Katadyn's BeFree Filter

Gear Review: BeFree Water Filter

The Sawyer Mini Squeeze is one of the most popular backpacking water filters on the market. And I hate it. In fact, of all the water filtering or treatment systems I own (seven), it’s my least favorite. Sawyer is a wonderful company, but I’m not a fan of the Mini at all. To learn more about why it’s my least favorite filter, check out my prior blog post about the MSR Trailshot filter. I also refer to the Mini often in this review as a comparison.

I have been on a quest to find the perfect filter since I began backpacking and I’ve finally found it! Water filtration nirvana is mine! Enter: Katadyn’s BeFree 1.0L (the L stands for “Liter”). I had the opportunity to use this award-winning filter on an overnight backpacking trip recently and absolutely fell in love.

The BeFree is simply designed with a bladder and screw-on cap with integrated filter. It weighs 2 oz. and contains a hollow fiber filter 0.1 micron.  The Mini has the same filter and advertised weight, but the Mini requires that you carry accessories in order to operate it properly, which adds to the weight. More on that in a minute. For the BeFree, simply fill the bladder, screw on the cap and then squeeze the bladder to force the water through the filter and out of the cap. You can squeeze water directly into your mouth or into another container. MSRP is $44.95.

A company called Hydrapak – a wonderful company with innovative, collapsible/flexible bottles that I love – makes the bladder, which is much more durable than it looks and feels. I have owned a Hydrapak Stash 1-liter collapsible water bottle for a year now and have used it relentlessly on backpacking trips, with no signs of wear and tear. The flexibility of the bladder on this filter means you can quite literally crumple the whole thing up and toss it in your pack without worry, or roll it up and secure it with a small rubber band.

What I hate most about the Sawyer Mini, and most other manual filters that I own, is the amount of time and work it takes to filter two liters of water, which is the amount I usually carry at one time. The Mini has a very slow flow rate and takes a surprising amount of effort to use.

Katadyn claims the BeFree filters two quarts of water per minute (1.9 liters). That timing doesn’t seem to take into account that you need to refill the bottle to filter two quarts. In my own test, it took exactly one minute and 30 seconds to fill the bottle, filter the first liter, fill it again, and filter the second liter. That’s pretty amazing! That’s faster than any filter I own. Even my Steripen takes 90 seconds to clean one liter of water. The BeFree is also very easy to squeeze and you don’t feel like you are going to pop or break the bladder (unlike with the Mini).

BeFree Filter Flow Rate
Not squeezing hard and getting a good flow!

A common problem with many filters is how you go about cleaning the filter when it begins to clog up with sediment, which causes the flow rate to go way down. The Mini is the most difficult of my filters to backflush. It requires multiple syringes of CLEAN water that have to be injected with force through the filter to flush out the sediment. If you don’t have clean water, good luck. Forcing dirty water through the filter compromises it and renders it unsafe until it can be properly flushed and cleaned out. If it’s pretty clogged up, it’s difficult to get enough filtered, clean water out of it to turn around and flush it multiple times. As I mentioned earlier, their weight of 2 ounces doesn’t include the bladder nor the syringe — just the filter itself.

A growing number of filters on the market utilize much simpler methods of cleaning the filter. Katadyn’s BeFree falls squarely in this group. All you have to do is fill the bottle with water (dirty or clean), screw the cap/filter on and shake it around. Another option is to remove the cap/filter and swish it in any lake, river or stream. That’s it! This also means that you don’t have to carry around the extra weight of a flushing device, like a syringe.

There are a couple of other nifty features and uses for this filter. The Hydrapak bladder has measurement marks on it that are helpful when measuring water for cooking. The high flow rate of the BeFree makes it so convenient to use that, on a recent trip where I had a two-liter hydration bladder full of clean water and the BeFree, I chose to use the BeFree for all of my cleaning, cooking and drinking water needs. Although I had to refill it with non-potable water a few times, it was still easier, more convenient, and less cumbersome to use than the clean water in my big bladder.

While you could use the BeFree as a stand-alone water bottle and fill it as needed, I don’t think that will be convenient for most backpackers.  There is no carabiner attachment point on the BeFree so you can’t hang it from your pack (I hope Katadyn adds this feature onto future models). If you fill it and take it with you, you will need to put it in an exterior pocket of your pack. The flexible, collapsible nature of the Hydrapak bladder makes this option less than ideal. Although it does stand up on its own when full.

Katadyn's BeFree Filter Review
When full or nearly full, the bottle does stand up on its own.

I prefer to fill the BeFree and filter the water into my pack’s integrated water bladder, then roll up the filter and stuff it in the top of my back- or side-pocket. Or I will use it to fill my Hydrapak Stash bottle (which is 50 percent lighter than most hard-sided bottles such as a Nalgene).  You can filter the water into any preferred water container and stash the BeFree in your pack or pants pocket.

The opening of the BeFree is larger than a standard plastic soda bottle-sized opening but not as wide as a wide-mouth opening, as is common on a Nalgene bottle, for example. This is important as the size of the opening effects how easy it is to fill your bottle with water from a lake or stream. Receptacles with smaller openings, especially on a flexible bottle, are more difficult and time consuming to fill.  Rigid bottles with a wide-mouth opening are the quickest and easiest to fill.

The BeFree’s opening is wide enough to make it somewhat easier to fill than many other bottles, but it’s not as easy as a rigid wide-mouth bottle, for sure. In other words, the BeFree is not perfect in this regard but it’s really not a big deal at all. It’s a small tradeoff for such an easy and quick filter to use.

Despite how durable the BeFree’s Hydrapak bladder is, I do worry about it being punctured or otherwise damaged over time. For that reason, I always carry Aquamira water treatment drops or tablets with me as backup (though I always carry Aquamira drops with me no matter what filter I bring on a trip). I think it’s smart to carry drops or tablets as a backup option. They weigh very little, especially the tablets, and I don’t want to get stuck in a situation where I can’t drink clean water.

