How to Have Clean Water While Trail Running

You have never known dehydration until you have been running along your favorite trail and come upon a muddy puddle of water. Instead of being naturally repulsed, you weigh the pros and cons of taking a sip. Undoubtedly, that’s just gross, right?

Although what is one to do when on a long out and back trail run and the water stores have run out, or worse, you didn’t pack any, to begin with? Perhaps a crystal-clear babbling stream is a cleaner option for quelling your thirst? Unfortunately, this is not true, particularly if you like staying healthy.

All outdoor water sources are exposed to multiple forms of pathogens and toxins. So, how do you get clean water while trail running? Luckily, there are a few handy water purifiers made just for these circumstances.

Why Do You Need Purified Water While Trail Running?

Obviously, there are many reasons you need purified drinking water. Bacteria proliferate in nearly every nook and cranny of this world we inhabit. Even the cleanest-appearing water can contain billions of microorganisms looking for free room and board inside your body.

Wildlife Contamination

Though the idea of drinking water from a fresh mountain stream while out on a run sounds like a bit of heaven, at the same time, we often forget how easily that water can be contaminated. Let’s begin with wildlife. Whether living in or near the water source such as a lake, stream, pond, or river, animals think nothing of defecating in or near said water. Need we say more?

In case the possibility of ingesting raccoon (a literal trash panda) feces along with that refreshing gulp of river water wasn’t enough, consider that raccoon dying in or near that river. As far as we know, proper burials are nonexistent in the wild animal realm. In reality, wild animals land where they die, and sometimes that is in or near water sources. Have you considered that animal carcasses could be filtering the very water you wish to drink? Hard nope!

Microbe Contamination

Comparative to wildlife contamination, microbe contamination consists of all the super tiny organisms we cannot see in the water. Some of these microbes like Escherichia coli, or E. coli, are naturally found in soil and, therefore can easily make their way into water sources via heavy rains and snow melts. These microbes can come from an array of sources, including wildlife, human and domesticated pet feces, and runoff from farmer’s fields.

Industrial and Agricultural Contamination

This contamination usually comes in the form of toxins that have been accidentally or intentionally discarded near water sources. Things like chemical waste from industries, pesticides used on crops, and even car exhaust have a way of ending up in “fresh” water.

Health Risks

Additionally, if the pure disgust factor of ingesting any of the aforementioned contaminants from drinking stream water isn’t enough, consider the health factors. Symptoms associated with E. coli contamination alone include vomiting, diarrhea, and fever. Some bacterial infections can be much more intense and require hospitalization or worse. Certainly, the brain-eating amoeba or flesh-eating bacteria rings a bell for someone! Moreover, toxins ingested from factory runoff can disrupt neurological processes. Yikes!

Types of Portable Water Filters

Hopefully, you are now convinced you need to purify water outdoors, especially if it’s needed while out on the trails. So, let’s discuss the different types of portable water filters available.

Filters or Purifiers

It is important to differentiate between filters and purifiers. A portable water filter usually contains some sort of ultrafine membrane that physically catches microbes and debris and keeps you from consuming them. On the other hand, a purifier will kill all microbes within the water. A filter together with a purifier will offer the most effective purification, but this is not always an option for trail running water.

Water Purification Tablets

These tablets are usually iodine or chlorine and can add a nasty taste to your water. To be sure, they will kill most microbes, but it can take up to a few hours to work. You will also need a container for your water to sit in while it mixes with the tablet. Time to disinfect your water is not always a convenience afforded you on the trails.

Mixed Oxidant Purifier

Newer to the market, this purifier uses electrolysis to kill microbes. First, it requires you to add a bit of salt to its pen-shaped cylinder, dependent upon how much water you are purifying. Second, you put the pen into a water bottle or other container with the water in it. Third, pushing a button sends an electric current into the water, which kills most microbes within minutes.

Ultraviolet Pens

These pen-shaped ultraviolet lights quickly kill microbes by busting through their cellular walls and reorganizing their DNA. Subsequently, this renders the microbe unable to reproduce and therefore, biologically dead. Generally, you will hold the pen in the water to be purified and stir it until the light goes out.

Single-Stage and Multi-Stage Filtration

As their names would suggest, single-stage filtration has one stage of filtration, and multi-stage has more than one stage of filtration. Multi-stage filtration has more capacity for catching microbes and usually contains a carbon filter that helps with taste and neutralizes industrial toxins. These systems can both be inserted into a bottle as a straw or can be an all-in-one type bottle and filter set up.

Best Portable Water Filters for Trail Running

Here is a list of some of the best water purifying options for trail runners. As a runner, and especially a distance runner, you need something lightweight and easy to use. Obviously, no one wants to let a little thing like dehydration ruin their P.R. Therefore, we’ve done the research so you can make an informed decision on what works best for you.

LifeStraw Go Water Filter Bottle

This 23-ounce, leak-proof bottle uses a 2-stage filtration system to deliver premium drinking water. The first stage is a hollow fiber membrane that captures microorganisms, and the second stage is a carbon capsule that purifies the tastes and filters impurities. Even though finding places to attach a bottle to yourself while running can prove difficult, this gives you the added option of taking water along with you, saving you from depending solely on trail sources.

