When you go hiking or camping, you know to plan ahead and take extra water with you, but what if you run out or need more than you expected? What if you simply don’t have room to carry enough water with you but there are water sources along your route? Is it safe to drink water that you find on the trail?
With a cheap backpacking water filter, you can easily filter water that you find along the way, and make it safe to drink.
Table of Contents
- Why Treat Water Outdoors
- How Backpacking Water Filters Work
- Sawyer Mini and Lifestraw First Impressions
- Sawyer Mini and Lifestraw Features
- How We Tested
- The Best Cheap Backpacking Water Filter
- Cleaning and Maintaining Your Water Filter
- Ways to Use the Sawyer Mini
- Additional Accessories
- Final Thoughts
Why Treat Water Outdoors
If the water you find looks clear and clean, why does it need to be treated in the first place? While we can see some of the harmful contaminants which may linger in untreated water, others are invisible to the naked eye.
Water can be contaminated by sediments, pathogens, salts, toxins, and other agents. Some of the more well-known contaminants include protozoa like Giardia and bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella.
Common sources of water contamination include human excrement, animal excrement, pollutants, and dead animal carcasses.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), drinking contaminated water has the potential to lead to many health problems including “gastrointestinal illness, reproductive problems, and neurological disorders.”
How Backpacking Water Filters Work
Backpacking water filters eliminate many contaminants in order to provide safe drinking water. This is accomplished by means of physical straining. With close to a similar process to those water pitchers at home (which usually use charcoal), you will know your water tastes fresh.
During the straining process, water is pushed through a very fine “micro filter” which separates out and traps the contaminants while allowing the clean water to pass through. The smaller the micro filter’s pore size (measured in microns), the better its ability to capture contaminants.
Efficacy is measured based on the percentage of contaminants eliminated.
While the filtering portion itself is the same for most backpacking water filters, the method for passing water through the filter varies. Some filters use a hand pump method while others function by means of gravity feeding or by squeezing a reservoir.
Some of the most compact options for backpacking are bottle and straw filters which allow the user to simply suck the water through the filter by drinking from the bottle or straw.
Two of the foremost companies in the affordable backpacking water filter market are Sawyer and Lifestraw.
Sawyer Mini and Lifestraw First Impressions
Our first impression of the Sawyer product, the “Sawyer Mini,” was that it really lived up to its name. The Sawyer Mini is very small and comes with multiple items including a 16 oz. water pouch, 7” drinking straw, and a cleaning plunger/syringe.
The Lifestraw looks almost twice the size of the Sawyer Mini and comes with an attached lanyard, but no other accessories.
WINNER: SAWYER MINI
Sawyer Mini and Lifestraw Features
When it came to filter features, we compared the following criteria:
- Filter capacity (how many gallons of water each filter is expected to process over its lifetime)
- Bacteria removal percentage
- Protozoa removal percentage
- Filter pore size
- Composition (whether or not product is BPA free)
Some of the features are very similar between the two filters, however there are a few notable differences. The Sawyer Mini is capable of filtering 100,000 gallons of water throughout its lifetime, while the Lifestraw is able to process 1,000 gallons.
The bacteria and protozoa removal rates for both filters are at least 99.9%.
The Sawyer Mini is versatile and can be used in many ways while the Lifestraw is designed to be used only as a straw.
The Sawyer Mini filters out contaminants down to 0.1 microns in size, and the Lifestraw filters down to 0.2 microns.
While both filters weigh the same 57 grams / 2 oz., the Sawyer Mini is 5” long compared to the 9” Lifestraw. Also, both filters are BPA free.
(See the chart below for a quick side-by-side feature comparison.)
|Filter Capacity||100,000 gallons||1,000 gallons|
|Filter pore size||0.1 microns||0.2 microns|
|Dimensions||5 inches x 1 inch||9 inches x 1 inch|
|Weight||57 grams / 2 oz.||57 grams / 2 oz.|
How We Tested
Since both the Sawyer Mini and the Lifestraw perform similarly in terms of filtration, despite the discrepancy of .0001% of filtration, we did not test on quality of water.
Instead we focused on ease of use, speed, and weight/size since these are important factors for backpackers and both these products are designed to be used for backpacking trips.
Ease Of Use
The Sawyer Mini can be used in a variety of ways including as a straw for immediate consumption. If you want to filter and store water for later, the Sawyer Mini may be attached to the included water pouch. Simply squeeze the pouch to push water through the Mini and into a clean storage container of your choice.
For water on the go, the Sawyer Mini can be screwed onto standard disposable water/soda bottles or placed as an inline filter in hydration packs.
All this versatility makes the Sawyer Mini very easy to use no matter what your needs.
To use a Lifestraw, water must be sucked through the straw, either directly from the water source, or from a bottle or other container of unfiltered water. There isn’t a simple way to filter the water and save it for later. The Lifestraw also cannot be installed as an inline filter on a hydration pack.
WINNER: SAWYER MINI
The speed with which water can be filtered is another important consideration when selecting a backpacking water filter.
Water can be squeezed through the Sawyer Mini and it can be used as a gravity or inline filter. We found that water passes through it faster than the Lifestraw.
The Lifestraw offers some resistance when users suck water through it since this is the only method of using it, so it takes a while to drink.
