Safe and healthy drinking water is taken for granted every single day in most westernized countries. The ability to open the tap, drink from it, clean our vegetables, and have no concern for our health is a luxury not afforded to the majority of the world. While travelling we have a lot of different options for how we get our water and if we need to treat it depending on where we find ourselves. Obviously trekking in the jungles of the Amazon would require a different solution to enjoying the bustling cities of Asia. We need a lot of water to survive and you’ll often need even more while travelling if you’re from a colder climate and are visiting a warmer one. Another important factor to consider is that as a traveller you can have a fairly heavy environmental impact on a destination. How you address your water needs can make a big difference in this impact. Here are a few options to consider on how to address your water needs while travelling:
The easiest and most readily available option for most travellers is to just buy bottled water but consider the following:
- Over 47 million gallons of oil are used to produce bottles which result in over 1.5 million tons of plastic waste every year.
- In many places the bottled water is just unregulated filtration of tap water.
- Buy your water in larger bottles and keep a smaller one to be reused and carried with you to reduce costs.
- Stay at hostels that provide free water which generally comes from either on site filters or reusable 5 gallon jugs.
- Ask if the tap water is potable. You can drink the water in places like Hong Kong, Singapore, parts of Nicaragua and many other unexpected locations.
- Cheap for shorter trips.
- Generally safe with no additional taste
- Wasteful and bad for the environment.
- Can get expensive on longer trips and in remote areas, even in cheap countries a litre often costs around $0.50 to $1.00 unless you buy big bottles.
- You might end up with a bottle someone has cleverly refilled.
UV Treated water
Treating water with UV light while travelling has really taken off since the introduction of the first Steripen in 2001 and has been used very effectively in municipal systems long before that. Steripen as well as Camelbak have a number of options to suit a variety of needs. UV water treatment is great option for traveller who are likely to just use tap water that might be suspect and aren’t really concerned about the need for filtering. Treating water with UV light is a great option for most travellers.
- Fast, generally most systems can treat a litre in 60 to 90 seconds.
- Cheaper for long trips, a good UV light can last as long as 8000 litres meaning even if you have to buy batteries you are looking at between $0.01 and $0.04 per litre
- Kills viruses, bacteria, and protozoa.
- No additional chemical taste.
- Another electronic to carry and worry about damaging while travelling.
- Needs replacement batteries which can also be bad for the environment unless you get rechargeables.
- Can’t filter water or purify water with heavy particulate. Even most municipal systems will have a some fine particulate in them you can’t see until you backflush a filter.
- You can recontaminate your water if the rim of your bottle is contaminated.
Though water filters have competition from other treatment methods, they’ve really been the mainstay of backcountry backpacking for ages. MSR, Katadyn, Platypus, and a variety of other manufactures have dozens of filter options for every need. There is even a filter than can make sea water drinkable, though it’s very expensive. Having been tested in the backcountry, water filters are also a great option for travellers as well.
- Can filter fine particulate often found in older water supply systems.
- Deals with most bacteria and protozoa you’d encounter while travelling, particularly filters with a 0.2 micron pore size, 0.3 micron is not recommended.
- Cheap at about $0.04 / litre but still slightly more than UV systems.
- No batteries.
- Fast. Many modern hollow core filters can provide a litre of water in about a minute or less.
- Does not deal with viruses, though they generally shouldn’t be present in municipal tap water or clean areas in the backcountry.
- Generally purifies less water than a UV over the life of a system, often 1000-2000 filtered litres vs. 7000-8000 for UV.
- Fragile and often susceptible to freezing.
Travellers have been taking chlorine drops and iodine tablets with them to treat water for ages, even household bleach can be used if done correctly.
- Good to carry as a backup if you are generally using bottled water but might venture off where bottles might not be available (far off the beaten track).
- Much lighter than most other options.
- Difficult to use effectively and know if it worked.
- Bad taste due to chemicals.
If you’re headed out on a world trip, consider how long you will be travelling for and whether some sort of water purification system might make a difference to your budget as well as how much waste you produce. Be sure to read if the product you’re considering actually addresses bacteria, protozoa, or even viruses as many filters are just for taste. On a previous trip through Asia I used the MSR MIOX which produced chlorine and had a system for testing the water. The device paid for itself about 2-3 times over, but always gave me water that tasted a bit too much like a swimming pool.
For my 2013 world trip I’ve updated to using a Platypus GravityWorks 4.0L Filter System which can turn most municipal water, water on my many hikes, and water in just about any rural area into drinking water. So far the system has easily paid itself off, and I’ve not gotten sick from any drinking water while using it. Though I’d considered the UV systems, the need for a water bladder for hiking made the Gravityworks a 2-in-1 solution for me and thus a combined weight and money saver.
Good luck on planning your trip, and if you have other water purification options or experience with some of the above, please share in the comments below.