WATER TREATMENT - A Backpacker?s Guide to Making Every Ounce Count: Tips and Tricks for Every Hike (2015)

A Backpacker?s Guide to Making Every Ounce Count: Tips and Tricks for Every Hike (2015)



The human body is made up of around 60 percent water. Water is essential to body functionality and ultimately our survival. This is why having clean, drinkable water is also crucial on the trail.

The lightest possible way to make water “safe to drink” is to boil it. Period. I say the lightest because you don’t need to take any filtration device with you. All you need to do is gather water in a metal container, boil it, and after a few minutes, all the little critters swimming around in there will be dead. It is now safe to drink.

It may be safe to drink, but not “drinkable,” in my opinion.

Dirty, brown, nasty water that has been boiled is now “safe to drink.” However, who wants to drink a glass of water that you scooped out of a pond?


Not me. Unless, of course, you are in a survival situation, in which case you may not even want to boil it and take the chance and drink it anyway. But when backpacking, we have the ability to filter the water or some other way to rid our water of all the water-borne pathogens so we don’t get sick when we drink from water sources. These little critters can be in any body of water out there, so be careful.

When backpacking, we usually are near some sort of stream that has clear water running along, but I still want to be on the side of caution instead of being reckless. I boiled water that came from a river or a stream, but this is to save my filter. If you only have a puddle or a pond and a dirty water source, you may as well filter it if you have a filter.

For me, “drinkable” water is colorless, tasteless, and odorless. I take a filter.


The lightest way is to boil it, but the next lightest option is to take the chemicals—either drops or pills.

If you want to go ultra-light, fine. This is a personal journey, so feel free to take the chemicals. However, you do have other options. Once you have been on a trip with a filter, you may find that the filtered water is more enjoyable to drink than chemically-treated water or even dirty water that has been filtered through a bandana and then boiled or treated.

Water treatment options are plentiful. However, you may see several basic types of filters on the market these days. The Steri-Pen is a device that uses ultraviolet light to kill the microbial critters. There are also pump, chemical, and gravity filters.


Here is my MSR filter, the Swetwater filter. This is a great pump filter that I have taken on many trips.


Katadyn also makes a great filter. I have not owned one, but I have been on a few trips where one of the members of my group had one and he loved it. Some filters are pump and some are gravity. All are great filters, and some weigh less than others, so research what options you have in your area, and select the one that you think will be best for your needs.

I opt for the Sawyer filter, which will filter the water down to 0.10 absolute microns. That is not only a filter to remove any solids but also enough to filter out the smallest of microbial critters that would cause issues on the trail. The result is some great-tasting water. Oh yeah, the filter and one plastic bag (included in the purchase) weighs in at three ounces.


What can be said for water treatment? Which is more important to you, safe-to-drink water, drinkable water, or clean, colorless, and tasteless filtered water?

I have talked with some thru-hikers up on the AT, and a few use the water treatment pills for their entire trip. The whole 2200-ish miles. Not me. I do not like the idea of drinking chemicals, if I can avoid it. This is why I go backpacking … to get away from all the chemicals in the air and water, not put more into my system.


Sure, in a survival situation, I can understand using the pills. I even have some of these pills on hand in my get home bag should I find myself in some sort of apocalypse while on the road. But I prefer to filter out my bugs, not kill them with drugs. DOH! Did that just rhyme? I totally did not mean to do that.

First, we need to understand what can cause the water to be bad for us to drink while out on the trail. In some of the standing bodies of water, you have to worry about the sediment that can accumulate throughout the water. Algae, tiny bugs, silt, and so forth. Depending on the individual environment, the sediment may not be bad to drink, but why chance it?

These items can be filtered out with your bandana. Wrap the bandana around the opening of your water bottle and submerge the bottle to gather the water. You still may find that the water is a color other than clear, but at least the water will not have any or very little sediment and larger particles.



