Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Meet the LifeStraw (and other water treatment devices)

Do you know Warren Doyle?  If you don't, you should at least be impressed by his accomplishments. Doyle has hiked the Appalachian Trail a record 16 times (!!!) over the course of last several decades and has 34,000 lifetime miles under his belt. He holds a PhD and even offers classes for potential Appalachian Trail thru-hikers.  Reading up on Doyle, one of the most unique things he does to cut weight (aside from slack-packing much of the way now that he is in the twilight of his life) is that he does not bring any kind of water treatment with him. He simply drinks from water sources he finds along the trail.  Now granted, he exercises an abundance of common sense such trying to get water as close to the original direct source as possible, avoiding visually defunct sources, ensuring he is not downstream from agricultural runoff or animal feeding areas, etc.

Assuming the rest of us aren’t that trusting and treat our water to some degree, we each likely use a variation of chemical treatment, UV light treatment, or filter option.  Throughout the years I tried each of these to varying degrees and elect to bring one over the other depending on the situation and environmental conditions.  At some point I even used a homemade inline water filter with scrap parts from MSR and Sawyer, but found the whole system to be entirely too finicky and cumbersome.

My first treatment option was a PUR pump filter (380g).  From the start I hated it.  It was clunky, expensive, heavy and clogged.  In fact, it has sat in my closet unused for the last 8 years or so after crushing my hand in the pump mechanism following getting the handle wet where personal fatigue and a slip caused the pump to crush down on my fingers.

My second option was a AquaMira Frontier Pro (57g/$25) which screws nicely on top of a small mouth bottle and treats most everything I’d come in contact with.  I’ve found this filter to be quite wonderful for the size, cost and efficiency.  A close relative is the Frontier (18g/$10) which is designed as an emergency filter.  With its small size, it is a packable item that can make it into a travel kit if there is a concern for water issues and may be suitable for the weekend warrior not needing a voluminous water treatment option.

Over the last couple years, treating water with ultraviolet light has become popular.  I used the Steripen Adventurer (66g/$100) for several outings and found that I’d rather leave it at home.  It’s heavier than I’d like, expensive, uses batteries, susceptible to breaking, does poorly in water that is anything but nearly clear, doesn’t do well in treating water when the water vessel is larger than the size recommended for the unit, etc.  I have no problems taking it with me traveling, but for the most part, it sits on a shelf.

For the last several years I’ve primarily used the chemical treatment Katadyn Micropur ($8 for 20).  It is a small, lightweight, and inexpensive tablet.  I use this product with some kind of homemade pre-filter, like a nylon mesh bag and coffee filter, or a 1 micron biodiesel bag.  For me, this option has been wonderful and effective.

A product offering similar performance to the filters above called LifeStraw ( is better known in third world countries and persons planning for emergencies than to backpackers.  Of no surprise after reading the accompanying marketing literature, this product was originally created to help those affected by the Haitian earthquake and floods in Pakistan.  It is also frequently used by Faith-based organizations servicing impoverished countries on behalf of the United Nations and holds numerous awards to include those from CNN, TIME magazine, and others.

So why should you care about LifeStraw?  Well, it is as effective if not more than the filters mentioned above and costs a measly $19.  LifeStraw purifies a minimum of 1,000 liters of water over its lifetime (AquaMira Froniter can only handle 20 gallons) and removes up to 99.9999% of bacteria and 99.9% of protozoan cysts.  It is a good option for those with a tight budget and everyone with an emergency home or car kit.

LifeStraw is a tube capped on both ends with a filter on the inside and otherwise no moving parts.  After uncapping the ends, the user simply dips the bottom portion into the water source and sips from the other end.  I found the flow to be comparable to the Frontier Pro which is the easiest for me to use.  It comes with a helpful lanyard and the caps help avoid dirt and cross contamination. 

In a publication from Vestergaard Frandsen Group S.A., it was noted that he plastic pre-filter located at the bottom of the LifeStraw removes coarse particles larger than 1mm while all particles larger than .2mm were stopped (small enough to stop protozoan parasites and bacteria).  Most backpackers look for filters capable of stopping particles 3 microns and under for it to be effective.  Cleaning it by blowing through it seems to work as well as it does with other options.  A University of Arizona study further stated that LifeStraw performed “well” when challenged with “worst case” water quality as likely in third world countries, a claim that likely these other manufacturers can’t offer.  This study showed that LifeStraw removed 99.9999% of bacteria and 99.9% of Cryptosporidium cysts thereby complying with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requirements.  In the event that you’ve heard of the LifeStaw previously, worth noting is that it no longer uses carbon or iodine and has meets standards for water filtration of bacteria and protazoa. 