The BeFree also comes in a 3-liter size (can be used as a gravity filter) and a 0.6-liter size. I don’t recommend the 0.6-liter option as your weight savings over the 1-liter option are negligible. The 3-liter version only weighs 4 ounces, which is pretty light! For a group of two or more backpackers, or for backpacking in arid backcountry where more water is needed, this would be an ideal option.

The filter is expected to last for 1,000 liters or 264 gallons. If I backpack 15 days per year and use 3 liters of water per day, the filter will last me more than 22 years!

All-in-all, the Katadyn BeFree is my favorite water filter of all time (so far). It’s far superior to the MSR Trailshot I reviewed last year (and thought was pretty great). For now, my quest to find a lightweight, easy-to-use filter with an amazing flow rate is over!

Disclaimer: I purchased this piece of gear on my own and all opinions about it are mine. I was not given any product or compensation by Katadyn or Hydrapak (darn it!) in exchange for my review.

Water is life. And clean water means health. – Audrey Hepburn

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Gros Ventre Wilderness

Why I hate Wildflowers: Backpacking the Gros Ventre Wilderness Aug. 2017

The black cone of a petal-less flower smacked me in the face, again.  I felt the sharp spikes of yet another little burr digging into my thigh, my pants seemingly velcro-ed tightly around my ankles.  The two men stopped short in front of me.  Our game trail had come to an abrupt dead-end.  We scanned the hillsides, searching for signs of any other way through the thick vegetation.  But we couldn’t make out any trails, human- or animal-created, because the damned flowers were so tall.


It was the seventh day of an eight-day backpacking trip through the remote Gros Ventre Wilderness area of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. It was August of 2017 and we had chosen this park because of the coming eclipse – we would be right under its path. Each day thus far had been difficult for me, no doubt about that.

I had struggled with plantar facilities for the two months preceding the trip which meant almost no training to prepare me for the grueling changes in elevation each day.  The altitude, which always gives me trouble, had given me more trouble than usual and I had been suffering from high-altitude bronchitis (which scared away every possible animal we could have seen).

But the beauty surrounding us was more than enough to help me forget my woes.  Wyoming is a land of extreme and rugged gorgeousness.  The granite-clad, rugged peaks of the Tetons combine sublimely with the red-hued sedimentary mountains and plateaus and green meadows surrounding them.  Water erupts from the land in springs the size of small rivers, causing waterfalls to spontaneously appear mid-way up otherwise dry mountain slopes.

The company was superb, too.  I was backpacking with two brothers I had previously met and bonded with on the John Muir Trail in 2015.  Dave and Steve have been backpacking together for 12 years and were kind enough to invite me on one of their annual trips.  The trip was designed around the complete solar eclipse we were lucky enough to experience.  In fact, we had watched the spectacle in awe from the shores of remote, hard-won Brewster Lake just a few days earlier.

Despite my coughing fits, a bout of diarrhea and the strenuousness of the trip, I had been completely thrilled, up to this point.


Today was not a good day.  Like most backpacking days, it started out quite nicely.  We had awoken at Turquoise Lake and had a quick, hot breakfast before packing up and heading out.  Turquoise Lake had been a scenic place to watch the sun set the night before, and it was just as lovely in the morning sun.

Turquoise Lake Wyoming
Not-so-turquiose Turquoise Lake before the rain started.

But almost as soon as we headed out for our second-to-last day on the trail, it started to pour.  We donned our rain gear and braced ourselves against the wind and driving rain as we headed up and over our next pass.  The rain came and went, came and went, frustrating us as we struggled to don and doff our wet rain jackets, never sure if we should just leave them on or take them off for good and suffer the wetness.

Rain is always a part of backpacking, but I’ll never embrace it.  I just suffer through it and try to smile anyways.

In relatively quick time, we made it to the start of the main feature for the next two days: a mainly trail-less traverse across miles and miles of wildflower-covered, steep mountainsides.  There were few trees here, mainly due to constant avalanche activity in the winter.  Instead the mountains were covered with glorious blankets of flowers of every kind imaginable.  We were hiking at the tail end of summer, so many of the prime flowers had begun to wither, often times leaving just a tall, thick stem and a cone.  There was still an impressive variety of blooming flowers on display, too.  Picking our way across hillsides of flowers sounded sublime.  Until we got into the thick of it.

These were Jurassic flowers that reached the height of my head!  At 5’6” tall, I’m not a short woman.  These flowers routinely smacked me in the face as we literally bushwhacked our way through them!

That was the first annoying thing – the face smacking.  Dave and Steve are both tall men.  They could see over the tops of the flowers.  But as they pushed and forced their way forward, I would inevitably get smacked in the face by the thick, heavy cones from the middle of the flowers.

Both Dave and Steve wore shorts – smart and perhaps not smart.  I wore pants.  The second annoying thing was the never ending supply of burrs that liked to stick to my pant legs.  Dave and Steve did not have the burr problem, per se.  They did, however, experience some extreme leg “exfoliation” from them!  My pant legs were so covered in burrs that the material folded and twisted over and stuck to itself, secured in place with nature’s velcro.

Wyoming Wildflowers
These two men are at least 6 ft tall! This is the only photo of the “bushwhacking” and this is before it got steep and terrible.

The first break we took, I spent 20 minutes picking burrs off my pants.  That was stupid as I picked up a whole new batch as soon as we started walking again.  From that point on, I left the burrs in place until we made camp, many hours later.

The third annoying thing was the lack of a trail.  Our guide book told us to simply contour along the mountain sides at about the 9,000 ft mark.  OK – easy enough, right? No.  Not easy.

If you didn’t walk on a game path (and sometimes even when you did) the angle of the hillside was so steep as to quickly make walking uncomfortable.  Your ankles are not meant to bend at an extreme angle for hours on end.  A game path was a tiny bit better, if we could find one that lasted more than a few hundred feet.  Once we lost a path, we tried to find another, headed both up and down the steep hillsides in search of something to help ease the level of difficulty.

