There is some controversy about just exactly how many streams and lakes in the Sierra Nevada are contaminated by Giardia, but we choose to filter our water in most cases. We’ve got a Katadyn Hiker model that cost us about $60, and it works. We suspect that other filters along the same lines work about as well.
Is it a pain in the neck? Yep—at least compared to the good old days, when you could just dip your cup in the stream and drink whenever you wanted. But I also remember some of those good old days where the water wasn’t all that clear…and we really wished that we had a filter to take out some of the bigger chunks before we drank it!
When we arrive at camp, one of us usually goes down to the water and starts pumping. Some days it is P, who uses the opportunity to study the water for fish. By the time he is done, he has a plan about where and how to fish the lake or river. If M does the pumping, P is probably already fishing, and M often combines the pumping with a rinse-off or quick dip. And we have learned that if we pump about two gallons in the afternoon, that gives us enough water for dinner that night, breakfast the next morning, washing the dishes, and a couple of liters to take on the trail.
If it’s a hot day, we’ll probably pump and drink a bunch of water at lunchtime, and then repeat as needed when we arrive at camp again in the afternoon.
One thing we do like about the filter is that we get to drink the water without adding additional chemical flavors like iodine or chlorine. Sierra water can be simply delicious, and it seems a little sad to mix it with chlorine. Any of the chemical treatment systems will add flavor to the water, and I don’t know anyone who likes those flavors. These systems also usually require some time to work, so you drink what you have been carrying, and then fill your bottles and treat that water…hiking and stirring, as it were, all at once.
On the other hand, if you are through-hiking the whole John Muir Trail at once, it might make sense to take a tiny bottle of pills instead of lugging the filter, which weighs about 8 ounces. (It weighs a lot more if you don’t empty it every time, so make sure you pump it out when you are done!)
There are other options. We've heard from some people who are quite pleased with their Steri-pens: little electric pen-lights that use UV radiation to kill any germs in the water. We like the fact that they are small and light, but we do worry any time our lives depend on batteries...
And there are straws. We're not sold on these. We just don't believe that they really remove all the bad stuff. As always, we'd love to hear from anyone who has used any these successfully---or unsuccessfully! We're always open to new ideas.
In fact, on a recent trip in spring conditions, we found the streams so swollen and muddy that our filter got clogged up pretty good. (Katadyn now supplies a "pre-screen" with its replacement filters that is supposed to alleviate this problem. We'll let you know how it works the next time we filter muddy water.) While we tried to rinse it, we also discovered that we could take snow and leave it in a plastic bag, and a few hours later we had water that was pretty sure to be free of parasitic pests. Good to know.
Our least favorite system still has some advocates—because we have met people on the trail who arrive at camp each day and immediately build a fire and put on a huge pot of water. Yep—they boil all their water. We don’t like this system for a couple of really good reasons. The first is that you have to build a fire, and we are not sold on the idea of building fires at every campsite. They not only leave ugly fire rings everywhere, but they also tend to use up all the small downed timber as far as the eye can see. The other one is that when we get to camp, we like to relax and wander around, not watch a fire constantly. If you build a fire in the wilderness, and are not watching it constantly, you are an idiot.
Welcome to Backpack the Sierra > Gear: Our Thoughts on What Works and What Doesn't in the High Sierra >