Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Lightweight Hydration Systems (Bottles and Filters)

Water. Now that’s an important topic in the backcountry. I guess depending on perspective; it may be the most important topic. Water, after all, hydrates your adventure. It aids in processing foods and ridding your body of waste so it can be more efficient. It also keeps you cooler (through sweat) and enhances your circulation to ensure you both feel good and that you stay warmer at night. Water keeps away headaches and muscle fatigue, and let’s face it, without water we’d all be dust in the wind.

To any backpacker, water is both terribly important and terribly irritating. Pound for pound, water likely weighs more than anything in your pack. Water is cumbersome and space filling and disappears relatively quickly. Although we could talk about the numerous methods to find clean water from natural sources so you don’t have to carry any, I figured I’d leave this impractical suggestion to the Survival Books and instead focus on what your run-of-the-mill lightweight backpacker should carry.

When I was a young backpacker going through Scouts, I carried a couple of canteens. They worked fine and ultimately I didn’t really have a problem with them. Nowadays, canteens have been replaced with bottles of all shapes and sizes, some made of plastic, some of rubber, and some of metal. I’ve even see a couple people with glass bottles which I found quite comical. Unfortunately, the problem with many of these options is that they are heavy and many still aren’t BPA-free.

Last I checked, most backpackers don’t enter into a war-zone when hiking. They rarely find themselves crawling on their bellies under barbed wire and are unlikely to need it to repel incoming shrapnel. Much like with many items in the backpacking community, it makes me wonder why so many people feel they need to have a water receptacle that is bulletproof when 99.9% of the time the overkill of packaging is nothing more than dead weight.

There are several very popular water receptacles I see in the backcountry. Nalgene bottles ( are likely one of the most common manufacturers of bottles. They offer bottles of plastic and metal, some of which are flexible. Platypus ( has offerings very similar to Nalgene. Camelbak ( offers sizeable rubbery water bladders which can be carried separately or within a back and have a hose that can be used by the hiker without much effort. Katadyn ( is one of a handful of manufacturers which offer a water bottle with a water filter built right in.

Because this is blog is dedicated to lightweight and ultralight backpacking, my focus is on reducing weight while maintaining utility. With that said, I’ve found the lightest water receptacle options to be the flexible bottles from Nalgene and Platypus. I’ve also had great success with off-the-shelf bottles from manufacturers such as Gatorade and Glacier, both of which are extremely durable, lightweight, and last a very long time. Many lightweight backpackers also find a standard 2-liter soda bottle to be a quite inexpensive and durable solution to carrying a decent amount of water. I personally do not like Camelbak or other bladder options principally because they are hard to clean, are a bit clumsy, they are tough to fill, and it is impossible to determine how much is left when they are packed in a bag. I also don’t prefer bottles with built-in filters because they are heavier than I’d like, they hold less water, and the filter is a continuing expense I don’t need. Hard-sized bottles such as those offered by Nalgene have merit, but they are just heavier than I’d like. With that said though, they may be a very good option depending on your environment and equipment. Personally, I’d also take a long look at how easy it is to get water into the bottles. For example, a small mouth bottle may be easier to drink from, but it also may be more difficult to get water from a low volume source. Small mouth bottles may also be difficult to use with certain filters. If you bushwhack extensively, you may need something a little heartier than a thin flexible bottle which runs the risk of being popped by a tree or an accidental drop. I recall an incident in my recent past which I was going through some heavy brush and needed to duck under a fallen tree. As I ducked, my flexible Nalgene popped out, hit a rock, and burst at the seam. Yes I was disappointed and it didn’t make my trip any better, but I learned to either bring a more durable bottle, or as I did, I did a better job of securing my lightweight bottle on my next trip. I also switched to the Platypus brand to give their seam strength a shot after the Nalgene failed from what I felt was not a very rough situation.

