One Filter to Rule Them All?

Regardless of all the “To Be Determined” stuff from my last post, I figured that one way or another I’ll still be backpacking. I’m always keeping an eye out for, and mulling over ways to shed ounces off what I’m ultimately having to move up the trail. Naturally, if you’re carrying around extra POUNDS of body fat then that would be the logical place to start. So, Loonie and I are planning on turning over a new leaf in the coming year to start chipping away at that. That hasn’t stopped me from looking elsewhere though. While it may seem counter-intuitive (at least for a bonehead like me), sometimes carrying an item that’s a bit heavier can dramatically reduce the total weight of what you typically carry.

With that in mind, I thought I would look at how I’m filtering or treating water and the effect that has on my total pack weight (base weight plus the weight of all consumables). There are many ways of making water safe to drink in the backcountry. You can boil it, use bleach, Iodine, Chlorine Dioxide drops or tablets. There’s pump filters, squeeze filters, gravity feed filters, and straw filters. And there’s ultraviolet light (UV-C) devices like those made by “SteriPEN”. Each method/tool has its pros and cons. For a general rundown on the pros and cons of each, read this article on REI’s website.

Many ultra-light hikers use either AquaMira’s Chlorine Dioxide (ClO2) drops or Katadyn’s MicroPur MP1 Chlorine Dioxide tablets. The Chlorine Dioxide drops are pretty much a non-option for me due to the dexterity required to simply mix the solutions. With the Essential Tremor, I would never manage to get the drops in the cap or the mixed solution into my water bottle. The method I’ve been using when I hike solo is the MP1 Chlorine Dioxide tablets, which still require some dexterity to cut the packet open and get the tablet in the bottle but so far I’ve managed.

AquaMira Chlorine Dioxide drops

Katadyn MicroPur MP1 Chlorine Dioxide tablets

One tablet treats one liter of water. Katadyn and the EPA say that a reaction time of four hours is required to completely treat one liter. I’m not going to say “You don’t have to wait that long! You’ll be fine waiting just x minutes”. Factors such as the temperature of the water to be treated can affect the necessary reaction time so I’ll just stick with saying that you need to wait four hours before taking that first drink. Short of not treating your water at all, this is about the lightest option there is…unless you’re hauling around additional water to account for the required reaction time. I will typically carry two 1L bottles: one with water that has gone through the reaction process that I’ll drink from and one with water undergoing the reaction process. So, at most, I’m carrying two liters. Two liters is nearly 4-1/2 POUNDS!

Again, I’m not advocating it, but most people do not wait four hours. Drinking just one liter every four hours is not a good idea so you can do the math and figure out how long people (alright, including myself) typically wait if they knock back a liter at least every couple of hours. Generally on the AT, “decently” clear running water is available at frequent enough intervals that it’s unnecessary to haul so much…assuming you can treat/filter and start drinking in a reasonable amount of time.

When the Sawyer Squeeze and Mini filters hit the market everyone seemed to be jumping on board. I would speculate that they are the two most common methods of filtering water on the AT today.

Sawyer’s Mini filter, squeeze bag, straw and back flush syringe

You see a TON of Sawyer Mini’s atop SmartWater bottles.  But you also hear a lot of complaints about low flow rates and the hassle of having to back flush frequently. They are light…less than 2 oz…but can be a pain when it comes time to actually use them.  Some people gravitate from the Mini back to the larger and heavier Sawyer Squeeze for the higher flow rate.  I haven’t used the Mini that much but when I have I found myself thinking “There’s got to be a better way!  Something faster”.

I’ve been following chatter on the web concerning Katadyn’s new (as of 2016) BeFree filter. I figured that I would let the dust settle and see what feedback was coming in after some time in the field. Despite some issues with the first version of collapsible bottles and some concerns about the flow rate dropping off (more about those in a bit), I decided to give it a shot.

