By Alan J. Garbers
Choosing the right backpacking water filter can be a confusing affair. The market is saturated with models that all do an adequate job of providing clean safe water. During trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota I found out how quickly (or slowly) and efficiently they do the job.
Finding water in the BWCA is not a problem. In fact the federally designated wilderness is laced with creeks, streams, rivers, and lakes. However, even in the wilderness, water can have dangerous bacteria, and common protozoa, including Giarda and Cryptosporidia.
From past experience I knew a paper filter works fairly well at removing sediment but did nothing to remove bacteria and other microorganisms that can make humans sick. Chlorine bleach, iodine tablets, ceramic filters, and UV lights can all get the job done, but there are some draw backs to each. The idea of trying to administer just the right number of drops of chlorine bleach to my drinking water didn't sound reliable and I don't like the taste of water purification tablets, so I purchased a ceramic filter for the trip.
Most ceramic water filters for camping are made to draw water through a strainer and into the ceramic media using the hand pump. The tiny pores in the ceramic media filter out 99.9999 percent of the things that can harm humans. It also has activated carbon to remove taste and odor. The result is pure water in your waiting container, normally a one-liter Nalgene bottle.
After briefly pondering the selection I decided to go with the MSR Sweetwater filter. The filter is compact and is rated at one liter of water in just a little less than a minute and the pickup strainer has 80-micron stainless steel mesh to filter out the debris. The pump handle uncouples so it can pack away in a small stuff bag, and it is one of the lightest filters on the market. The kit came with all the hoses, fittings, and maintenance tools I thought I needed, but I soon found out I should have done more research.
At the beginning of the trip the Sweetwater worked well but quickly slowed as the ceramic media loaded with fine dirt. By the second day filtering just a liter of water took agonizing long and was a torturous workout working the pump lever. Cleaning the unit brought back some performance but not as good as new.
An added issue was in cleaning the ceramic media itself. The cleaning brush actually started removing parts of the ceramic media! By the end of the seven-day trip the filter had to be cleaned after every use, and that was using the cleanest water that could be found!
The pickup screen is stainless steel.
Another issue was the water bottle adapter seated loosely on the Nalgene wide-mouth bottle. Trying to filter water in a rocking canoe or rocky shoreline became a circus act to keep the water bottle upright, the water bottle adapter in place, the filter intake in a desirable location, and operating the filter pump handle. It really was a two-person job!
The bottle adapter isn't threaded.
Before the next trip I vowed to not go through that frustrating workout again.
After getting back to civilization I found that Sweetwater made a pre-filter called the SiltStopper. The fiber pre-filter keeps the main ceramic filter cleaner, greatly lengthening its life span, so I bought the pre-filter and a copious amount of replacement cartridges. I also picked up a pack of paper coffee filters that easily wrapped over the water suction screen with a rubber band. With a new ceramic cartridge, I was ready for my next trip.
The SiltStopper pre-filter shouldn't be optional.
Next: Old problems resolved but a new star rises.