As I mentioned, this is a nice option.  You can purchase yours at Green Beetle Gear (

For a more expansive understanding of water nasties, check out my earlier post at some of which is posted below for reference:

1) PROTOZOAN CYSTS – These are hard shelled, single-cell parasites which include Giardia and Lamblia and range in size from 5 to 15 microns. This also includes Cryptosporidium Parvum which is 2 to 5 microns in size. Giardia occurs in the small intestine where cysts hatch and give you diarrhea, gas, nausea, and/or cramps and symptoms appear within 1 to 2 weeks and can last 4-6 weeks or longer. Those with weakened immune systems could be more heavily impacted. Cryptosporidium can give you similar symptoms and can also include loose stool, cramps, slight fever, and an upset stomach. These systems generally appear in 2 to 10 days and typically last 2 weeks. Animals and humans carry Protozoa.

2) BACTERIA – Bacteria are smaller organisms which can include E. Coli, Salmonella, Cholera, and Campylobacter Jejuni. They range from .2 to 10 microns and symptoms include diarrhea with appears within 6 hours or 3 to 5 days and last 4 days or longer. Animals and humans carry Bacteria.

3) VIRUSES – Viruses represent the tiniest of organisms ranging from .004 to .1 microns. They include Hepatitis A, Rotavirus, Norwalk Virus, and even Polio. Although these are the least commonly found pathogens in the wilderness water sources, they represent often the most harmful. If you were wondering, most waterborne viruses which affect humans in the backcountry come from human fecal matter.

4) CHEMICALS AND RUNOFF – As the name implies, another water-nasty includes agricultural runoff (herbicides, pesticides, etc.) and industrial runoff (metals, mine tailings, etc.).

(Disclosure: This product was provided to me free-of-charge for the purposes of this review and is owned by me.  However, any information contained herein is my personal opinion without bias.)


Brian said...

I saw you mentioned that the flow rate was comparable to the Frontier Pro, how did you test that? Was it via gravity filtering or just through use of the filter?

What do you think of the taste of creek or stream water after being filtered through the LifeStraw? I've found it to be quite unusual compared to both the Frontier Pro and the Frontier Straw. Curious to know what you think about that.

Have you experienced any slow down in the flow after use in more murky, silt filled water sources such as standing water in a small creek? I've put many gallons of untreated/natural water through one of mine with no issue, but a different LifeStraw had issues with clogging - did you experience that, or have you been cleaning the filter as you go?

What would you say is the dirtiest type of water you have used it on and what was the result? Sorry for all the questions, there wasn't a lot of real-life usage information or feedback in your post, I just would like to compare how your experience of using it in the field compares to my own.

Overal I'm very impressed with the LifeStraw. Bulky (not heavy) but does everything it claims to do. Thanks - ^BG

Jolly Green Giant said...

@ Brian -

All great questions. Honestly, I found it quite comparable to the Frontier Pro more than anything. I based my flow rate both off gravity and my own personal ingestion experience.

I tend to take very good care of my gear as I somewhat believe that is implied. To me, this means I didn't intentionally allow it to gunk up just to evaluate how it worked after the fact. I suppose that's a reasonable test, just not something I did as I don't picture a scenio with my gear where I'm using it in the worst possible conditions. As such, you can assume I cleaned it as best I could after each use.

The water I tested it on varied - tap water and stream/river water primarily. The stream/river water was clear at times, murky after a rain at times, and silty at others mainly because there wasn't much volume or there was a lot of run off from melting snow. The straw worked fine in all circumstances, although as expected, it was more challenging the more murky/silty the water.

I think it is a very good option for what it is intended - an emergency water filter or a filter for people in more desolate areas of the world. I don't want to imply that it is my first choice for my own personal filter for backpacking as I generally use chemical treatment and some kind of prefilter, the Super Delios or the Aqua Mira Frontier (or straw).