Water bottles have several uses other than toting water. Many people use the flexible bottles as a pillow while others put hot water in them to keep them warm while sleeping. Some people even use their water receptacles as a camera mount which requires the container to have a stable base and a top which works with the implement that fits the camera. Some manufacturers offer a little LED light which screws onto certain bottles and disburses light fairly well for reading and close-proximity activities. When choosing a bottle, my advice is to go with a standard soda or water bottle and I think you'll be surprised how well they work. You'll also be helping out the environment which is always a good choice.

Once you have picked a bottle that works for you, the next step is to get a filter. It is worth mentioning that there is no filter which will save you from every possible waterborne parasite and problem. Short of swallowing a gallon of bleach, you will always have some risk. Fortunately, risk can be mitigated by choosing clean water sources, having something to clean out the muck and kill off the main possible concerns.

Although there are a ton of filters on the market, I figured I’d mention a few. My personal favorite is the liquid drops offered by AquaMira ( They are faster than most and, at least to me, don’t make the water taste funny. AquaMira also offers a tablet version which is a little more irritating to use in my opinion because they take longer and they don't taste as clean. AquaMira also offers a filter tube which called the “Frontier Pro” which is essentially a straw with a filter and is much smaller and foolproof than pumps. Katadyn ( also offers a treatment in a tablet version, water bottles with a built-in filters, and even some unique gravity bags which empty tainted water from one bag to another filtering it along the way. Course, carrying two bags just to be able to use one doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense to me. Iodine tablets are still popular amongst backpackers and work well on bacteria and viruses, but don't work against protozoa. I also worry about the affect it will have on my personal health. One fairly new innovation is to treat the water with UV light such as the SteriPen Adventurer offered by Hydro-Photon ( Unfortunately, it only treats one liter of seemingly clean/clear water at a time, requires batteries, has electronics which could potentially fail, and has a bulb which could break or burn out. There are a ton of pump filters on the market, many of which are smaller and faster than others…but all represent the heaviest option and require constant expense and maintenance without providing greater protection than other options. Filters remove pathogents by trapping them in the filter and there is some concern about how frequently the filter needs to be cleaned. Lastly, boiling water is always a solid choice, but it is rarely convenient and would likely burn valuable stove fuel.

As I mentioned, my personal choice is the AquaMira drops. Although it requires me to mix two chemicals, I can repackage them into lighter containers and ultimately it is faster and lighter than other options. It also only requires 30 minutes of treatment versus 4 hours as required by other chemical treatments. If I'm overly concerned about the quality of the water, I have been known to bring the AquaMira Frontier Pro in addition to the AquaMira drops. As a lightweight prefilter to get out any particles, I use a very small and inexpensive nylon bag which I purchased at Walmart. The bag is commonly used for wedding knickknacks placed on tables and is one of my secret pieces of lightweight gear. My lightweight option accomplishes the same goal as all the others, it just happens to be lighter. (Please note: Persons who choose to repackage chemical water treatment should measure the “drops” of their new container to ensure the same dosage requirements as identified by the manufacturer are being met).
Backpackers should always treat their water as it is simply not worth the risk to roll the dice. Protozoa are 4-15 microns and are often removed by filters...but chemicals have a difficult time breaking them down. Bacteria is actually smaller than protozoa and are therefore harder to stop. Viruses are smaller than both protozoa and bacteria and can contain anything from hepatitis A and B to even polio. Fortunately, it is rare to find these things within waters within the United States. My goal is to look for clean and moving water free of foam, debris, discoloration, and silt (which often clings to bacteria). Obtaining it as close to the source as possible (upstream) ensures less things have the opportunity to taint it.

Short of finding dehydrated water (wink-wink), you can’t get away from lugging it around. You can, however, make smart choices to make your water-system lighter. I’ve also found that many people carry entirely too much water. On the Appalachian Trail where I put in a lot of time, water sources are fairly available (although the peak summer months do take away a few options). I’ve found 1-4 liters to be enough for me in most cases, although how much water to carry is a personal decision and should be based on medical concerns and environment.

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