The Lifesaver Bottle was designed for the developing world, featuring an all-in-one portable water purifier that could provide clean drinking water for the 3 billion people that need it at a total investment of $20 billion. Makes you want to donate, doesn’t it?
As its design goals were simplicity and cost-effectiveness, it happens to suit the needs of backpackers and hikers just as well, and is readily available for purchase by first-world consumers, who are encouraged to participate in a buy-one, donate-one program.
The product itself is great, featuring a filtration and pump system housed entirely within the bottle, so all you have to do is fill it up, pump a few times, and drink. The bottle has a watertight cap, a carrying strap, and completely replaceable parts. Aside from its above-average weight of 22 ounces, it’s hard to find room for improvement.
As for performance, the filter has pores smaller than the smallest potentially dangerous impurity (a virus), meaning it doesn’t need iodine or chlorine for treatment. The cartridge cleans 4000 liters, or 6000 for the pricier model, and will shut down once it’s finished, so you’ll never drink unclean water. Cartridges can be replaced, as well as carbon filters and a sponge pre-filter, which can also be used to soak up water found on the ground to squeeze into the bottle.
The Lifesaver is pretty hard to beat in terms of return on investment. Even at the initial cost of $150, it’s still one of the most cost-effective water treatment products on the market. Its simplicity is exceeded only by products such as the Katadyn or GRAYL, which are cheaper initially, but will become pricier after a few years of purchasing replacement parts.
The following numbers are estimates for the $150 Lifesaver Bottle 4000, with a limit of 4000 liters, and assume high-frequency replacement of carbon filters, available in $30 packs of 4 which treat 250 liters each. Larger bottles and value packs can reduce the long-term costs listed below by about half.
- Unit price: $150 (4000 liter version)
- Replacement parts: $100 per cartridge, $8 per carbon filter, $6 per pre-filter
- Initial water treatment cost: $0.06 per liter
- Recurring water treatment cost (replacement cartridges + filters): $0.05 per liter
- Empty weight: 22 ounces (623 grams)
Katadyn MyBottle Water Purifier: $50
I own(ed) an older version called the Katadyn ExStream water purifier and used it on several trips throughout Asia, South America and Eastern Europe, and it was quite helpful. It’s another all-in-one bottle design that makes water purification a non-issue, as you just fill up the bottle and drink from the nozzle.
The Katadyn both filters the water and purifies it with iodine, making it clean and safe, with what I found to be a minimal iodine taste. It’s extremely easy to use and has no pump mechanism or lag time to get in the way; you just fill up and drink, with thecartridge contained entirely inside the bottle. To get the water through the filter, you have to suck through the straw while squeezing the bottle; fairly easy, but worth noting.
Replacement filters and iodine cartridges can be purchased, usually available for $35 as a set, though I have seen the individual pieces for sale as well. Each iodine cartridge will handle about 150 liters of water, and Katadyn recommends the filter be replaced when flow rate becomes reduced (and unless you fill it up with muddy water, I imagine the iodine cartridge will always run out first).
Compared with the Lifesaver Bottle, the Katadyn offers the same kind of simplicity (though without the pumping) but can’t remotely match the cost-effectiveness of the Lifesaver, though for casual or intermittent use it will likely be fine.
- Unit price: $50
- Replacement parts: $35 for a full cartridge
- Initial water treatment cost: $0.33 per liter
- Recurring water treatment cost (cartridges): $0.23 per liter
- Empty weight: 10 ounces (283 grams)
The GRAYL: $70
The GRAYL was designed by someone who got tired of all the silly-looking water filters out there. But instead of just complaining about it, which is all I would do, she actually made her own. They’re pretty much just shipping their first product run as I’m typing this.
Frequently referred to as the Holy Grail of water purifiers (doesn’t everyone love puns?) the GRAYL was designed to provide clean and purified drinking water, but without the need for sucking, squeezing, pumping, or waiting, while also looking classy enough that you’d take it to work, as well as a hike. While larger, pump-driven bottles like the Lifesaver might sit in the closet while they’re not in use, the svelte and stainless steel GRAYL can be your one and only.
The filter mechanism works completely differently from the other items listed above; while the Lifesaver requires pumping and the Katadyn requires sucking and squeezing, the GRAYL does not. You simply fill the lower chamber and press the upper unit into it. It takes about 15 seconds to press it down, after which you can drink just like you would from a regular bottle. It also means you can pour out purified water into a cup for a friend, or fill up spare bottles for a long trip, which is something the Katadyn can’t really do. The Lifesaver can, but it’ll eject it under high pressure. In certain situations you might prefer a straw (biking, for example), but this design was intended to make things as simple as drinking from a glass, and it does just that. The locking mechanism is quick and easy, too.
As for the filter, you get two options: A filter (included with the bottle; replacements are $20), which removes chemicals, odors, metals, particles, and 99.99% of bacteria, for filtering tap water in modern countries in North America or Europe, or a combination filter/purifier ($40), which additionally removes tiny microorganisms and viruses, and takes only 30 seconds to do so, and is ideal for backcountry pursuits, or traveling through developing countries. Each device lasts for about 150 liters.