On one such venture down to a possible path, another storm struck.  This one complete with lightning.  We took cover near a small stream and lonely section of trees, hoping the lighting didn’t decide to hit a tree we were sitting under.  Dave and Steve consulted a topo map, seeking a path either above or below us.  I filtered water and proceeded to pull burrs off my pants, well aware of the futility of my efforts.  I hoped the day would be over soon, but knew there were still hours of trudging through the flower jungle ahead of us.

We decided to go up to seek a possible trail subtly shown on the map.  Up, up, up we went.  Straight up with no path cut ahead of us and no way to check the uneven ground hiding beneath the flowers.  Stumbling was common and I was thankful for my trekking poles.

We found a trail! And it looked semi-legit.  A quarter mile or so later, it was gone.  Easy come, easy go.  We came to a stream that had carved out a decent little trough through the fields of flowers.  Without a trail, we had to push our way through tall brush to get to the bank and then pick our way across.  As I stepped from the edge of the creek  down to a large boulder, my foot slipped and down I went.  First I fell sideways onto a rock, then rolled slowly, almost gracefully, right into the water, my heavy pack dictated my descent into the stream.  As I lay momentarily stunned and embarrassed, I began to curse the day.

It was slow going, bushwhacking our way through mile after mile of tall flowers and burr-filled plants.  As the end of the day neared, I knew there were only a couple of options on the steep hillside for flat camping.  Our book made mention of them, but without trails or signs, they were hard to find.  Every tree-filled spot we came to got my hopes up.  Was this a camping spot amongst the trees?  We couldn’t seem to find the first camping area the book mentioned.

Another concern was that one brother wanted to stop the first chance we got, the other want to push ahead and make more miles.  I could have killed that brother (who shall remain nameless).  I argued that it was our second-to-last day so and it didn’t matter if the next day consisted of 5 miles or 8 miles.  Either way, tomorrow we would be back at the truck and headed to Jackson Hole for beers and dinner.  Today, however, was tiring and miserable and I wanted to be done NOW.  Not three miles from now.

We finally came upon a clearing in some trees.  Clearly this was a camping area!  A beautiful oasis from my point of view – it was perfect.  Sure, the ground was soaking wet from recent rains and there was no stream or other water source nearby.  But it was level, large and had gorgeous views.  I dropped my heavy pack on the ground and got ready to setup camp.  But then, shockingly, I was out-voted.  Both Dave and Steve agreed that the campsite sucked and that we needed to press on.  I was flabbergasted and nearly in tears, but respected our democratic process and hoisted my pack back onto my shoulders, resigning myself to another couple of miles of wildflower hell.

When we finally did find our true campsite, it was quite lovely. Underground springs welled up, creating streams out of nowhere.  I was thrilled to finally setup camp and relax around a fire.  It took over an hour, but I got all of the burrs off my pants (but had to do it all over again after venturing out to find a private bathroom spot across what I mistakenly thought was a burr-free meadow).

As I lay in my tent that night, slowly drifting off to sleep, I felt a moment of panic as I thought about another flower-filled day tomorrow.  At least it was our last….

We awoke with the sun and make breakfast on the trail for the last time.  I was saddened that our trip was ending, but thrilled that the wildflower forest would be behind us soon enough. A local Wyoming IPA was calling my name!  We had about five miles left to hike, so I prepared myself for the distinct possibility that all five miles would be miserable.

I was pleasantly surprised when we quickly picked up a real trail!  We were now close enough to the trailhead that day hikers were a more common occurrence and the trail was more distinct.  We ran into our first two hikers within minutes of leaving camp and they assured us the trail would not disappear on us anymore.  We felt compelled to warn them of what lie ahead for them.

Another blessing? The height of the wildflowers dropped drastically.  Suddenly, they were knee-high instead of head-high.  Suddenly, they were beautiful again.  The burs magically disappeared, too.  And the hikers were right – the trail was obvious and easy to follow all the way back to the trailhead and our truck.  It was a blissful, gorgeous final day with no clouds, no rain, no burrs and very few flowers.

Gros Ventres Wilderness
FINALLY! The flowers are back to normal height as we ended our last day.

I finished my 85-mile trek through Wyoming in late August of 2017.  I look back on almost all aspects of the trip fondly.  For me, backpacking struggles, trials and tribulations always seem less painful after the fact and the beauty I witness on the trail each moment of each day drowns out any small amount of negativity I felt at the time.

Not so for this trip – that particular day will always be horrible in my memories.  When I think back to that day of crazy traverses across, up and down the mountain sides, bushwhacking our way through a jungle of tall wildflowers over steep and uneven terrain, I don’t have any fond memories at all.  I never thought any human could dislike wildflowers.  But I do.  I don’t like any wildflowers that are over knee-high.  I don’t like them at all!

Even the tiniest of flowers can have the toughest roots. – Shannon Mullen

Bridger-Teton National Forest

Trek, Trek Trekking Poles: Top 5 Reasons to Use ‘Em

I adore my trekking poles.  I can’t imagine any backpacking trip without them.  I don’t always use them on day-hikes (unless the hike is very long and very hilly), but I would certainly shed more than one tear if I forgot them at home during a backpacking trip.

Not all backpackers agree about poles. Some backpackers find them to be an unnecessary, useless item.  I think that’s either an ego thing OR it’s because the nay-sayers don’t actually know how to use them properly.

There is a right and a wrong way to use poles. They have wrist straps and I see those straps dangling and unused more often than not.  Or I see them causally looped over the hiker’s wrist as if to just ensure they won’t somehow drop a pole without realizing it.  When used in such a way, yes – trekking poles are pretty useless. And dangerous.  If you fall forward and use your hands to catch yourself, having the wrist straps on wrong can actually cause you to break or dislocate your thumb.  Right is right.  Wrong is wrong.

