Friday, July 16, 2021

History of Backcountry Water Filters and Treatment

In the Bible, water is symbolic of life. But not just any water. Specifically clean water that is good tasting is used to represent the essence of life. This is a fitting analogy that any backcountry traveler can understand deeply. When you are hot and thirsty, nothing is more refreshing than clean, cool water. Sadly, safe drinking water is hard to find. That's why a billion dollar industry has grown up around treating water. This is a history of how humans progressed from drinking dirty water in the backcountry to carrying their own water treatment plant in their pocket.

During the American Civil War, soldiers drank contaminated water frequently. Due to the hyper-consecration of people in camps, sewages routinely contaminated the drinking water supply to a worse extent than it would have been in its natural state. Illness and gastrointestinal problems were rampant due to a lack of understanding of basic germ theory.1

This general lack of understanding persisted as the Western Frontier continued to be settled and as New Englanders discovered the joys of camping. Because they often did not camp in such large groups, illness was not as prevalent in camps following the Civil War.

William HH Murray ignited the camping movement with his how-to guide to the Adirondacks in 1869. Unsurprisingly, he makes no reference to filtering or boiling water. He does inform campers where to find fresh, clean drinking water from springs. Nor does George Washington Sears in his classic book Woodcraft make any reference to treating water. How did they and a multitude of other campers avoid sickness? By a combination of luck and taste.

As we saw in Murray’s book, campers, and most people in pre-modern times, would have preferred the cool, fresh water supplied by springs when they could get their hands in it. Spring water tends to be untainted and safe to drink. At least it was often so before the 1900’s and mass urbanization. So this water was unlikely to make the drinker sick. Secondly, it becomes obvious when reading through the afore mentioned books, that people in those days were obsessed with coffee and tea. This was an ideal drink for campers because it could mask the taste of bad water and provide warmth in cool conditions. These drinks had the unintended consequence of requiring water to be boiled. So, much of the water early campers consumed was either naturally safe or boiled. But without germ theory, plenty of campers still got sick. Their own lack of hygiene often contributed.

Campers finally wised up in the 1890’s as germ theory became common knowledge. George O. Shields’ book Camping and Camp Outfits is one of the earliest books to advise campers to boil their water. “If the water is stagnant or impure, it should be boiled before drinking it.”2

Finally, doctors understood the cause of numerous illnesses acquired in camps. Some doctors experimented with sand filtration as early as 1855. But this did not see widespread adoption in the United States until the early 1900's after scientists and community leaders understood germ theory.3

Lord Bayden-Powell published his book Scouting for Boys and started the first Boy Scouts program in England in 1908. In his book he teaches readers the importance of drinking clean water. It is obvious he sought to teach them about germ theory as well for many commoners may not have understood the principles at this time. He suggests that if water cannot be obtained from a known "clean" source it should be boiled. Bayden-Powell had a long career in the military prior to beginning his youth work and probably drew his knowledge from common military practice of the turn of the century. Bayden-Powell's scouting program would go on to provide foundational camping skills for the next several generations.

Boy Scouts became a major force in the United States following its arrival in 1911. Its programs introduced generations of youth to the noble sport of camping throughout the 20th century. Boy Scouts strove to teach the latest and safest practices to its enrollees. In a 1911 issue of Boy's Life, an article illustrates how to make a water filter from natural sand and stones layered into a bucket. The point was to filter out visible sediments not pathogens. But nevertheless, we see from it's earliest days, Boy Scouts was committed to educating scouts on safe water procurement.4

Chemical treatment was first used in in the United States around this same time in 1908 when Dr. John Leal secretly began treating New Jersey's water supply with chlorine. His idea was based on systems that had already been implemented in Europe in years prior, but he kept his chemical treatment operation a secret for fear of public backlash from a general public that did not understand this new science. His solution was effective and US water systems have been chlorinated ever since.5 However, this did not help campers in the backcountry.

