WATER FILTRATION! TRAIL TESTIMONIALS FROM TINA CURRIN
Words and Photos from Tina Currin @tina
Like lots of people, my very first thru-hike was also my very first extended backpacking trip. Sure, I had gone on weekend trips and car camped like a boss, but I never went anywhere for long enough that I couldn’t haul in water. Water’s one of those things that’s somehow free and everywhere, but also so routinely pumped and packaged that it almost seems untouchable. Like, surely you can’t just scoop it up from the ground, right? What’s the point of all of those brands and bottles, then? Isn’t drinking from some random stream just asking for literal Liquid Death?
I started the Appalachian Trail equipped with two trusty Smartwater bottles and, strangely, a Steri-Pen. Here’s a picture of my very first water source. “Look, we’re DRINKING from a STREAM,” I said, like this hasn’t literally been happening for millions of years. From then on, I always carried two full bottles over dozens of miles and water crossings, never once stopping to consider what was literally at my feet.
After several weeks of this, one of those wise old hobbit-types who pretty much lives on the AT (they totally exist) asked me what was up with my life choices in the water department and I didn’t have a great answer for him.
If you haven’t yet heard, one liter of water weighs 2.2 pounds. The fastest and easiest way to drop weight on a trail like the AT is to carry only what you need. I suddenly became aware of not only the water that I consumed, but when, where, and how I consumed it, too. Maybe not enlightenment, but close.
Which, of course, led me down the rabbit hole of testing gear and counting ounces and trying to find the perfect blend of safety, reliability, lightness, and efficiency. After nearly 10,000 miles on my feet, here’s what I found.
The Ol’ Reliable: Sawyer Squeeze + CNOC Vetco — 3 to 6 ounces
This is the primary setup you’ll see on long trails, and it’s a classic for good reason. When I first started using a Squeeze, I tried to drink straight from the bottle (possible, barely) and to filter from one plastic bottle to another (still possible, still barely.)
The best version of this setup is with a blue coupler and a CNOC Vetco, which pulls double duty as a dirty water collection and storage bag, as well as the top of a very handy gravity setup. Filter from the Vetco into a plastic bottle and drink up. If you want similar functionality for less weight, swap the Vetco for a Platy 2L Bottle.
• Easy to use
• Relatively inexpensive ($39 for the Sawyer and other $25 for the CNOC)
• Makes gross water less gross
• Must be protected from freezing temperatures
• Time consuming
• Slightly bulky
• Flow rate slows over time
When The Water’s Clear and/or I’m Feeling Impatient: Steripen Ultra — 5 oz
This nifty little contraption uses UV light to rid water of bacteria, protozoa, and viruses, too — something the Sawyer can’t claim. In my experience, it’s much faster, easier to use, and generally makes filtration feel like less of a chore. It does require charging via micro-USB and, like any technology in the backcountry, is prone to random failure. I hiked the entire AT without mechanical issues, though I did once drop it on a rock and break the bulb (the company was quick to send me a replacement.) Because the UV doesn’t physically filter the water, it’s less reliable in cloudy sources and whatever floaty bits (“cowboy seasoning”) you pick up will remain in your drink. While this might be a great choice for trails with clear, flowing water, it’s less ideal for stagnant places like the AZT and this primo example.
• Even EASIER to use
• Lightweight and packable
• No backflushing
• Looks cool
• Battery requires charging (~50 L to one charge)
• Fragile if dropped
• Expensive ($129)
• Doesn’t actually filter the water, so you may have floaties
The Eternal Backup and Occasional First Choice: Chemical Water Treatments — 1 oz
For the lightest and least finicky option (besides not filtering at all), there are chemical water treatments like iodine, bleach, or tablets. I’m partial to Aqua Mira, which comes in both bottle and tablet form. Like the Steripen, the tablets don’t actually remove anything from the water, so they’re susceptible to the same downsides as the UV filter—namely, they’re less reliable in cloudy sources and won’t remove silt, sand, bugs, etc. What they gain in packability, they lose in efficiency. Depending on the clarity and temperature of the water, chemical treatments can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 hours to fully eliminate any nasties. So, the ounces you save from dropping a heavier filter may be negated by having to carry additional water between sources.
• Tiny and lightweight (especially tablets)
• No backflushing or failure concerns
• Easy peasy
• Inexpensive, kind of (~$15 per 30 gallons)
• Long wait time (30 mins to 4 hours)
• Continual expense
• Liquid chemical treatments aren’t necessarily lighter than filters
• Can make good water taste bad and bad water taste worse
Other things I’ve tried:
Katadyn BeFree: Man, what a flow rate. It’s so fast. For awhile. And then it’s not. The lifespan of 1,000 liters is pretty short compared to Sawyer’s lifetime warranty, and the BeFree doesn’t offer universal bottle compatibility. Some people love it, but for my money, I’d just go with the tried-and-true Sawyer.
Lifestraw Peak Squeeze: I made it halfway through the Arizona Trail with one of these before the flow rate became so slow that I could barely eek out a half-liter without my hands going numb from all the squeezing. I backflushed continuously. I had high hopes for this setup, but it didn’t work for me on a long trail. Might be good for trail running.
Good ol’ Boiling: I don’t carry a cook setup anymore, but if I did, it’s worth mentioning that boiling water is always an option if other purification methods fail or if the water is particularly gross or murky. It’s time consuming and fuel is heavy, so I wouldn’t rely exclusively on boiling for filtration purposes, but it’s there if you need it.
Katadyn Hiker Microfilter: I received this as a well-meaning gift when I first mentioned that I was getting into backpacking. It’s a pump filter, which is kind of fun and easy, but it weighs 11 ounces. You (probably) won’t see anyone backpacking with one of these.
Tina Haver Currin is writer, activist, and outdoors enthusiast currently based wherever the trails are. From 2016 - 2018, she lived in a Sprinter with her husband, two cats, and a dog, climbing as many mountains, running as many routes, and seeing as many National Parks as humanly possible. Whether climbing in the Rockies, bushwhacking through Arctic backcountry, hiking deep within the Grand Canyon — or thru hiking the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails— she discovered the variety of experiences one can have in our wild spaces and the joy of sharing what she has learned with others. Tina currently spends her time writing, hiking, eating, and planning her next trip.