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Water Treatment System

Before our first backpacking trip probably the most difficult decision we had was what water treatment system to use. I looked at many blogs, customer reviews, YouTube videos, message boards you name I looked. What I found is that there are no shortages of opinions and everyone likes their particular method, but it really comes down to your own personal preference. Here is how we got to our decision and ultimately what works for us.

Essentially there are 5 basic categories of water treatment options in the back country.
1. No treatment at all
2. Chemical
3. UV Light Filter
4. Pump Water Filter
5. Gravity Water Filter

Option 1 was easy to eliminate. We are nowhere near any water sources that I would trust without some kind of treatment. I don’t know how much is hype vs. reality but the thought of one of possible stomach bugs does not appeal to me in any way so I am willing to spend a few minutes treating my water.

Option 2 I really like how lightweight the chemical treatments are and if I was traveling in an area with clear water sources I would consider this option . However as I considered no filter options I thought of many of the water sources here in Indiana where we would likely hike. In the spring it is easy to find small streams with clear water but in late summer many of those dry up. At that point we would have to look at the muddy bottom rivers and lakes. With the amount of silt in each of them I thought I would much rather have a filter of some kind. Plus my wife had already made the statement that if she was going we needed a filter. The other issue I have with the chemical treatment is that if I am able to pull water from clean mountain sources I don’t want to add flavors to the water that i will have to cover up with something else, it kind of defeats the purpose to me. That is not to say that I won’t always carry at least a couple of the tablets in my pack for a backup treatment, but I’m not sure this will become my primary method.

The UV light in option 3 I still find interesting. We did actually purchase a Steripen Classic on clearance for a very good price but I have not actually used it yet. I does feel strange to place my faith in a small light in the water but this is a very proven system that is used commercially so I am confident that it will work. Having something that relies on batteries for your water source is a serious drawback but it seems that many people have had great success. I do really like these as well if I was hiking in an area with known clear water sources I think I would consider this over chemical treatments.

Options 4 and 5 are both similar except that one uses a manual pump and the other uses gravity. The pumps offer more options for the filter media. Ceramic filter, activated charcoal or hollow tube seem to be the most common options available. Ceramic filter seem to be easy to clean, activated charcoal will pull out any unwanted flavors, and hollow tubes are by far the fastest filter rate. Gravity filters really only seem to offer the hollow tubes. When I first started looking I thought it would just be my wife and myself hiking and I probably would have gone with a pump filter. However the more we talked about backpacking our kids really started to show an interest I started to consider how much water I would be pumping for 4 people when we would all go. I actually found a video on YouTube (Water Video) of a family that started to backpacked together and as he discussed how much he had to pump for the whole family I decided it would be a gravity filter. On a side note if you are considering backpacking as a family he has a few good videos that tell their story that actually helped us decide to go forward with family backpacking.

Ultimately we decided to go with the Sawyer 4L Gravity Filter System. It is a hollow fiber filter that essentially works by having many tiny straw like structures together that are large enough for water to flow through but not large enough for particles down to the size of bacteria to flow through. If you want the scientific details their website has plenty of information.

I don’t think it is the lightest option out there but it is very versatile with a good flow rate and durable. We ordered ours from REI but I know many retailers actually carry these filters so go with your retailer of choice. I chose it because of the high flow rate and no pumping was required. I also liked the versatility of the filter as it can be used as a hydration bladder, it has the valve on the clean bag that allows you to easily fill water bottles, plus without any other water bottles I can have 8 liters of water available. I could also just carry the dirty bag and filter to filter directly into camelback bladders or any bottle.

I was excited when it finally arrived from REI. Admittedly that is not much of a statement because I get excited with any gear order. My first impression was how big this actually was. At the point when we received the filter I was still used to getting packages and then shocked at how small something is. Both water bladders will hold 4 liters so they need to be good size, they measure about 10 inches wide by 21 inches long. The water bladders feel very sturdy and look like they will hold up to some serious use.

With everything I need to operate the filter (2 bags, hose, filter and 1 gallon ziplock bag) the filter comes in at 17.2 oz, dry. I know that i am never going to get all of the water out of the filter so I did a quick filter and drained as much water as possible and re-weighed the filter at 18.25 oz.

