11 Best Portable Water Filters for Backpacking & More – Reviews + Guide ’20
It doesn’t matter if you‘re backpacking, hiking, camping, traveling, or you want to be prepared in case of emergency, a portable water filter is one of the most important, if not the most important, pieces of gear you need.
A reliable filter will provide you with safe drinking water no matter what, removing bacteria and protozoa which are commonly found in North American water sources. If you travel internationally, you might also have to pay attention to viruses.
How to find a good portable water filter for your needs? Well, you came to the right place…
On This Page You Will…
Best Portable Water Filter Comparison List
|Model||Our Rating||Price||Pathogens||Size & Weight||Capacity|
Sawyer MINI with Squeeze Pouch – Best Water Filter Straw
|$||Bacteria, Protozoa (0.1 Micron)||4x3x8″, 2 oz||100,000 gal|
LifeStraw Mission Gravity - Best Backpacking Water Filter (Solo/Groups)
|$$$||Bacteria, Protozoa, Viruses (0.02 Micron)||4x3x8″, 19 oz||4,755 gal|
SteriPEN Ultra Handheld UV Water Purifier
|$$$||Bacteria, Protozoa, Viruses||7.3x1.6x1.3″, 5 oz||-|
GRAVI-STIL Portable Water Still - Best Emergency & Camping Water Purifier
|$$$$||Bacteria, Protozoa, Viruses||14x14x24″, 17 lbs||-|
MSR MiniWorks® EX Microfilter - Our #1 Portable Water Filter Pump
|$$||Bacteria, Protozoa (0.2 Micron)||10x4x7″, 1 lbs||500 gal|
Backpacking, Camping, Hiking, Survival, Travel: Portable Water Filter Reviews
Order of Product Reviews
- Sawyer MINI Portable Water Filtration System with Squeeze Pouch
- LifeStraw Portable Water Filter
- LifeStraw Mission vs. Family vs. Flex Portable Water Filters (Gravity)
- Sawyer 1-Gallon Portable Water Filter (Gravity)
- SteriPEN Ultra Handheld UV Water Purifier
- SHTFandGO GRAVI-STIL & D-STIL Lite Portable Survival Water Distillers
- MSR MiniWorks® EX Microfilter & MiniWorks® EX Purifier System Portable Water Filter Pumps
1. Sawyer MINI Portable Water Filtration System with Squeeze Pouch – Best Water Filter Straw
Sawyer MINI with Squeeze Pouch – #1 Water Filter Straw
|Filter Capacity:||100k gal|
If the Sawyer portable water filtration system is one thing, it’s versatile:
- It can be used as a water filter straw to drink directly from a fresh water source. And it’s not just any water filter straw, in our opinion it’s the best water filter straw.
- It can be attached to the included 16-ounce squeeze pouch as a portable inline water filter. This makes drinking way more convenient. Simply fill up the reusable pouch and screw the filter on. You can drink from the straw or squeeze water into a bottle. By the way, the pouch rolls up when empty for minimal space requirements in your travel backpack.
- It can be screwed onto standard plastic water bottles with 28 mm threading.
What does the Sawyer MINI straw water filter remove? Rated at 0.1 micron absolute filtration and up to 100,000 gallons, the hollow fiber micro-tubes trap 99.99999% of all harmful bacteria (e.g. salmonella, cholera, E coli, leptospirosis) and protozoa (such as giardia and cryptosporidium) as well as 100% microplastics. The recommended rates of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for bacteria removal are met.
Chemicals, heavy metals and viruses won’t be affected, which is not that big of an issue when you use the Sawyer water filter for recreational outdoor activities where you need something compact.
On a side note, the 100,000 gallons capacity can only be reached if you clean the water filter regularly. A cleaning plunger for backwashing is included. Cleaning is recommended after every outing and restores the flow rate almost completely.
More pros of this product:
- Filter weighs just 2 oz
- Fits in the palm of your hand
- Bestseller on Amazon
- Different colors to choose from
- Performance tested 3 times during manufacturing
Reportedly, users had issues with malfunctioning O-rings causing leaks and/or not creating a tight-enough seal to avoid contamination.