An easy field solution to treat water chemically was developed by Col. William Lyster. In 1913, he perfected a portable water bag system (termed Lyster bag) for chlorinating drinking water for the U.S. military. His system was deployed during WWI and used until better systems were devised for WWII. His system was used by civilian campers and recreation programs well into the 20th century. It generally used liquid chlorine.6

Lyster Bag (alt spelling "Lister")

Towards the end of WWI, chlorine tablets known as halazone were created and provided to individual soldiers for use when they were away from camp. It was not until WWII that these tablets saw widespread use by the military. This was lighter and easier than liquid chlorine.7 Halazone tablets were first advertised to campers in a 1933 issue of Boy's Life produced by a company called Bauer & Black.8

Iodine water treatment was used by militaries in the 1920's to a limited extent. During WWII, Harvard University worked along with the U.S. Army to develop portable iodine tablets that were more user friendly. This resulted in Potable Aqua iodine tablets. Following the war, as camping exploded in popularity, Potable Aqua found a new market, and campers gained an easy method to make truly safe drinking water.9

Summer camp programs also became very popular following the end of WWII. Bigger camps with established facilities used traditional means of treating their water. Smaller, less permanent camps sometimes used a Lyster bag system. In a 1949 issue of The Camping Magazine, a magazine for summer camp directors and operators, a gravity bag filter system was advertised. It was advertised as being completely portable. Sadly no photo of the system was provided. So just how portable, and how many people it was designed to support is unknown.10

The first portable water filter durable enough to be used while backpacking was the classic Katadyn Pocket filter. It is heavy by today’s standards, but at the time was revolutionary. However, when it was introduced, the idea of water filtration was not common and thus the water filter did not become a standard feature until the 1980’s. The Pocket is still a moderately common choice for backcountry expeditions today.11

Katadyn Pocket Filter

For most backpackers in the midcentury, boiling or chemical treatment were the defacto water treatment. In his classic guide, The Complete Walker, author Colin Fletcher does not mention the Katadyn Pocket filter, or any other filtration process. He advices readers to boil or chemically treat water from questionable sources. He feels most mountain springs are safe, but other water sources should be suspect and treated.12

Following WWII, a wide array of filter products became available for boaters and campers. One especially compact version called the Filopur was advertised in Field and Stream in the 1970's. It was designed for use car camping and on small boats. Most all of these products were too bulky to be carried into the backcountry on foot.13

Today, straw-like water filter designs are common, but that wasn't always the case. Before the early 2000s, most water filters featured a pump design. However, the first known water filter designed specifically for backpacking had a straw formfactor. An ad for The Super Straw appeared in the August 1977 issue of Backpacker Magazine surrounded by ad's showing photos of the Jumar ascender and Danner's burley hiking boots. The Super Straw featured activated charcoal and was advertised as an addition to chemical treatment that could remove the foul test left behind. It does not seem to have reached widespread use as few other ads for the product could be found.14

Surprisingly, it appears the Katadyn Pocket filter was not discovered by backpackers until the late ‘70s or early ‘80s. A 1984 article in Field & Stream warns readers about various water pathogen threats to unsuspecting thirsty hikers. The author points out the inconvenience of chemical treatment which takes a lot of time and leaves a bad aftertaste. He also laments how boiling water robs it of its cool, refreshing quality. He then introduced the Katadyn Pocket filter as if most readers had never heard of a portable water filter light enough to take backpacking. This seems the beginning of a new product market as numerous filters would be advertised in the next two decades, most not very successful, but a few that became trail staples.15.

One possible cause for the explosion of lightweight portable water filters was increasing public fear of giardia lambelia. Reports show that giardia outbreaks peaked in the early 1980s.15a  Frequent news reports of the dangers of this dreaded sickness may have forced backcountry travelers to rethink the classic approaches to water treatment. Chlorine and iodine treatments are only partially effective against giardia, and ineffective against cryptosporidium. While boiling is generally effective, it is time and fuel intensive.16

Ads for water filters and purifiers lauded their ability to make water safe from the dreaded giardia. One 1981 ad promotes a water filter model elegantly named The Giardia Trap.17. Water purifiers were filters with a chemical matrix stage added to provide even more pathogen fighting power. These were often iodine based. The matrix used a charged iodine ion that was highly effective against giardia, much more so than classic iodine tablets.18 These early water purifiers often had a funnel design. One had to assemble the pieces then set atop a container to catch the treated water below. A cup was used to pour water in the top and keep adding slowly as the water drained through. A few models were around as early as the mid-70s.