But when used properly, with the wrist securely “locked” in to the wrist strap with the strap properly tightened, poles become part of your body and assist you in many ways.

Another thing I see somewhat commonly is ONE pole.  Using one trekking pole will ensure that your body eventually becomes unbalanced.  Sure, it might make you feel more confident going down steep terrain, but only on one side!  Is it better than nothing, sure, but in order to get the full benefits of poles, your left side and ride side both need one.

Top 5 Reasons to Use Trekking Poles:

  1. So that you can still be hiking and backpacking when you are 60 (or 70, or 80): Backpacking is tough on your joints, especially if you are backpacking in hilly or mountainous terrain.  Remember, it’s not just your body weight putting stress on your knees, it’s also the 30-40 lbs of extra weight in your pack that your body isn’t used to. Even if you are young and strong with no aches or pains in your joints now, think long term.  Trekking poles will increase the life of your body.
  2. So that you can still hike tomorrow: Backpacking can be so strenuous and tough on your joints that you can get an injury suddenly.  One minute you are galavanting down a mountain, singing the Sound of Music soundtrack in your head (or out loud).  The next, it hurts to tack a single step.  Or, you have a great day going up and down, up and down, only to wake up the next morning wishing your trip was done already and dreading the hills ahead.  Trekking poles not only protect your joints for the future, they protect them now! When I abandoned my JMT thru-hike attempt at mile 105 due to smoke, a strong, fit, young man in his 20’s was experiencing knee pain and was using KT tape to wrap them each day.  He had no poles.  I sold him mine so that he could actually finish the trail. Which he did, thanks to the poles.  He later told me he didn’t think he would have made it without them.  I’m such a hero 🙂
  3. Efficiency: When used properly, trekking poles actually assist you on the uphill sections by allowing you to “push off” with the poles behind you as you walk.  When going downhill, the poles are out in front of you, taking on substantial weight as you head down steep terrain.  You will be able to hike longer and more comfortably if you use poles.  It’s not cheating, you young folks, it’s just smart!
  4. Water Crossings: When you use trekking poles, you essentially shape-shift into a four-legged animal.  You have three points touching the ground at all times as you walk.  When crossing rivers, streams and creeks, this four point system can literally save your life.  You are more balanced and have more points securing you to the creek bed.  Without poles, each step you take means you have literally one foot on the ground, and nothing else.  You could easily get swept away, even in water that doesn’t seem that strong.  But with poles, each step you take allows for one foot and two poles to continually, securely keep you facing upstream.  If you are crossing on rocks or a fallen tree, you can use the poles to help balance you by finding a secure place for them to dig in on the river bed before taking your next step or by using them as balancing poles as you walk the seeming “tightrope” of a log high off the river.

    Using poles for balance on a creek crossing.
    Using poles for balance on a creek crossing.
  5. Tents and Tarps: Some lightweight tents and most tarps allow (or require) poles for setup.  While I don’t recommend that new(ish) backpackers forgo a tent in favor of a trap (think: complicated and less “homey” at night), I do highly recommend the Henry Shires Tarptents for beginners.  These tents work with tent poles and stakes, like traditional tents, but also can work with tent poles and your trekking poles! Last August, I left my tent stakes behind at a campsite.  Ten miles later (most of them uphill), I realized my mistake as I wearily went to setup my tent for the night.  Thankfully, I had two spare stakes in my Ten Essentials Kit and my trekking poles, because going back wasn’t an option! I was able to erect my tent each night of the trip using my trekking poles and my two spare tent stakes.  Some people like bringing a dining tarp with them backpacking.  A dining tarp is a small, ultra-lightweight tarp used for cooking/eating under when it’s pouring rain.  Or just as an easy-to-setup dry place to sit while waiting for bad weather to pass.  These dining tarps require trekking poles.
  6. Bonus Tip — Safety: In a pinch, a trekking pole is a weapon. ‘Nuff said.

Want to SEE how to wear your poles properly?  Check out this informative video from the knowledgeable (and handsome!) Chase Tucker.

So, now that you’re convinced, what poles should you buy?

If you’re backpacking, you want them to be STURDY!  Yes, you want lightweight poles, but sturdy is most important.  Ultra-lightweight poles (carbon composite) were designed more for fast-packing (going as fast as possible or even running with very little weight in your pack or no pack).  Backpacking poles need to hold your weight with your pack should you stumble (and you will).  They need to get you cross that raging river.  You need to be able to accidentally drop your pack on them and not have them bend.  So look for durable poles.  Aircraft aluminum is best.

You also want them to be adjustable and collapsible so that you can lengthen and shorten them as needed based on the ascent or descent and so that you can collapse them down and stow them away in or on your pack when you don’t want to use them.  There are two main types of locking mechanisms that allow you to adjust and collapse your poles: twist locks and lever locks. I prefer lever locks.  I know too many people who have had their twist locks fail.

And what about the grip? Cork? Foam? Rubber? Unless you plan to backpack in the snow, don’t get rubber.  Stick with cork or foam.  Each has their advantages and most backpackers would be happy with either.  Cork tends to be more expensive and can “form” to your hand shape.  But some foams are becoming more “advanced” and claim to absorb sweat better.

Either way, I highly recommend sun gloves!  Sun gloves protect your hands from the sun and absorb sweat and prevent chaffing from your pole grips.  If you visualize using poles all day long, you’ll realize that your hands will have constant exposure to UV rays.  Do you want to apply and re-apply gross, slimy sunblock in SPF 1,000,000 five times a day? Sun gloves will protect your skin beautifully and are fingerless, since you don’t need the material on your fingers.  There is something so gross about sweaty hands on sweaty grips, even if the grips are cork and are supposed to absorb all that sweat.  Sun gloves wick all that moisture away from your skin and it evaporates out of the gloves quickly.  I recommend Outdoor Research’s ActiveIce Spectrum Sun Gloves, but any glove meant for the sun will do (especially if it has little grippy bits on the palms to help you grip your poles).