We also read about problems when using the syringe for backwashing. The connection to the filter wasn’t firm enough and led to a lack of pressure and flow resulting in inadequate flushing.
Others could not attach the Sawyer MINI to the squeeze pouch without leakage, or the pouch didn’t last very long.
That said, the vast majority of people are more than happy with their purchase. Overall customer feedback is extremely positive.
If you want a small, ultralight, and easy-to-use portable water filter you should seriously consider the Sawyer MINI. Simply put, it’s excellent and won’t break the bank. In our opinion, it’s the best water filter straw!
2. LifeStraw Personal Water Filter
LifeStraw Personal Water Filter
|Filter Capacity:||1,000 gal|
The LifeStraw Personal Water Filter is among the most popular, most famous, and bestselling portable water filters on the market, but rightly so?
The filter straw contains hollow fiber microfiltration membranes with microscopic pores that won’t allow 99.999999% bacteria, 99.999% parasites, 99.999% microplastics and any dirt larger than .2 micron to pass through (does not include viruses).
The process meets U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) drinking water standards for bacteria and protozoa reduction and the product is NSF P231 approved. The result is clean water that won’t cause waterborne diseases.
What else could make the LifeStraw an ideal companion for your next camping trip, hiking adventure, or backpacking journey?
For one, it’s easy to use and only weighs 1.62 oz. Above that, measuring 9 inches, it’s very compact fitting in almost any pocket. In addition, the material is durable and BPA-free. And the LifeStraw doesn’t have a shelf life. As long as water flows, you can continue to use it.
Speaking of flow, the water flow is roughly 0.8 gallons per minute.
Vestergaard, the company behind LifeStraw, says the water filter has a capacity of 1,000 gallons.
However, from experience some users said it’s more like 1,000 liters (or even less) which equals a mere 264 gallons. But even if the LifeStraw filters 1,000 gallons of water, that’s nothing compared to the 100,000 gallons of the Sawyer MINI.
FYI: The big difference in filtration capacity is because the Sawyer MINI can be properly backwashed.
What’s more, a few people found it difficult to suck meaningful amounts of water through their LifeStraw. Maybe they forgot to prime which has to be done every time the filter is dry. Which is another problem: The priming requires safe water. But where do you get safe water when you’re in the wilderness?
The LifeStraw personal water filter was designed to drink directly from rivers, lakes and other water sources, or to fill up a container and use the water filter straw on the go.
It’s affordable. Size and weight are great for backcountry hiking and backpacking trips. On top of that, filtration is very thorough.
Overall, the LifeStraw is one of the top products with outstanding customer feedback – the vast majority of people would recommend it – but we still prefer the Sawyer MINI simply due to its backwashing feature. As for the LifeStraw, it’s definitely a good choice. 4 stars!
3. LifeStraw Mission vs. Family vs. Flex Portable Water Filters (Gravity)
LifeStraw Mission Gravity – Best Backpacking Water Filter (Solo/Groups)
|Filter Capacity:||4,755 gal|
|Filter Capacity:||4,755 gal|
Next on our reviews list are the LifeStraw Mission, the LifeStraw Family, and the LifeStraw Flex gravity water filters.
Let’s start with the Mission and the Family. Both products use the same ultrafiltration membrane technology to eliminate 99.999999% of waterborne bacteria and 99.999% of parasites, viruses and microplastics. Also, any turbidity down to 0.02 microns will be reduced. NSF, WHO and U.S. EPA standards are met.
In other words, these portable filters turn contaminated water into safe drinking water. How much of it? Around 4,755 gallons so enough for a couple of years, says LifeStraw. But you not only get plenty of water, you also get it fast, at around 3.2 gallons per hour.
