Since I started down the road of lightweight backpacking six years ago, I’ve used several packs, sleeping bags, tents, sleeping pads, and who knows what other gear. But despite all those new toys, the way I hiked changed very little. My pack grew lighter over time as I found things I could do without, or lighter replacements for some gear, but I always hiked the same. This spring, I finally found a piece of backpacking equipment that has changed how I hike, and made me more efficient as a lightweight backpacker– the Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter.
I’ve used chemical water treatment since I first started backpacking. Every experience I had with filters was awful– clogged cartridges, ineffective pumps, a mess of dangling tubes– filters were, at best, a pain in the ass. And they were heavy and bulky. Why would I ever replace my precious Aqua Mira?
At the recommendation of many Appalachian Trail hikers and my buddy Phil, I took the chance with the Sawyer Squeeze. All of my expectations were met, and blown away.
Last summer while I was hiking the Long Trail, there was a terrible heat wave and drought. I found myself running out of water as I passed plentiful springs that had gone dry. Once at a running source, I would fill up, treat my water, then move on. This usually led to some frustration, since the best chemical treatments take 15 to 30 minutes to effectively treat the water. All I wanted was to drink right away, but instead I had to watch that delicious water sit in a bottle just a little while longer.
Over the past few months with the Sawyer Squeeze, I’ve gotten in the habit of chugging a liter or more of water when I stop at a stream or spring, then moving on with half a bottle in my pack. I start out hydrated better than before, since I don’t have to wait to drink the water, and it’s much more refreshing to drink icy mountain water before it heats up in the bottle for a while.
Going Heavy to Go Light
One of the reasons I always used chemical treatment is the light weight. A full set of Aqua Mira weighs 3 ounces. Repackaged in smaller bottles, you have a weekend’s supply for less than an ounce. The Sawyer Squeeze claims to weigh 3.5 ounces, but only happens when it’s perfectly dry. Most of the time, it has residual water stuck inside, bringing the weight up to 5 ounces. Add about an ounce and a half for the dirty water bag, and one ounce for a little plastic bottle I use to fill the bag if the water is stagnant, and you’re approaching half a pound.
But consider this– on the Long Trail I left every water source carrying at least two liters of water, which is close to 4.5 pounds (dead weight until half an hour after it was treated). This spring, on the Appalachian Trail, I never carried more than one liter of water. Often, I carried no water at all. Since I could drink immediately at water sources, I could fill up my belly instead of bottles. A few extra ounces of filter translated into an average of two pounds saved on my back.
Fresh, Tasty Water
I’ve used chemical water treatment day after day for months on end, during two summer-long through hikes, and several multi-week trips. I have no doubt that it’s safe to use in the long run. But sometimes I fill a bottle with ice cold, crystal clear mountain spring water, and I cringe at the thought of adding anything to it. I’ve drunk straight out of those springs on occasion, sans treatment, but I’ve seen too many cases of giardia or intestinal bugs to want to take my chances. At some point, I decided I much prefer to remove things from the water than to add to it. Now, I taste the water as it is meant to taste– not even with the very faint taste of Aqua Mira. Just cold, fresh water.
Will It Last?
The most common complaint I’ve heard about the Squeeze is the durability of the water bags. So far, I’ve squeezed over 100 liters from the filter (yes, I’ve counted), using only one of the three provided bags, and there is no sign of the seams separating. I’m convinced that the problem can be easily avoided, just like breaking carbon fiber trekking poles. It doesn’t take much effort to get a steady flow of water out of the filter (I timed it at just over one minute to gently squeeze out one liter of water). If you squeeze the bag harder, the water will come out faster. But rushing things like this will cause unnecessary wear and tear. All you need to do is roll the bag from the bottom, and don’t put a lot of pressure on the bag.
There is one other durability flaw with the filter, with an easy fix: the washer that seals the dirty water bag with the filter can deteriorate quickly, allowing dirty water to leak from the seal. Going through Sawyer to get a replacement can be a hassle, but a simple garden hose washer from a hardware store actually fits better than the one that came with the filter, and is much cheaper. Hardware stores to the rescue!
I’ll probably still use Aqua Mira from time to time, like in late autumn when temperatures get below freezing fairly often (freezing the filter will destroy it), or as backup in case the filter ever goes bad. But so far, I’m totally sold on this tool for backpacking. In wet regions, I now get by only carrying one liter of water, drinking lots whenever I pass a water source, and being able to drink right away when I get to the water source.