Sun gloves and my trusty poles.
Sun gloves and my trusty poles.

Now you know everything there is to know! Get your poles and get out there – you won’t be disappointed.

In skating over thin ice safety is in our speed. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

 

Pristine Gem Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness

Leave No Trace Principles

We go into the wilderness for many reasons, but one of them is for the pristine, unspoiled beauty of it all.  That is, until you see a bright orange peel on the ground, or a trail of pistachio shells, or a cigarette butt.  Sure, banana peels are biodegradable, but that doesn’t mean they belong in the wilderness.

Since 1994, the Leave no Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, commonly referred to as Leave No Trace (LNT), has been educating people about their recreational impact on the environment, as well as seven key ways they can prevent or minimize their impact.

Here’s an example of how our love for nature can cause inadvertent harm (which, ironically, completely undermines that love we have).  Mt. Whitney is the highest peak in the contiguous United States.  It’s not a technical climb and, as such, is extremely popular.  To protect the mountain and its environment, there is a stringent lottery-based permit system in place to control how many people can climb to the top.  But even with that control in place, the human impact on the environment was – in the not-so-distant past – “grossly” obvious.

Most people climb Whitney over two days.  Guitar Lake is the main staging area for a second-day summit attempt.  Almost everyone who climbs Whitney camps there.  At 11,460 feet up, Guitar Lake is in a difficult environment.  Not much lives or grows at that elevation, and what is there struggles to survive.  You won’t find bears or deer or many raptor that high up.  It’s a harsh environment for living things and houses a sensitive ecosystem.

Just a few years ago, you could smell Guitar Lake before you could see it.  Why?  Poop.  Poop everywhere.  At that time, backpackers were required to bury their poop.  But with the throngs of people calling Guitar Lake home for one night, and given its sensitive environment, the poop was piling up.  Little “flowers” of toilet paper could be seen poking out of the ground from improperly dug poop holes.  The stench was thick.  NOT what you expect when heading deep into the mountains.

Now, if you visit the Whitney zone you are required to carry and use a WAG bag for your poop and toilet paper.  WAG stands for “waste and gel”.  The military invented it, but it works great for Whitney and places like Whitney.  Yes, it’s a little gross to have to collect your poop in a bag and carry it with you, but the gel neutralizes the poop and, let’s face it, it’s better than smelling other people’s stink.  Problem solved … except it’s not.  Idiots who don’t belong in the wilderness will use the WAG bag, and then ditch the WAG bag behind a rock or tree.  WTF?!?!

WAG Bag
In super sensitive areas, poop goes in here.

That’s but one example of what we humans inadvertently (or purposely) do to our environment.  LNT principles are a guide, if you will.  They instruct us on living, temporarily, in the wild, and ensure that the wild areas stay wild for the next people.

There are seven principles of LNT, but some people live by way more than just these seven.  These basic tenets are critical to protecting the beautiful spaces we all love so much.  It’s your responsibility, née, your obligation, to do your part.

  1. Plan ahead and prepare.
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
  3. Dispose of waste properly.
  4. Leave what you find.
  5. Minimize campfire impacts.
  6. Respect wildlife.
  7. Be considerate of other visitors.
© 1999 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics: http://www.LNT.org.

I’m not going to go into all the points and sub-points for each of the Seven Principles.  For detailed information, please visit the LNT site.  I will mention a few key points I see many hikers and backpackers ignore or disrespect, either on purpose or due to ignorance.

Food waste: It might be biodegradable, but you probably don’t realize just how long it takes for a banana peel to degrade: TWO YEARS!  It’s also annoying to see that yellowish/brownish piece of waste in the middle of our pristine wilderness. And guess what? Animals don’t eat banana peels! Nor orange peels.  Nor sunflower seed shells.  It’s litter.  Here are the rates at which some commonly littered items degrade:

  • Paper bag – 1 month
  • Apple core – 8 weeks
  • Orange peel and banana skins – 2 years
  • Cigarette butt – 18 months to 500 years
  • Plastic bag – 10 to 20 years
  • Plastic bottle – 450 years
  • Chewing gum – 1 million years

    Hmmm...something does not belong in this photo.
    Hmmm…something does not belong in this photo.

Traipsing Through Alpine Meadows (Julie Andrews style): I already mentioned that high-elevation areas are fragile.  Alpine meadows are no exception.  They have a very short growing season and the grasses and other plants struggle to grow in the thin air.  Are alpine meadows gorgeous? For sure!  They are also critical and sensitive components of the entire mountainous ecosystem.

Don't be a Julie!
Don’t be a Julie!

When you walk across a meadow, you are contributing to its death.  One person walking across a pristine meadow isn’t so bad, but when hundreds of people do it every season, the damage can be extensive.  Stay on existing trails.  Do not be that jerk and stray off the trail for that perfect photo of a flower.  And do not sleep on meadow grasses! Many meadowy areas have already-ruined spaces where campers repeatedly set up tents over the years.  Those are the only areas you should use for camping – they are already dead.  Don’t ever create new camping areas, no matter how soft that grass looks.

For more detailed info about meadows and their critical importance to the health of the mountains, check out this informative article on the Yosemite National Park website.

Cairns: If you don’t know what a cairn is, think again — you likely do. It’s a pile of rocks, with the biggest on the bottom and smallest on top.  Ring a bell? People, for some reason, LOVE to make cairns. Cairns do have an important, viable use: they act as directional markers, helping us to navigate in areas with no trail or where the trail disappears over large swatches of rock.  Recently, I was backpacking through a snowy area and the only way I knew where to go (without using my GPS) was through the placement of cairns.  Super helpful (and perhaps life saving)!

But cairns with no purpose violate principles #4 and #7.

No, no, no, no, no!
No, no, no, no, no!

