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Six years ago, I was standing 7 miles from the Mexican border on the Pacific Crest Trail. It was Day 1, and I was already sunburnt with at least four blisters forming on my feet, my pack sitting crooked on my back, and I was nearly out of water. It was over 100 degrees and we’d arrived at the first and only water source of the day.

It was time to do the thing I’d procrastinated on the longest: learn how to use my Sawyer Squeeze.

If you ask anyone with basic experience in the outdoors, they’ll tell you to always learn how to use your gear before hitting the trail. Make sure it all works, that you have all the pieces, you know. And I’d done that, for the most part – practiced setting up my tent, getting the perfect pre-hike gear shot, finding the best sun hat, the important stuff. But, I had avoided getting comfortable with my water filtration. In fact, I hadn’t even touched my filter other than when I packed it. 

It turned out that several other hikers had done the same. I was surrounded by at least four people who were also using their shiny new Squeezes or Minis for the first time. We all laughed, grateful not to be totally alone in our naivety. One hiker pulled a syringe out of their kit and guessed that it was for cleaning, but none of us really knew what it was for. A few days later, I decided it was too heavy and bulky, and ditched the syringe within the week.

I proceeded to use my Squeeze countless times a day for the next five months until I reached the Canadian border.

I drank from anything and everything, from fresh running streams, to mosquito-infested swamps, to ice cold glacier run-off.

I went through three filters throughout the trail. The first one froze, after night #3 in the desert dropped to freezing temperatures and I didn’t yet know the importance of sleeping with my filter to prevent that from happening. The second one cracked, and simply felt “too dirty”, so I bought yet another when passing through an REI in Portland, OR. I rarely thought twice about my filter – knowing that if it stopped working, I’d almost always have backup within short reach, whether that be my hiking partners’ filters, or hopping online to order for pickup at the next trail town.

Fast-forward to six years later. In February, I received a text from the producer of an outdoor YouTube channel I shoot for, Miranda Goes Outside, asking if we wanted to come to Honduras. He explained that Sawyer had invited us to come and experience one of their very first clean water initiative projects and to make a video about it. 

Each year, Sawyer donates 90% of their profits to clean water initiatives around the world. From Liberia to Fiji, and even areas in the United States, they’ve worked in over 80 countries to bring people access to clean drinking water.

Sawyer partners with humanitarian nonprofits to do this work, and it all started in Honduras 15 years ago with a nonprofit called Water With Blessings.

In Honduras and many areas around the world, gathering water is one of the most time-consuming and laborious household chores that falls on the shoulders of women. Sawyer equips mothers with a bucket and a water filter, and then detailed training on how the system works. From there, the mothers are responsible for filtering water not only for their families, but up to three other families as well. They call these mothers the Water Women, and it’s a responsibility they all take very seriously.

Three weeks later we were on a plane, watching the landscape go from the blues of the Caribbean to textured, rugged desertscape as we landed in Comayaguela. We met Andrew, a representative of Sawyer who was accompanied by several huge duffle bags of 300+ water filters. We also met Sister Larraine, the founder of Water With Blessings as well as our translator and guide for the week.

Over the course of the next week, we traveled to the homes of Water Women who had been using their filters for as long as 15 years. We interviewed Maria, a grandmother who cares for three small children and has used her filter to provide clean water for her family daily for twelve years. We also met Raina, a water woman for 12 years who started a successful small business and became known for her delicious tortillas because she is making them with clean water. Because of her success, she was able to move her family into a sturdier, safer home. Two of her daughters are also getting ready for college! 

Standing in the intimacy of these women’s homes and physically seeing how these filters have changed their lives naturally made me think of all the ways in which I take water for granted.

During my first days home after finishing the PCT, I stayed briefly back in my childhood home with my mom in Upstate NY. I’d wake in the morning and wander to the bathroom, my toes still tingling weeks later from the months of walking. I’d stand in awe at the water running out of the sink, full pressure, and swell with gratitude. No longer having to filter multiple times a day, to carry my water on my back, and having the option to take hot showers whenever I pleased all felt like a luxury too good to be true. “Normal” life felt too easy, and it was seeping with privilege. I remember soon longing for the simplicity of trail life, where life’s smallest pleasures were earned and so deeply enjoyed. But over time, as the experiences on trail faded into my memory, I adapted back to developed life in the U.S., where clean water is expected and hot showers are a chore.

Raina and her daughter with their bucket system that’s been in use for 12 years.

For the second leg of the trip, we traveled to Tegucigalipa, the capital city of Honduras. This is where Water With Blessings and many of the Water Women are based. We witnessed and documented two Water Women trainings, which take place in community buildings, churches, or parishes. When we arrived at 9AM, there were already several women waiting for the selection process to begin. The women put their names into a bucket and 15 names were drawn. There was a feeling of anticipation in the room as the women were chosen. Once selected, they gathered in a half-moon circle around the head teacher, who jumped right into teaching them in-depth how the Sawyer Squeeze traps dangerous particles and filters clean water.

The women learned to assemble their own individual bucket systems, learning exactly how the parts and pieces all work together.

The new water women begin their training at a parish in Tegucigalpa.

The second half of the training was focused on cleaning the filters. The teachers demonstrated how to properly backflush, as well as the difference it makes to tap the filter firmly on your palm between rounds of backflushing. As a backpacker, this was incredible to witness! Our whole crew was blown away by what a difference the tapping on the filter between backflushes, to shake up the dirt remaining inside.

Water samples after 2 rounds of backflushing, with palm tapping in between.

Through their work, Water With Blessings and Sawyer are putting these filters directly in the hands of women.

These aren’t for fun and playing in the mountains – they’re for every day drinking water, and they are lifesaving. These women only get one filter; if something happens to it, they don’t get another one.

Nearly all the women we saw with a filter had a personalized protective sleeve accompanying it.

Water women discussing the bucket systems with their filters covered by crocheted sleeves.

Before the PCT, I’d always considered myself “grateful” for clean water. I knew it was a privilege, but it wasn’t something I thought much about until after the trail. What I hadn’t done was consider the privilege it was to be able to filter water in the backcountry at all.

Just to have access to a water filter – and to shop for one! – is a massive freedom that these women and so many thousands of others don’t have.

And I certainly hadn’t felt the gravity of that privilege until I stood in the homes of these women and witnessed these trainings.

Going into this trip and video shoot, I and the rest of our crew really weren’t sure what to expect. We recognized early on that we needed to be as mindful, open, and welcoming to everything that came our way as possible. This trip proved to be an incredible adventure and a beautiful observation of the beauty, struggle, and power of humanity. I am grateful for this growth and to now have far more awareness for the privilege it is to have clean water, especially in the backcountry. I hope that in time, more people become more mindful too, especially when recreating outdoors.

Thank you to Sister Larraine and her team for keeping us safe, fed, and educating us each step of the way. Thank you to Andrew and our producers, Rainer and Miranda, for bringing Kyle & I along to capture this special work, and above all else, the Water Women for welcoming us into their world.

Also for the love of all that’s holy (no offense Sister L), I will also never not backflush my filter again.

LAST UPDATED

October 20, 2023

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Chelsea Newton

Chelsea is a videographer and photographer based in the Pacific Northwest. She has a fierce love for humanitarian projects is always planning the next adventure off the beaten path. She can usually be found in the mountains, on her paddleboard or cuddled up in the back of a coffee shop. Or, let's be honest, in her edit cave at home.

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