As bike travelers we have an innate drive to explore the path less traveled, be it a remote backcountry trail or the backroads of a foreign land. But most of us don’t enjoy emergency pooping behind a roadside bush due to digestive issues caused by contaminated drinking water.
Thus it’s no surprise that pedal-powered explorers want to know: what’s the best water filter for bikepacking?
I’ve bikepacked around 20,000 miles on six different continents, so you can bet I’ve experimented with a bunch of water treatment options. In this article I’ll explain what to consider when looking for a bikepacking water filter or purified, and how to get the most effective treatment for the weight and cost.
Unfortunately there is no single perfect water filter or treatment method for all bikepacking trips. I would choose a different system for a remote trip in the American west versus a tour in northern Africa, for example. When someone creates the perfect bikepacking water treatment method that’s fast, light, small, easy to use, reliable, cheap, and works for all types of water sources, I’ll be the first to buy it!
In the meantime here’s an overview of the best water filter and treatment options for bikepacking, their tradeoffs and compromises, and how to choose the best one for your trip.
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Here are my picks for the top bikepacking water filters and treatment methods depending on your needs:
- Sawyer Squeeze + CNOC Vecto Bag: best all-around bikepacking water filter system for 1 to 2 people
- Katadyn BeFree: best filter for solo lightweight bikepackers and not-too-cloudy water
- Platypus Gravity Works 4L: best filter for groups of 3+
- Potable Aqua Tablets: best purification for very short solo ultralight trips, best emergency backup
- AquaMira Chlorine Dioxide drops: best purification for mid-length solo lightweight trips
- SteriPEN ULTRA UV Purifier: best purifier for longer trips in developing countries (prefilter may be needed), best for longer trips in sub-freezing temps
Filtration is sufficient for natural sources in remote areas of developed countries (i.e. most US bikepacking trips).
Purification is best for travel in developing countries, both tap water and natural sources.
Nasty Waterborne Pathogens
Let’s quickly review the types of little buggers we’re trying to protect ourselves from.
In this table I’ll use the common terms “developed” and “developing” countries. What I really mean by “developed” is: countries where sanitation infrastructure is sufficiently developed to keep pathogens carried in human waste out of the water supply, so waterborne viruses aren’t common.
On small screens, this table scrolls left and right.
|Parasites / Protozoa
|E. Coli, Salmonella, Cholera
|Hepatitis A, Norovirus, Polio
|0.2 – 5 microns
|1 – 15 microns (relatively big)
|0.02 – 0.3 microns (relatively small)
|Removed by filters?
|Removed by purifiers?
|Killed by chemical treatments?
|Found in water in developed countries?
|Tap water: no
Natural water: sometimes
|Tap water: no
Natural water: sometimes
|Tap water: no
Natural water: rarely
|Found in water in developing countries?
|Tap water: sometimes
Natural water: sometimes
|Tap water: sometimes
Natural water: sometimes
|Tap water: sometimes
Natural water: sometimes
The most common problem caused by all of these: diarrhea and other digestive upset, ranging from mild to catastrophic. In rare cases, viruses can be fatal (for example, Polio is still a problem in some parts of the world) though travel immunizations offer some protection.
How do these buggers get into the water? Usually through the poop of infected people or animals. In the US, cattle and human campers are common causes of contamination even in remote areas. Unless you know for sure that no one and nothing has been pooping upstream, you should treat your water!
Purifiers versus Filters
Many people think a water purifier and water filter are the same thing, but there is an important difference!
Filters strain out bacteria and parasites, but are not effective against viruses (which are small and slip through). People use filters for treating natural water sources in remote areas of developed countries where waterborne viruses are usually not an issue.
Purification is effective against bacteria, parasites, and viruses. There are several types of purification methods including mechanical, chemical, UV light, or a combination. If you travel internationally by bike in “developing” countries and drink from either natural sources or the tap, you should purify your water.
I know many readers are US-based bikepackers, so to save you time: for bikepacking in the US, a filter works fine. Yes, even for those nasty cattle troughs in the southwest. Though that water is probably crawling with bacteria and parasites like Giardia which affect both humans and cows, viruses are generally pickier about the species of their host.
Note that while illness from waterborne viruses is uncommon the US and other developed countries, it does happen. In 2022 a norovirus outbreak at the Grand Canyon sickened hundreds of hikers and rafters. Virus-containing waste from sick people flowed into the Colorado River, which other hikers and rafters drank from using filters, not purifiers. In areas with high human activity it might be wise to purify drinking water, even in the US!