WINNER: SAWYER MINI
Weight and Size
Both products have the same weight and diameter, however as the 5” Sawyer Mini is 4” shorter than the 9” Lifestraw, it is easier to pack with the rest of your outdoor gear.
WINNER: SAWYER MINI
The Best Cheap Backpacking Water Filter
Product features, ease of use, speed of use, weight, and size are all important when selecting a backpacking water filter.
After comparing our initial impressions as well as product performance in the other four categories, the winner was clear.
The Sawyer Mini comes with more accessories, is able to filter more water, removes smaller contaminants, and is smaller size than the Lifestraw. It has greater versatility and is easier and faster to use. For all these reasons, the Sawyer Mini is the best cheap backpacking water filter.
Cleaning and Maintaining Your Water Filter
Now that you have chosen and purchased your filter, how do you clean and maintain it? This depends on the filter.
Making sure that your water filter stays clean is necessary that so there is steady flow when filtering.
After using the Sawyer Mini, use the syringe/plunger to forcefully push water through the filter from the output side to the input side multiple times (a technique known as backwashing).
After each use, blow air back through the Lifestraw to keep the filter clean and prevent clogging.
Both filters should be allowed to dry prior to storage and should be protected from freezing temperatures as they can damage the filters.
The Sawyer Mini and the Lifestraw should also be rehydrated prior to use if they have been in storage for a while.
To rehydrate the Sawyer Mini, backwash the filter by using the syringe/plunger to forcefully push water through the filter from the output side to the input side multiple times.
To rehydrate the Lifestraw, uncap both ends and stand the straw in water for 10 seconds, then take 5 quick sips to draw water through the filter.
Ways to Use the Sawyer Mini
The Sawyer Mini is extremely versatile and can be used in a variety of ways including:
To use the Sawyer Mini as a gravity filter, take the included water pouch and turn it upside down.
Punch a hole in the bottom corner of each side being careful to not rupture the pouch portion of the bag.
Thread a length of paracord/rope/twine through these holes and tie it off to make a handle. The length of cord used will depend on the height of the object the pouch is being suspended from.
Screw the Sawyer Mini onto the pouch and hang the pouch upside down above a clean water bottle. Next, remove the mouthpiece cap of the Mini and gently squeeze the pouch to help start the water flow from the pouch into the bottle. After a slight squeeze, the water will filter itself with the help of gravity.
You can attach the included straw to route the filtering water into your clean water bottle, or you can purchase plastic tubing to help with this.
Note: When using the Sawyer Mini as a gravity filter, ensure that dirty and clean water containers are kept separate and distinguishable to avoid contamination.
The Sawyer Mini can be screwed onto disposable water bottles or other bottles with a standard 28mm thread. The Smart water bottles are a great fit for the Sawyer Mini. This allows you to take water with you to filter. Simply squeeze the bottle to filter the water into a clean water bottle.
You can use the Sawyer Mini as a straw to suck water directly from a water source.
The Sawyer Mini may be connected as an inline filter on a hydration pack.
By doing so, you can filter and drink water as you hike rather than stopping to filter and then store the water.
To add the Sawyer Mini to an existing hydration pack system, just remove your bite valve and slide one end of the Mini onto the existing tubing. Add another length of tubing on the other end of the Mini, and reattach the bite valve. You can now fill the hydration pack with unfiltered water and filter it as you drink it.
Note: If you decide to place unfiltered water in your hydration pack, be sure to designate that pack as a dirty pack and always use it with the inline filter to avoid contamination.
Since water can be filtered using the Sawyer Mini and then stored in another container, flavor packets can improve taste. Also, electrolyte powders that replenish nutrients can be added as well to improve your hiking experience.
The Sawyer Mini comes in black, blue, camo, green, orange, and pink colors.
Sawyer also sells a variety of additional accessories which can be used with the Sawyer Mini. The following are various accessories that you can use:
Sawyer sells additional squeeze pouches in 16, 32, and 64 ounce sizes as well as a 1 gallon water bladder. Other squeeze pouches can be used with the Sawyer Mini as well, such as the platypus ultralight collapsible water bottle.
- Collapsible, ultralight two-liter (70 ounce) water bottle with screw top for camping, day hiking, thru-hikes, backpacking, and travel
- Weighs just 1.3 ounces, and measures 13.8 x 17.5 inches; collapses and rolls up small enough to fit inside a pocket when empty
- BPA-free, BPS-free and phthalate-free; food-grade polyethylene lining does not taste like plastic or retain flavors
Fast Fill Adapter
If you have a hydration pack, you may also be interested in a fast fill adapter which allows you to fill your hydration pack with filtered water from the Sawyer Mini, all while leaving the hydration pack inside your backpack.
A cleaning coupling provides another method of backwashing your Sawyer Mini. The coupling is used to connect your Mini to a disposable water bottle filled with clean water. The bottle is then forcefully squeezed to backwash the Mini.
Filtration Accessory Pack
If you are planning on purchasing several of the additional accessories, you will appreciate the filtration accessory pack. This pack includes two 32 oz. squeeze pouches as well as a set of fast fill adapters.
Having access to safe clean drinking water while in the backcountry is an important consideration and one which must be planned for. A cheap backpacking water filter like the Sawyer Mini is a perfect way to ensure that you have a quick, easy, versatile, compact way to provide yourself with safe drinking water.