When it comes to water treatment, the first question we ask is “What are you trying to accomplish?” Almost everyone who walks through our doors is looking for a way to treat water on the trail, whether it is the Superior Hiking Trail or the BWCAW. Besides just cleaning the water up so it looks, smells and tastes good, the main reason for filtering the pristine water of the BWCAW is to remove various bacteria, protozoa and viruses. Think giardia here. Almost all good filtering systems will take care of you in the north woods and in North America. Then it is just a matter of what is most convenient for you.
First there is the old standby of boiling the water. This works great if you have time and fuel. Before boiling, the water needs to be pre-filtered to remove large debris. You can strain it through a bandana, coffee filter or paper towel. Then boil the water and let it cool. The CDC recommends that you bring it to a rolling boil for one minute. At altitudes greater than 6,562 feet (2000 meters), boil it for three minutes. It’s not a fancy solution, but it is inexpensive and effective.
If you don’t want to boil the water, you can use tablets to purify it. They do not cost much and are effective when used correctly but again, you have to plan. Most of the tablets state you should let them dissolve and then let the water sit for a period of hours, not minutes. Effective? Yes it is. Efficient? Not so much.
We have all used the pump method, sitting on the shore pumping, pumping, pumping until we have our buckets filled. Adapters allow you to pump directly into your water bottle, but it is still slow. Next came the gravity filter, which fills while you did other things around camp. Why would you go with one system over the other besides convenience? Mostly cost, as the pump is still the less expensive way to go.
One thing you need to keep in mind however, is that these are all filtering systems, not purification systems. Traveling throughout North America, this should not present a problem, but if you are going south of the border or to other areas of the world, you may need a purification system. You may also want to invest in a purification system if you are using it for an emergency preparedness kit, since floods and other hazards can jeopardize the purity of water supplies.
Many of the companies that make filtration systems also make purification systems. One of the newer and more popular systems is the SteriPEN. It works on the concept of using ultraviolet light to purify the water. One drawback is that it is not a filter system, so you still need to filter the water to get debris and other foreign objects out of the water. You can buy a prefilter that will take care of this problem, but it is an additional step and an added cost.
There are many brands on the market. Look at your budget, do a little research and decide how small of particles you want out of your water and choose accordingly. And you need to decide if you want filtered or purified water. Whatever system you choose, do use it in the backcountry, because nothing can ruin a trip more than a severe case of giardia.