When you first hit the survivalist and prepper scene you’re looking to secure your basics: shelter, water, and food. Looking for advice online will quickly lead you to the Sawyer Mini as your solution for water, at least in your bug-out-bag or hiking bag.
People are downright obsessive over this simple, hand-held water filter, and with good reason. It does a great job, for a long time, and at a cheap price. Our interview with Daisy Luther, author of the Prepper Survival Guide, revealed that she carries one.
But, the Sawyer Mini isn’t your solution for every scenario, and is especially ill-suited for preppers. There are better filters for you, and let me tell you why.
Whether you’re on the trail or in the middle of a water scarcity situation you’ll want to know exactly how long you can rely on your filter. The Sawyer Mini is said to last for 100,000 gallons. Even if you’re planning to use it for a long-term SHTF scenario, that is an exceptionally large amount of water. It beats out it’s competitors by a huge margin.
While the filter itself might last that long, the bag will not. Personally, my Sawyer Mini “dirty” bag broke after a few trips. I replaced it, but then ended up replacing the whole system so I don’t know how long that bag would have lasted. Of course, plenty of things will factor into how long your bag and filter last. For example, the Mini can’t be frozen, so don’t go using it in the great white north. Then there’s proper flushing, and even pre-filtering.
What About Pre-Filtering?
What do I mean by pre-filtering? To maintain the speed and life of a filter, you should be passing the dirty water through some kind of cloth to get out the largest particles before you use the filter. Even when you take this precaution, if you’re always using mucky water instead of clearer moving water, your filter isn’t going to last as long.
Rate of Flow
Many complaints about the Sawyer Mini stem from its slow flow rate. It’s small size just doesn’t allow for much surface area. The Sawyer Squeeze, for comparison, has three times the flow rate, with only a little more surface area. The general solution to a slow filter is to backwash it. The Mini comes with a plunger to use for this. Some people find it frustrating to use, but I personally didn’t have a problem.
If you’ve back washed your filter and it’s still moving slowly there are a few things you can do to help it out. Sometimes calcium build-up from hard water is the culprit. In this case you want to soak it in vinegar, which will eat away at the calcium, and then flush it a few times. Second, you can flush the filter with a bleach solution, which will sterilize it and help move more particles out of the filter. With many filters, including the Mini, you want to make sure there’s no air in it to keep the flow up too.
Next, you’re probably wondering about cost. The Sawyer Mini is incredibly inexpensive at roughly twenty dollars from Amazon or other retailers, while the Lifestraw is around $20 here and the TrailShot is closer to $25. It gets more expensive from there, for example, the Katadyn Vario (a pump filter) goes for more than one hundred.
Everyone preps on some kind of budget, and if that’s a big concern for you, I completely understand why the Sawyer Mini would be your choice.
What You Need to Filter
But, don’t confirm your order just yet. The most important characteristic of any filter is it’s performance, and I think this is precisely the area where the Sawyer Mini is just not right for preppers.
What exactly can the Sawyer Mini filter? Well, it can be misleading to go by the manufacturers descriptions of what percentage of which dangers they can deal with. While Lifestraw talks about percentages of “protozoan parasites” others mention simply “parasites.” Is “protozoan” a caveat, or not?
Once you start comparing across multiple filters, all describing their capabilities differently, frustration sets in. Instead, when evaluating any filter, ignore all of the percentages and look at the size it can filter.
The Sawyer Mini is rated to 0.01 microns. If you don’t know how small this is, consider that one inch is 25400 microns. This rating is absolute, which means that anything larger than 0.01 microns cannot move through the filter at all. Some filters are not absolute, catching only some percentage of the harmful organisms of a particular size.
As far as the Sawyer goes though, 0.01 microns means it removes all bacteria, protozoa, and debris (like sand). It does not effect salt, viruses, pesticides, or heavy metals. Remember, all of these creatures and chemicals range in size. Just because a filter says it treats one kind of bacteria or virus, doesn’t mean it will catch them all.
Prepper Specific Advice
The problem with the Mini, as far as prepping goes, is that it’s not quite as thorough as you might need. It can’t, by itself, take farm run off water from farmland or virus infected water in the third world and make it drinkable. For hikers who know they won’t be near farm water, or who camp in an area where viruses are not a likely problem, this is fine. Even if a hiker gets a virus, they can deal with it when they return home.
Yet, preppers may need a filter when unusually contaminated water is the only available source. And, during disasters, especially flooding, traditionally reliable waters can become much less safe. Even during short-term disasters the city could have to shut down its water treatment, and then your neighbors will contaminate your water with viruses, among other things. Then, of course, there’s prepping for pandemics, or droughts when you’re off-grid. Probably, you’re prepping for at least one of the scenarios where the Mini just isn’t enough.
After Using the Sawyer
You can follow-up filtering with the Sawyer Mini with chemical treatment (iodine, or Aquamira drops which we’ve talked about before), or boiling, to kill viruses as well. Further, UV treatment (like the Steripen) is another option, but don’t use it on its own– it only works when the water has already been filtered for all other contaminants.
Activated charcoal is really the best option to remove pesticides and heavy metals, and other filter brands include charcoal. On the other hand, charcoal gets “full” eventually a needs to be replaced. In a pinch, the charcoal from your fire will work, even though it isn’t activated.
If you’re thinking of skipping the charcoal because you’re fairly sure heavy metals and pesticides are not concentrated enough in your water to effect your health, know that they will still effect the taste of the water. In fact, when using the Sawyer Mini, the water will taste a lot like whatever you gathered it from. Fast moving water is usually going to taste okay, but if taste is a big priority for you, try out the MSR Sweetwater Microfilter.
The last attribute of the Mini which attracts so many to the model is it’s weight. At two ounces in total, it’s a water filter that those concerned with weight can be truly pleased with. While not many preppers are concerned with cutting down the weight of their bug-out-bag, you have to admit that the lighter you bag the faster you’ll be moving, and that may translate to better survival odds. Thanks to the ultra-light people, there is a market for the lightest gear that can be designed, and every-time I pick up my BOB I thank those obsessive hikers for making weight a real priority for manufacturers and reducing the overall weight I’ll need to carry.
Still, there’s no sense in having a lighter filter that isn’t as thorough as you may need. For a truly all-around prepper filter, you simply must have a way to deal with:
- heavy metals
Any filter you can purchase to handle these will be heavier and more expensive than the Sawyer Mini. And, very few backpacking-type filters can handle all of those needs.
Reverse osmosis and charcoal are the only two designs that can deal with pesticides (unless you’re willing to distill you’re water), and the charcoal filters are very slow and need replacement. Or, you’ll be adding weight, expense, and filtering time by combining the Mini with another purification method. Remember that you should always filter before boiling, chemical, or UV light treatment. You can find more about these purifying methods here.
The Pros of the Sawyer Mini
- attractive price point (see here)
- filter life
The Cons of the Sawyer Mini
- what it can filter
- rate of flow
- chance for durability issues
The Final Word
Despite the added expensive and other drawbacks of more through systems, water is simply to important of a resource to leave vulnerable. The Sawyer Mini is a great first step for a prepper’s water treatment, or a great back-up to a more thorough filter, but it is simply not a one-size-fits-all option.