As I have travelled more than 1700 miles on the PCT in the summer of 2018, I am able to give some first-hand experience in terms of water purification on the PCT. I wasn’t in the dessert down south but even up north, you are forced to drink out of small ponds or little lakes sometimes, where the locals wash their dishes with soap and where deer and elk prints are clearly visible. Sometimes you will come across cows.
Most people are not comfy with drinking chemicals. I mean, a lot of people take care about their eating habits and try to somehow live healthy and not to trash the planet in the process.
Therefore, no Brazilian beef or chicken. To flush down your healthy food with chemicals like chlorine dioxide (also known under the name Aquamira) is a contradiction.
With the chemicals out of the way, two methods remain: Filtration or UV treatment. There are two main players when it comes to these methods: The Swiss company Katadyn and the American company Sawyer.
There are others, but most of their filters are bulky and heavy. Katadyns offering for the hiker market in the filter segment is called “Befree”. And compared to the Sawyer filters it’s junk.
First of all, the filter is glued to the cap. It tends to break exactly there. In the late summer of 2018, I saw broken Befree filters in hiker boxes. If you manage to keep your Befree filter in one piece there is another problem: clogging. They have nice instructions on their bags (which you have to use, since no other bag or bottle is compatible to their filter) about how to swish the filter to clean it.
Maybe if you do it every time after using it. Or if you have nothing to do in your tent instead of sleeping. The flow rate is impressive, if you use clean water anyways. If you use the murky water sources on the PCT, you need a new one every other week.
For the 2019 season, Sawyer came up with a new filter, called Micro. It is by far the best solution for keeping your water safe when hiking for months. It has (nearly) the flow rate of it’s bigger sister “Squeeze” but weighs just slightly more than the Mini, who has a not so great flow rate. And it can be back flushed. And the filter is secured in a tube and therefore sturdy.
A real dangerous method for water treatment on long trails is the Steripen, also distributed by Katadyn. It is an optical method. No, UV waves cannot cut through the murkiness of your water. Therefore Gardia bacteria gets protected from the UV waves.
And stays alive, ready to cause havoc to your intestines. Some really great people got Gardia using this method. If you scroll down in their IG feeds, you may even find pictures of the water they tried to treat with their Steripen.
To get rid of Gardia in your body afterwards, after you got it diagnosed, you need so called broadband antibiotics. Which kill a lot of your useful bacteria too! This means that you can’t digest food anymore, regardless of how healthy you may eat. One of the greatest hikers alive today, describes this disaster here. And thanks to the universe, or whatever else you may believe in, her successful healing here.
Steripens were developed to clean tab water from bacteria – like, if in your neighborhood for whatever reason, the city has problems to tread the water.
In the US this problem is often mitigated by dumping chlorine into tap water (it makes us spoiled Europeans puke). However, in Europe, where the tap water is often treated without chemicals, these Steripens are thought to treat the water in households after accidents (it happens that the land around a water collection site gets too much cow demure for example).
For these circumstances, they are useful because otherwise you would have to boil the water, throw chemicals in it and so on.
Hiking with a Steripen should be avoided, it is calling for troubles and it puts your health to a big risk, if you have no method to analyze your water. To have a portable lab flown in everytime you got water, may be too costly, not really environment friendly and it may even disturb fellow hikers.
Title picture: Columbia River in Wenatchee. No hiker drinks out of this river but the water quality may not be the best ever, as there are Apple plantations nearby.