You still need clean safe drinking water when you travel. You want to be having the time of your life, not getting travellers sickness and speaking to god on the great white telephone (the toilet)! In countries where the water is not drinkable, often travellers buy plastic bottles. However, more than 8 million tons of plastic is dumped in our oceans per year. We need to reduce our plastic usage, and buying endless plastic bottles whilst away is not sustainable. Fear not, there are a number of alternative options to avoid drinking bad water without buying shed loads of plastic bottles.
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Check water safety before you travel
The water is largely drinkable for travellers in places such as Europe, North America, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and a few other places. If you are travelling elsewhere (parts of Asia, Africa or South America) you will need to do your research on whether the water is safe to drink before you travel. A quick google search should be enough.
If the water is safe, then great! Just bring a refillable bottle and drink from the taps to your hearts content. Where the water is not safe to drink, and you don’t fancy buying loads of plastic bottles (think of the planet!), check out the following and see what fits your situation:
1. Get A Travel Water Filter
First things first, one of the best ways to avoid getting sick from bad water whilst travelling is to get a travel water filter. They really are awesome, you won’t have to buy plastic bottles and they mean you can drink the water almost everywhere. There are loads of different options on the market, however some of them are much better than others. We recommend these 5 travel water filters and our favourite travel water filter is the Survivor Filter Pro.
However, you might not be able to get a travel water filter before you leave, you might find them a little faffy or they might be out of your price range. What do you do? You don’t want to cause loads of plastic waste. There are other options, don’t worry.
2. Water Purification Tablets
I’ll be honest, we weren’t too keen on drinking chemically treated water for our whole trip (14 months in Asia and South America). These tablets are definitely useful for short-term trips or multi-day hikes, but we had concerns about ingesting so much chlorine over the long-term. It is a shame as they are lightweight and cheap as chips.
However, our motto for travel gear is to only take what you can afford to lose, break or have stolen and always take a back-up in case any of those happen. So we bought some water purification tablets as well as our travel water filter. These are also good options if we are unable to filter.
I looked at what was available in the UK. The options are largely chlorine-based these days as you can’t seem to get iodine anymore. Probably because iodine can cause harmful effects for some groups of people such as pregnant women and people with thyroid issues.
Best Water Purification Tablets
There are chlorine tablets that kill most bacteria and viruses. Then there are chlorine dioxide tablets that kill bacteria and viruses including Giardia and Cryptosporidium. Chlorine or iodine alone do not kill Cryptosporidium. Chlorine dioxide has less side effects, so is usually the best water purification tablet to get to avoid getting sick whilst travelling.
Chlorine tablets are a good option, however as I mentioned above, they don’t kill Cryptosporidium. We got a few Oasis chlorine tablets for use where the water was largely safe or clean.
I also got LifeSystems Chlorine Dioxide tablets as well. Why buy 2 types of water purification tablets? The harder core Chlorine Dioxide tablets are for when the water was more suspect. These are a bit more expensive, but are more effective.
You can get drops or tablets. The drops allow more water to be treated but I took these on my last around the world adventure 5 years ago and they ended up leaking EVERYWHERE. Not cool. The tablets are also apparently more effective than drops due to the effervescent salts in them.
If You Are In The USA
Using Water Purification Tablets Properly
The rule is normally 1 tablet for 1 litre of water. Leave it for an hour just to be safe (although some brands say less), but you will need to leave chlorine dioxide for 4 hours to treat Cryptosporidium.
In all cases you will need to use more tablets in cold conditions or if the water is murky and you will need to leave it for longer.
I’ve found that leaving the lid loose on the bottle whilst the chlorine tablets are working will release some of the gas produced and reduce the slightly chlorinated taste.
Water purification tablets won’t remove chemicals or heavy metals from the water.
Remember to carry them around in a waterproof container (the LifeSystems ones come in a plastic box) or zip-lock bag.
3. UV Light Devices
Before I started looking into the best method for water purification I hoped the best option would be a UV light device. I had seen a couple of people using them in Peru a few years ago and thought they were a cool concept. The are small, lightweight and not require loads of chemicals. And are more effective than purification tablets.
Whilst independent research and testing that I found suggests they are good at killing protozoa, bacteria and viruses. When I started looking at the user reviews of the products out there, it seemed they probably wouldn’t be cut out for long term travelling as they often break or don’t last very long. Boooo!
The Magic Of UV Light Devices
Probably the most famous product is the SteriPEN. There are both battery and USB chargeable versions. Some come with a pre-filter which acts like a coffee filter and will take out most of the particulates, which will increase the UV’s effectiveness. The clearer the water, the more effective the pen.
The batteries or charge can purify about 50 litres in prime conditions before needing a recharge. The lamp is meant to have a life of around 8,000 litres in prime conditions.
You turn the pen on, put it into a container of water (0.5 litre to 1 litre max) and stir until the light turns off. Stirring improves the effectiveness from as low as 89% to almost 100%.
In cold conditions or if the water is particularly murky you may need to perform the action twice before you can drink the water. One treatment of one litre takes about 90 seconds.
What’s The Big Problem With UV light devices?
They might seem amazingly cool and high tech, but I read a lot of reviews about the pen failing after a few uses, as well as the batteries or charge not providing as many treatments as advertised, or the USB function just not working after a while. I really didn’t fancy having a lack of power issue on a mountain side, which meant we couldn’t purify any water.
Also only being able to get 50 litres from a pair of batteries in good conditions, seems pretty wasteful. I didn’t fancy having to constantly be buying batteries. With the effectiveness reducing in cold conditions, a pair of batteries or a charge would only give us 25 litres between us. Spare batteries can also drain in cold conditions. Also some users have reported it stopped working at high altitudes and that the pen is quite fragile.
Additionally there is a need to pre-filter particularly murky water, meaning there is a need to still carry some sort of filter anyway. Also the pen will not remove chemicals or heavy metals like some filters do. All this meant it was a no from us on the SteriPEN.
If you are still interested in the SteriPEN though:
4. What About Just Boiling Water?
Well this age-old method is in fact one of the most effective ways of killing bacteria, viruses and protozoa. This is backed up by lots of research including World Health Organisation testing. Hurrah, finally something cheap AND effective!
To do it properly, you should bring water to a rolling boil and boil for at least a minute. Then cover water (to prevent recontamination) and allow it to cool down. Try and filter the water first as it will remove potentially harmful particulates and massively improve the effectiveness of boiling.
Issues With Boiling Water
You will still need to filter the water first, so will need some method to do this. In reality it is often not possible to boil water as there are no facilities to do so.
Also what about when you are on multi-day treks or trips away from a cooker? You will likely have to carry extra fuel to boil water. This will mean carrying extra weight or maybe sacrificing cooking fuel for boiling water. Not always ideal eh?
5. Other Things To Consider To Avoid Drinking Bad Water Whilst Travelling
Water safety doesn’t just stop at drinking. You should also use purified water for the following:
Washing wounds and minor cuts
Washing fruit and veg
Drinking water for animals (yes, your pup could get sick too!)
Mind Dodgy Drinking Fountains
Be aware of using drinking fountains, these do not always provide purified water and you could get sick from them. Also, I’ve seen someone peeing in one.
Staying healthy and happy whilst travelling
If you follow these tips and tricks, you should avoid getting sick whilst travelling (at least from the water). However, sometimes no matter what you do you can’t avoid getting some shitty luck. It can happen to anyone, but do try and reduce your chances at least.
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