If you are planning a trip, you might be wondering how to ensure access to safe drinking water on your travels.
For example, you might be planning a backcountry camping trip, a hiking trip, or a trip overseas where you aren’t sure if the tap water is safe to drink.
Whatever the reason, access to safe drinking water is critically important to your well-being and health. Sometimes the available water might not be safe for human consumption or other uses like brushing your teeth or cooking.
In these scenarios, you are likely going to have to take some steps to treat the water to make it safe. In this guide, we’re going to go through the whole topic of water purification from a travel perspective.
We’ll start with resources on discovering if the water will be safe to drink on your trip and how to learn what the main risks are. We’ll then go through the various options you have for making water safe to drink when traveling, covering the advantages and disadvantages of a number of methods.
Finally, we’ll finish up with a number of recommendations for different products that can be used to treat water when traveling to help you decide which might be best for your needs.
This is all based on our personal experience traveling around the world, as well as extensive research using information from trusted sources like government agencies.
By the end of this post, you should know if you need to consider a water treatment method for your next trip, and if so, which one is going to meet your needs and budget!
Why You Might Need to Treat Your Water
Before we get into the different methods for treating water to make it safe, let’s look at why and where you might need to purify the water you are drinking.
As humans, we need water to survive. A lack of water can quickly become lethal, with most experts agreeing that the human body can only survive a few days without water. Unfortunately, water is good at carrying things that are not good for us. These can include bacteria, viruses, and parasites as well as chemicals and metals.
Sadly, the WHO estimated in 2020, that about 26% of the world’s population (about 2 billion people) do not have reliable access to safe drinking water. Contaminated water has been linked to diseases such as cholera, dysentery, diarrhea, hepatitis A, typhoid, giardiasis, and polio.
It is also linked to the most common ailment that travelers are likely to suffer from, travelers’ diarrhea (or travellers’ diarrhoea), which is experienced by over 20% of travelers to destinations that lack access to safe water. Travelers’ diarrhea can be caused by viruses, bacteria, or protozoa in water. As such, it is important to ensure that the water you are exposed to is clean and free of any contaminant.
Not only is it important to have safe drinking water, but you also want to ensure the water is safe that you use for brushing your teeth, as ice in drinks, for cleaning fruits and vegetables, washing dishes, etc. It only takes a small amount of contaminated water to cause a serious issue.
Common situations where you might need to treat your water are as follows:
- When hiking, camping, fishing, boating, and backcountry travel where you may be drinking untreated water
- International travel to destinations with unsafe drinking water
- Situations, such as flooding or water treatment issues, that make your home water supply unsafe
- As an environmentally-friendly alternative to buying and drinking bottled water
- To improve the taste of safe but bad tasting water
In this guide we will be primarily looking at water treatment from a travel perspective. So we will look generally at methods you can use to provide you with drinkable water when hiking, camping, or traveling overseas. However, many of these methods can also be used at home if required.
How to Plan for Safe Water on your Trip
It can be a bit overwhelming for some travelers to think about the issue of safe drinking water. There are a number of factors to consider including your specific destination, method of travel, potential water contaminants, and resources available at your destination.
Here are 4 general steps you can take for ensuring safe water for travel:
1. Do some research to find out if the water will be safe to drink on your trip. Be sure to get information from up-to-date and reliable sources (e.g., CDC, WHO, local health authority, travel clinic medical staff).
2. If the water may be unsafe at your destination, you should research what the main issues are with the water (e.g., bacteria, viruses, and parasites). The type of water contaminants will determine what methods will be effective in treating the water.
3. Then you should choose an appropriate way to treat and make the water safe to drink (e.g. boiling the water or filtering the water) that will eliminate the contaminants. You want to make sure to choose a method that will be feasible at your destination.
4. Finally, you should figure out what you need to pack with you to treat the water (e.g., water purification chemical tablets or a water filtration device) at your travel destination.
We’ll be talking about all of these factors in more detail throughout the article.
How to Know if Tap Water is Safe to Drink When Traveling?
Before you travel to a destination, you might wonder specifically if the tap water in the destination is safe to drink.
If it is, then you might not need to pack and bring a water treatment system at all, or only bring one if you won’t have regular access to tap water.
The answer to this will obviously vary depending on the destination. Some locations might have perfectly safe tap water, such as in Spain or Italy, but locals will still drink bottled water (and urge you to do the same) due to the better taste.
Our recommendation is to look at the local government websites for advice, as well as to follow the advice of your government for travel to the destination.
This map shows which parts of the world you can expect to find easy access to safe drinking water, based on CDC and World Health Organization research. But you should check the specific country you are going to for specific information on health and water safety.
If you will have access to safe drinking water when traveling, then you probably don’t need to bring along any sort of water treatment system. But we would of course recommend bringing along a reusable water bottle like this to take advantage of this fact and to prevent needing to pay for or rely on bottled water.
