A good survival water filter should be one of the first items bought when starting on the preparedness path. Without water, nothing else matters. While you can go weeks without food, you will last mere days without water.
Drinking contaminated or dirty water often leads to illness or even death. Just getting sick from drinking bad water can weaken you enough that your odds of survival during an emergency are drastically reduced.
There are a lot of water filters out there, and some are definitely better than others. In this guide, I show you the different types of water filters available and go into detail about which situations each is best for. Water filters vary a lot in price and quality. That being said, you don’t have to spend a ton of money to get a really good filter that could save your life.
Table of Contents
Straw-Style Water Filters
Filters that you use like a straw are very popular among preppers and survivalists. Lifestraw is the most well-known brand on the market. There are some advantages to Lifestraws, but there are some serious disadvantages as well. Let’s start with the positives. Lifestraw filters are very affordable for the amount of water they filter. They’re extremely lightweight and somewhat easy to use.
The downside is that you need either a container to suck water from or you have to get down on your stomach to drink water from a pond or stream. That can be hard or impossible for some people. Lifestraws also filter fewer gallons of water before needing to be replaced than a Sawyer Mini or similar filter.
This is the classic Lifestraw filter that has been available for years. It’s very affordable and takes up little space. These are a popular choice for EDC or get-home bags. The original Lifestraw filters up to 1,000 gallons of water before it needs to be replaced.
You can get a Lifestraw water bottle that uses the same style of filter but provides the convenience of a standard water bottle.
Countertop Water Filters
Berkey has long been the standard for countertop water filters. Many people really like them. However, I’m not a fan of the large countertop Berkey filters because they’re bulky and the filters are expensive. Water filter technology has come a long way since Berkey entered the market. There are many less expensive and faster-flowing filters available that are more portable and compact. I recommend Berkey filters for those who plan on being in one place for a long time. These aren’t something you can just grab and go. For a bug-out cabin, they’re a good option.
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Berkey filters give you good tasting and clean water, and the overall set up will last a long time. It’s important to buy the correct size Berkey filter for your group. Adding more filters to the system will increase the flow rate. All Berkey countertop water filters come with one or two filters, but you can use up to four. Using the maximum gives you greater overall water filtration capacity before you need to replace the filters.
The Royal Berkey is the third largest Berkey filter available. It’s a good choice for families and small groups. With two filter cartridges you can expect to filter up to 4 gallons of water per hour. The storage tank is 3.25 gallons, so if you want to filter more, you’ll have to use the spigot and clean containers to hold the water. With this method, you could filter around 48 gallons of water in 12 hours. With four filter cartridges, you can expect to filter 84 gallons in 12 hours.
Berkey recommends replacing the filter-element pairs after filtering 6,000 gallons of water. Adding three more filters adds another 6,000 gallons of filtering capacity, so if you use seven, you can filter 12,000 gallons of water before replacing the filters.
Some Royal Berkey filters come with two arsenic and fluoride reduction cartridges that attach to the filter elements. These elements only work for 1,000 gallons of filtration. However, these extra cartridges aren’t necessary in most backcountry conditions. Personally, I wouldn’t worry about buying more unless you have a reason to be concerned about arsenic or excessive fluoride.
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Years ago, I received an Alexapure filter in exchange for an honest review. It’s modeled after the Big Berkey, and like the Berkey, it can take up to four filter cartridges. I only received a single filter cartridge with my unit, and I have to say that it filters water pretty slowly. I wouldn’t want to rely solely on this system with a single filter during a long emergency.
The body of the filtration system is entirely stainless steel. As far as I know, this is the only larger countertop model that Alexapure makes. In the beginning, they were considerably less expensive than a Berkey, but now they’re about the same price.
A gravity-fed filter is the best option for those who need a lot of water on demand for their family. Gravity-fed filters save a ton of time and energy during difficult situations. In the past, it was much harder to afford or even find a gravity system. Now, there are many options starting at around $40.
I use the Hydro Blu and gravity bag system out in the backcountry. All I have to do is fill the bag and hang it from a tree, and I have 10 liters of water ready to flow. It takes just a few minutes, and we don’t have to worry about our water needs for the rest of the day. The whole set up costs around $40.
Gravity-Fed Portable Filters
Another option is a hydration bladder such as a CamelBak or Platypus and then use an inexpensive in-line filter like the Versa Flo or Sawyer Mini. Simply attach the filter at some point in your hydration hose, and you can enjoy clean, filtered water on demand.
The Sawyer Mini is one of the most affordable and useful filter options out there. The Mini comes with a squeeze bag you can fill and then attach the filter to drink direct. They do not cost much more than a Lifestraw but they are a lot easier for most anyone to use.
The Lifestraw Mission is a bag-style filter meant for group use in tough environments. It’s a decent filter to have on hand for emergencies, but it filters relatively little water before it needs to be replaced. If you can find one on sale, then it might be a decent buy.
