I can’t think of a situation that would be worse than living out Montezuma’s Revenge on the side of a mountain six miles into the high country. Water is the key to sustaining life in the backcountry, and poorly treated water can knock you out of the backcountry quicker than any other situation. To make matters worse, improperly cared for water in September on an early deer hunt can leave its remnants in your gut for long enough to get good old Montezuma flowing on your October elk hunt. By the way, if you don’t know what Montezuma has planned for you, feel free to Google it; you will likely enjoy the read.
So where does that take us in this unconventional Gear Lab? It brings us to several terms that you NEED to know when it comes to how seriously you want to take your health and your water needs. Ounce counters beware, I am likely to add a few ounces to your pack, but in the end, I would be willing to say that your intestines will thank me for it.
The key word to look for in all situations is purify or purifier. When this word is present in the description, you are making the right choice, as many of the uber-lightweight treatment options DO NOT purify water. Many of the options simply treat some of the things you need to be concerned about, but not all. Bottom line is this: If you have been packing some form of the water droplets, iodine tabs or a combination of the two, you may have been missing a few creepy crawlies, viruses or the like that are swimming around in the water we use in the backcountry. Iodine is the worst culprit and has actually been banned in Europe since 2009 as a form of water treatment due to the allergies that some people have to it and the simple fact that it does not kill Giardia or Cryptosporidium.
So, which forms of water treatment kill all the nasties? Well, all Potable Aqua CIO2 Tablets, Katadyn Micropur Tablets and Aquamira CIO2 kill everything! These all use a powerful form of oxygen that kills the little pests, but there are really two kickers, the first being the most important. It can take up to four hours for Cryptosporidium to disappear from treated water. Better hope you don’t get thirsty in that time frame or you’ve rationed enough water until the Crypto is dead. The other issue is that it can’t get rid of floaties, dirt or anything else that might be in the water. Those grains of elk turd floating down from the wallow up stream may be treated, but do you really want to add them to your freeze-dried meal?
Which brings us to the next problem—what is the best way to get rid of floaties, dirt, etc., while cleaning out as many unwanted infestations as possible? I have leaned on the MSR MiniWorks EX for about 18 months now, and it has not disappointed with proper use. There is a caveat though; this is a filter and not a purifier, meaning that if you want to get rid of viruses, you will need to use the included Aquatabs or other virus treatment method. If you feel like dropping some serious coin, you can move up to the MSR Guardian Purifier, which does it all, but that will set you back $350; it only weighs 1.3 oz more than the MiniWorks. Taking the step up from a filter to a true purifier is a big step but worth it.
Next, let’s talk about UV treatment options like the SteriPen models from Katadyn. UV treatment gets rid of viruses, bacteria and protozoa … in small doses. Most lightweight models treat from a one-half liter to a full liter quickly, but like their chemical friends, they are not a great option if you want clean and pure water. That brings me back wanting to have a filter on hand most of the time.
Really, this all boils down to efficiency and just how light you want your pack. If mud in the water bladder doesn’t bother you and there is time to kill, go for a purifying chemical system. If time is of the essence and you only need a little at a time, bring the UV filtering system. If mud matters, then a pump system that pushes the water through a filter with .2 micron-size holes, then you should be good for everything but viruses.
So, what will I be using this year? I will be packing a MiniWorks and UV filtration combo with me. I don’t like chewing on mud but fill up a Nalgene every morning for drinking water, which would need virus treatment, and the UV light will be the quickest. Boiling for meals and coffee kills viruses as well, as long as a rolling boil is met, which means the rest of my water is virus-free as well. Many of you may want your packs as light as possible, and that means that chemical purification is your choice, which is a great choice for those willing to deal with dirty water for the comfort of a lighter pack.