Leave what you find includes rocks.  Rocks provide shelter and homes for small bugs and critters. Leave them be!  And when I’m in the wilderness, I prefer not to see anything made by humans — and that includes senseless cairns.  Why do so many humans feel the need to leave their mark on our wild areas? Must we “decorate” these pristine places?  Non-directional cairns are an irony.  Don’t do it.  Don’t let your kids do it, either.

Audible Music: I don’t want to hear your music in the back country.  ‘Nuff said.

Biodegradable Soap: Just because it’s biodegradable does not mean it’s good for the environment! These popular soaps have no business in our wilderness streams and lakes.  In fact, they cause a whole host of problems, including increased levels of nitrogen and death to aquatic creatures (especially the tiny ones).  If you actually take the time to read the fine print on the back of soaps such as Campsuds, it tells you as much.  If you use soaps on the trail, don’t let it get into the waterways.  Wash/clean at least 200 feet from any water source and bury or disperse the soapy water.

The instructions matter!
The instructions matter!

These are just a few examples and tips, but there are so many more.  We are so lucky to have amazing, pristine, beautiful wilderness areas to enjoy.  But with that access comes responsibility.   Each of us needs to do our part to protect these sensitive environments for ourselves, for each other and for our children.  Please always do your part or, better yet, go above and beyond.  Educate yourself and others (LNT offers classes and workshops!).  Pick up trash when you see it.  Carry out your toilet paper, even when you aren’t required to.  The earth (and others) will thank you!

A good traveler leaves no tracks. – Lao-Tzu

 

A small pond partially flooded out our trail for a bit, but so beautiful!

Adaptability Is Critical: Trip Report

Every day I checked the weather, usually more than once, and every day, it changed — sometimes it changed multiple times per day!  It was still three days until my trip would start and I couldn’t keep up with the changing forecasts.

Two weeks ago, my husband, dog and I backpacked in the Stanislaus National Forest.  It was warm and gorgeous.  But now, the weather was calling for cold temps and potentially rain and/or snow.

This was problematic in that I was taking a group of women from my Meetup.com group backpacking for two days and one night and it had been planned for weeks now.  I had seven other women coming with me – the trip had to happen!

I emailed the women and let them know what the weather conditions would be like.  I asked them to be sure their sleeping bag and pad were rated to handle freezing or near-freezing temperatures, and to remind them to bring rain gear.   Almost immediately, one woman changed their RSVP to “no”.  Perfect.  I don’t want people coming who don’t have the proper equipment or who wouldn’t be comfortable.  That would be bad for everyone.

The next day, another woman dropped out.  She had called the ranger station and was told the route I had planned was impossible due to massive amounts of snow, frozen lakes and blocked roads.

I knew this was a bunch of B.S. given that we had heard the same misinformation from rangers two weeks earlier and had actually come across almost no snow below 8,000 ft. and no frozen lakes anywhere.

Besides, I always have a Plan B for situations like this: hike in a different area! Specifically, if we really couldn’t go the route I wanted to go, we would just switch over to the same route I took two weeks ago.

My husband and dog on our Memorial Day trip to the same general area.
My husband and dog on our Memorial Day trip to the same general area.

I sent another email out to the women letting them know rangers frequently had outdated or erroneous information and, surprisingly, could not always be trusted to have the latest info.  I let them know I had a Plan B (and C and D) in any case, and asked them to simply be flexible and adaptable.  Adaptability is pretty much a requirement for backpacking.

Four of us arrived at the Pinecrest Lake campground on Friday afternoon.  We had agreed to share a car camping site so we could be ready to go, nice and early, Saturday morning.  The other two women, incidentally, were no-shows.  Such is often the case with any Meetup.com group.

On Saturday morning, we learned that one member of our group was too cold overnight.  Knowing it would be even colder on the trail, she was ready to call it quits and go home.  But, instead, we convinced her to stay by having her share my tent for extra warmth and adding a warm water bottle to her sleeping bag before she got in.  Problem solved (we hoped).

The four of us marched into the ranger station and told the ranger we wanted our trip to start at the Crabtree Trailhead.  We were given the same info: the roads are snowed in, the trail is covered in snow and the lakes are frozen (spoiler alert, most of their info was wrong).

Armed with the info I had from backpacking in the area two weeks previously, I politely and respectfully let the ranger know I thought he had outdated info.

He was not swayed but let us know we could certainly give it a try, and he would be appreciative of updated info about the conditions out there when we were done.  The only hitch: the road was actually gated about 2.5 miles from the trailhead.

We four ladies had a quick chat.  We all agreed we preferred to have a bit of an unknown adventure rather than go to the same trailhead I had just been to two weeks earlier.  LOVE these ladies! Everyone was willing to be flexible and adaptable.

We set off and parked on the side of the road where it was gated.  A new problem popped up — one of the women’s water bladder seemed to have a small leak and had soaked the bottom of her pack.  We ditched her bladder and she brought a 2-liter water bottle instead.  Problem solved.

We hiked the 2.5 miles on clear pavement to the eerily empty trailhead parking lot and campground.  The road had no downed trees, only tiny patches of snow and no other obstacles.  Could have been opened for vehicles probably weeks earlier.

We
We “hike” the road amongst the giant trees and swirling fog. Photo: Jessica Cortes

We hit the trail and found it clear but certainly damaged from the brutal winter storms California had suffered in the very recent past.  There were a few downed trees across the trail here and there, and areas where unexpected streams had wiped out small sections.  But nothing was difficult to get around.   Water was everywhere!  Not only were the creeks flowing crazy fast, but the seasonal streams were roaring and there were countless streams and waterfalls in places where there shouldn’t have been.  It was beautiful and nothing was too difficult to get across.  Plus, snow was basically non-existent.

For sure, it was COLD!  Not miserably so, but just just cold enough to make layering problematic.  We would wear extra layers, but then the sun would decide to come out and we would quickly overheat.  We would remove layers, but then the sun would disappear or the biting wind would pick up.  Layers back on. The going was sometimes fast, sometimes slow as we found safe ways across crazy creeks or made our way around fallen trees.  Every one of us was a trooper and we enjoyed the remote feeling of it all — as if we were exploring uncharted areas.