Neo Filter

By the late 80s, water filters became an essential piece of backcountry gear. More competitors were entering the market. MSR entered the industry in 1990 and released their first filter in 1991. The WaterWorks Total Filtration System, was elegant and easy to use. It was also lightweight. With this first model, MSR began to push the boundaries of water filter design and kept doing so for several decades. In 1994, MSR introduced a ceramic filter option but at a much cheaper price point than other ceramic filters. The WaterWorks filter has seen several design updates and name changes to improve it’s functionality. Yet it has remained one of the top selling filters.19.

Pump filters were a mainstay of the 1990s and early 2000s. A revolution in thinking came in 2005 with the introduction of the LifeStraw. This was a compact and lightweight water filter that required no pumping, hoses, or replacing of filters. It quickly became a filter every backcountry traveler wanted to try. It seemed so simple, just as easy as drinking through a straw, no extra work required. In practice, it was not so simple. Larger debris needs to be removed to avoid rapid clogging. Also, because it is a straw, an open water container is required to use the filter.

This is inconvenient for hikers who may prefer to keep moving while sipping water. Additionally, it does not provide a ready solution to filter large quantities of water for later use or for food preparation. Nor is it meant to share amongst a group. The straw design limits it to use by one person. These limitations kept the LifeStraw from greater popularity among backpackers and other backcountry travelers. However, it is still popular among day hikers and preppers who favor a lightweight, small filter that is primarily reserved for emergency situations rather than daily use.

While the LifeStraw has seen limited adoption, it’s design has influenced the whole industry of backcountry water filters. It has created a string of copycats as well as influenced other popular designs. Following the release of the LifeStraw came numerous water bottles with a built in straw filter. Other in-line filters have become common. One notable example is the Sawyer family of hollow fiber membrane filters. Starting in 2009, Sawyer released a small, black filter meant to be used in the line of a water bladder hose. Sawyer has since released several variations of its design but all are built around this in-line filter philosophy. They have also emphasized affordability in their products. The combination of a lightweight, reliable product, with a low price point below $50, has helped them become one of the most common brands on the trail.20

LifeStraw Filter (photo by Badri Sheshadri)

One last honorable mention in this saga is the SteriPEN UV water purifier. It even made Time Magazine's list of 100 greatest and most influential gadgets from 1923-present. This list includes only electronic gadgets so no other water treatment items were included.21 In 1997, Miles Maiden, a solar technology researcher and self-described outdoorsman invented a handheld UV light to sterilize small amounts of water. He called it the SteriPEN. It provides a dose of UV light strong enough to kill any pathogens.

However it does have its limits. The water must be visibly clear as particles in water can block the UV rays. So prefiltration is often required. Also, it cannot remove toxic chemicals or heavy metals. So a filter is also required if this is a concern. Finally, it is limited by the weaknesses common to all electronics. So it should never be the sole source of water treatment for a backcountry traveler. Nevertheless, it is a great feat of engineering and much quicker than chemical alternatives.22

In modern times there are certainly a lot of water treatment options to choose from. This diversity is good as it allows users to choose the best option for their unique needs and destination. Companies will continue to innovate and make their products better. The future of water treatment technology is yet to be written.

Written by David F. Garner



2. (see pg 51)





7. Russell, Philip. 100 Military Inventions that Changed the World. United Kingdom: Little, Brown Book Group, 2013.



10. The Camping Magazine. United States: American Camping Association, 1949.


12. Colin Fletcher, The Complete Walker, 1968, pg 94.