Why I'll never leave my water filter behind again

by Willow Belden

I was trying to lighten my load. All the ultralight backpackers seemed to be using Aquamira drops or a SteriPEN to purify their water. And so, when I set out for a three-week bikepacking trip in Idaho this fall, I left my water filter behind.

That was a mistake.

The problem wasn't immediately apparent. My first day out, I delighted in my Aquamira drops; they were small and light, and they eliminated the need to crouch uncomfortably by a riverbank while pumping liter after liter of water.

But then, the rain came -- a relentless downpour. The deluge lasted several days and washed a torrent of dirt into the rivers, leaving the water brown and murky. I panicked. Would Aquamira still work in cloudy water? I imagined contracting giardia out there on the trail, days away from the nearest town. It was a terrifying thought. Even if I didn't get giardia or E. coli, ingesting all that mud and silt couldn't be good for you.

In the end, I was lucky. I had a bandana with me, and I strained the water through it before adding an extra large dose of Aquamira. The bandana was far from clean -- I'd been using it as a "pee rag" -- but it did the job: I didn't get sick.

Still, it's not an experience I wish to repeat. Straining the water was slow and painstaking, and using my pee rag as a filter was sub-optimal, to put it lightly. More importantly, the constant worry that I might contract some horrible water-borne disease was awful. Anxiety consumed me, and it was impossible to relax.

That doesn't mean I've written off chemical water purification altogether. For shorter trips, in places with reliably clear water sources, it's fabulous. But for longer forays into the backcountry, a filter is worth its weight in gold.