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Pump-Style Water Filters
When I was in college in the early 2000s, most backpackers used hand-pump water filters, and the filter elements were only rated for about 100 gallons of water. That could add up to a pretty big expense, and you had to work pretty hard to get a quart of water to drink. It could get pretty annoying after a while. The older the filter or the murkier the water, the harder it was to pump the water through the filter.
That being said, we did have a very basic MSR filter. There were other more expensive options out there with better flow rates.
I generally dissuade people from buying a pump-style filter because of the work involved and the fact that you have to stop often to pump. There are a few pump filters that are fast, but they’re expensive. At the same time, the filters I recommend provide amazing flavor and filtration, and they filter viruses and industrial pollutants. With so many people living in or near urban areas, this level of filtration is important for overall health during a long emergency.
The Katadyn Pocket is my favorite pump-style filter for hiking because it has an excellent flow rate and is made from heavy-duty materials. It’s rated to eliminate bacteria and viruses. Its disadvantage is the price. They’re currently around $400. The ceramic filter element and the heavy-duty metal housing makes it heavy, compared with lightweight gravity bags and filter set ups.
However, the water from the Katadyn Pocket is crisp and clean. I would drink out of almost any water source if I had this with me to filter it first.
These filters work well. I tested the original Survivor Filter in a creek that runs through a pasture, so there was probably plenty of bacteria in the water. After drinking the water, I had no trouble at all. The flow rate was decent, and I like that it comes with a cup. It’s light enough to take on a backpacking trip, and it fits easily in a medium-size pouch.
Absolutely. Water is your first line of survival. Without water, you won’t last long. You can go up to three days without water and weeks without food. I always recommend that people who are just starting to prep address their water needs first. Even the most pristine mountain stream with no dwellings within miles can harbor bacteria such as giardia. During difficult times, more people may start using waterways for sanitary needs or there may be more runoff that leads to more contamination than usual. Bad water used to kill a lot of people. My own great-great-grandfather died of typhoid in the late 1930s. Drinking contaminated water can, at the very least, make you sick enough to be too weak or dehydrated to make it out of a remote location.
Sure, you can boil water, but it takes resources and time. If you’re boiling water, you may end up drinking a lot of warm water because when you’re thirsty, it can be hard to wait until the water cools off. Boiling water for 5 minutes can effectively sterilize it, but it won’t remove heavy metals, industrial pollutants, or debris.
The variation in cost is not necessarily because some filter more water than others. The materials used and the brand name are significant factors. For example, a Swiss-made Katadyn Pocket is nearly $400, while a similar filter made in China may be well under $100. It’s a good idea to buy from a well-known company because you can get great name brand filters starting at $20. Water filters also vary in what they can filter. For example, viruses are more likely to be a problem in highly populated areas. Some filters will eliminate viruses while others will not. Always check product descriptions to make sure you know what a filter will do before you purchase it.
How to ensure the longest life for a water filter
Pre-filter water or allow particles to settle.
Turbidity refers to how much sediment is in water. Swamp or lake water can be quite turbid, especially after a heavy rain or a lot of wind that sends debris into waterways.
If you must filter water with considerable sediment, it’s best to either pre-filter using a somewhat clean white cloth or t-shirt or put the water in a container and allow the sediment to settle the bottom before filtering the water. These simple steps will prevent your water filter from clogging, making for a much slower flow, or in extreme cases, stop filtering altogether. Cheesecloth makes a good prefilter as well, but it’s expensive compared with an old t-shirt or something similar. Letting the sediment settle takes more time but works really well.
Never allow a filter to freeze.
Some high-end Katadyn hand-pump filters have ceramic filter elements that will crack or bust if stored while wet in very cold temperatures. Always take filters apart at the end of the day and wipe any dirt or mud off the ceramic element, then allow it to air dry. If camping in very cold conditions, keep your water filter close to your body and/or wrapped in clothing or anything that will keep it from freezing. It doesn’t take much water to damage a filter, allowing contaminants into your drinking water.
Even filters like those in the Sawyer Mini should not be allowed to freeze. Over time, ice crystals can do a lot of damage.
Follow all manufacturer instructions for long-term water filter storage.
If you’re not using a water filter or suddenly stop using it, specific storage conditions may need to be followed. For example, our Alexapure gravity-fed filter is made like a Big Berkey. We have no reason to leave it out on our countertop, so we’re storing it in case of an emergency. Alexapure recommends storing water filter elements in a container of water until the next use. So, I’ve had a large charcoal water filter submerged in a Tupperware container for several years now.
Not storing your filters properly can spell disaster when you need them. Charcoal style water filter elements are not cheap, so take the time and effort to store them correctly.
It’s a good idea to have a personal water filter for every member of your family. A Sawyer mini with a squeeze bag is less than $22 and can be used to create larger water filtration systems when needed.
A larger unit for family or group needs should be part of your disaster preparation kit as well. The total cost to outfit a family of four with Sawyer Minis and a main family water filter can be as little as $150 if you shop wisely. Four Sawyer Mini filters and a Verso Flow with a 10L gravity fed bag currently costs well under $150.
Make sure everyone knows how to properly use and maintain their water filter.