Water Filters for Bikepacking
For bikepacking in the backcountry of the US and many other countries, a water filter is generally all you need. They last a long time, remove dirt and floaties that chemical treatments don’t, and make your water safe to drink in areas where viruses aren’t a concern.
Below are some of the best water filters for bikepacking. All three of these use hollow fiber filtration technology, but package it in slightly different ways.
The Sawyer Squeeze (and its variations) might be the most popular water filter among backpackers and bikepackers. They’re small and light, affordable, easy to use, and can handle some pretty nasty water. I’ve been using various models for years with mostly great results and think it’s an excellent all-around water filter for bikepacking.
There are three models of Sawyer filter: the original Squeeze, the smaller Mini, and the smallest Micro. For especially dirty water sources like those common in the American Southwest, I recommend the largest Squeeze model to avoid clogging. For clear mountain streams the Mini or Micro would work. All models need to be backflushed periodically to keep them flowing well, though the Squeeze especially can handle some pretty dirty water.
I especially love how flexible the Sawyer can be interms of setup and water containers. Some options:
- Use as a squeeze filter (I highly recommend replacing the included pouch with a CNOC bag)
- Set up as a gravity filter with a 2L or 3L CNOC Vecto bag
- Filter directly into a hydration bladder hose with a connector kit
- Gravity filter directly into a SmartBottle or Platypus SoftBottle with a coupling ring (can also be used instead of the syringe to backflush)
Best for: individuals, or pairs if used with a 3 liter CNOC bag as a gravity filter.
The Katadyn BeFree, like the Sawyer Squeeze, is a compact and lightweight hollow fiber filter. Based on my own experience it seems to be the top choice of bikepack racers and fast-and-light bikepackers in the US right now. It’s even smaller and lighter than the Sawyer yet has a relatively fast flow rate with clean water.
Katadyn offers several sizes of bottle / pouch, from a small personal squeeze bottle to a 3 liter gravity bag. I usually see solo bikepackers squeeze filtering directly into their bike water bottles, but the BeFree can be set up as a gravity filter like the Sawyer. CNOC makes a 42mm threaded version of the Vecto bag so you can set up the BeFree as a gravity filter with 1, 2, or 3 liter capacity, though I see this used less often than with the Sawyer (probably because Katadyn’s included squeeze bag is so much better than Sawyer’s!).
One big difference between the Sawyer and Katadyn: while the Sawyer must be backflushed, the BeFree’s exposed filter is cleaned by swishing, which is easier but also less effective if the filter gets clogged. I’ve heard mixed reports when using the BeFree with very dirty water; the Sawyer seems more reliable for long trips and variable water quality.
Best for: individuals, or pairs if used with a 3 liter gravity bag.
If you’re sharing a water filter with other people, the Platypus GravityWorks is hard to beat for convenience. It filters 4 liters of water at a time, has a relatively fast flow rate, and is fairly clog-resistant. I think a group or family of three is the sweet spot for the GravityWorks, but a pair that values convenience over compactness would also appreciate it.
The GravityWorks system is a bit bulkier the Squeeze and BeFree, partly because it includes its own clean bag instead of integrating with your bottle or hydration bladder (though it can integrate with some Platypus bottles and bladders). It’s also more expensive. But it really shines for filtering large amounts of water into a wide variety of containers. Once you get the hang of the hose system and handy shutoff valve, it’s quite easy to use.
Best for: groups of 3-4
Gravity versus Squeeze Filters
This is a matter of what pushes the water through the filter: gravity, or you. All these filters can be considered “squeeze” or “gravity,” depending on how you configure them and whether you hang them up on a tree (or your handlebars) or squeeze the bag.
I prefer the convenience of a gravity water filter for bikepacking so I can do other things – setup camp, eat lunch, etc. – while my water filters itself. But if you’re only filtering a liter or two at a time and packing really light, you might prefer the weight savings and compactness of a more minimal squeeze pouch.
Drawbacks of Hollow Fiber Filters
All three of the recommended filters above – Sawyer, Katadyn, and Platypus – use hollow fiber technology. These types of filters are easily damaged by freezing or impact, so you’ll need to take good care of them.
If there’s any chance the temperature is near freezing, carry the filter cartridge in your pocket and sleep with it at night. Protect them from hard impacts too. If you think there’s a chance the filter is compromised, you shouldn’t use it. It’s surprisingly easy for this to happen, so have a backup plan like chlorine dioxide drops or sharing a friend’s filter.
Hollow fiber filters gradually clog over time, and no amount of backflushing or swishing will return them to their original flow rate. If you bikepack a lot you can expect to replace your filter cartridge from time to time.
