Backpacking Water Filter vs Water Purifier: What’s The Difference?


Backpacking throughout spring, summer, and fall really isn’t all that difficult. You just need to buy the right gear and learn a couple of skills and you’re good to go.

Beginners always seem to get hung up on water purification. On the surface, water purification is fairly straightforward, but once you delve deeper there’s a bit of a learning curve. You basically need to be shown the ropes from an experienced backpacker before you can head out on your own.

When I take my buddies out for the first time there’s one question that always pops up. What’s the difference between a backpacking water filter and a water purifier? That’s a great question, because I had no idea and needed to find out.

What’s The Difference Between a Water Filter and Water Purifier?

To overly simplify matters the difference lies in the level of protection your filter/purifier provides. Every backpacking water filter on the market protects you from bacteria and protozoa. On the other hand, water purifiers kill bacteria protozoa and viruses.

For example, check out the Sawyer Mini Water Filtration System(On Amazon), which is one of the most popular water filters on the market. Sawyer’s mini water filter removes 99. 99999% of bacteria (salmonella, cholera, and E. coli), protozoa (such as giardia and cryptosporidium), and 100% of microplastics.

Why Don’t Water Filters Kill Viruses?

Viruses are just way too small for water filters to catch. Instead of filtering them out like bacteria/protozoa, viruses just slip right on through filters.

In the past couple of years, a few filters have hit the market capable of physically removing viruses. Sawyer’s Select Series Filter(On Amazon) and Survivor Filter Pro(On Amazon) are both capable of removing viruses.

You can also kill viruses with UV Light Purifiers like the Steripen(On Amazon), chemical chlorine treatments and by simply boiling water. If you’re backpacking in the United States or Canada you shouldn’t need to kill viruses.

Water Filter vs Water Purifier

When Should I Use a Water Filter?

If you’re traveling in the United States, Canada and other generally remote locations all you really need is a cheap backpacking water filter. There’s just not enough human foot traffic for viruses to thrive.

Most communicable viruses in humans are caused by contact with human waste. Since there’s less human waste, you don’t have viruses. That’s the main reason why you’re told to poop so far away from rivers, streams, and lakes.

However, you still need to deal with bacteria and protozoa. Ever hear of Montezuma’s Revenge(diarrhea when you’re south of the border)? That’s caused by the bacteria found in third world water supplies.

Make Sure Your Filter Can Handle Bacteria and Protozoa

Not every filter on the market can filter out bacteria and protozoa. Some filters are designed to simply remove unwanted tastes like Chlorine and Fluoride from city tap water. Most of the pitcher style filters you use in the fridge only filter out solid particles(can’t filter bacteria/protozoa).

Make sure you look for a filter that surpasses EPE Filter Standards. It should filter out up to .2 microns and 99.999% of bacteria and protozoa. Don’t worry backpacking water filters aren’t all that expensive. Most setups cost somewhere between 20$-50$ depending on style.

My Favorite Backpacking Water Filters
  • Sawyer Mini(On Amazon): This is by far the most versatile filter on the market and it’s affordably priced. You can attach it to water bottles, hydration packs(inline-filter), gravity filter or just use it as a straw.
  • Katadyn Microfilter(On Amazon): Pump style filter that’s perfect for large groups. Just drop the hose in your water source and start pumping in minutes. It connects right to my hydration bladder and can fill it up in minutes.
  • Lifestraw(On Amazon): Just toss a lifestraw in your pack and you’re good to go. You can suck straight from a river or attach to a bottle.

When Should I Use a Water Purifier?

Most USA based backpackers will never actually need to use a water purifier. The only time you need to filter out viruses is if you’re traveling to a less-developed country.

We really do take our water supply for granted. Third world countries have poor sanitation practices and even worse sewage standards. Sewage gets into the water supply and they don’t have the infrastructure to kill waterborne viruses.

How Can I Kill Waterborne Viruses?

There are a bunch of different methods to kill waterborne viruses. Although these methods will make your water safe to drink you should still run them through a water filter to get out the sediment and particles.

  • Purification Tablets: If you already have a water filter just toss in 1-2 water purification tablets(On Amazon). Although these tablets are cheap and extremely effective you will have to wait 30 minutes before you can take a drink.
  • UV Filter aka Steripen(On Amazon): I’ve been using the Steripen and I can’t complain. Just dip it in your water, press the button and wait 60-90 seconds. It’s crazy how fast it can kill bacteria, protozoa, and viruses. Plus you can purify water in the water.
  • Boiling Water: Just get your pot of water up to a rapid boil and you’re good to go. This method is great in the winter, but who wants to drink hot water in the summer.

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