How to Filter Water When Backpacking

You need to be able to get clean water when you are backpacking. There are many ways to do it. What is best?I have always liked hiking and backpacking. Several years ago my father and I started hiking the Appalachian Trail. We weren’t of the very ambitious kind that set out to through-hike the whole trail in one trip, although taking off for five or six months does sound appealing every now and then.

We only hiked for a week at a time. The logistics are easier when hiking for only a week. We didn’t have to figure out how to get showers, do laundry, and resupply food and gear. Through-hikers have to do all of that because you can’t carry six months of supplies on your back.

One thing that is the same for both is how to filter water when backpacking. If you are going to be gone for more than a day then you are going to have to find water along the trail.

Getting Water on the Trail

When hiking for more than a day you are going to need more water than you can carry, which means that you are going to have to find some along the trail. Fortunately, water is plentiful in most places along the Appalachian Trail. The trick is to make sure that it is clean enough to drink.

It is generally understood among hikers that the best place to get your water is from a spring as close to where it comes out of the ground as possible. In a lot of places, people have driven pipes into the ground to get a more consistent flow and get it off the ground so that you can easily fill a bottle. It’s convenient but the pipes in some places are rusting.

Three Choices for Filtering Water on the Trail

Some people take the easiest, but least effective, way and choose not to filter the water at all. They just dip their bottle in the spring and hope for the best. There is no added expense and doesn’t take any additional time. Chances are they will be OK. If the water is contaminated they may get sick an be uncomfortable for awhile and probably choose a different option in the future.

Other people chemically treat their water with iodine or some other chemical that will kill most of the living contaminants that may be present. From my research, chemicals are generally considered effective and usually reduce the risk equal to or better than drinking tap water at home.

Chemical water treatments are pretty quick because it only takes a minute to put the tablets in your water and go. You will have to give the chemicals time to treat the water, but you can be putting some distance behind you while it works. The chemicals usually aren’t very expensive and don’t add much weight to your pack.

Chemicals don’t filter the water though, and you’re still drinking the dead bugs (at least they are dead) and any other non-living material in the water. The big downside to chemically treating your water is that it can taste terrible.

The third option is to filter your drinking water. That’s what my Dad and I did when we hiked. I had a cool little pump filter that pulled the water in, filtered it, then pushed it out to my bottle. The only problem I had was the next year when I went back to get a new one, they didn’t make them anymore. Still, I really liked my little pump filter.

Water filters for backpacking are more expensive than the other options, are heavier, and take up more space in your pack. They also cost you more time on the trail because you’re going to sit there and watch other hikers come and go while you pump water through your filter.

Not all water filters are the same. When you get a filter you know how fine it is. Most of the living contaminants that you want to get rid of are between 1 and 10 microns. Some can be smaller than a micron. If you are going to rely on a water filter, you want to know that it will do the job.

How to Filter Water when Backpacking

You have living and non-living things that you want to remove from your water when you are backpacking. The best solution is to use both chemical water treatment and filtering. I recommend a chemical treatment, like iodine tablets, to make sure that most of the living contaminants are dead and a water bottle with a filter to remove the chemicals and any non-living contaminants from your water.

When you need water, stop by a spring and fill up your filtered water bottle, drop in your iodine tablets, replace the cap, and you are on your way. Be sure to give the iodine plenty of time to treat the water before you take a drink. When you are ready to drink, the filter inside the bottle will remove the chemicals from the water so that all you get is clean, refreshing, great tasting water. That’s the way it should be.

Where Can I Buy a Water Bottle with a Filter?

I have looked at several filtered water bottles in the past and there is something funny about some of them. The filter is at the bottom of the bottle and there is nothing to force the water to actually pass through the filter.

In the filtered water bottle that I use, the filter is attached to the inside of the lid and the water has to pass through the filter before it can reach the spigot where you drink from. This bottle works great for hiking because the iodine can sit in the water and do its job while you walk and the water doesn’t get filtered until just before you drink it.

You can find the iodine, or other chemicals, to treat your water at your favorite outdoor outfitters. I’ve always shopped for that kind of stuff at REI.


I am a distributor for the water bottle filter that I use and I may earn a commission if you order one through the links on this page. I have no financial affiliation with REI. I just like to shop there.

What Do You Do About Water When Outdoors?

Do you like to spend time outdoors hiking? What do you do for water? Share your thoughts in a comment below and share this post with your followers on Facebook and Twitter.


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6 Responses to How to Filter Water When Backpacking

  1. Spencer says:

    I’m joining a group of hikers next weekend and while we were already oriented on stuff like this, I thought I should still do my own research on how I can get filter water up in the mountains. Thanks for sharing the link to the filtered water bottle. While there are plenty sold in stores, I really want to go with one that’s tried and tested by other hikers like yourself.

    • Ben says:

      Hi Spencer. Thanks for the comment. You can’t be too careful when it comes to your drinking water. I hope you have a great hike.

  2. Hey ben,
    As I am very addicted to any adventurous sport. I recently went for hiking in Nepal, though it was a small hiking program preplanned for four days and I went with many waters bottles and eating stuff with me in my bags. But while I was on hiking I never thought that we will also need pure water.
    But now in my coming hiking plan to Shimla, I will try out your steps to carry pure water with me during the program.
    Thanks very much for sharing an informative post for all the hiking lovers.

    • Ben says:

      Thanks for the comment. Water is the most important because you have to stay hydrated while you travel. Your hiking adventures sound great. I hope you have fun.

  3. Hello Ben,
    As an adventure sports lover, I love hiking. Backpacking is another part of adventure sport like hiking and carrying filtered pure water is very much essential to keep yourself healthy and safe. I didn’t know the tips which you mentioned above for filtering water while backpacking.

    Thank you so much for the valuable post you shared above.

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