These things aren’t cheap – $44.95 for the filter and a 1L Hydrapak collapsible bottle. $24.95 for the filter only. For comparison, the Sawyer Mini, which comes with a collapsible squeeze bag, syringe for back flushing and straw is $24.95. Both are 0.1 micron filters, removing at least 99.99% of bacteria and protozoa. Now for the differences. The Katadyn’s flow rate is supposed to be amazing – 2 liters/min. In my experience, the Mini is less than half that. These rates are based on a new filter and the rate typically begins dropping off rather quickly unless care is taken to use the cleanest, gunk-free sources possible, use some sort of prefilter (a bandana should suffice) and regularly clean (Katadyn) or back flush (Sawyer). Cleaning the Katadyn is supposed to be just a matter “swishing” or “shaking”. Remove the filter from the bottle and swish it around in some fresh water or fill the bottle with fresh water, screw on the filter and shake. Excellent! If it works!

For an apples-to-apples comparison of weights, I’ll leave out the weights of the Sawyer Mini’s squeeze bag, back flush syringe and straw. Many people carry only the filter and two 1L SmartWater bottles, using one bottle to collect and filter from (with the filter screwed on top) and one for filtering into. The filter can be back flushed by using one of the bottles, so theoretically, you could leave it at home.

Katadyn BeFree
Filter (dry): 1.18 oz
Hydrapak Soft Bottle (for dirty water): 0.95 oz
1L SmartWater Botter (for filtered water): 1.33 oz

Total: 3.46 oz

Sawyer Mini
Filter (dry): 1.30 oz
1L SmartWater Bottle (for dirty water): 1.33 oz
1L SmartWater Bottle (for filtered water): 1.33 oz

Total: 3.96 oz

These weights are based on my cheap digital scale so YMMV.  Some things to consider before purchasing the BeFree:

Where the Sawyer excels is the number of gallons it’s rated for: a whopping 100,000 as compared to 264 (1,000 liters) for the Katadyn. Considering my limited trail time each year though, the Katadyn is more than sufficient.

There was an issue with a seam failing on the early Hydrapak bottles but from what I’ve read, that has been addressed. If you just purchased one or are about to, you should be fine.

The filter only fits the Hydrapak bottles it comes with or the Hydrapak “Seeker” collapsible 2L and 3L bottles (sold separately).  Strangely enough, replacement 1L bottles aren’t available yet but I would imagine that will change.

Some users have been experiencing flow rate dropping off pretty dramatically after a short time. These cases seem to be rare and more than likely related to having no choice other than to filter from “less than ideal” sources (livestock ponds, anything with heavy sediments, etc) in which case, both the BeFree and Mini would struggle. Being able to back flush the Mini would likely be to your advantage in situations like this. Considering how easy cleaning the BeFree is supposed to be, it may not be a big deal doing this every other fill or so.  I don’t think sources on the AT will be an issue but we’ll see.

So, is the BeFree the “One Filter to Rule Them All”?  Seeing as I have zero experience with it yet, I would be the last person to judge one way or the other.  Where the BeFree might excel in fast, “on the fly filtering” from better water sources, there will be times that you have no choice but to resort to that nasty looking pond water.  The BeFree would likely leave you high and dry (pun intended) after much use in such situations.  It’s up to you to decide what filtering/treatment option is best suited for the conditions you’ll likely encounter.  If you’re concerned  about viruses, neither the BeFree or Mini will fill the bill.  You’ll need to look at something like the MSR SweetWater or one of the SteriPen models.

Head to head, I think the BeFree might be a good alternative to the Sawyer Mini for my needs.  I wouldn’t want to rely solely on the BeFree though so I’ll still carry some MicroPur tablets as backup and to treat 2 liters overnight.  20 or so MicroPur tablets in their foil packets weigh about 0.5 oz.  So, coming back to my original point of this post – reducing my total pack weight, while I may be adding 3 oz or so to my base weight, I will lose about 2 lbs off my total pack weight by only carrying 1L of water and filtering on the go.  Sweet!

Aside from that, the only other “gear-related” news is that I picked up a couple of pairs of Darn Tough Micro Crew Cushion Merino Wool socks.

The WrightSocks I have been wearing  are getting pretty threadbare so I didn’t have much choice in replacing them.  The Darn Tough’s are  supposed to last forever.  They better considering they cost $21.00 per pair.  I do know this: they are SUPER comfy!  Weight:  2.62 oz per pair.

More to come…

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