brief history of water filters

A (Brief) History of Water Filters

Remember when you died of cholera? Dysentery? If you’re reading this, you didn’t die of those diseases.

Water filtration and cleanliness is what keeps those diseases at bay. recently published an article about why you shouldn’t filter your backcountry water, basically accusing the outdoor recreation industry of perpetuating myths about waterborne pathogens that only occur in some water sources.

This is total and absolute bulls***.

But we live in a world driven by clickbait and sites like Slate that are looking for a quick buck and don’t care whether your health is permanently affected by their insane advice.

Here’s the thing: humans used to drink straight from streams and lakes and all other sorts of water sources.

Here’s the other thing: we quit doing that. On purpose. It wasn’t some uppity desire to drink bottled water. It was because contaminated water is a huge danger. Microbes evolved to take advantage of the fact that water is a great breeding ground and provides easy access to hosts.

Jump in My Podcast Delorean for a Trip to The Ancient World

We have written records as far back as 3rd or 4th century CE describing boiling and heating water in the sun to purify it. These records are from Ancient India and Egypt.

If we look at Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, we’ve got water treatment devices all the way back 15th to 13th century BCE.

The people who built the pyramids figured this out THOUSANDS of years ago. This shouldn’t be a modern argument.

Hippocrates, the Ancient Greek philosopher and proto-scientist, invented the Hippocratic sleeve, which was a cloth bag you could pour water through to filter it after boiling it.

The 8th century CE Arabian alchemist, Gerber, used wick siphons, basically a cloth or rope that transferred water from one container to another, filtering it. This relies on the principle of osmosis, where water is transferred from a more concentrated place (the side with water) through a membrane into the less concentrated place (the empty bucket/vessel).

Press Fast Forward on Our Podcast VCR: “Modern” History

In the 15th century, Italian physician Lucas Antonius Portius began experimenting with sand filter, inspired by Francis Bacon’s earlier attempts.

The first water filter used in a public project was installed in 1804 in Paisley, Scotland where a fabric bleacher began selling excess sand-filtered water to locals. By 1829, the practice was improved and standardized in London.

In 1854, John Snow (not the King in the North, but the Londoner and physician) began studying the Broadstreet cholera outbreak. He predated the understanding of germ theory and contributed his knowledge to discrediting the prevailing belief in “miasmas” or “bad airs.” He used a dot distribution map to plot cholera patients.

This map helped him identify the water source they were all using that was contaminated. He convinced the city to quarantine the well and the outbreak ended.

Backcountry Water Filters Today

Iodine tablets were developed by Harvard University in partnership with the US Army ahead of WWII. They’ve been used since the 1940s for emergency drinking water and you can still pick them up today, on the cheap, for emergencies.

Halazone, a chlorine-based purifying tablet, was also used in WWII because it’s more effective against e coli than iodine.

Portable water purifiers like we use on the trail today were originally developed for: you guessed it, the US military. Hand pump filters like you’re familiar with were originally developed in the 1980s to be included with packrafts in airplanes. They force water through a ceramic filter that destroys pathogens down to the 0.2-0.3 micron range.

That takes care of most nasties and for the ones that still get through, you use chlorine-based treatments.

The future of water filtration is UV (ultraviolet) purifiers. These are already available at REI and other outdoor stores. These newer units use light waves to render bacteria and pathogens inert as long as they aren’t exposed to light again. Essentially, the nasties in your water aren’t killed, necessarily, they’re sterilized and unable to reproduce.

Personally, I prefer to imagine them ripped to shreds and dead, instead of alive and inside me, but to each his own.

The Water Filter I Use for Backpacking Trips:

MSR’s Sweetwater. The exact model I use has been updated. You can pick one up on Amazon or at your friendly neighborhood REI.



The Filter Everyone is Hyping Right Now:

Katadyn’s BeFree Filter (with a three liter Hydrapak reservoir). Full disclosure, I’m a huge fan of this setup because dangling your filter in the water while you pump is a major PITA. I’ll be trying one of these when my MSR gives up the ghost.

The Budget-Conscious Filter:

Sawyer’s squeeze mini can be had for less than $30. It’s small, light-weight and loved by the thru-hiking community.