We made it to Camp Lake, which we had been told was frozen solid.  Nope.  Wrong again.  The lake was completely thawed and there was very little snow anywhere.  Just water.  Water everywhere!  We found a dry campsite on the cliffs overlooking the lake and setup camp.

Aptly named Camp Lake where we made camp for the night.
Aptly named Camp Lake where we made camp for the night.

Being still early in the afternoon, three of us decided to ditch our heavy packs and do an out-and-back hike to Bear Lake — another 1.5 miles past Camp Lake.  The fourth woman decided to take advantage of the early quitting time and take a luxurious nap — smart woman!

The three of us set out and quickly started running into much larger patches of snow ranging from just a few inches deep and a few feet in length to depths of five feet spanning a few dozen feet.  The snow was hard packed and slippery, which made staying on the trail impossible at times.  But some other hikers had been out there and there were footprints to follow much of the time.

More problematic than the snow was the water.  The creek had completely swollen over its banks and had essentially flooded out the entire valley we hiked through.  The meadows were covered in water trying to flow to a legit stream or creek.  There were waterfalls coming off the cliffs into the valley, not into any kind of water way.  Tiny, unmapped ponds sometimes swallowed up our trail.

This is our trail...and also a seasonal creek.
This was our trail…and also a seasonal creek.

In many places, the water had smartly found the path of least resistance – our trail.  At times, the trail was under three feet of water and it was difficult to tell what was trail and what was a seasonal stream criss-crossing our trail. On more than one occasion, we had to use GPS to figure out where we were in relation to the trail.  But, eventually, we made it. It was all very doable and not too difficult.

Bear Lake was frozen! The rangers got one thing right.  The edges were clear of ice, but the majority of the lake was still solid.  For the life of us, we couldn’t figure out why.  We had only gone up maybe two-hundred feet in elevation since Camp Lake.  Bear Lake had full exposure to the sun for most of the day.  Why was it still so frozen when Camp Lake, roughly the same size and less exposed, was fully melted?

The rangers got this part right - Bear Lake was frozen!
The rangers got this part right – Bear Lake was frozen!

We enjoyed the stark beauty and the contrast between the lush greens of spring and the bright whites of winter.  After some time, we trudged back to Camp Lake, getting temporarily “lost” and breaking out the GPS more often than I care to admit.  That three mile out-and-back, sans packs, was more taxing than the six miles we had done to get to Camp Lake!

Back at our campsite, we cooked our dinners, made a fire (which was difficult since most everything was damp) and relaxed before bed.  As night fell, the temps dropped significantly.  For two of us, bedtime came early just to escape the cold!

Taylor and I soak up the warmth of our fire. Photo: Jessica Cortes
Taylor and I soak up the warmth of our fire. Photo: Jessica Cortes

When I went to change into my wool base layer (my PJs), I found that I had made an egregious mistake.  Back at the Pinecrest Lake car camping campground, I had two identical, orange ditty sacks — one held my car camping clothes from the overnight at Pinecrest Lake and the other held my base layers, gloves, warm hat and sleeping socks for backpacking.  Apparently, I had put the wrong ditty sack in my backpack and left the correct one in the car back at the trailhead!

Time for another Plan B.  For my torso, I slept in my t-shirt, fleece pullover and down puffy jacket.  For my legs, all I had were my thin hiking pants, so I added my rain pants.  Lord knows rain gear NEVER breathes as well as the manufactures would have you believe. Wearing rain gear when cold is a classic trick to beat the freezing temps.  I felt stuffed into my sleeping bag, but I was warm and cozy as the temps plummeted.

We woke up to dark, ominous looking skies and below freezing temps.  We all quickly agreed to forgo making breakfast in favor of packing up and heading out; we were too cold to sit still and eat!

My PJ's for the night as well as my clothes for hiking through hail.
My PJ’s for the night as well as my clothes for hiking through hail.

As we were packing, the hail started.  All we could do was be thankful it wasn’t rain and enjoy the special beauty it brought the forest.  The bright greens of the mosses and grasses were accentuated by the fog and lack of sun.  The tree tops were shrouded in a dense and drifting fog.  The hail tapped the ground, sounding more like rain on a tin roof.  It was cold and our plans were changing again, but we were energized by the unique beauty and feeling of adventure.

Our hike back to the cars was fast and it hailed on-and-off (but mostly on) for 2.5 hours.  I ripped my Frogg Togg rain gear climbing through downed trees and scooting my way across a river on a wet, slippery fallen tree, but we four ladies loved every moment of it (for the most part).

A hail
A hail “downpour” on the hike out.

Back at the cars, we changed into warm, dry clothes and shoes and got the car heaters going full blast.  A stop for burgers at a pub finished off the trip perfectly.

I don’t mean to imply that park rangers aren’t trustworthy – you should probably always listen to them.  But my experience two weeks earlier let me know they don’t always have the correct info. On this trip, they got one thing right: Bear Lake was frozen!  But we had alternate plans and a group of people willing to go with the flow.  Adaptability is the name of the game here.

You can, and should, plan your trips out as best you can.  But you must always be willing to be flexible.  Missing a piece of equipment? Improvise.  Need extra clothes? Wear everything you’ve got!  Worried about the trail conditions? Have a GPS app ready on your phone and know how to use a map and compass.

Don’t be rigid.  Don’t count on everything going according to plan.  In fact, it most likely won’t, and that’s OK!  It’s not a real adventure if everything goes perfectly and nothing unexpected ever happens.

Wherever you go, no matter what the weather, always bring your own sunshine. – Anthony J. D’Angelo

 

 

 

 

 

Backpacking Stoves: Which One is Right for Me?