- Food-grade quality materials
- Extra outlet for all the dirt
- Red bulb for easy membrane cleaning
- Not too heavy to carry in a backpack (around 19 oz)
What are the differences between the portable water filters? The LifeStraw Family uses a bucket to hold a little less than half a gallon of dirty water. It’s sturdy but requires more space. Furthermore, it comes with a pre-filter to remove coarse dirt particles to prevent membrane clogging. The Mission uses a gravity bag – choose between 1.3 and 3.2 gallons – which has the benefit that you can roll it up.
As far as the LifeStraw Flex is concerned, it’s supposed to provide “safe drinking water in almost any environment”.
- Like many other filters in this guide, its ultrafiltration membrane filters bacteria, protozoa and microplastics. Removing these is important when drinking from water bodies in the great outdoors. Viruses won’t be affected, though. This is because the membrane is rated at 0.2 microns. For comparison, the LifeStraw Mission and Family use membranes with a 0.02 micron rating which is why we like them better.
- The additional activated carbon filter reduces lead (NSF Standard 53), chlorine (NSF Standard 42), bad taste and odor, and some organic chemicals like pesticides. Reducing chlorine and lead only really plays a role when dealing with municipal water. However, there are better water filters out there that can do this.
What we like is that the Flex can be used as a water filter straw or as a gravity water filter. The bag can hold one gallon of water which takes about 8 minutes to process. Also, the kit is lightweight and can be folded for portability.
Filtered water with an unappealing chemical or plastic taste and smell is the biggest issue with the LifeStraw Family. Then there is leaking of the red bulb which is also an issue with the Mission water filter.
A drawback of the LifeStraw Flex is the low carbon filter capacity. 26 gallons means regular replacements.
Overall, all three products filtered water slower than some users had expected.
LifeStraw gravity water filters are suited for providing filtered water to multiple people – think group camping. The Mission and the Family model are special as they are the only portable water filters in our guide that actually remove viruses, which is especially important when you are traveling internationally. The ability to remove viruses is also why the LifeStraw Family is used by millions of families in rural Africa and other parts of the world.
Bottom line: If you are dealing with viruses in drinking water, definitely check out the LifeStraw Mission and the LifeStraw Family. The latter is our favorite and the best backpacking water filter especially for groups. We wouldn’t recommend the Flex model. It’s supposed to be an all-rounder, but there are better portable filters for outdoor use and better tap water filters for indoor use on the market.
4. Sawyer 1-Gallon Gravity Water Filter Bag
Sawyer 1-Gallon Gravity Water Filter Bag
|Filter Capacity:||100k gal|
Filling the bladder with freshwater, hanging it into a tree and waiting for the magic to happen; using Sawyer’s 1-gallon gravity water filter is as simple as that.
Of course, you could also attach the bladder to your backpack or hold it up with your hand. What really matters is that the height distance between water bladder and water filter is sufficient for a fast flow rate (the record for filtering 1 gallon of water is under 5 minutes).
When everything is set up you can drink directly from the filter, connect a standard plastic bottle, or fill a second water bladder (optional upgrade).
For detailed information about what this Sawyer filter removes from water, check our review of the Sawyer MINI Portable Water Filtration System with Squeeze Pouch above. Both use the same filter element, only that the one coming with the Sawyer MINI is single-threaded, whereas this Sawyer gravity filter has two threads. Also read what we said about filter capacity and cleaning!
Apropos cleaning, the Sawyer gravity comes with an additional cleaning coupling which allows you to backwash the filter using any plastic bottle with 28 mm threading.
We also like that the filter kit is weight-saving, easy to assemble and pack, and performance tested. Plus, it contains everything from tubing to caps and adapters.
The Sawyer is way more affordable than many of the other portable gravity water filters, however, it doesn’t come without flaws. Most importantly:
- Due to poor design filling the bladder can be a real pain, especially in slow moving or standing water.
- The handle is off balance so it’s not ideal for hanging.
Sawyer advertises its 1-gallon gravity water filter as a “lightweight, robust solution for filtering large quantities of water (…) ideal for backpacking, hiking, backcountry camping, and emergency preparedness”. We are not 100 percent sure about the “robust”, but we couldn’t agree more with the rest. A top pick. 4.5 stars!