Traps 99.9% of bacteria and protozoa from waterLarge bottle size
No chemicals or battery-usageStrong suction needed to retrieve water
Replacement filters available for lasting useChemical taste from bottle reported

LifeStraw Personal Water Filter

This compact water filter is a single-stage system using a hollow fiber membrane to trap microorganisms. Given that, it claims to trap up to 99.9% of parasites, bacteria, and microplastics in the water. It can also reduce water turbidity. This filter is unique in that it is simply a straw that you can use to drink directly from the water source. For that reason, it is super easy to carry along on trail runs.

Traps 99.9% of bacteria, parasites, and microplasticsRequires strong suction
Compact straw systemCan break easily when dropped
Filters up to 4,000 liters of waterReported to clog easily

SteriPen Aqua UV Water Purifier

This SteriPen Aqua UV water sterilizer utilizes ultraviolet light submerged into a bottle of water to kill microorganisms. It takes just under 50 seconds to purify 1 liter of water. This cannot be used on turbid water as the light needs to pass through for proper purification. The SteriPen uses 4 AA batteries and weighs 1 pound. This device has the added convenience of a status indicator, but it does require the use of a bottle or other small container. For this reason, these are sometimes inconvenient on longer runs.

Quickly purifies waterHeavy to carry during runs
Easy-to-use operationCannot replace old UV lights
Filters up to 3,000 liters of waterDifficult to replace batteries

Sawyer Products Mini Water Filtration System

This system weighs just 2 ounces and fits in your hand, making it super easy to tote along on trail runs. You can fill the included drinking pouch with water, connect it to a water bottle, or drink directly from your water source. With an available adapter, it can even be connected to your hydration pack if you’re so inclined to run with one. Because it has a lifetime filter rate of 100,000 gallons of water, it is one of the longest-lasting filters out there.

Super lightweight for runningSingle-stage filter only
Cleaning plunger includedO-ring defect sometimes causes leaks
Versatile can be used in many ways

Potable Aqua PURE Water Purifier

This nifty gadget is one of the newer mixed oxidant disinfectors. It uses salt water and electric current to kill microbes. It is safe to use on turbid water because the water does not need to be clear for the current to go through it. In addition, you do need to have a container for the water, which isn’t always easy to take on the trail. It will also take 35 minutes to completely disinfect your water, so if you cannot break from your run for that long, this might not be for you. Still, it is small, durable, and rechargeable by solar power, making it convenient while off-grid.

Compact and durableLeaves a chlorine taste to water
USB or Solar rechargeable lithium battery35 minutes to disinfect
Unconsumed water stays disinfectedIndicator lights hard to see in daylight

American Red Cross Ultralight Purifier

An ultraviolet water purifier, this 2.6-ounce gadget can sanitize 1 liter of water in 90 seconds. With its easy-to-use push-button start and water-activated light sensors, you cannot go wrong. With a rechargeable battery via included USB cable, you can purify 20 liters per full charge. On the other hand, it is on the wider side, meaning it isn’t very convenient to fit into water bottles. For that reason, glasses or wider-mouthed containers would work better.

LightweightWider, hard to use with bottles
USB rechargeable lithium batteryRequires container
Easy-to-UseDifficult to remove cover for USB port

Katadyn Vario Microfilter

This multi-stage filtration system features a pump that allows you to pump (rather than suck like with a straw) through its filters into a bottle. At 15 ounces and nearly 7 inches, this is similar in size to a small water bottle. The catch is that you need to bring along a bottle, too. Unless you are running with a pack, this system could prove too big for trail runs. Still, it is a great system to purify water outdoors with glass fiber filtration and a ceramic prefilter. Nonetheless, it can filter up to 2 quarts of water per minute.

Multi-stage filtrationNot compact
Easy pump systemRequires bottle/container
Includes activated carbon for tasteWeak nozzle often breaks

Etekcity Water Filter Straw

This impressive straw filtration device uses a 3-stage system including a pre-filter, carbon filter, and 0.1-micron hollow fiber UF membrane. The straw comes with a reusable drinking pouch, extension straw, and cleaning syringe. Moreover, you can drink straight from the water source. The versatility and compact nature of this device make it handy to bring along to get fresh trail running water. 

Multi-stage filtration in a strawHard suction is typically required
Cleaning accessories includedFragile drinking pouch
Carbon filter enhances water taste

Sawyer Products Micro Squeeze Water Filtration System

Similar to the Sawyer straw, this system can be attached to any common threaded water bottle, or you can drink from the source (with an included extension straw.) It comes with a drinking pouch to be filled with water, and the squeeze filtration is attached. Simply squeeze the water through the 0.1-micron hollow fiber filter and enjoy microbe-free clean water outdoors.

Squeeze filtration suction is not requiredPouch can break
Cleaning accessories includedFreezing can destroy the filter
Lightweight and compactMultiple parts to carry along

To Filter or Not to Filter?

Filter, of course! Even if your immune system is top-notch, why risk it? Especially when you can easily get clean water outdoors with a portable water filter! Obviously, the advantages of carrying a straw filter, bottle filter, or pump system along for trail running water far outweigh the inconveniences of a bit of extra weight.

Undoubtedly, you are going to get thirsty on those long trail runs. Surprisingly, muddy puddles may start to look refreshing. Don’t drink it! I mean, unless endless diarrhea and projectile vomiting appeal to you. Let’s not even mention the time it will take for you to heal before getting back out on the trails. Invest in your own water filter and purify water outdoors by yourself! Your health depends on it!


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