What is one thing that you can’t live without? Water. H2O. It sounds simple – two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen. This simple compound makes up two-thirds of the earth’s surface, 75% of the human body, and without it, we would only survive a few days. Bikepacking can put you in some pretty hairy situations if you don’t do your research and plan ahead for water resupply. Being prepared with a water purifying technique to protect you from parasites and other pathogenic microorganisms is paramount to your health, and possibly survival, on the trail. We will dig into the pros and cons of 4 lightweight ways to purify water while bikepacking with the help of Norb DeKerchove, Smoke ‘n’ Fire route creator and Bikepackers Magazine contributor.

Boiling Water
The age-old way of purifying water is to boil it. According to the United States EPA, you must bring water to a boiling point of 212 °F and let it roll for one minute to kill all of the bacteria and make it safe for consumption. The required boiling time increases to three minutes at altitudes above one mile (5,280 ft / 2,000 m). While this method is fool proof, as nothing can survive in the water after reaching that temperature, there are a few reasons why boiling water is not the most efficient for bikepacking. Screen Shot 2016-07-18 at 9.38.41 PM This may be a great way to purify water while at camp on a recreational bikepacking trip, however, there are many bikepack racers who choose not to bring stoves during races to save weight, especially if they know there are ample resupply points with foot and potable water handy. At whatever speed you are traveling, and for whatever purpose, taking out a stove to boil water in the middle of the day, and letting it cool prior to drinking it can be very time consuming. In order to boil enough water to fill up a 3 liter bladder, you would need to carry a very large pot, or boil water multiple times in a small mug or pot. This is not the most efficient way to purify your water while bikepacking, but a great method if you’re in a pinch.

Water Filter
There are many lightweight water filters on the market these days, and it seems to be a rather popular method for purifying. For the purposes of this article we will share some of Norb’s experiences with using a Sawyer Mini Filter on the Arizona Trail Race. “For the Arizona Trail Race in 2015 I wanted to try the Sawyer Mini Filter. I thought having a real filtration system would be a good idea, since water sources are sketchy on the AZT and my research said I would be sourcing primarily from tanks and other non-moving water sources, ripe for floaties and unmentionables. RIMG3614 During my preparation I discovered I did not like how long it took to fill a 1 liter bladder through standard small mouth bottle cap size threaded hole. What I did was cut the bottom out of the bladder so I could ‘scoop’ water and then used a clip to tie it off and squeeze the liter of water through the filter. Water does not flow quickly out of the filter so actually filling a 3 Liter hydration bladder took some time. And the bladder you use to scoop and contain water will always be a contaminated bladder to carry around. Overall the filter is simple and easy to use. There is even a big arrow on the filter pointing to the direction of the flow so when you’re completely knackered and can’t think, at least you have a chance. Plus, with no moving parts or batteries to contend with, it is a bulletproof solution in the backcountry. There is even a straw attachment so you can immediately quench your thirst directly from a water source.” RIMG3621 While filters are great for use in the backcountry, they can be bulky to carry around and pack, and they also take a considerable amount of time and effort to use.

Purification Tablets
Purification tablets are without-a-doubt the most lightweight water treatment option of the 4 listed here. They are reliable, easy to use, and most require around 30 minutes to process. There are many types of tabs to use including iodine tablets and chlorine dioxide tablets. Below are Norb’s thoughts on his experience using the MSR Aquatabs (chlorine dioxide) for the Colorado Trail Race a couple of years ago. “In 2014 I decided to use the MSR Aquatabs for the Colorado Trail Race. I wanted to go as light as possible and I knew the water would be clear and clean in the Colorado high country, with few particulates.Purify Water-05342 MSR Aquatabs are a fast and effective treatment against microorganisms and claim to kill 99.9999% of bacteria in just 30 minutes. It really can’t be any easier, simply drop one tab per liter into your water bottle or hydration bladder and wait 30 minutes and drink without fear (NOTE: Not effective against Cryptosporidium). The downside, which is minimal, is that the tabs do alter the taste of the water slightly, and if your dosage is too high, it’ll taste like a swimming pool. I typically add electrolyte drops so some of the chlorinated metallic taste does come from electrolyte and tab mixture. And again, if the water has particulates you won’t get rid of those unless you filter the water with your bandana or another form of filter or fabric. The tabs take up no space, are super convenient to use, and weigh next to nothing. I keep them in my zippered hipbelt pocket if I’m wearing a pack, or in my gas tank on the top tube if riding without a pack.” There are other tablets on the market which have a longer processing time of 4 hours, such as Aquamira and Katadyn Micropur, which are effective against Cryptosporidium. Iodine tablets are also widely used, however, they are not effective against Cryptosporidium, they taste funny, and discolor everything they contact – including your water vessels.