Then you have the really bad stuff—the living critters. Cryptosporidium and Giardia are the microscopic, water-borne pathogens found in natural bodies of water. Yes, even the fast moving streams and rivers. And yes, even the rolling areas where the water is rolling over rocks in the middle of the rapids of a river. Cryptosporidium and Giardia do not care if the water is moving or still, so don’t be foolish and trust it.

You may get lucky or you may end up with a bad bellyache ruining your trip and endangering your health at the same time. I talked with a guy at REI who has thru-hiked the AT a couple of times. He told me that he was way high up in the mountains, away from civilization, and he took a drink from a stream coming off of the mountains. It was melted snow … and he got sick. He didn’t filter it. He said that now, he filters every drop of water he drinks, regardless of his altitude in the mountains. He had to find help quick, and he was out for a couple of weeks recovering. It can be pretty bad, so do you really want to chance it?

Cryptosporidium and Giardia

This is from Wikipedia.com:

“Cryptosporidium is a genus of apicomplexan protozoans that can cause gastrointestinal illness with diarrhea in humans. Cryptosporidium is the organism most commonly isolated in HIV-positive patients presenting with diarrhea. Treatment is symptomatic, with fluid rehydration, electrolyte correction and management of any pain. Cryptosporidium oocysts are 4-6 µm in diameter and exhibit partial acid-fast staining. They must be differentiated from other partially acid-fast organisms.”

From Medicinenet.com:

What are the symptoms of cryptosporidiosis?

✵ Stomach cramps or pain

✵ Dehydration

✵ Nausea

✵ Vomiting

✵ Fever

✵ Weight loss

“Giardia is a genus of anaerobic flagellated protozoan parasites of the phylum Sarcomastigophora that colonise and reproduce in the small intestines of several vertebrates, causing giardiasis. Their life cycle alternates between an actively swimming trophozoite and an infective, resistant cyst. Giardia were first described by the Dutch microscopist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in 1681.1 The genus is named after French zoologist Alfred Mathieu Giard.”2

What are the symptoms of giardiasis?

✵ Diarrhea

✵ Abdominal pain

✵ Cramping

✵ Bloating

✵ Nausea with or without vomiting

✵ Malaise, and fatigue

✵ Fever is unusual

“The severity of the symptoms may vary greatly from mild or no symptoms to severe symptoms. Stools may be foul smelling when the Giardia interferes with the absorption of fat from the intestine (malabsorption). The illness or the malabsorption may cause loss of weight.”

“Symptoms and signs of giardiasis do not begin for at least seven days following infection, but can occur as long as three or more weeks later. In most patients the illness is self-limiting and lasts 2-4 weeks. In many patients who are not treated, however, infection can last for several months to years with continuing symptoms. Children with chronic infection may fail to thrive. Some patients recover from their giardiasis, with or without treatment, but symptoms continue, perhaps because of a condition referred to as post-infectious irritable bowel syndrome. The cause of the continuing symptoms is not clear but may be due to bacterial overgrowth of the small intestine.”

These are unicellular parasites about three to five microns in diameter. Unfortunately, according to some of my research on this matter, Cryptosporidium is supposed to be resistant to chlorine disinfection. Other research says yes and some no to the question, “Can I treat my water with bleach?” Therefore, the theory of treating your liter of water with four drops of common household bleach might be a gamble—one that I am not willing to take.

This is why I like to take my Sawyer filter.

I have taken the Sawyer squeeze filter on many trips and love it. Like I said, the filter and one 2.5 liter water bag weighs three ounces. That is my water kit. Three ounces. And the Sawyer is good for a million gallons. That’s right. One million—if you take care of the filter.

The filter even comes with a large syringe to help you wash it after each trip, so take really good care of it.

Do the math on one million gallons.

Let’s say that you will use this filter in your day-to-day life and not while backpacking.

You drink five gallons of water a day.

Three hundred sixty-five days in a year, times 5 gallons a day is 1,825 gallons a year.

One million gallons divided by 1,825 is 547.945 years.

Wow. Imagine how long it will last if you only took it backpacking a few times a year. It will literally be the last filter you may ever buy. Don’t take chances on the water you drink, filter it.