5. SteriPEN Ultra Handheld UV Water Purifier Review
SteriPEN Ultra Handheld UV Water Purifier
Acquired by Katadyn in mid 2017, the brand SteriPEN offers the world’s leading ultraviolet handheld water purifying devices. The SteriPEN Ultra is the most advanced model.
Tested and certified by the WQA against U.S. EPA standards, it effectively eliminates 99.9% of bacteria, protozoa (including giardia and cryptosporidium) and viruses by changing their DNA so they can’t reproduce anymore. This makes any water containing microorganisms safe to drink – as long as the water is clear that is. Cloudy or sediment-laden water could lower the effectiveness.
How do you use the SteriPEN Ultra? Simply remove the lid cover, push the button, and submerge the UV lamp in water and stir. The water is ready when you see the smile light up on the LED screen.
You can treat .26 (one liter) or .13 gallons (half a liter) at once. The process takes 90 respectively 48 seconds.
Some technical details:
- Lamp life: 8,000 activations on average
- Water per charge: About 13 gallons
- Uses internal rechargeable lithium-ion battery, can be charged via USB
- Product dimensions: 7.3 x 1.6 x 1.3 inches
- Product weight: 5 ounces
As you can see, the SteriPEN Ultra UV water purifier is lightweight and small and thus ideal for backpacking, hiking and camping (check the power indicator before you leave).
Combined with a mobile solar panel you can use the device indefinitely even if you don’t have access to electricity which can be life-saving in any emergency situation.
And lastly, the package includes a neoprene pouch and USB cable. And everything is covered by a 3-year limited warranty.
For a handful of people the SteriPEN died after a short time or did not recharge. Also, the product is more expensive than you might think.
The SteriPEN Ultra is a handheld UV water purifier perfect for on-the-go adventures; and it’s one of the best. It provides microbiologically-safe water no matter where you are. 4 stars!
6. SHTFandGO GRAVI-STIL & D-STIL Lite Portable Survival Water Distillers
GRAVI-STIL – Best Emergency & Camping Water Purifier
Next we will be reviewing the GRAVI-STIL and the D-STIL Lite water stills sold by survival and prepper gear supplier SHTFandGO.
The GRAVI-STIL system combines portable water distillation with gravity filtration. However, you can’t use both at once. It’s either distillation or gravity filtering.
When used as a gravity filter, the GRAVI-STIL produces up to 4 gallons of filtered drinking water per hour. The process features 2 filter stages:
- A 10-micron pre-filter removes larger particles.
- A 0.2-micron ceramic filter impregnated with silver disinfects the water.
Both filters last up to 2,000+ gallons.
As a non-electric survival water distiller, the GRAVI-STIL can be used with any heating source (stoves, gas burners, fire pits etc.) than can boil water to eliminate chemicals, heavy metals, parasites – anything you can think of, which is great for emergencies.
It’s made of high quality 304 stainless steel with a stainless steel dispenser and valve as well as high-temp gaskets, hoses and fasteners – so no reason to worry!
Furthermore, the auto fill system allows you to run the distiller continuously. Just keep adding new feed water to the condenser pot which will automatically fill the boiler.
The yield is 8-10 cups of distilled water per hour.
As far as the D-STIL Lite is concerned, it shares its features and production capabilities with the GRAVI-STIL, only that it allows you to use your own pots for boiling (8-12″) and condensing (larger than 10”). Why use your own? To save money, that’s all.
Again, everything is solid stainless steel and high-temperature, medical-grade silicone.
Both products feel a bit pricey. To be fair, though, they are made by a family-owned business in Burlington, Wisconsin which offers great customer support.
2.5 pounds for the D-STIL and 17 pounds for the GRAVI-STIL is too heavy to be carrying around. These portable water distillers should be set up in your base camp.
The SHTFandGO GRAVI-STIL and D-STIL Lite can save your life at home when disaster strikes. And even on a regular camping trip they come in super handy thanks to their compactness. A bit pricier than one would expect, but durable and American-made.
For us, no matter which you choose you end up with the best emergency water purification system and the best camping water purifier. 5 stars!
