Over thousands of years, the mountain top surrounding the volcano had eroded and tumbled down, forming a massive slope of unstable rock. Teetering on the brink of the loose scree ridge, clean water was the furthest thing from my mind.
We had hiked two days to get to Black Tusk. Along the way we took the opportunity to drink water and fill our bottles from the streams we passed, and while the streams looked clean, we always filtered our water rather than risk getting sick. After all, you never know what’s upstream of you.
My water filter this trip was an award-winning device called LifeStraw, which was designed in Switzerland by Vestergaard Frandsen for humanitarian projects in the harsh conditions of Africa. It’s an ingeniously simple water filter which anyone can use. Simply suck water through it and the filter removes 99.99999% of waterborne bacteria (>LOG 7 reduction), and 99.9% of waterborne protozoan parasites (>LOG 3 reduction) down to 0.2 microns in size. The EPA standard for removing the usual suspects, Giardia, E. Coli and Cryptosporidium, is 1.0 microns. At 0.2 microns, the LifeStraw provides five times more filtration than the EPA standard, which is considered ‘rigorous’. The LifeStraw filters over 264 gallons (1,000 liters), which you know you’ve reached when water can no longer be sucked through it.
My hiking partners were using traditional pump-style water filters, and while they were busily pumping away, I was already drinking the cold stream water with no effort at all. I tend to drink water every hour or so, so I kept the LifeStraw in my pocket as I hiked, and when thirsty I’d pull my water bottle out of my pack, insert the LifeStraw, and sip directly from the bottle, as the LifeStraw is thin enough to fit through the bottle opening.
The LifeStraw is easy to carry as it is only 9 inches long by 1 inch in diameter, and weighs less than 2 ounces. Comparatively, the water filters my friends were using weighed around 1 pound. On a long hike every bit of weight savings counts, and as experienced hikers know, it’s the small items that add up to make your pack heavy.
Lower down the mountain, where natural water sources were more plentiful, there was no need to fill my water bottle. I could simply get on my knees and put the LifeStraw directly into a stream for a cool drink of clean water. While I do like to take big glugs of filtered water right from the water bottle, I’ve found that the straw does deliver quite a large volume as it has a very high flow rate. It seems to deliver much more water than a typical drinking straw, so I felt satisfied with the amount of water I could get through the LifeStraw. While cooking oatmeal for breakfast or pasta for dinner, I used untreated lake water and just boiled it for a minute to kill any bacteria or parasites. Granted, the water I was using for cooking with wasn’t muddy, otherwise I would have wanted to clean it with a traditional filter.
There are water filters in the $80-$100 range which can be cleaned and re-used for years, but I figure if I’m drinking 3-4 quarts (3-4 liters) of water per day while hiking, the LifeStraw will last me for 250-330 days before it reaches its expiry of 264 gallons (1,000 filtered liters). Since I hike about 15 days per year, this is more than adequate for my needs.
If I was in an emergency, it’d be nice to have one of these LifeStraws close at hand. If my car broke down in a remote area and I had to walk all day, or if there was a boil-water advisory combined with a power outage, having access to clean water would be critical. For those concerned about emergency preparedness, it’s a great idea to keep a few of them in your preparedness kit, and one in the glovebox of your car. They’re light and cheap enough to have a few around.
Here are some important tips, based on my own experience using the LifeStraw:
- When the straw is completely empty, it takes a few sucks to get the water through it. After that, it’s very easy to suck water through.
- If the straw stops sucking up water, blow back into it (from the mouthpiece) and that will clear the filter and make it easy to suck up water again. I had to do this several times per day. With muddy water, you would have to blow back into it more often.
- When you’re finished drinking, blow a breath of air into it again to clear out the water in the filter. I also shake the LifeStraw a bit to help clear out any drips so they don’t end up in my backpack. If there is water left in the filter during freezing temperatures, it might expand and damage the filter, so I recommend shaking it dry, or keeping it from freezing. When I got home, I rinsed it under the tap and let it thoroughly dry with the caps off.
- With the LifeStraw, you can drink directly from a water source (such as a stream, mud puddle, or lake), but keep in mind the ground might be soggy. I only drink from the water body if the ground is rocky, otherwise I’ll end up getting damp from lying on the wet ground beside the creek. A more practical way of taking a drink is of course filling your water bottle up in the creek, and then putting the LifeStraw into the bottle and drinking that way.
- Although the LifeStraw has been tested up to 422 gallons (1600 liters), you’re supposed to stop using it after 1000 liters. You’ll know when it’s reached the end of its lifespan when you can’t suck water through it anymore.
- While the LifeStraw filters down to 0.2 microns, removing virtually all bacteria and protozoa, it should be noted that it will not filter out heavy metals, and will not desalinate water. It doesn’t filter out viruses either, although water-borne viruses are rare in the North American backcountry.
Leaning into the wind at the summit of Black Tusk, a sense of awe took hold as the effort of the climb subsided. I could see the alpine meadows and glacial lakes we had hiked along, and in the distance, the ocean. The pounding in my heart subsided, and I realized my internal dialogue had changed. The usual pattern of mental chatter gave way to a sense of quiet calm, and the feeling of oneness with nature was uplifting and restorative. I felt the LifeStraw in my pocket, and it occurred to me that this little device is going to help me enjoy the outdoors even more.
For every LifeStraw sold, one student in Kenya receives a year’s worth of clean water at school through the Follow the Litres program. We also donate a tree for every order through our partnership with Trees for the Future Foundation.