Setup and Use
Set up and use could not get easier.
1. fill the gray “Dirty” water bag and hang from a branch or set on a rock
2. Attach one end of the hose to the dirty bag and allow water to flow.
3. Attach the other end of the hose to the gray side of the filter. That is the only end with a female fitting so it is impossible to get it wrong.
4. Wait for water to flow from the filter and then attach it to the blue clean water bag. The blue bag just has to be below the gray bag for it to work.
5. Sit back and relax while the water flows from the dirty bag to the clean bag.

Tips
Filling the dirty water from a shallow source is difficult to impossible unless the current is moving swiftly. the first time I used the filter I cut a Gatorade bottle in half to pour water into the bag. The second trip we used it I cut down a light weight 20oz bottle to take with us but I think the best option will just be to keep the filter in a Ziploc bag and use the Ziploc to scoop water if necessary.

I have not tried it yet but for our next trip I am going to try a pre-filter for the dirty bag. I am going to try the pre-filter I saw on JERMM’s Blog that uses the toe of a pair of pantyhose. I think that should keep the debris from building up in the dirty bag

Field Use
The first time I used the filter on a backpacking trip was a serious test to the filters ability. We were on our first family backpacking trip. I found a small creek near our campsite but because if recent rains the water was pretty muddy. I set everything up just like I had practiced and the water coming out of the filter was clear as it could be. That really gave me the confidence that this filter was doing its job. I filtered several bags and filled all of our water bottles plus filled the dirty bag so we could filter at camp. I also took this filter on the recent trip with my wife to the Smoky Mountains. For just the two of us it was a little bit of overkill to have that much water capacity but it was nice that I only had to make one trip to a water source and we would have plenty of water.

Unfortunately I didn’t time how long it took to filter a full bag but the claim of 1 liter per minute from the manufacture seems pretty close. It was less than 5 minutes for each time I have used the filter.

Filling water bottles or pots with the spigot on the clean water bag was great. I would hang the bag from a tree at the campsite and could just pull down on the handle to accurately pour the water at any speed I wanted. I know this adds some weight, but this is a great feature.

On our trip in the smoky mountains I used the clean bag as a hydration bladder, mostly just to try it. I did not have any issues with leaking and it works as well as my camelback bladder. With the 4L capacity I can see where it might be easy to overfill it for what you actually need at one point but it is nice to know that if I needed the capacity its there.

Cons
Really there are very few cons to this filter setup and really they are nitpicking.

As I mentioned this is a little more than what I need if it’s just myself or even for 2 of us. I could use smaller bags as the quick connect hose is compatible with the camel-back, It could also be compatible with other brands I just don’t have any to confirm that for sure. I have really started looking into Sawyer Squeeze filter for these situations. I recently saw a review on ( Sticks Blog), and I think I am convinced to give it a try for solo hiking or day hikes, vs. buying smaller bags

Another potential draw back is the warning to not let the filter freeze. apparently with the hollow fibers freezing can damage the filter. If you are hiking anywhere that could have below freezing temps some care would have to be taken. For an extended winter trip I think I would need to look at a different water treatment option

This setup does not filter small enough to remove viruses. This is not uncommon for many filters. If i was hiking in area that I had a virus concern I would need to use the Steripen or a chemical treatment. Sawyer does make a version identical to my setup that will filter out viruses but the flow rate is about half the speed and the cost is almost double. If you are planning to do a majority of hiking in areas with a heavy virus concern it may be worth it.

Maintenance
It comes with an attachment that connects to a sink that will back flush the filter with tap water. I have done this after we get home from each trip, and it really shows just how much dirt is removed from the water.

If the flow rate slows down the filter can be backflushed in the field. Just attach the filter to a full clean water bag and squeeze the bag. the clean water will push the dirty water from the filter and clean it out. I actually backwash the filter after each use just to make sure I never have any issues.

After our last trip I cleaned out the inside of both bladders with a couple of Efferdent tabs just to give them a very through cleaning.

Other than backflushing the filter the only other future maintenance could be to replace the o-rings on each of the male fittings but that is something easy to do that could be picked up in the plumbing department of any hardware store. I don’t know how long they will last but I can’t see these o-ring wearing out for several years of hard use.

Overall I love this filter it works great and it works fast. The filtering is effortless, just hang the bags and you can do something else. After two trips these bags show zero signs of wear so I think they will last for a long time. Sawyer has a million gallon guarantee, obviously I am nowhere near that but at around 50 liters so far it shows no sign of slowing down.