Most tablets are 99.99% effective against bacteria, viruses and cysts, but if you have the time or resources, it can’t hurt to pre-filter your water through a cloth or coffee filter.

SteriPEN
As with all water purification methods, there is no absolutely fool-proof way to treat your water. The SteriPEN is another option that has served Norb well, however, there are a few glaring cons that could put you in a tough situation in the while traveling off the grid. “I used a SteriPEN for a number of year’s bikepacking and used one on the Tour Divide in 2011. It is super light, easy to use and very dependable. It’s powered by a couple CR123 batteries and battery life has never been an issue. For the TD I carried an extra set of batteries just in case, but never did need to replace the batteries. RIMG1003 Ultraviolet light has long been proven to be an effective way to kill pathogens, plus it doesn’t leave any nasty taste in your mouth. However there are a couple potential downsides. First of all you need to use a wide mouth water bottle and if you’re purifying 3 liters for your hydration bladder, you need to purify one liter at a time. Not a huge deal, because I always carry a bottle to mix Via in, or other powdered drinks. In bright sunlight it is really hard to see the green ‘good to go’ light, which indicates the unit is on and mission accomplished. And, if the water is muddy, murky or full of silt, the UV light does not penetrate and becomes less effective in killing organisms. Although it has never happened, it does have a lamp that if you happen to be dazed and confused and drop it on the rocks, or step on it, you’re going to break the UV lamp. Overall, the SteriPEN is a fine device for purifying water and has been a loyal friend on many bikepacking adventures. It doesn’t take the chunks out, but the UV light does destroy microorganisms and is a useful tool.”RIMG3631
While there are many options for purifying water, these are the 4 most common. It is worth noting that toxic water sources are different than contaminated water sources. Toxic water sources contain contamination from sources like pesticide runoffs, direct dumping or indirect leaching, mine tailings, and so on. Boiling, filtering, or chemically treating water can remove or kill microorganisms, but they will not remove chemical toxins.

23 Comments

  1. Norb is an awesome resource!

    Sawyer Squeeze fan here. I have been very happy with mine and will use it on Norb’s race this year.

  2. No mention of viruses. They will pass through a Sawyer. not sure about chemical or ultraviolet though.

  3. I have re-purposed a Sawyer Squeeze as a gravity filter making use of a stripped down CamelBak bladder as the dirty bag. About 248 grams for the setup. That said I could go lighter using it as a Squeeze but I like the gravity feed as I can leave it to do other things.

  4. I saw a slick setup this year on TD. I carried a Sawyer Squeeze, but that requires the user to get down next to the water source. Not always viable in the mountains. Another rider had what I’m pretty sure was a Katadyn Basecamp, which is basically a water filter secured to the bottom of a dry bag. Fill the bag, and either let gravity do its thing, or squeeze to filter. The advantage here is that you don’t have to be right next to the river to get your water. This rider could stand on a bridge and use his paracord (also used for hanging food bags) to lower this filter bag into the river. Much safer than trying to scramble down to the riverbank.

  5. midnight grizzly

    Huge fan of the Lifestraw for long, single day adventures high in CO where streams run all summer. Lightweight and packable.

  6. Just did 700 miles on the Pacific Crest trail and many more in the Socal desert. I used one drop of Clorox/Liter to purify all my water. This is absolutely the easiest way to go. You buy a Visine bottle and dump out contents, wash and replace with Clorox. For running water one drop per Liter for standing water use 2 drops.

    You can get complex if you want but that’s how they treat city water…same concentration.
    The taste is fine, try it, also makes great coffee.

    Bill

  7. For the above Clorox tx wait 20 minutes to drink.
    BTW I’m a nurse. Clorox kills the AIDs virus and many more.

    Bill

    • To improve germ killing, add a drop of vinegar for every drop of bleach.

