Instead of zeroing in on one piece of gear this in this post, I’m going to talk about water filters and filtration in general. I’ve used a few different approaches to filtering water over the years, and while I’ve settled on my preferred one, it’s worth looking at them all. (FYI, I don’t have many pictures of the items I’m talking about in this post, but I’ve got tons of pictures of water, so that’s kind of the same, right?).
When I first started canoe tripping with the summer camp I worked at in my late teens and early 20s, water filtration was basically optional. I’m not saying it should have been optional, but that’s how we approached it. Our biggest concession to the fact that there are lots of little bugs in the lakes and rivers of Algonquin that are just dying to set up shop in your gut, was to make sure we never filled our water bottles too close to a beaver dam and that we always filled up with water that was at least an arm’s reach below the surface.
Pro tip: this is not an ideal drinking water safety plan.
Somehow, I managed to skate through those years without picking up a virus or bacterial infection (or maybe I picked up so many I just got used to them). When I started up with tripping again back in 2016, I was at least smart enough to realize that at some point my luck would run out. I knew I had to do something to treat my water, and I also knew I didn’t want to spend too much money on a water treatment solution (yet).
Enter, Pristine tablets.
Pristine tabs (and similar tablets) are water treatment in a pill form. You fill up a bottle of water and drop your tablet in. After 30 minute you’ve got potable water that only smells a bit like a swimming pool. The tablets are effective against viruses and other nasty things like Giardia. They’re also relatively cheap. A pack of 50 (each tab treats 1 litre of water) runs about twelve dollars at MEC. The downside to tablets is that they take some time to work, they can leave a chemical-y scent and they’re not filters. Your water might be free of viruses, but it’s not going to get rid of the floating gunk you might pick up when you dip your bottle. This is maybe less of a concern if you’re sticking to bigger, clearer lakes. If your route is going to take you along creeks and rivers, this gets a lot less appealing.
It wasn’t long before I decided to move on to a filter system. I was doing enough tripping to justify the expense, and I was sick of picking weird little floating green things out of my water. My first filter was an MSR Mini-works hand pump. This is one of the most popular hand pumps out there, with good reason. It’s easy to use and it’s effective. You can’t really ask for much more. Except, you can. While my first few pumps with the Mini-works were great, I found that the flow rate slowed down pretty quickly the more I used it. I’d have to work harder and harder for less and less water. See, these types of pumps use a ceramic filter. The pump action forces the water through holes in the ceramic, leaving the water to flow through its carbon core and into your bottle while the Giardia gets left outside the filter like it’s 18 year old me trying to get past the bouncer at the Brunny. To stretch the metaphor, after a couple of pumps, there would be so many dejected 18 year old mes hanging around the outside of the filter that all the people who had ID they hadn’t bought from some guy above Vortex Records couldn’t get in. I’d have to take the thing apart and clean it. That would restore the flow, somewhat, but it never got back to a decent rate. On top of that, I had to clean it frequently just to get these middling results. This was frustrating. I’d find myself getting pushed to the edge of dehydration on hot days because I didn’t want to bother with the hassle of the pump (which is stupid). In the end, I realized that the hand pump wasn’t going to be a good long-term solution for me.
It was around this time that I was introduced to gravity. I mean, I was already familiar with gravity. It had helped me get to know various parts of the forest floor around Algonquin many times, but I didn’t know how helpful it could be in solving my water filtration problem.
The Platypus GravityWorks filtration system was the last filtration system I ever tried. I started using it in 2018 and am still very happy with it today. As the name suggests, the system uses gravity to filter water. It’s a simple set up, easy to use and easy to understand. It comes with two collapsible water reservoirs, one for dirty water and one for clean. You fill up the dirty reservoir from whatever water source you’re using. This reservoir connects to a filter cartridge by way of some (pretty tough) plastic tubing, which then connects to the clean reservoir through some more tubing. You hang the dirty reservoir from a tree branch or similar, make sure the clean reservoir is below the dirty, and let gravity do the rest. The water flows down through the tube, through the filter and through the tube again before arriving in the clean bag, fresh and clear. It’s awesome. When it’s clean, my filter can get through a couple litres of water in a couple of minutes. Like the handpump, the filter cartridge eventually requires some cleaning, but it’s not needed nearly as frequently and it’s as simple as holding the clean reservoir above the dirty and backflushing through the filter to get things moving quickly again.
I love this thing. I’d highly recommend it for anyone looking to spend more time in the backcountry and who wants add a permanent filter solution to their gear. If you’re only going to head out on short trips once or twice a year, you may not need anything more than tablets. But if you’re looking at any kind of filter at all, go with the gravity filter every time (the cost is about even between the hand pump and the gravity filter too!).
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