Why, oh why, does selecting backpacking gear always require sifting through so many choices? There are so many companies with so many offerings, and just as many opinions.  Of course, backpacking stoves are no different.  Analysis paralysis can easily set in when you start learning about your options.

For this post, I’m going to briefly outline the types of cooking technology out there and then make a firm recommendation.


The first thing to decide is if you need a stove at all!  Some backpackers choose to go sans stove and eat only cold, processed or pre-cooked foods.  But these people tend to be pretty hardcore and they aren’t in the majority.  Still, it’s worth mentioning because perhaps it’s a viable solution for some people on short, overnight trips.  But assuming a hot meal at the end of a long day is important to you, you’ll need a cooking method.

Alpenglow on distant mountains.
Alpenglow on distant mountains.

Another pretty radical (but simple) method is making your own stove out of a cat food can or tuna can.  These homemade stoves include a cat food can (duh) and liquid fuel (denatured alcohol or HEET).  Although cat can stoves aren’t entirely uncommon, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume this method isn’t for most beginning backpackers.  Incidentally, you can also buy a stove designed to burn denatured alcohol if you don’t want to make your own.

Solid fuel tablet stoves are another option worth mentioning, but they’re also not very mainstream.  With this method, you purchase tablets of solid fuel (commonly made by Esbit) that fit into a little stove frame.  These stoves are very lightweight, but it takes a long time to boil water and there’s no simmer option.  Plus, the tablets STINK for some reason and leave a residue on your pot.

Small wood burning stoves are becoming increasingly popular, but these tend to be unrealistic (like, in the desert) or illegal (like, at higher elevations) in many backpacking locations.  And good luck finding a dry fuel source in damp or wet weather! Plus, they are generally bulky and heavy.


Swollen river in the Emigrant Wilderness.
Swollen spring-time river in the Emigrant Wilderness.

That leaves canister stoves and liquid fuel stoves.  These are the most common options, but I’m going to eliminate liquid fuel stoves from the equation.

Liquid fuel stoves include a low-profile burner with a separate canister of liquid fuel (usually white gas, but also kerosene, diesel, jet fuel or even auto gasoline).  The fuel is cheap and the stoves work better at high elevations and in freezing conditions, but they have MANY moving parts that need to be maintained and cleaned, the fuel spills easily, the stove has to be primed and pumped before you can use it each time and they tend to be heavy.  So, unless you do a lot of winter backpacking and intense elevations, this is probably not to best option or you.

Canister stoves are the most common type of backpacking stove, and for good reason!  They are easy to use, lightweight, can’t spill and are easily maintained. Canister stoves screw onto a gas canister.  The canister acts as the base with the stove on top for your pot.  You light them with a match, lighter or piezo-igniter (sometimes built right into the stove) and you’re ready to cook.

So now you know: you’ll want to buy a canister stove!  Great – but which type?

There are three main subsets of canister stoves on the market today: the plain old canister stove; the integrated canister stove; and remote canister stoves.  Let’s knock remote canister stoves off the list.  They are more expensive, may require more maintenance, and are bulkier and heavier.  The one big benefit is that some of them work better than regular canister stoves at very high elevations.

Integrated canister stoves are super popular right now.  The best-known brand is JetBoil.  These stoves screw onto a canister and have an integrated pot that screws onto the burner, with a built in wind screen.  So, instead of your  pot resting on the stove’s arms, the pot really becomes one with the burner.  This means that water boils FAST.  In fact, that’s what these stoves are designed for: super fast boiling times.  And since most backpackers simply boil water to pour into a bag of pre-packaged backpacking food, this is a popular option.

But there are downsides to integrated stoves.  They are heavier and tip over easily. They are designed to boil water, which means many models do not have the option to simmer.  Switching to a larger pot to accommodate a group of backpackers means buying an expensive attachment designed for their system.  I know a few people who report that their JetBoil stoves seem to lose power after a couple of years of use.  And they are quite expensive.


Furley peeks out from our tent.
Furley peeks out from our tent.

Lastly, we have the plain old canister stove.  These are my all-around favorites.  They’ve been around for a very long time and are well known for being reliable year after year after year.  These stove systems include a collapsible, lightweight stove that simply threads directly onto the canister of fuel.  Once lit, you adjust the flame, which allows for rapid boiling or slow simmering.  These stoves tend to be inexpensive compared to JetBoil/integrated stoves ($20-$40 vs. $80-$200).

The stove itself has arms that open up and hold your pot.  Some come with a built-in piezo-igniter, but that’s really unnecessary, in my opinion, and they break frequently.  Why pay extra for that when a regular, small lighter or match will always work (waterproof matches should be carried, in case it’s pouring rain).

I own a MSR PocketRocket stove, and I love it.  The advertised boil time for a liter of water is 3.5 minutes (as a comparison, the Jetboil models hover around 3 minutes or a tad less), but I find it’s often quicker than that, even up in the Sierra Nevadas.  It simmers like a champ and your can turn the flame down to practically off if you needed to.

MSR Micro Pocket Rocket
Love my MSR Micro Pocket Rocket!

Some people become concerned that the arms of the stove won’t accommodate a larger pot and, since the pot isn’t integrated with the stove, it might tip over easily.  Not so.  I just used a large, 4-person pot on a trip with no issues.  Of course, we placed it on level ground and we were careful not to bump into it, but it was fine.  The JetBoil models usually have stabilizers that get added to the bottom of the fuel canister because they are so top-heavy!


I don’t understand the hype around integrated canister stove systems like the JetBoil.  Whether my water boils in 3 minutes or 3.5 minutes doesn’t really matter to me.  What does matter is reliability, durability, versatility, price and weight.   I want the ability to simmer and to use other pots I already own without buying expensive attachments.

For me, the clear winner is the regular canister stove, and that’s what I recommend for all new backpackers.

Laughter is brightest where food is best. – Irish Proverb

Next Up: Leave No Trace Principals and Why They Matter

China Hole in Henry Coe State Park

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 Meetup.com 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