And it’s worth noting that the GRAYL actually removes those viruses; the Katadyn will kill them with iodine, which means your water will taste like iodine. Water from the GRAYL will only be water. And even so, prices on the two are fairly close.
Full disclosure: They gave me a free one. But I like it a lot. Check out a very in-depth review here.
Long term price estimates listed below are for the purifier, to provide a direct comparison to the Lifesaver and Katadyn listed above. If you’re only using the filter, long-term costs would drop in half. I would also note again that if you buy a Lifesaver, you might also buy a “normal” water bottle. If you get a GRAYL, you might not bother using anything else.
- Unit price: $70
- Replacement parts: $20 filter or $40 combination filter/purifier
- Initial water treatment cost: $0.46/liter
- Recurring water treatment cost (purifier): $0.26/liter
- Empty weight: 19.6 ounces (556 grams)
Plans are in the works for a lightweight plastic version as well.
Although I much prefer all-in-one systems contained within the bottle, this is a popular device for backpackers all over the world, so I thought I’d discuss it here.
The SteriPEN purifiers use UV light to kill microorganisms, purifying water within minutes and needing only battery replacement to operate until the approximately 2400 liter limit of the light bulb runs out.
The pen operates by inserting a tube into a bottle or cup, turning on the UV light, and swirling it around a bit. It takes about a minute to clean half a liter, which is faster than many slow-acting methods such as iodine tablets, and quick enough to be convenient. Several different SteriPEN models exist, including smaller sizes, models with included countdown timers, and sensors so the UV light cannot be turned on except when immersed in water. Some models include batteries.
SteriPEN systems do not filter water, so heavy metals or simple dirt will not be removed, and SteriPEN systems should not be used in cloudy water, as it inhibits the effectiveness of the light. Several SteriPEN kits include a Nalgene water bottle and a filter insert, which together make a complete system. Buying the pen alone would be useful in countries with transparent though still questionable tap water, or while hiking.
Given the cylindrical design of the pen, it seems confusing that SteriPEN does not manufacture an all-in-one bottle design with the SteriPEN housed within the bottle itself (although Camelbak does, but it won’t filter anything).
The SteriPEN claims battery life long enough to clean 100 liters with 4 AA lithium batteries (about $2 each), which could be even better with rechargeables. The manufacturer will replace the bulb for $60, so the combined cost is still fairly cost-effective over long periods, but again, you’d need a separate filter if you wanted to remove metals, chemicals, and other fun stuff.
- Unite price: $100
- Replacement parts: $60 bulb, batteries of varying cost
- Initial water treatment cost (SteriPEN + 4 AA lithium batteries): $1.08 per liter
- Recurring water treatment cost (batteries + bulbs): $0.10 per liter
- Weight: 4 to 8 ounces with batteries, depending on the model (115 to 230 grams)
MSR MIOX Water Purifier: $130
Advertised as the cheapest way around to treat water, MSR’s MIOX Water Purifier uses salt, a little water, and an electrical current to create a liquid solution that is poured into a water bottle and purifies the contents, making replacement parts (salt and batteries) readily available and inexpensive.
Though far from being a complicated process, it’s not as fast or simple as the above products, though the solution is created within seconds and will purify the water about as fast as iodine tablets (30 minutes for viruses, bacteria and giardia, 4 hours for cryptosporidia). For those who go camping all the time and want the best long-term cost savings available, it looks like the MIOX is the best choice, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s only 3.5 ounces.
On top of batteries which will last through 100 liters per lithium battery ($2 apiece), test strips are available in packs of 50 for $20. Assuming these are used for 1-liter water bottles, the cost effectiveness is actually the worst of the choices listed here, so MIOX’s estimates of life cycle costs must be based on using the product without the test strips (which are unmentioned on the product comparison chart on the company website). This is likely safe enough for those who are familiar with using the product, especially after using up the initial 50 strips that come with the device. Plus, it comes with free batteries. Extra points there.
Fans of the MIOX will likely be those who prefer cost savings above all else, whereas those who prefer ease of use will want one of the above options, likely the Lifesaver Bottle, as it is the most cost-effective option among the hassle-free category.
- Unit price: $130
- Replacement parts: Batteries of varying cost, $0.40 per test strip (includes salt) if needed
- Initial water treatment cost: $0.65 per liter
- Recurring water treatment cost (batteries + test strips): $0.42 per liter
- Recurring water treatment cost (batteries only): $0.02 per liter
- Weight: 3.4 ounces with batteries (96 grams)
Final thoughts and winners
Before I saw the GRAYL I would have picked the Lifesaver as the overall winner. It will eventually become more cost-effective than either the Katadyn or GRAYL (right around the 500 liter mark), but the additional pumping and overall size might get annoying, so you might not bother using it at home. Thus:
- If you’re planning on spending several years in developing nations with sweltering heat and questionable tap water, and you want the most cost-effective all-in-one solution, get the Lifesaver.
- If you want crystal-clear water combined with sheer simplicity in a package that’ll be just as at home in the office as it is on the trail, get the GRAYL.
- If you want a sippy straw for biking, or if you drop things all the time, get the Katadyn.