      • No, no vinegar. Vinegar is used to neutral bleach. Put some bleach on your fingers, notice how slippery they are starting to feel. That is dissolved skin. Now dip or spray some vinegar on them — the slipperiness and dissolving stops *instantly.* A blind man can feel the squeeky clean fingertips. I have to disinfect items with high concentrations of hot bleach each week, and sometimes accidentally spill or spray some on clothing. Or skin. You know how quickly bleach permanently removes color from most all fabrics, right? It you spray or dip the bleach spot on your fabric with vinegar within a minute or so, no color removal. If this ocular proof cannot convince you, use pH papers to test what I am saying about vinegar neutralizing bleach. Bleach is very high ph, almost like lye solution and vinegar is acidic, low pH. Eighth grade science class stuff .

  8. Chris Kampsnider

    I cut the sawyer mini into my camelback hose for the CTR which simplified things as I just scooped up water and went. I did have some issues with super restricted flow after a fill up that had some algae floating in it up by the sheep herders trailer. The syringe they gave to back flush it worked fairly well though so it wasn’t a deal breaker however it made for a stressful few hours until I fixed it!
    I like the Clorox in a visine bottle as a cheap backup, just don’t forget to label it, no need for a burning surprise down the road 😉

  9. What kind of clip is that on the sawyer bladder?

    • Norb DeKerchove

      Jason,
      The clip came off of a hydration bladder that came with a vest made by Ogio (Flight Vest). Haven’t seen any out there, but you could hack one out of small, rigid plastic pipe. Light and easy.

  10. In a pinch use a drop or 2 of clorox per liter.It’s the same at the tablets, but cheaper & more readily available.

  11. Boiling, although by far the better method as it kills viruses too, uses too much fuel. Chlorine tabs I try to avoid due to taste and increased nastiness in my water.
    I’ve been using the Sawyer squeeze for a number of months here in South America and I will probably never use it again as its very slow when filtering many litres. I usually fill up during the day 2-4 litres worth and it takes too long (30 minutes or so) to filter and at high altitude and after long days in the saddle this can be quite tiring. I admit the unit is tiny, very lightweight, and can filter many thousands of litres but next time (if my Dynamo system comes together) I’ll be using USB charged Steripen. Better still wait for the new MSR unit.

  12. This is my Ultra light Bikepacking channel Please subscribe to my Channel for weekly updates. My name is Mark from Ireland I have always had a passion for camping and travel I went on a 2 week backpacking trip to the Greek islands and never went back home that been over 25 years I’ve been living and working around the world. You could say a nomad for the pass 25 years. The last few years I spending a lot of time Bikepacking from over night trips to long distance tours across Asia. This Youtube channel documents my learning process and it shares the knowledge about Bikepacking and interesting places and people that I’ve met . I am also a real gear junkie so you get to see the best Gear you can have in bikepacking If you want to support this channel and My Bikepacking adventure feel free to: – watch Thanks Live your dream… Check it out https://www.youtube.com/c/SoloBikepackingGuy?sub_confirmation=1

  13. Take no chances. Boil, Aqua Mira, or Steripen. I now use the 2016 Steripen, and love it. Uses regular AA batteries. I also take the Aqua Mira for backup, but haven’t had to yet.

  14. Pedro Blasco Perez

    I have also used Betadine in some cases. It is a good antiseptic.

  15. Pingback: 2016 Bikepacker Gift Guide - Bikepacker

  16. Steripen – I must have had a bad one because it let me down twice in the backcountry – once I had my trusty MSR pump filter with me as well and the other time we simply rolled the dice and drank the water. So needless to say Steripen is a no go for me. I recently bought the sawyer mini and I’m in love. Filling through the small opening sucks, I like the cut the back off hack – may try that! It is faster than my MSR pump, lighter, and essentially takes up no space – honestly for what it does the size/weight is not an issue. The other “drawback” is COLD HANDS. Filling that bladder in icy streams is no fun at all!! I’m planning on getting a second one to just leave in my hydration pack for the random oops I ran out of water. Honestly, the sawyer mini is pretty impressive.

  17. Pingback: A Photo Journal: Bikepacking the South Chilcotin Mountains - Bikepacker

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *