To Treat Or Not To Treat?

Should I treat my water?

Treating water is of vital importance to your health while living in the wilderness.  None of the water on the A.T. is guaranteed safe, and with the large number of hikers and the plentiful wildlife that use the creeks, the ATC and I recommend that all water should be treated before drinking.  Though there are many methods, the most common used by thru-hikers on the A.T. is the use of the Sawyer filter.  The filter screws onto the top of a Smartwater bottle (forget the bag that comes with the system. It sucks.)  My method was to carry three bottles: 1 twenty ounce Gatorade bottle, a 20-oz Smartwater (SW) bottle, and a larger 1-liter Smartwater (SW) bottle. The small SW was my dirty water bottle which I would fill at streams and springs.  Screw the Sawyer onto the top and squeeze to filter the water into the larger bottle.  Keeping consistent patterns is important, so only clean water should EVER be in your large bottle.  Note: The Sawyer system doesn’t work with just any water bottle.  Smartwater is the only bottle that has threads that match that of the Sawyer system.

Sawyer Mini vs Sawyer Squeeze

Many hikers start with the Sawyer mini, but after a few short weeks, they nearly all either upgrade to the larger size or beg and borrow to use other hikers’ Sawyer Squeeze filters.  The Sawyer mini clogs and no amount of backflushing will make it flow easier.  It is literally a muscle workout for the forearms and biceps and takes twice as long as the standard Sawyer squeeze.  I promise you, it’s worth the extra ounce to start out with the larger Sawyer.

Chemical vs Filtering

For the first 1,000 miles of my thru-hike, I filtered my water and then treated it with hydrochloride drops manufactured by MSR. The reason?  Filtering alone does not get rid of the giardia parasite which has the potential of making you feel absolutely miserable for days.  I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of being out in the wilderness with an intestinal virus, so I took extra precautions.  Most hikers use one or the other, a filter or chemicals.  If you can handle ingesting all the debris and gross little floaters that are in unfiltered water, chemicals are safe to use.

**Update – According to the Sawyer website, their PointONE filter does 99.99999% of all bacteria, such as salmonella, cholera and E.coli; removes 99.9999% of all protozoa, such as giardia and cryptosporidium

In summary, however you choose to clean your water, just be sure to clean it somehow.  Though it is true some people get by without treating their water at all, why take the risk of getting sick when you have more important things to do with your 5-7 months in the woods?  Cheers!

**Note: There are various other options and beliefs regarding water treatment. This article focuses on Clarity’s thru-hike experience and what I saw most out in the field.

There are various other options and beliefs regarding water treatment. This article focuses on Clarity’s thru-hike experience and what I saw most out in the field.


6 thoughts on “To Treat Or Not To Treat?

  1. I would like to correct a couple of mistakes here if I may. Filters don’t kill bacteria, protozoa or cysts they prevent them from passing through. Also, filters with an ABSOLUTE micron rating of 0.1 micron, such as the Sawyer Mini and Squeeze, do filter out giardia, E. coli and other nasty things which makes the water safe to drink. Secondary treatment is not necessary at this point.

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    1. Thanks so much for the clarity! I’m not sure where you saw that I stated “filters kill bacteria”. You’re right, filters don’t kill bacteria, they filter it.
      It was overkill for me to treat my water both ways, absolutely. You’ll notice I stated most hikers use either filters OR chemicals. I was a cautious dork. 😛 The last half of my hike when I ran out of drops, I only filtered and I survived just fine. According to Sawyer’s website, “The PointONE filter removes 99.99999% of all bacteria, such as salmonella, cholera and E.coli; removes 99.9999% of all protozoa, such as giardia and cryptosporidium.” So be sure it’s a “PointONE” filter. I’ve added this info to the article.
      Thanks so much for contributing and for reading my articles. 🙂 Learning is life!

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  2. Isn’t it also a fact that in order to kill giardia and cryptosporidium with chemicals requires 4 HOURS of treatment time? Which means you might have to carry treated water plus water in process, a lot of extra weight vs just filtering.

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  3. Question – How does the water taste after filtering vs. chemicals? I am prepping to buy a filter for my first ever multi-day hike, and a lot of the water sources on the trail I will be hitting are noted as being dark brown because of tannin release from leaves, etc. Do either the filters or the chemicals restore ‘pure’ taste?

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    1. Morning! Filters keep the taste pure. The chemicals I’ve tried (Hydrochloride, Iodine) all leave a chemical taste in the water. I haven’t used Aqua Mira drops, but I’ve heard the chemical taste is a bit less with those.

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