Gear Review: Water Filtration vs Water Purification (for Camping and Backpacking)

With all the different products and technologies out there it can be difficult to understand which type of water purifier or filter you need for which situation.  So I’ve decided to give you a quick breakdown of what I’ve learned along the way.  This comes from years of backpacking, camping and trekking in different parts of the world.  In this article, I’ll discuss the differences between water filtration and water purification and how they relate to camping and backcountry hiking and trekking.

In general the difference between a water filter and a water purifier is the size of the microorganism they fight.  Filters will strain out bacteria and protozoa, whereas purifiers will remove viruses as well.  Water filtration should be fine for anywhere in the United States, where as a water purification method is advised for areas outside the country.  As always, check your products packaging for specific details.


Water filtration is a process that rids water of impurities by means of a physical barrier, chemical process or biological process.  Water filters can come in a variety of sizes and shapes and most camping filters will protect you from bacteria and protozoa up to a certain level as well as heavy metals and other contaminants.  When shopping for water filters for your next camping or backpacking trip, you will probably come across these three basic types.

Pump Water Filters:

Pump-style water filters incorporate a hose that sucks water from a source and a pump that pushes it through a filter.  These are great for filtering large quantities of water.  However they are typically large and heavy, so not very good for backcountry hiking.  They also require field cleaning, which means added work in order to keep you water safe for drinking.  These types of filters are best if you are preparing water for a large group of people or a family.

Straw or Bottle Water Filters:

Straw filters are small and lightweight and are great for long backpacking trips.  They filter water as it is sucked from the source…like a straw.  They can access water at its source or be attached to a bottle.  They are great for individual use but cannot filter large quantities at one time.  The two most popular types are the LifeStraw and the Sawyer Mini Filter.

Gravity Water Filters:

Gravity filters involve gathering a large amount of water in a reservoir and using gravity to pass it through a filter.  They are great for large quantities without having to expend much work.  They also tend to be heavy and not recommended for long backpacking trips.


Water purification is the process of removing undesirable chemicals, contaminants and solids from a water source.  Water purification will kill most bacteria, protozoa and viruses, but keep in mind that the methods described below DO NOT filter the water from heavy metals or sediment, so it is recommended to use a pre-filter for murky or cloudy water…or any of the above mentioned filtration methods.  In general there are two types of water purification methods that are used by campers to quickly purify water.

Chemical Purification (Iodine or Chlorine):

This method is most commonly done with the use of iodine tablets.  Simply drop one iodine tablet into your water canister and wait about 30 minutes or so (depending on the tablet and the size of the canister).  The iodine tablet will kill the bacteria, protozoa and viruses and make the water safe to drink.  Unfortunately iodine will give the water an unusual taste and is not considered safe for women who are pregnant.

UV Light Water Purification:

Probably one of the best ways to purify water, the UV water purification method works by emitting UV light which kills the reproductive capabilities of bacteria, protozoa and viruses.  It’s usually done by stirring a glowing rod around in a glass of water.  It can purify a liter of water in under a minute.  The downside of this method is that it takes batteries and therefore adds additional weight to your pack.  The most popular brand is the SteriPen.

Daniel Royse Written by:

Daniel Royse is the founder and editor in chief of the online travel publication, This Boundless World. He has written numerous articles on travel, business and politics and has recently completed his first full-length novel titled The Watermelon King. Daniel is an obsessive writer and explorer who has backpacked to over 50 countries, spanning five continents. To the disbelief of many, he still enjoys long, hot bus rides through chaotic places. More information about The Watermelon King can be found at Contact: danroyse(to)