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How Hand-Pumped Water Filters and Purifiers Work

This video covers the basics of how to operate hand-pumped backpacking water filters and purifiers and explains how they work.

How Hand-Pumped Water Filters and Purifiers Work

Water filters designed for backpackers are typically made out of a ceramic or synthetic cartridge housed inside sturdy plastic or metal casings. This how-to explains how water filters and purifiers work and gives some basic tips on how to use them.


The first thing to discuss is cartridges. Ceramic cartridges resemble a piece of pottery, and they're full of tiny micro-porous holes. These may use a carbon core that helps remove sediment and improve taste.


Most water filters come with two separate hoses. One will be considered your “clean” hose and the other will be designated as the “dirty” hose. So, one hose goes in dirty water and pulls dirty water into the filter, while the other hose takes clean water from the filter and puts it into your gallon jug, water bottle or hydration reservoir. Once used a few times, you will notice a little difference in coloration between the two hoses.


To use your filter, take the dirty hose and attach it to the intake part of the filter (the location of which may vary on different models of filters). Many dirty hoses also come with a pre-filter attached, as well as a flotation device, which allows you place the pre-filter end of the hose into a creek or stream and lets it hover around the top of the water above all the silt and grit on the bottom of the streambed. The pre-filter is also great for keeping leaves, mosquito larvae and other stuff in the water that you don't want to drink out of the filter.


Once the pre-filter is in your water source, take the clean hose and attach it to the output point on the filter (the location of which may vary on different filter models). Some filter models are designed to screw directly onto a Nalgene-type water bottle or a hydration bladder, so in this case, you wouldn’t necessarily have a clean hose. If you're using a model with the hose, the end of the hose is going to go into your water bottle or hydration bladder or wherever else you want that clean water to go so you can drink it.


One of the main reasons that water filters will fail is cross contamination. This situation happens when your clean hose and the dirty hose get mixed up, and it’s not clear which one went in the creek and which one didn't. Many filter manufacturers will provide you with storage bags that are labeled with “dirty” or “clean,” or perhaps “outlet hose” so you can keep your hoses separated. You can also create your own storage bags and label them with a permanent marker.


There are different sorts of pumping mechanics for water filters depending upon their construction. One of the more common types is the plunger style, which has a long plunger and a broad handle that fits in the palm of your hand and allows you to force water through the filter by operating the plunger. Another common style is the lever, which features a handle that is pulled back and forced down like a lever.


Regardless of the type of construction your filter has and the material the cartridge is made out of, the way they work is essentially the same. Your filter cartridge is full of tiny, micro-porous holes that most contaminates cannot fit through; water molecules are smaller than those pores and slide through them easily to create your clean drinking water.