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Water treatment buying guide

You and your troop have been hiking half the day to reach the mountain’s summit. You’re thirsty — and even though your leader warned everyone not to eat snow, you can’t resist. So you reach down and pack a big white ball of snow. Looks clean, you think. And you start chomping.

Fast-forward 18 hours: The rest of your troop is out playing while you’re sitting on the toilet—been there all morning with some wicked diarrhea courtesy of that snowball you ate yesterday. Not fun.

Whether it’s snow or a clear mountain stream, you can get very sick from drinking untreated water.

“Even if it looks clear and clean, you’ve just got to do whatever you can to purify it,” says Jordan Romero, 13, who is on track to be the youngest mountaineer to summit all of the world’s seven tallest peaks. Luckily there are many ways to purify your water and several great gear options that make the job easier.

The Gear Guy is currently writing an update to this article. Watch for his updated tips and reviews in the August 2016 issue of Boys’ Life.


This one is simple. Just heat any suspect water to a roiling boil. When half-inch-wide bubbles are rising from the bottom of the pot for about a minute, you’re good to go. “We always collect snow, melt it and boil it,” Jordan says.

Pros: Cheap, simple, very effective.

Cons: Slow, especially at high altitudes; can use lots of stove fuel; won’t remove silt.


Just plop in iodine or chlorine tablets or drops, and wait as they kill the nasties. Tablets cost between $10 and $15 for a pack of 20.

Pros: Ultralight, simple, great as a backup purifying method. “It’s quick and cheap,” Jordan says.

Cons: “It can affect the water’s taste,” Jordan adds. You need to wait 15 to 60 minutes before drinking, it won’t clean out the silt, and not all chemical purifiers are effective against all germs and things—be sure to check the label.


These battery-powered wands emit ultraviolet light to purify your water. Just turn one on and wave it around in your water. UV purifiers cost $100 or more.

Pros: Very portable, fast, easy, no chemical taste.

Cons: Won’t work in muddy water, requires batteries, expensive, can treat only small batches at a time.


This stands for MIxed OXidant treatment. Basically it uses salt and electricity to make a water solution that interacts with your untreated water.

Pros: Easy, very portable.

Cons: Expensive, must wait for at least 15 minutes while water is treated, won’t filter out silt, requires batteries.


Filters use a handheld pump that pushes water through a tight screen and a filter that strains out germs as well as silt and such. These are good for wilderness areas where human virus contamination isn’t an issue. Purifiers go one step further (using iodine or electrostatic functions) to deactivate dangerous viruses. Purifiers are essential when traveling in areas where human waste might be contaminating your water source. These generally cost between $40 and $200. Look for one with a filter pore size of 0.2 microns or less. Also pay attention to its advertised liters/per minute, as this will tell you how long it will take you to pump the water.

Pros: Easy, removes chunky stuff and contaminants from the water, generally durable.

Cons: “They can be bulky to fit in your pack,” Jordan says. Also, they can be expensive and could clog and fail in the field.


A good rule: 2 to 3 liters of water per Scout per day. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink. Always have it at the ready and drink small amounts frequently.


Muddy water? No problem. Just let it settle in the bottom of a wide pot. Then very carefully scoop the clear water from the top. Next, strain it through a bandana or a paper coffee filter. Finally, filter, boil or purify and drink up!


Great gear to treat your water:

MSR SweetWater MicroFilter ($90, This durable, simple-to-use pump filters 1.25 liters per minute and weighs just 11 ounces. The SweetWater’s 0.2-micron filter removes bacteria and protozoa as well as the smell and taste of most water.

Aquamira Frontier Pro filter ($25, The ingenious Frontier Pro is a two-ounce filter that attaches to most any narrow-mouth water bottle, including supermarket-bought water bottles, and filters the water as you suck it through the mouthpiece.

Potable Aqua ($10, Just pop two of these iodine purification tablets into one quart of questionable water, shake, wait about 20 minutes and you’ll have safe, drinkable water.

SteriPEN Adventurer Opti ($100, Just plop in this 3.6-ounce battery-powered UV-light purifying wand and stir. Takes just 90 seconds to purify one liter of water. Also doubles as an LED flashlight.

Platypus CleanStream Gravity Microfilter ($100, This 13.7-ounce gravity-fed system filters four liters of water in just 2.5 minutes with almost zero effort. Simply fill the “dirty” bag with water and hold it higher than the “clean” bag, and gravity will pull the water through the 0.2-micron filter cartridge until it’s ready to drink. Good for camping in groups.

Katadyn MicroPur MP1 Tablets ($13 for 30 tabs, Simply dissolve these chlorine dioxide purification tablets in suspect water. Takes between 30 minutes and four hours depending on water quality and water temp. Used by the U.S. military and distributed to crews at Philmont Scout Ranch.

