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Gear Review: Water Filters and Containers for Ultralight Backpacking

In the past year, we used three different lightweight backcountry water filters: the SteriPEN, the Sawyer 3-Way Inline Water Filter, and the Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter. Here we share our experiences with each of these water treatment methods.

Filling the Platypus Big Zip before attaching to a Sawyer inline filter

While training for the Pacific Crest Trail, we tested two different SteriPEN models. Both failed within a week. We needed a reliable treatment method, so we passed on the SteriPEN.

We each began our PCT hike with a Sawyer 3-Way Inline Water Filter (1.8 oz.) spliced into the hose of a Platypus Big Zip 2.0 L hydration bladder (5.5 oz). This setup worked wonderfully. Arriving at a water source, we quickly scooped water into the bladder and continued walking. When we got thirsty, sucking on the bite valve pulled water through the filter, up the hose, and into our mouth. Refreshing, clean, and easy.

Drinking with a Sawyer 3-Way Inline Filter

In the desert, we often needed to carry more water. Thus, in addition to the Platypus, we packed several plastic water bottles. We liked Powerade 1-liter bottles because they were light, cheap, wide-mouthed, and had a uniform shape for easier packing. To filter directly into a bottle, we unsnapped the outlet hose from the inline filter and squeezed the Platypus to force water through the filter.

Over time, the filter partially clogged and slowed. When we received our bounce box in town, we backflushed the filter, which improved the filtering speed. However, after about 2000 miles on the PCT, backflushing no longer refreshed the filter. It became a struggle to suck water through the filter and hose.

In northern Oregon we switched to a Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter system. One Sawyer Squeeze and the accompanying dirty water pouch (3 oz. total) can provide clean water for several people, saving a bit of weight if you’re hiking in a group. Another benefit was that the Squeeze filtered even faster than a brand new Sawyer Inline filter. At the same time, we also switched to the Platypus Hoser water bladder (3.6 oz.), which was lighter than the Big Zip.

Filtering through a Sawyer Squeeze into a Platypus Hoser

This Squeeze and Hoser combination performed solidly, but there were a few nuisances. The Squeeze dirty water bag has a small opening, making it difficult to fill in shallow water sources. Additionally, the Squeeze filtered easily into wide-mouthed bottles, but was awkward to mate with the Platypus Hoser’s small opening.  Finally, the Squeeze forced us to stop longer at water sources, instead of just scooping up water and moving on, as we had done with the inline filter.

Overall, both combinations of filters and bladders worked well. We are leaning towards using the Sawyer 3-Way Inline filter with the Platypus Big Zip bladder for future thru hikes because of the speed and convenience of that system.

A few other water-related tips:

  • Sawyer filters are internally destroyed if frozen. On cold nights, we slept with the filters in our sleeping bags.
  • Protect your bite valve with a cover, or be careful where you place it. A valve in the dirt is no fun.
  • For speedy fill-ups, carry your water bladder near the top of your pack. We put ours above our waterproof trash compactor bags, but below our puffy jackets. The jackets insulated the water, keeping it cool.
  • Consider shortening your water bladder hose. Many hoses are unnecessarily long and awkward.
  • Always treat water in the backcountry. Even if water looks clear, it may not be safe to drink. Several of our fellow PCT hikers got sick from drinking untreated water.

We hope these water tips are helpful! Feel free to ask additional questions in the comments section below.

Water cache in a desert section of the PCT

21 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great review, thank you so much :)

    November 3, 2012
  2. Chris #

    Nice review! Really interesting! We started the PCT with the Sawyer Squeeze and made it to Mammoth Lakes before we just had enough and our back flushing was no longer keeping the filter up to speed. Sounds similar to what happened with the in-line, although I think the pace of filtering while drinking works better with the hollow fibers than the squeeze method. We broke two Sawyer reservoirs, one platypus, and one Evernew bladder from swueezing too hard (over time it just seemed to do a number on the pouches of any kind). We actually switched to a Steripen Classic we had at hone at it worked wonderfully or the rest of the trail. Have definitely heard of issues and it was finicky on occasion, but we never had it fail. Saw a lot on the trail, but mixed reviews for sure — I think the Steripens have seen a little bit of a resurgence in on trail use as reliability has gotten better, but it is still an electronic device reliant on batteries so perhaps it will never be the best solution.

    November 3, 2012
    • Thanks, glad you enjoyed the review! We wanted to like the SteriPEN, but two bad experiences pushed us away. It’s a great idea. Maybe one day they will perfect it.

      November 4, 2012
  3. Charles #

    I use the sawyer squeeze + evernew bags for my clean and dirty bag as they are a lot more durable than the ones that come w/the squeeze. Also, to combat the annoyance of trying to get water into the small mouth of the bag unless the water flow is strong i took an old platy 1L bladder i had and used scissors to slice it open on an angle so i can just dip that into the water source and fill up that 1L platy and the angle that i have the opening cut at is both wide enough and steep enough that its fairly easy to pour water from it cleanly into the narrow opening of the dirty bag.

    Perhaps not hte most elegant solution but it seems to work.

    November 3, 2012
    • Thanks for sharing your solutions, Charles. Way to innovate! We’ve also encountered people using a plastic dirty water bottle instead of a dirty bag. Some bottles have the right thread to screw onto the Squeeze. Also, people have cut off the end of a bottle to make a scoop to pour into the dirty water bag. Any of these solutions add weight and bulk to the Squeeze system, of course, but the increase in speed may be worth the weight. We found the Big Zip with inline filter to be very quick to fill, and still quite light. Regardless of which Sawyer filter you use, they’re both much lighter than the old pump style backpacking filters (Katadyn, MSR, etc.).

      November 4, 2012
  4. The Beekeeper (aka Jan aka roaming angel in bright pink hat) #

    I converted my MSR gravity filter into an inline filter for the same reason. The only problem I’ve encountered is that it doesn’t seem to work in the horizontal position (on top of the pack – my preference also). Wonder if it is the Sawyer vs MSR filter? or if it is the bladder. I’m using the MSR bladder that collapses when using the hose without the inline filter. It doesn’t seem to collapse when I use the filter, so I found I had to stand up the bladder and filter. I put it in the front outside pocket – not ideal since it pulls weight away from body and in warm weather the water gets too hot. Thoughts?

    November 5, 2012
    • We don’t have any experience with the MSR filter, so we can’t speak to your exact issue. The Sawyer/Platypus setup works great in the horizontal position though. One thing you have to be conscious of with the Platypus bladders is to always put the outlet of the bag facing down, so gravity pools water in the outlet area. Otherwise you’ll suck air through the hose. Hope that helps.

      November 6, 2012
      • The Beekeeper (aka Jan aka roaming angel in bright pink hat) #

        Thanks I’ll try that. I did have the outlet facing up which works fine without the inline filter. I’ll update with my findings in case others are in the same situation. Sure would save me the expense of replacing my filter or the fiasco of figuring out how I would keep the water cool and upright (at the cost of more weight). I also appreciated your comment about putting your puff jacket on top to keep water cooler.

        November 6, 2012
        • The Beekeeper (aka Jan aka roaming angel in bright pink hat) #

          It worked!!! Thanks for the suggestion!

          November 13, 2012
        • Awesome! Glad we could help out.

          November 14, 2012
  5. I believe the lightest filter on the market is the one I carried … it weighs 0 oz. Just hold the water to your heart and tell it that you love it and to not make you sick. It worked the whole trail for me. It does require a little faith though :-). I miss you two and I am so excited to read of your next adventures. yay!

    November 5, 2012
    • Bobcat, your water treatment strategy is completely unique! I don’t think we’ll try it, but we’re happy it worked for you. :-) We miss you too. Glad we’re both blogging so we can keep up so easily in the future!

      November 6, 2012
  6. I don’t think you can say with certainty that your fellow hikers got sick from untreated water. GI issues from poor hygiene (especially when traveling with others) are more common than bad water.

    November 6, 2012
    • We heard over a dozen reports of hikers getting off the trail due to GI problems this year. I’m sure some of their issues arose from drinking untreated water and some stemmed from poor hygiene practices. We recommend always filtering water, and we also recommend not sharing food, which is a common way for bacteria to spread between hikers.

      November 6, 2012
  7. JohnG #

    Wondering if you had any problems closing the Platypus Big Zip. I have the Platypus gravity filter with the 4 L Big Zip containers. I have a very hard time closing the containers completely so they do not leak while carrying them. Other than that, love the system. It is comparable to the Sawyer system.

    November 9, 2012
    • Sliding the plastic zip handle across the opening sealed our bags securely, and they never leaked the entire trip. When our inline filter began to clog in Oregon, we squeezed the Platypus bags strongly to force water through the filter and they still never leaked. I’m not sure why your bladders would behave differently, without being able to inspect them.

      November 10, 2012
  8. I am now part of the group that had a Steripen fail miserably. It was the perfect friend for 3 summers. I threw it away promptly at Vermillion Valley Resort in August. Sad day. I wish I liked using a bladder system and the inline would be a perfect solution. After 10 years of using a hose system I stopped for various reasons. Just got back from hiking with a partner that has the Sawyer Squeeze. It seemed complicated and I am not real thrilled with it. She did use an empty Smart water bottle for the dirty water container. Believe it or not it collapses down flat and springs back again. Thank you for this review. It is some hope that the Sawyer Squeeze might work. Christmas perhaps?

    November 13, 2012
    • Since you don’t like the bladder thing, we’d recommend giving the Sawyer Squeeze a try. It generally worked very well for us, and it’s light. Not too expensive either!

      November 14, 2012
    • I became a convert to filter (instead of steripens) on my last long hike (Wonderland Trail in Rainier). After hiking 8 miles earlier in the day up the mountain, I found myself with an empty 3L Platypus (which I love), and 5 miles left to go. The only water I found was off of a glacier and contained thousands of live round worms. No steripen would have ever made me comfortable drinking that water. Thank goodness I’d decided to try a filter that hike!

      December 8, 2012
      • Yes, the Steripen probably isn’t guaranteed to work on worms! Glad you were able to turn that “protein water” into something more palatable. If you ever get stuck in a situation like that again, you can use your bandanna to filter out large particles and critters.

        December 10, 2012

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