Brian said...

I don't intentionally put my gear through hell just to test it either, but sometimes I get more than one of something to test and don't mind doing so - just wasn't sure if that was the same for you and if you had gone further than you had originally mentioned.

I think it excels in the use case you mentioned. If you had nothing else but this straw, you'd be in good shape. I doubt it will ever be my primary filter, but I'll definitely keep one in my bail out bag!

Thanks for the speedy response :)

Anonymous said...

Any sense of the Delios filter device - ?
I know they've had supply issues from Japan, but it looks like a nice variation on some of these devices.

Jolly Green Giant said...

@ Anonymous - I love the Super Delios and it is excellent for backpacking. It is my second choice above simple chemical treatment. Following Japan's earthquake and related nuclear disaster, production of these has definitely been slow. I'd just like to see them in the U.S. The design was improving and otherwise they are a great product.

Don Meredith said...

I've had a lot of luck with the Frontier Pro as a simple and cheap filter system. My Hyperflow gets clogged quickly when I'm filtering water out of black water creeks common in the lowcountry of South Carolina. I noticed a significant slow down of flow with the Frontier Pro but it did manage an acceptable flow rate without any field service.

With that said, the Frontier Straw seems like an interesting alternative. Thanks for the post!

Don Meredith

Unknown said...

Very interesting. I'm going to have to study this a bit more. I almost always use the micropur and aqua mira tablets, but I've always wanted to try something that's faster acting (either steripen or a light filter). I'm going to have to look at this some more... either the Frontier Pro or the LifeStraw. For simplicity and reliability, what would you recommend?

Jolly Green Giant said...

@ Ryan Linn - This filter has its place principally as an emergency filter or one appropriate for the third world use where it thrives. Although it wouldn't be my first choice for backpacking, it is an excellent one for those going the economic route. I personally use chemical treatment, but I'm a huge fan of the Super Delios and the Frontier Pro. I have a SteriPen, but to me there are just too many cons for me to carry it (expensive, electronic, fragile, battery driven, doesn't physically filter, etc.).

Unknown said...

I guess I should try the Frontier Pro at some point. I also use the chemicals for sheer convenience, but sometimes I just wish I could drink right out of the stream without the 20 minute wait. Glad you posted about this... I'll have to check out my options some more this summer :)

Jolly Green Giant said...

@ Ryan Linn - You're a pretty well-traveled guy so I'm sure it won't surprise you that I'm saying this - but I think backpackers are often overly concerned about water quality as I know entirely too many people who drink straight from many sources without any treatment and are just fine. But nonetheless, I'm personally too chicken to roll the dice because I only have so much Immodium AD with me and not much willingness to be miserable. Oh well.

Unknown said...

Yes, there certainly is a lot of more worry about giardia than is necessary. I've seen enough people get it to know I don't want to take the chance, though :)

I'm thinking of taking a Frontier Pro as well as a dropper bottle of bleach (0.5 oz). Bleach for when I don't need water immediately, Frontier Pro for when I really want it right away. That seems like a decent compromise to me.

Philip Werner said...

Ryan - I did the same thing as you propose for a long time: Frontier pro + chlorine dioxide tabs, but using bleach would be cheaper. The CDC has good instructions on this for those who want to try it. I'm using the Sawyer Squeeze filter now and think it's a good solution too because you can drink from it like the FP, but it also us a fast gravity flow filter that makes it easy to fill a bottle without waiting.

Anonymous said...

life straw mentions filtering out at .2 microns and larger.
aqua mira frontier or straw 15 microns.

isn't that a big difference to consider?

Jolly Green Giant said...

@ Julie - You're exactly correct. Different filters protect you from different things, so naturally there is a risk/reward paradigm in the sense that you need to evaluate what you're likely to encounter versus how much you have to spend (assuming weight and bulk are the least of your worries).

Take a look at the link below for how small water nasties can get:

Course, I believe some overthink this too. I've never personally had an issue drinking tainted water and I've sipped from many mountain streams without a filter. My reality is that the higher in elevation I am, away from livestock and chemical runoff - the less likely the source will be contaminated. It would be an interesting experiment to see if there is any legitimate danger from sources commonly found on popular hiking trails or this somewhat newfound push to carry filters is merely marketing hype.

Good luck.