First Need XL Water Purifier ($112, he First Need purifier removes nasties down to 0.1 micron and provides two quarts of water per minute while pumping. Weighs 16 ounces.

24 Comments on Water treatment buying guide

  1. Boil it!

  2. We use the Vario by Katadyn. Works great and attaches right to your bottle top eliminating rim contamination. The prefilter allows the main filter to last times longer than most other brands too.

  3. I agree with the boil it group.

    • Knife Xpert 157 (aka Chad 101) // February 10, 2014 at 11:08 am // Reply

      Are you really going to take the time on a hike to stop, build a fire or light a stove, boil water, wait for it to cool, and then get going again? lets see… by now you have wasted about 1-2 hours. just buy Potable Aqua taps and use those. But make sure to get the iodine neutralizers. iodine pills are a lot faster then boiling. and plus who wants to drink warm water? And if you dont like using the taps, then just bite the bullet and fork over the cash to get a good filter. Its way worth the money.

    • When I was in the military most servicemen carried the MSR Miox purifier. It made both a brine and an electric charge to the water; a double control treatment. It lasted a full tour with one kit and 2 AA batteries. If you want a true tested item, here’s one.

  4. First Need is the only way to go no matter where your going or what conditions you will run into in any country. Very professional results (no viruses) not just for filtering fairly clean streams in the backcountry. The only possible draw-back is that you must keep the unit from freezing.

  5. Just back from a Boundary Waters Wilderness canoe trek; and again the Steri-Pen was a champion. it worked quickly and effortlessly for everyone in the group (7 scouts). We did boil our base camp water but individual bottle use by the scouts was covered by “The Pen.” We had our Katadyn Guide pump with but it never saw day light; water was super clear, even before using a coffee filter as a pre-filter. Only spent $7.00 on batteries for the entire trek, that’s thrifty.

  6. I use potable aqua for water treatment in my compact survival kit. It works great when you have the time.

  7. Sawyer Squeeze Filter is the best out there- clean water in 5 seconds

    • I agree and their new mini is all you need and it filters 100,000 gallons for $20. So basically you can combine all the other filters listed above and they still won’t come close to doing what the Sawyer Mini does. Why would you buy anything else.

    • Scoutmaster D // November 3, 2014 at 4:06 pm // Reply

      I brought a Sawyer mini-filter to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area this summer. Instead of using the bag they provided, I brought along a “used” 1 liter bottle to fill with lake water and squeeze into my canteen. I was the only one to bring the filter. By the end of the first day, there was a line forming behind me to “borrow” my filter. This filter provided water for all 9 of us for six days. The 1-liter bottle was looking very sad by the end, but held up great.

  8. Knife Xpert 157 (aka Chad 101) // October 12, 2012 at 12:38 pm // Reply

    I use a Boat Of Boulder OUTBACK filtering water bottle. costs about $20 and I haven’t got sick yet so it must work!

  9. I need a filter any recommendations?

  10. I go with a Bota water bottle. It has a removable built in filter. And is only 20$. Plus it filters 600 gals before you have to replace it!

  11. ultra-light master // July 7, 2011 at 7:44 pm // Reply

    just boil it

    • Knife Xpert 157 (aka Chad 101) // August 16, 2012 at 1:36 pm // Reply

      Are you really going to take the time on a hike to stop, build a fire, boil water, wait for it to cool, and then get going again? just buy Potable Aqua taps and use those. But make sure to get the iodine nutrolziers. iodine pills are a lot faster then boiling. and plus who wants to drink warm water? Cold crick water is the only way to go!

  12. Chiefton1 // June 8, 2011 at 9:57 am // Reply

    A better rule of thumb for proper hydration when hiking is half your body weight in ounces and if you are over exerting yourself double that!

  13. For our unit, boiling water remains the number one process for purifying water; it’s cheap and easy. When time is of essence, we use the stri-pen for clear water (No, batteries wearing out have never been a problem) & for non-clear water we use the Katadyn guide pump, it’s faster than most others and cost the same for replacing filters. My suggestion is try numerous methods and pick those best for you. Always carry a backup, just in case.

  14. I says to Mabel I // February 21, 2011 at 4:23 pm // Reply

    Great tips thanks boys life

  15. I’ve used First Need for years; will screw on standard water bottles/water bags. Has a pre-filter, pumps quite fast, and can be field cleaned(reverse hose and you can backwash filter). It has a small bottle of dye which you put into a pot, pump, and if the water shows any sign of bluish/purple dye, it’s time to change filter. Never had a problem with them, and have had three of them. Newest one is very easy to use and pumps quite fast. Can’t go wrong! Camprdon

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