Other Types of Filters (not recommended for bikepacking)
Hollow fiber squeeze/gravity filters are popular for many good reasons: small size, light weight, flexible setup, and ease of use.
Here are two other types of filters that I don’t recommend for bikepacking.
Pump filters: These classics, like the MSR Miniworks, used to be popular before hollow fiber filters were developed. Unless you’d like to balance your bikepacking with an upper body workout from all that pumping, I don’t recommend them for most bikepackers.
Straw filters: There are a number of personal water filters, straw filters, and water bottle attachments that don’t integrate well with the types of water carrying systems we use while bikepacking. Unless you want to limit yourself to using only compatible bottles, or only drink from water sources while you’re at them, I don’t recommend these types of water filters for bikepacking.
Chemical Water Treatments
Chemical water treatments like chlorine and iodine have their own special pros and cons. They do kill viruses, but they don’t kill Cryptosporidium, a large hard-shelled parasite found even in the US (though rarely). Though many backpackers and bikepackers do use them, you run a small risk of getting sick from Crypto if you do.
Chemical treatments are also not ideal for long-term bike travel. They run out, obviously, and some people worry about the health impacts of using them regularly.
Another drawback of chemical water treatments: they don’t filter out dirt, larvae, dead bugs, and all the other fun stuff you find in less pristine sources. A cloth filter helps but your water will still be cloudy and taste nasty. It may not make you sick, but it’s not pleasant to drink.
Chlorine dioxide is, in my opinion, the best chemical water treatment option. It kills all bacteria, viruses, and parasites, but only if you wait four hours for it to get through Cryptosporidium’s hard shell (everything else should be neutralized within 30 minutes).
Here are three good use cases for chlorine dioxide:
- Short, fast, and/or light trips: If your water sources are fairly clear and you don’t think Crypto is a risk (true in most remote areas of the US), chlorine dioxide is a convenient and lightweight option. I use it for short bikepack races (3-4 days) where I’ll occasionally need to fill up from a clear stream but otherwise get my water from restaurants and gas stations.
- Combined with a water filter when biking overseas. Together this combination acts as a purifier by filtering out bacteria and parasites (including Crypto) and also neutralizing smaller viruses. This works well if you already have a filter and don’t want to buy new gear for a short trip overseas.
- As a lightweight backup in case your primary filter is lost, or damaged by dropping or freezing.
This clever bit of chemistry combines drops from two small bottles into a solution that generates chlorine dioxide when it contacts water. Unlike tablets, which generally treat 1 liter each, it’s easy to adjust the number of drops to treat any volume of water.
Aquamira works wonderfully on its own for a short trip with mostly clear water, or in combination with a filter for trips in developing areas. It doesn’t freeze easily, but in really cold weather it’s best to keep the bottles somewhere warm.
Like all chlorine dioxide treatments, Aquamira takes some time to work. Generally 30 minutes is recommended, or a bit longer if water is cold or cloudy. Cryptosporidium can take even longer, potentially up to 4 hours, to fully neutralize.
Best for: individuals or pairs, short trips, mostly clear water
Potable Aqua Tablets
Individually packaged Potable Aqua tablets are ideal for a very short trip or as an emergency backup. Since one tablet treats one liter, they’re a bit awkward for large or variable volume water containers. But they’re as light as can be and virtually indestructible – they can’t freeze, and if they get crushed you can just use them in powder form.
Like all chlorine dioxide treatments, Potable Aqua takes some time to work. You should wait about thirty minutes after treatment to drink, or a bit longer if the water is cold or cloudy. Cryptosporidium can take even longer, potentially up to 4 hours, to fully neutralize.
Best for: solo short trips, emergency backup
Water Purification for Bike Travel
If you plan to bikepack abroad in a variety of interesting places, you’ll need more than just a filter. A purification system is needed to remove harmful viruses that filters miss.
Purifiers are less common than filters, more expensive, and generally heavier and bulkier. They have more work to do, so this makes sense. If you don’t actually need a purifier for the areas you’ll be riding in, one of the filters listed above makes more sense.
Be sure to read product descriptions carefully and ensure your choice actually removes bacteria, parasites / protozoa, and viruses. Beware, I have seen filters incorrectly labeled on Amazon as “purifiers.”
SteriPen UV Water Purifier
The SteriPen is a unique solution that uses UV light to purify water. It’s effective against bacteria, parasites, and viruses… as long as the water isn’t too cloudy. If the water isn’t clear you’ll need to prefilter it first, which can be a pain if you’re often drinking from dirty sources. It’s perfect for treating tap water in developing countries, and the occasional fairly clear natural source.
