Gear Review: MSR TrailShot Microfilter

Over Mother’s Day Weekend (also known on social media as Hike Like A Girl 2017 weekend), I took a backpacking trip to Henry Coe State Park in Northern California.  This was the inaugural trip of my new backpacking group known as the Bay Area Backpacking Bettys.  Three of us spent three days trekking through spring-time bliss.

Gorgeous rocks, water and flora in Henry Coe State Park.
Gorgeous rocks, water and flora in Henry Coe State Park.
Henry Coe State Park is known for being ridiculously rugged and steep, and also very hot and dry.  It’s tough any time of year, and completely unforgiving in the summer.  But in the spring, it comes alive with wildflowers, verdant valleys, and flowing creeks and streams.  If you can stomach the steep ups and downs, there aren’t many more gorgeous and remote areas in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Jessica and Serena pause at the start of a 5 mile uphill slog.
Jessica and Serena pause at the start of a 5 mile uphill slog.
Before leaving for the trip, I was pondering my two filters and lamenting that neither one was what I wanted to bring.  I own an MSR gravity filter, which is ideal for group trips but is very bulky (and annoying to back flush).  I also own a Sawyer MINI, which I really dislike for many reasons despite its popularity.

I was at REI picking up a few essentials when I first saw the MSR TrailShot Microfilter. It caught my eye because it looked … odd.  There wasn’t a lot of info on the box about how it worked, so I looked on my phone and saw that it had just come out, in January 2017, and it was already receiving rave reviews.

I bought it for $49.50 at REI.

The TrailShot is advertised as “pocket sized”, and it is.  At just a hair above 5 ounces, it’s pretty light-weight and small.  The Sawyer MINI is lighter, at just 2 ounces, but that doesn’t include the other equipment you need to carry to use it properly (special Sawyer squeeze bags or a dedicated non-rigid plastic bottle for dirty water and a back flush syringe – Sawyer doesn’t list the wight of those items). The TrailShot is comprised of a hose and a “bulb” filter (think: blood pressure cuff bulb).  The hose wraps around the bulb and is secured with a wide rubber band when not in use.  There are no moving parts to break.

MSR TrailShot Filter
The TrailShot: Small, lightweight, compact and unique.
To operate the filter, you simply place the bottom of the hose into your water source and squeeze the bulb.  Water gets sucked into the bulb as you pump, forced through the filter component and then emerges out of the angled nozzle with cap.  You can spin the nozzle so it angles perfectly for filling a bottle or bladder.

MSR claims you can filter a liter of water in about 60 seconds, and this is definitely true.  The bulb is very easy to squeeze and refills quickly.  I was worried that filling my 3-liter bladder might tire out my hand with all that squeezing, but it wasn’t bad at all.  I did have to experiment a bit with the way I held the bulb for maximum efficiency. I switched hands halfway through, but I really didn’t need to.  Filling up a full 3-liter bladder was quick and easy, especially when compared to the MINI.

The MINI is a pain in the you-know-what.  It requires you to fill a bag or flexible plastic bottle with water, attach the Squeeze filter and then squeeze the dirty water through the filter and into a clean water bottle or bladder (or right into your mouth). So, you need a dedicated “dirty” receptacle at all times.

Sounds easy enough, right?  It’s not.  Squeezing the dirty water through the filter is not only time-consuming, but it is difficult!  You’re going to squeeze the heck out of your plastic bottle or soft-sided mylar bag to filter water.  It takes too long and it’s super-duper annoying and very frustrating. I often worry I’m going to pop the mylar bag because I have to squeeze so hard. I seriously get pissed off at the process.

The Squeeze gets harder to use when it’s clogging up, which seems to happen regularly, even with silt-free water (happened twice on a two-day trip).  Then you have to back flush it, which requires clean water and a special plunger syringe that comes with the filter.  If you just realized the filter has gotten abysmally slow, you’ll need to work hard to filter enough clean water just to back flush it.  Never back flush a MINI with dirty water.

Everything you need to operate a Sawyer MINI
Everything you need to operate a Sawyer MINI
I only filtered three liters of water through the Squeeze one time and I never want to do it again. Just filtering 16 ounces was a laborious task.

With the TrailShot, it takes very little effort to filter water and is much, much faster.  Perhaps the best part about the TrailShot is the back flushing.  If you feel like the filter is slowing down (which didn’t happen to me over three days of filtering in Henry Coe), you simply pump dirty water into the bulb, filling it about half way, and then shake it around for 20 seconds.  Then you detach the hose from the bottom of the bulb and pump the dirty water out.  VOILA! The filter is clean.  No need for clean water.  No extra items to bring with you. No physical effort required. Mind blown.

Another thing I love about the TrailShot is the hose.  You just drop it into your water source (even a puddle if necessary) and pump.  With the MINI, you have to first GET the water into a bottle or bag, which is often very difficult.  Since the MINI threads onto a standard water bottle or one of Sawyer’s mylar bags, this means you have to get your water into the bottle or bag (one comes with the filter).  But with such a small opening, this is challenging.  The Sawyer bags take forever to fill because they are soft-sided and float.  You have to blow air into them first to create an air pocket so that water can even get inside.  If you sink it too deep, the pressure from the water around it forces the air out and then no water can get in.  A plastic water bottle works better IF the water source is flowing and/or deep.  Not-so-easy otherwise.

Good luck if your water source is a puddle!  Yes the MINI comes with a straw so you can suck water up from the puddle in an emergency, but you won’t be taking any with you.

With the TrailShot, you can filter water directly into your mouth, or you can fill any type of bottle or bladder. You can also filter water directly through your bladder’s hose if you want.

The TrailShot filter lasts for 2,000 liters.  If you filter two liters of water per day when you backpack, that’s 1,000 days of backpacking.  If you always did three-day trips, that would be 333 long weekend trips of water. If you take five long weekend trips per year, this filter would last you 66 years.  Now, the MINI lasts for a truly whopping 100,000 GALLONS, which is 378,541 liters, so there is, truly, a significant difference! But I would rather replace the TrailShot every 50 or 60 years than use the MINI for a zillion years.

Jessica celebrates the late afternoon light inside a canyon.
Jessica celebrates the late afternoon light inside a canyon.
There is a downside to the TrailShot – but just one.  There is no carbon filter built into the filter.  Many filters have carbon inside. The carbon helps to remove the bad taste associated with stagnant pond water, puddles, etc.  But, again, I’m OK with that.  I think the ease of use and versatility of the TrailShot far outweigh this one downside. Still, I do hope MSR adds one in the future.

The TrailShot is my new best friend on the trail.  I’m not sure why or when I would ever break out the MINI again.  The weight difference, when you include the extra “stuff” needed to operate the MINI, is minimal or perhaps even non-existent .  Pumping water is a breeze and quick with the TrailShot. Back flushing is a piece of cake. Lastly, I know I’ll have safe drinking water even if there are only puddles or trickles.

Be still my heart … a filter I can finally love.

Disclaimer: All filters mentioned in this post were purchased by me with my own money. I was not compensated in any way for this review. All opinions are my own. 

Next Up: Backpacking Stoves

In rivers, the water that you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes; so with present time. – Leonardo da Vinci

One thought on “Gear Review: MSR TrailShot Microfilter

  1. Pingback: Gear Review: BeFree Water Filter – The Beginning Backpacker

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