7. MSR Reviews: MiniWorks® EX Microfilter & MiniWorks® EX Purifier System
MSR MiniWorks® EX Microfilter – Best Water Filter Pump
|Filter Capacity:||500 gal|
MSR MiniWorks® EX Purifier System
|Filter Capacity:||500 gal|
Last on our list, 2 MSR water filter pumps:
- The MiniWorks® EX Microfilter
- And the MSR MiniWorks® EX Purifier System
In a nutshell, the main difference between the pump filters is that the EX Purifier System includes 50 Aquatabs tablets (iodine-free) to inactivate viruses, the EX Microfilter does not.
Both filter bacteria, protozoa, taste and odor, and particles down to .2 micron. The EX purifying system meets U.S. EPA requirements for microbiological water purifiers and NSF protocol P231. The EX Microfilter only meets the testing standard for the NSF Protocol. Why that is we don’t know. Maybe MSR simply made a mistake when creating the product description. As far as we can tell the pumps use the same ceramic/ carbon filter replacement element.
The water flow rate is one quart per minute, enough for solo use or a small group. With regular cleaning, one filter cartridge lasts about 500 gallons (2,000 liters) which is plenty of water. However, we doubt that the activated carbon will be effective for that long – not a big deal as long as the ceramic media works as intended.
- Compatible with Nalgene, Camelback and other water containers
- Uses pre-filter
- Storage bag included
- Manufacturer warranty: Lifetime (limited)
- Made in USA
First of all, 1 lb feels a little heavy for such small hand pump filters. Similar competitor models are significantly lighter.
Secondly, MSR MiniWorks® are known to plug quickly which slows down water flow. Fortunately, they are field maintainable. All you have to do is scrub the ceramic filter with the supplied pad until it’s nice and clean. This will give you another few ounces or liters of water before the flow slows down again and you have to repeat the process.
Weighing the pros and cons, the MSR MiniWorks® EX Microfilter is our top water filter pump. We really like the fact that you can maintain it in the field with no tools required. The EX Purifier System is basically the same, only that it includes purification tablets to counter viruses.
Portable Water Filter Buying Guide 2020 – What to Consider
Whether you are looking for the best backpacking water filter, the best hiking water filter, the best water filter for emergency preparedness & survival, or the best camping water filter, this buying guide tells you everything you need to know about portable water filters.
Portable Water Filter Types
A water filter straw is a small pipe with filter media, usually hollow fiber membranes, inside. You hold one end into the water source and suck with your mouth on the other.
The handling couldn’t be more straightforward. You get filtered water on demand which is why this filter type is popular among hikers, runners and other individuals who don’t like to carry water while they’re on the go.
One of the disadvantages of water filter straws is that it can be really hard to suck a satisfying amount of water through which only gets worse over time as they start to clog. Also, you have to get really close to the water which often means lying on your belly – unless you fill a container with dirty water.
Speaking of, using a filter straw you cannot store any filtered water for later use like cooking. So you either have to carry around water or you can only drink when you’re directly at a water source.
Squeeze Filter Systems
Squeeze filters are like water filter straws that can be attached to plastic bottles, squeezable pouches or other kinds of hydration packs. Instead of sucking, you simply squeeze the water container forcing a flow through the filter element. Squeezing is not only way more convenient, you also get way more water and faster.
Above that, most squeeze water filters also work as a filter straw if needed.
Pump Water Filters
Pump water filters draw feed water through an intake hose, into the filter element, and out the system into a bottle or another clean water container. What powers the process? Well, pumping, as in pumping by hand.
Pros: Treatment is fast and you can produce unlimited clean water which is great if you are in a group or quickly want to filter a quart while you’re on the trail.
Cons: Pumping can be tedious, especially when clogging becomes an issue.
Portable Gravity Water Filters
Gravity filters use – you’ve guessed it – gravity to push water through one or more filter stages for cleaning. Portable gravity kits usually consist of a collapsible bag that holds the dirty water and a hose with an inline filter attached to it.