The SteriPen comes in several different models. Size and battery type are the main considerations for most bikepackers. The Ultra is USB-rechargeable, while the Adventurer Opti is smaller and lighter but requires CR123 batteries.
The SteriPen remains the simplest and lightest water purification method suitable for long-term bikepacking (so excluding chemical methods), but it requires some adaptations in your water treatment routine. If you like to carry water in larger containers or hydration bladders, you’ll need to treat water in batches (usually 1 liter at a time) in a smaller container and then transfer it.
Unlike hollow fiber filters the SteriPen is unharmed by freezing weather, but it’s possible for the battery to drain faster in the cold so you’ll still want to keep it warm if possible.
Best for: individuals or small groups, international travel, prolonged freezing weather
Lifestraw Mission Gravity Purifier
The Lifestraw Mission is a high volume gravity setup similar to the Platypus GravityWorks, but it purifies instead of just filtering. Most bicycle travelers will want the 5 liter bag, but it even comes with a 12 liter option. I haven’t used this system myself, but I would only suggest it to groups of 2+ people traveling long-term in developing regions.
Best for: groups
Filter + Chlorine Dioxide
For certain types of trips – for example a solo lightweight trip in a developing country with lots of gritty and cloudy water sources – none of the above solutions is ideal.
For this case a combination works best: a hollow fiber filter like the Sawyer Squeeze (for particulates, parasites, Cryptosporidium without needing to wait 4 hours, and bacteria) plus Aquamira chlorine dioxide drops (for viruses and as a filter backup).
First, filter the water into whatever container you’ll carry it in. Then, add the right amount of chlorine dioxide drops based on the volume, wait 30 minutes, and you’re good to go! Since the filter already got any Cryptosporidium, no need to wait the full 4 hours even for the sketchiest water sources.
This combo is lightweight and cheap, but works best for shorter trips (say up to a month or two) because it has the typical drawbacks of chemical treatment: you’ll run out of chlorine dioxide eventually, and you may not want to drink chemically treated water for long periods anyway.
This combo is also ideal for folks who mostly bikepack in their developed home country and don’t want to buy a separate expensive device for just one short trip abroad. Both the filter and the chlorine dioxide are ideal for lightweight bikepacking near home too.
Best for: individuals or pairs, short to medium length trips (otherwise you’ll need a lot of chlorine dioxide)
Filter + SteriPen
This is probably the most flexible and effective option for a long and varied international trip. The SteriPen takes the place of chlorine dioxide as the virus-neutralizing purification method, so no worries about running out of chlorine dioxide or drinking chemically treated water for long periods.
If water is cloudy or full of particulates, run it through the filter first and then treat it with the SteriPen. If the water is clear, just use the SteriPen. Having both does provide some reassurance in case of failure, but if the SteriPen fails you’ll be vulnerable to viruses. For this reason I would still carry some chlorine dioxide as a backup, just case.
Best for: long and varied trips in developing regions
Obviously most bikepackers aren’t going to boil water as a primary method of purification. It’s inconvenient, uses fuel, and leaves us with hot water that needs to cool. But I include it here as a reminder for emergencies.
If you’re ever stuck without another method, boiling is an effective purification method that kills bacteria, parasites, and viruses. Bring water to a rolling boil for a few seconds to make sure all water has reached boiling temperature, then let it cool.
Boiling can also save time if you’re cooking with your water anyway. You can cook or make hot drinks with unfiltered water as long as it reaches a boil first.
Always Have A Backup!
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from years of bicycle travel, it’s that anything can eventually fail. Filters can get lost or damaged, SteriPens can run out of battery or mysteriously stop working, and chemical bottles can crack or spill. Whatever primary water treatment method you choose, bring a backup that can treat enough water to get you to civilization.
Chlorine dioxide makes an excellent backup since it’s light, small, effective against everything given enough time, and is hard to damage. A few tablets are perfect for a short solo trip, while a set of Aquamira bottles is worth the small weight for longer or more complex trips.
Other Water Contaminants
Other than bacteria, parasites, and viruses, here are a few other contaminants you may need to consider in special cases.
Toxic algae: A growing concern in parts of the United States, cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) produces cyanotoxins that are released into the water when the spores rupture. These toxins can be fatal. Though filters remove the spores themselves, they don’t remove toxins that have already been released into the water. Purification methods like boiling, chemical treatment, and UV light don’t either. An activated carbon filter within a purifier, or added as a second step after filtration, seems to be the only way to remove some but not all of these toxins.
