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I’m a pretty big fan of the Sawyer Squeeze filter. After first using a pump filter (too heavy, too big), we then tried the Sawyer Mini (too slow) before trying out the Squeeze somewhere along the Appalachian Trail, and we’ve used it ever since. We’re always interested in something lighter, but it also has to perform at least as well in order to replace the Squeeze as the best filter for a thru-hike.
I’ve read and heard quite a bit about the Katadyn Be Free. However, available information about long-term performance has been limited. Sure, it has a great flow rate out of the box, but what about after a few gritty cow ponds? We got our hands on one of these filters and tested it out on our 85-mile PCT section hike as well as our 170-mile Tahoe Rim Trail thru-hike this season, to see how it compares to the Sawyer Squeeze on paper as well as in the field.
Both of these filters work essentially the same way, but they are designed a little differently.
The Sawyer Squeeze screws on the top of your water reservoir bag or water bottle. You then turn the bottle or bladder upside down and squeeze the water through the filter – either into your mouth or into another clean water reservoir or bottle. I’ve never seen it done, but you can also set the filter up as an inline filter on a hose/bladder system.
The Katadyn Be Free works similarly, but the filter sits inside the reservoir bag, with only the nozzle protruding out. The major difference here is that the Katadyn requires the provided bag or a Hydrapak bag, while the Sawyer can be used with the provided bags, with Platypus bags, or on a wide variety of basic water bottles.
|Sawyer Squeeze||Katadyn BeFree|
|MSRP $35||MSRP $40|
|0.1 micron hollow-fiber membrane||0.1 micron hollow-fiber membrane|
|Flow rate: 1.7 liters per minute||Flow rate: 2 liters per minute|
|Guarantee of a million gallons||Guarantee of 1,000 liters|
|Filter alone weighs 3 oz||Filter alone weighs 1.2 oz|
|Filter can be used without the bag||Filter cannot be used without the bag|
|Filter with provided 1L bag weighs 4 oz||Filter with provided 0.6L bag weighs 1.9 oz|
|Filter with 2L Platypus bag weighs 4.3 oz||Filter with 2L Hydrapak bag weighs 3.5 oz|
IN THE FIELD
On paper, the Katadyn is the clear winner. It has a faster flow rate and weighs less than the Sawyer Squeeze. How do they compare after long-term use in the field?
Let’s start with the Sawyer Squeeze. Out of the box, it has great flow, but it slows noticeably after filtering just a few liters of water, and especially after filtering particularly dirty water with a lot of sediment in it. However, it is easy to backflush with either the provided syringe or with a Smart Water of Life Water bottle, as these caps will attach to the nozzle of the Squeeze. Getting a good backflush also requires some vigorous shaking. Backflushing can be done in the field with clean water, but most of the time we just backflush in towns and it’s enough to keep the flow rate decent enough and consistent. However, it will never again flow like it did right out of the box.
One major drawback to the Sawyer Squeeze is that the provided bags tend to break, especially with intense squeezing. Taken care of, I find the bags usually last a long time before they start to leak, but there are other options. The Squeeze can be used with a Platypus bag, which comes with a lifetime guarantee. It can also be screwed directly on top of a water bottle such as a Smart Water. Lastly, it can be attached to your bladder and hose to make an inline filter.
The Katadyn BeFree does seem initially faster than the Sawyer out of the box. A lot faster. The first liter or two don’t even require squeezing. However, like the Sawyer, the flow rate rapidly diminishes after just a few uses. Unlike the Squeeze, the BeFree cannot be properly backflushed. This is likely why the Squeeze has a much better guarantee than the BeFree. To clean the filter, Katadyn recommends swishing it around in lake or stream water, and doing this about every eight liters.
This proved to be a huge disadvantage. After just a week of regular use and one silty water source, the filter came almost to a standstill in the field, and it took us nearly 40 minutes and very vigorous squeezing to filter just 2 liters of water. After multiple attempts at cleaning the filter, we got the flow back to a semi-reasonable rate. For the rest of the trip, we cleaned the filter after nearly every use in order to keep it flowing. The Squeeze has never slowed so dramatically, despite heavy use in cow ponds and other silty water sources.
Both of these filters need to be protected from freezing. If they do freeze, the filter should be considered compromised. If you’re not sure, the filter should be considered compromised. If you drop one and damage it, it should be considered compromised. In other words, these are great little filters but they aren’t the hardiest. We typically go through 2-3 over the course of a (2,000 mile plus) thru-hike.
When you’re on trail, and you need a replacement, it might be a very long way to an REI to get a replacement Katadyn. On the other hand, you can get a Sawyer Squeeze at Wal-Mart for $30. There are a lot more Wal-Marts across rural America than there are REIs, or Cabelas, or [insert outfitter name here].
While the BeFree is a promising option, the Sawyer Squeeze remains the best lightweight filter for consistent performance on extended backcountry trips. It’s easier to find in stores, easier to clean, easier to replace, more versatile to use, and maintains a more consistent flow-rate over time. That extra ounce is worth it.