By Evan Wishloff
Campers Village and the Quest for the Holy Grayl
Not much beats the beauty of the backcountry, and nowhere is that more true than Berg Lake Trail in Mount Robson Provincial Park - one of my favorite places in all of Canada! Over 20 km away from civilization, but with such backpacking luxuries as outhouses and cook shelters, Berg Lake backcountry camping skirts the lines of rustic backcountry and fool-proof backpacking quite nicely.
As a long-time mountain bike racer, I know the importance of proper hydration for a day of physical activity, and lugging a heavy backpack up Robson Pass definitely counts as physical activity. On a hot day, I’ve drank over 5 litres of water on the trail in the past, so how do you carry that much water?
You don’t! That’s where water treatment comes in. On past trips, I have relied on iodine tablets to treat the water - the trail to Berg Lake is filled with crystal-clear mountain streams, so no filtration is really required. But for this trip, I decided to try out a new product at Campers Village that intrigued me: the ultraportable Grayl water purifier.
Clean water is as easy as FILL, PRESS, DRINK - watch this video to see the Grayl in action.
The simplicity and size of the Grayl intrigued me. It’s about the size and weight of a travel coffee mug, and comes apart into two pieces - an inner and an outer sleeve. To get clean water, you pull apart the Grayl, and use the outer sleeve to scoop up water from any source, and then insert the inner sleeve and filter. After pressing down for as little as 15 seconds (it will take longer as the filter ages) you will have fresh, clean, purified drinking water!
I have to admit, I was clueless to the different types of water filtration systems out there, but after using the Grayl, I wanted to learn more. So I spent some time with one of our Store Guides to learn about all the different water treatment options and how to choose.
Read on to learn more:
Before you start your search for a water treatment system, you should know a few things about what you’ll be using it for. If you’re stopping in to your local Campers Village to gain an insight into water treatment be prepared to answer questions like the following:
- How many people will be using it (is it for larger groups, or solo outings)?
- How frequent will water sources be available where you are going?
- Are you planning to use this to treat water overseas, or just within North America?
- Is weight a concern for you?
Now that you’ve thought through the scenarios in which you’ll be using your water treatment device, it’s time to decide! So what are your options?
First, you need to know the difference between a filtration system and purification system. I used to think these were interchangeable words that meant the same thing, but that’s not true.
A filtration system is designed to physically remove waterborne protozoa and bacteria, but not viruses, as they are too small to be caught by most filters. A purification system kills all three classes of microbes, including viruses, rendering the water safe to drink without actually removing any particulates.
Sound like a lot of mumbo-jumbo? Bullet points to the rescue!
- Removes particles, sediment and bacteria from the water
- Does not kill viruses such as Hepatitis or Norovirus
- Kills bacteria and viruses in the water but does not remove them
- Although the water will be safe to drink, it does not remove particulates or sediments from your water
For the ultimate protection and taste of your water, many systems combine a filter and a purifier. Obviously, this is the way to go, right? Stop reading now and just buy a filter and purifier system? Not exactly!
For most North American backcountry hikes, a filter is all that’s needed
A filtration system is considered sufficient protection for the majority of backcountry hikes in North America. These pristine landscapes are places where you need protection against giardia, e. Coli and salmonella, which a filter does just fine.
Why are we not worried as much about viruses in the backcountry of North America? Most viruses harmful to humans that can be caught from water sources are transfered through human waste. Less humans = less human waste = less risk of viruses.
When should I worry about virus protection and purifying my water?
If you’re getting your water in less-developed countries during travel, near farms or ranchlands, in lakes that people frequently swim in, or anywhere with higher concentrations of human activity, purifying your water is a safe bet.
I’m a bit of an over-worrier myself, so unless I’m collecting water from a fast-flowing, glacier-fed stream, I will generally opt for some sort of purification before drinking water. But before your rush out and buy the most expensive water purifier you can find, consider the amount of amazing hikes in the rocky mountains that offer up fast-flowing, glacier-fed, near-the-source streams to get your water from. You might be able to save some of that hard-earned money.
Types of Water Treatment
Now that we’ve got a crash course in filters vs purifiers, let’s dive into the main treatment options that you’ll be choosing from, with a brief overview and some pros and cons of each. Unless noted, the following options do not treat viruses, so if you’re looking for something to use when in a third-world country, near heavy human activity, or farmland, make sure to pay attention to the purification systems.
Chemical treatment tabs are the lightest and most affordable option when it comes to safe drinking water. They are designed to be dropped into your water container of choice, and left to sit long enough to kill any pathogens and viruses. If you are taking from a silty water source, be prepared for some grit in your teeth, as these tabs are just that - tabs that you put into water.