Heavy metals: In areas with a history of mining, surface water in creeks and lakes can contain unhealthy concentrations of heavy metals. I’ve encountered a few places in Colorado, for example, where locals warned me not to drink from the streams. Activated carbon filters are the best defense against heavy metals, or you can just plan ahead to avoid filling up in these areas.
Microplastics: I’m honestly not clear on how common these tiny pieces of plastic are in natural water sources, or whether they’re a problem. But since the smallest microplastics are around 2 microns (1.6 according to Wikipedia) which is larger than many bacteria, any standard water filter should filter them out.
What I Use
I’ve listed a lot of options here, and they all have their own advantages. If you’re still on the fence, here are the systems I personally choose for my own bikepacking adventures.
Sawyer Squeeze Filter: My recommended water filter for bikepacking trips in developed places like the American southwest, such as Arizona and New Mexico, where you’ll be drinking from very dirty sources. I choose the Squeeze over the smaller Mini or Micro models in this case because it doesn’t clog as easily. Examples: GDMBR (especially New Mexico), Arizona Trail.
Sawyer Mini Filter: My recommended filter for mountains or anywhere in developed countries where water is likely to be clear. I choose the Mini over the Micro because it’s not much heavier and seems less likely to clog over time. Examples: Colorado Trail, GDMBR (from Colorado north), Carretera Austral in southern Chile and Argentina.
Aquamira Chlorine Dioxide drops: My recommended treatment for short, fast, and light rides (like bikepacking races) in developed areas with mostly clear water. Examples: Smoke ‘n Fire 400, The Big Lonely.
Sawyer Squeeze + Aquamira Drops: My recommended purification method for solo international trips in developing areas. Examples: Sudan, Southeast Asia. For a long trip with a partner or group I would add a SteriPen Ultra.
Potable Aqua tablets: I always have a few of these deep in my bike bags for emergencies. Occasionally I’ll carry them as a standalone for short ultralight rides and races where I’ll mostly fill up from potable sources but might need to use a handful of natural sources.
When choosing a water filter for bikepacking or touring, here are some other aspects to think about:
Variety of water sources: Bikepackers cover ground faster than hikers and therefore might drink from a wider variety of sources. For a route like the GDMBR we need a system that works when drinking from a clear mountain stream, a cattle trough in the middle of the desert, and the dodgy-looking garden hose behind the saloon. And that’s just in the US! Those traveling internationally have even more to deal with.
Large amounts of water: In hot or dry climates, bikepackers often carry 6 or more liters at a time. Choose a treatment method that’s fast, won’t run out like chemical treatment, and won’t drive you crazy like pumping or squeezing. Gravity setups are great for this case. (For help deciding how much water you need, see How Much Water to Carry While Bikepacking?)
Multiple water containers: As cyclists we often use multiple water containers of different shapes and sizes. When you choose a water filter, consider how it will interface with the hydration bladder in your frame bag, bottles in your cages, that Gatorade bottle you saved from the gas station for a long dry section, or whatever. Systems that only treat a small amount of water in a specific container can be inconvenient. (For help fitting all these containers on your bike, see 9 Ways to Carry Water on a Bike.)
Flexible water capacity: On a long ride it’s common to have a few sections that are much drier than others, so it’s nice to have expandable water capacity. This might mean buying extra disposable bottles or carrying a collapsible bottle or bladder. A nice advantage of gravity filters is that the dirty bag can be used as extra water capacity when needed.
Hard-to-fill-from sources: Ever tried to fill up a filter bag from a slow trickle or shallow puddle? Containers with wide openings make this easier, or you can use a cup or pot as a scoop. For the tiniest of trickles, try engineering a leaf spout to create a dripping faucet.
Weight and style of travel: Gear weight and size matter more to some folks than others. Consider how much you value saving weight, time, energy, and money as you choose your water treatment method. Usually you can only optimize a couple of those aspects at a time.
Backup methods: Filters can easily break, freeze, or get lost. I’ve even had chlorine dioxide bottles crack and spill! You can roll the dice and drink untreated water in an emergency and deal with the consequences later, but it might be unpleasant or even dangerous. I think chlorine dioxide makes a great lightweight backup option to get you to civilization if needed.
More Bike Travel Resources
If you’re choosing a water filter for bikepacking or bike travel, you might also like these:
- Bikepacking 101: A Beginner’s Guide
- What to Pack in Your Bike Travel Repair Kit
- Riding Chile’s Rugged and Beautiful Carretera Austral
For even more pedal-powered goodness, visit the bike travel resource center. Happy trails!
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