a backup, especially on long thru-hiker. Cheers to clean water and many adventures deep into the backcountry.
— Amber King and Jessica Haist