For the process to work you have to hang the bag somewhere high, the higher the better. This creates a high amount of pressure for fast filtration speed with no physical effort required from your end. Most importantly, the capacity is enough to supply a large backpacking group or family camping.
2 factors that can make using gravity water filters difficult are
- Shallow water – Filling the filter bags in shallow water isn’t child’s play.
- Elevated place – Finding a tree or another suitable place to hang the reservoir might require some creativity.
UV Sterilizing Pens
Ultraviolet light radiation is an effective method to disinfect water. Using one of the handy sterilizing pens, you get microbiologically safe water quickly. Easy to use? Absolutely! Simply submerge the UV light bulb and swirl for about 1 or 2 minutes.
It’s just that you can’t treat large quantities of water and the water has to be relatively clear. You want to use clean water anyway, since the process does not remove any sediments etc.
Portable Water Distillers
Distillation provides the cleanest water possible and can be fed from any water source. But the process takes time and you need a proper heat source. This is something you can only do in your base camp.
Water Bottle Filters and Other Products
What about water bottle filters and other products? We decided not to include them here. Rather, we’d like to create a dedicated reviews guide for water bottle filters and one for purification tablets & drops.
Filtering water in the wilderness is all about eliminating bacteria and protozoa. Viruses are usually not an issue in North America, unless maybe if you are in a highly frequented area. Where virus protection should definitely be considered is when you travel internationally – think tropical climates and developing countries – and when a natural disaster occurs.
Why not take care of all the waterborne pathogens and not worry anymore? Because some viruses are extremely small and impossible to catch for most portable water filters.
Of all the products reviewed above, only the LifeStraw Mission and the LifeStraw Family can trap viruses. Of course, the SteriPEN also neutralizes them, using UV light to alter their DNA. And the stills kill anything living in the water source.
Anyway, as far as bacteria and protozoa removal goes, submicron (ultrafiltration) membranes and ceramic filters have proven to be effective.
Personally, we don’t see the point of using activated carbon. Neither does the carbon filter much, nor does it last very long.
Product Weight & Compactness
You want a portable water filter that packs small and travels light. Straws and sterilizing pens have the clear advantage here! Squeeze filters come next. Portable gravity filters should not be a problem as long as they are collapsible. They same goes for pumps, although they can weigh up to 1 pound. The water stills listed above are definitely not meant for hiking or backpacking.
Durability & Maintenance (Cost)
We prefer a filter unit that can take a hit without breaking. Furthermore, quality materials and not too many moving parts are always good.
For maintenance, it has to be simple enough to be carried out while you’re on your mission without requiring a dozen tools. A prime example is the LifeStraw Personal Water Filter which you can clean by simply blowing out the remaining water after each drink.
What you also have to consider are expenses for replacement filters. Cartridges with a long lifespan make all the difference here.
More on Portable Water Filters
Portable Water Filters: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
- What is the best portable water purifier?
Our favorite portable water purifier that removes bacteria, protozoa AND viruses is the LifeStraw Mission. It’s perfect even for larger groups of outdoor adventurers that value low weight and packability. For camping we recommend other products, the GRAVI-STIL and the D-STIL Lite. In case you’re solo, you should also check out the SteriPEN Ultra Handheld UV Water Purifier.
- How do you make a portable water filter?
Actually, we wouldn’t advise anyone to make his or her own portable water filter. That’s because any leak could easily lead to contamination which has to be avoided at all cost when dealing with waterborne pathogens.
- What is better than LifeStraw?
The Sawyer MINI Portable Water Filtration System is better than LifeStraw. It not only has a smaller micron rating, it also lasts up to a hundred times longer due to its backwashing feature.
- Does Sawyer squeeze filter viruses?
No, the Sawyer squeeze does not filter viruses.
- How common are viruses in water?
Viruses are not very common in water bodies in remote areas of North America. The same holds true for public water systems. However, viruses are often an issue in developing countries, especially in hot climates.
Questions? Ask away! And make sure to come back to this buying guide from time to time as we are going to continue our product hunt for the best portable water filter on the market.