(You can get a cheap pre-filter for your bottle, such as this one from SteriPEN to help get the floaties out of your water, but remember that this is purely for taste and clarity, not actual treatment of water)
These tabs generally kill most pathogens and viruses within 30 minutes, but certain strains may take up to 4 hours, or even longer if the water is especially cold. Make sure to read the directions from the brand of water tabs you purchase as they can vary in time required, as well as protection they offer.
Because they are so light and tiny, it’s always a good idea to pack a handful for your backcountry trip, even if you decide to use a different treatment system. Should your water treatment break, you the chemical tabs make a great just-in-case fallback.
A water filter system strains out larger bacteria, sediments and other floaties in your water. A pump system allows you to put the intake system into your water source, and pump out filtered water into your chosen container.
Pumps can be a bit tiring to operate, and are heavier and bulkier than some other options available, but they do offer up clean water free of sediments and other unidentified floaties that may gross you out.
Watch this video from a trip some lucky Campers Village Store Guides took to the Sunshine Coast last year to test out some MSR Filtration systems:
Note that these systems do require some maintenance. Check for specifics on the model you are considering if you go this route, as you’ll need to know what to do to maintain it and if it is serviceable on the trail.
Gravity Fed Filters
Gravity-fed filters are great for larger groups and extended camping stays. They work with a similar filter to pump systems, but instead of using force to filter water through, you fill a large reservoir with untreated water, hang the bag, and let gravity do the work.
These systems are bulkier and heavier than the other options listed here, but are also the most effective way of providing water for a large group of people.
You can hang the bag on a tree or up a slope, and people from your camp can come and get water on demand through the sealable output hose, filling their own bottles or cooking pots as needed.
These systems aren’t very useful for on the move filtering during your hike, and generally require a decent depth water source to fill due to the size of the bag, but as mentioned, are the perfect solution for once you've set-up camp in the evening.
Personal Filters/On-the-Go Systems
Personal filter systems got their 5 minutes of fame with the original Lifestraw. You may remember what I’m going to call Lifestraw-mania where everybody was getting them as presents and drinking out of puddles in the streets. Oh… that was just me you say? Forget I mentioned it...
Anyways, these personal filters, originally designed for humanitarian aid based on their simplicity, size and portability operate by pulling water through a filter with suction that the user must provide. There is no way to store clean water with this system. Unless you are at a water source, you’ll be left high and dry with the individual straws.
Newer systems involve a bottle to store water in, which is then filtered through the nozzle as you drink. This is a bit more convenient, as you won’t have to stoop down near a stream to suck water back, and it also acts as a water store for on the trail, but you still won’t be able to filter water for anything else aside from personal consumption directly through the filter.
For the tecnophile’s among us, ultraviolet light purifiers prevent all pathogen types, including viruses, from being dangerous by disrupting the DNA of the pathogen. You’ll still ingest the pathogen, but it will be harmless after being blasted with the ultraviolet light.
This treatment is almost instant, but does require a battery, so make sure you either have backups or start your trip fully charged.
Wath the Steripen Classic 3 in action:
Capacity for these systems is generally limited to around a litre, and will only work in clear water. If you are trying to treat murky water, you will need a filter to clear things up first.
This is a lightweight and compact solution great for individuals or duos that expect to encounter clear water on the trails.
These water filtration products are unique enough to warrant a specific mention:
Modular Filter System
Are you the kind of backpacker who goes for ultralight solo treks AND large group mass campouts, and want a system that can do it all?
Enter the MSR Trail Base Water Filter kit. Outfitted with modular components, this system easily changes from gravity filter at camp into pocket-sized on-the-trail filter, and can even double as your hydration bladder reservoir! Now that’s some versatility.
I know, I know, lots of videos, but the versatility of the MSR Trail Base Kit needs to be seen to be believed:
A relative newcomer, Grayl has been winning people over with it’s simplicity of use, convenient shape and style, and its purification properties.
It looks like a travel coffee mug, but it’s really just two sleeves inside each other. You pull them apart, and fill the outer sleeve up with water from your source.
Then you insert the inner-sleeve, which contains the filter and purifier. Pressing down, just like you would on a french press, water is filtered through into the inside container. Like I said in the intro to this article, clean and safe drinking water is as easy as FILL, PRESS, DRINK.
The Grayl products make a perfect travel companion for those traveling to third-world countries, or as a solo or tandem backpacking water treatment system.
The Ultimate Base Camp Filter System
If you want the best, MSR makes the world’s most advanced backcountry purifier. Originally designed for the military, the Guardian Purifier Pump filters and purifies your water, no matter how filthy! This system features a self-cleaning pump so you’ll never have to backflush out blockages or scrub your filter, and the cartridge inside lasts up to 10,000 litres!
The price to pay for this system is some extra bulk and weight, but if you want the best, you won’t find anything better.
There you have it - a crash course in water treatment. Still have questions? Stop by your local Campers Village and talk to one our Store Guides to help find the best solution for your needs.