How Best to Clean Your Water in the Field

by Alan on October 9, 2010

I recently wrote up my notes (to share with a fellow graduate student) on how I chose between various personal water filtering options for a field school and fieldwork this summer. Please find them below. I hope this is helpful to others as well.

Source: Flickr User  Sam Beebe

Río Maniqui, Beni, Bolivia

After spending a few hours comparing prices and reviews on the interwebs, I quickly narrowed my options down to two companies–though, I did later find a third viable option, which I’ve included as a footnote below. I was was also aided by advice from several colleagues who have tried these in Africa, South America, and the American Northwest, among other places.

For several reasons, I was dissuaded from going with a ceramic or other hand pump. The biggest drawback to traditional pumps seems to be that they clog too easily and most don’t filter out viruses. Also, they can be a pain to use, since you have to pump while one hose dangles in a river and another sits precariously in a bottle or bucket. Hence, contamination is an issue. The two products/brands I settled on are both purification bottles but they have significantly different initial prices–and significantly different costs/L and flow rates. These include three Katadyn bottles (i.e. the Water Microfilter, Exstream and the new Mybottle) and the Lifesaver Bottle. The Katadyn’s are $35-$50 on Amazon and the Lifesaver is $150 (or $180 for the 6,000 L model).

Katadyn Bottles vs. Lifesaver Bottle

The biggest differences between these are their flow rates, the total volume each can handle per filter, chemical use (or lack thereof), cost/L and dirty filter failsafe. Flow rate matters quite a bit because depending on the turbidity of the water you want to have some excess so that when the filters have been used for a while (or haven’t been flushed for awhile) the filter will still work at a tolerable rate. The Katadyn bottles have initial flow rates of 0.2-0.3 L/min while the Lifesaver is 2.5 L/min. Some of this difference is because you can re-pressurize (i.e. pump-a-little) to increase flow rate when the Lifesaver slows down. To put that into perspective, if you didn’t have to refill, the Katadyn would take 475 min to filter its total 95L volume while the Lifesaver would take just 38 min to filter that same 95L (assuming low turbidity, of course).

Each Katadyn filter can clean 25 gallons or ~95 L (replacement filters are $20 and depending on the models other replacement pieces may be needed). The Lifesaver base model filter cleans 4,000 L (6,000 L for the next step up) and the 4,000 model cartridges cost $99. Iodine is usually fine for most folks but Katadyn says “Persons with iodine allergies, thyroid problems and pregnant women should consult a doctor before using the bottle.” Research indicates that long-term Iodine water purification can lead to thyroid and other problems (see: Backer & Hollowell 2000). Katadyn uses iodine because the filters range from .3-1.0 microns (the Lifesaver filter is .015 microns and the largest water borne virus is about .025 microns). Lifesaver does not use iodine.

The cost/L for the Katadyn at $35/95L is $0.37 while the base Lifesaver at $150/4,000L is $0.0375 or at $180/6,000L is $0.03. The Lifesaver bottle stops working at the end of filter life while Katadyn will keep working and if you’re not paying close attention this is bad because the bottle-cap counter simply restarts the count. There are two to three parts to change on the Katadyn depending on the model while there are two for the Lifesaver. Finally, you’re supposed to only use the Katadyn in an upright position–it doesn’t work if upside down or angled towards, say, your mouth.

My slightly-used Lifesaver 4000L


I went with the Lifesaver bottle because my water source this summer is highly turbid with lots of silt and sand. That made a flow rate 12.5 times higher than the Katadyn bottles seem very appealing.


Also, check out the Lifestraw which filters 1,000 liters to 0.2 microns—i.e. it doesn’t remove viruses— for just $20 (now on sale in the U.S. here) and the AquaSafeStraw+ and AquaSafeBottle+ (Straw: $92.75, no chemicals, 1,000L @ $0.07/L, 0.01 micron filter, 0.4L/min, and failsafe; Bottle: $97.75, 1,000L @ $0.09/L; same specs in bottle form).


safe drinking water January 23, 2015 at 3:14 am

The truth of the matter is,the best approach to make water safe for consumption will wreck or render inactive 100% of disease causing organisms.Likewise,this process is promptly accessible and almost foolproof.It has been effectively utilized for a considerable length of time and remains without a doubt the best method of all: boiling.

Rachel Wood.

Alan.Schultz February 22, 2015 at 2:59 pm

Boiling is a great solution when you have everything that is needed and boiling is truly the best way to eliminate the contamination present. For example, you must have a consistent source of fuel. This is something that is in short supply for many poor people. For researchers, this is a matter of collecting, buying or bringing it with you. As far as contamination, boiling is great for killing bacteria, parasites and most viruses but it will not kill something like a prion. Boiling is also a terrible idea if your water is full of nitrates since it will actually concentrate them and make the water more toxic. Indeed, if toxicity is a concern (for example in rivers where gold mining is happening with heavy metals) then you have to filter. Finally, boiling takes a huge amount of time and results in water that is flat and, especially if done on a camp fire, frequently full of ash/particulates (again, no filtering). No one, not even poor folk or researchers, want heavily turbid water as a refreshing drink.

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