If the water is not safe where you intend to travel (or you are unsure) then you will probably want to consider bringing along some sort of water treatment.
How do I know if I need to Disinfect Water when Traveling?
Here are some general tips to help you decide if you need to purify the water you drink when you are traveling.
- If you are wanting to drink water from an untreated source, such as a lake, pond, river, puddle, or natural spring, you should boil, filter, or chemically treat the water before using it for drinking, cooking, or personal hygiene. The treatment method you choose will depend on the risk factors in the area you are traveling in.
- According to the CDC, it is generally not considered safe for travelers to drink tap water in most low- and middle-income countries. This includes most of Asia (except Japan and South Korea), the Middle East, Africa, Mexico, Central America, South America, some areas of Europe, and many island nations. You should research the specific country you are going to for specific information on health and water safety.
- If you are not sure, check with local authorities about the safety of the water for drinking.
- If in any doubt about the safety of drinking water, you should boil, filter, or treat it before drinking. Or stick to drinking bottled water.
What about Bottled Water?
One popular option when looking for safe drinking water when traveling is to opt for bottled water. The water is purified prior to being bottled and is therefore normally safe to drink.
In many developing countries especially, bottled water is the go-to option for both locals and travelers who are looking for a safe drinking option. If buying water, make sure to look for factory-sealed bottled water.
Unfortunately, bottled water also comes with negative side-effects. The first is environmental. Most bottled water comes in single-use plastic bottles, and the creation, shipping, and disposal of plastic bottled water has a massive environmental impact.
Whilst in theory the plastic can be recycled, this also has a negative environmental impact. In many locations around the world, the infrastructure to manage plastic recycling simply doesn’t exist. In fact, 91% of plastic worldwide isn’t recycled.
As a result, the plastic might end up in landfill, the oceans, or burnt. None of these outcomes is positive for the environment.
The other issue with bottled water is the cost. Whilst it can often be obtained for a relatively low price, over a period of time this cost will start to add up. As a result, purifying your own water will likely be more cost effective in the long run, even when factoring in the cost of purification.
Note that in some travel situations and destinations bottled water is going to be the only option for safe drinking water for travelers. For instance, there may not be any water sources in an area or the water may be contaminated by metal and chemical contaminants that cannot be adequately removed by other methods. In those cases, factory-sealed bottled water is going to be the best option.
How to Treat Water when Traveling
There are a number of different ways that you can treat or purify water, as outlined by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention here. These include boiling water, using chemical treatments, filtration methods, and the use of UV light.
I’ll go through the main ones now, and outline the pros and cons of each approach from a travel perspective. There’s also a good graphic comparison of each method on the CDC website here.
One of the most well-known and effective ways of purifying water from pathogens is to boil it. Generally, you need to bring the water to a rolling boil for at least a minute, or longer if you are at higher elevations.
Boiling water kills most organisms that cause disease, including viruses, bacteria and parasites. However it does not remove other contaminants such as chemicals or heavy metals.
In most cases, boiling water will be sufficient for treatment. It is effective and relatively quick. Generally, this is the number one recommendation by the CDC if you are looking for effective water treatment.
The disadvantage to boiling as a purification method is that it requires a lot of energy. When we are traveling we don’t always have access to a vessel to boil water (e.g, pot, kettle) or a heat source (e.g., stovetop, fire, electric power).
Even if we can boil water in a kettle, we might not be able to keep it at a rolling boil for the required time. You also have to consider the time it takes the water to cool down after boiling.
If you do have access to a device that can boil water for a period of time, and can factor in the cooling time, then boiling water is a purification method to consider. It works well at home or in an apartment, as well as in some camping or RV scenarios where you have access to a source of heat.
However, for general travel, it is often not feasible or practical and so other treatment options should be considered.
Water Purification Chemicals
Chemical purification is another way of cleaning water. Iodine purification tablets or chlorine drops or tablets can be used to disinfect water, and they are capable of killing most disease-causing bacteria and viruses if the instructions are followed correctly. These are often used in addition to filtration.
They are also generally easy to use, all you have to do is add the number of tablets or drops to the water as specified by the instructions, wait a period of time, and then the water should be safe to drink. They are one of the more inexpensive water purification methods.
There are some downsides to water purification tablets and chemicals. Probably the downside most people are familiar with is that they can give the water a bad taste. In fact, many iodine tablets come with a taste neutralization tablet to help reduce the taste of the iodine.
Other downsides include having to wait to drink water (usually about 30 minutes, but can be 4 hours or more) and that they don’t remove chemicals or heavy metals from water. If using in cloudy or dirty water, you will also probably need to filter the water as well.
Iodine pills are not recommended for long term use, and they are not all suitable for everyone, such as pregnant women or those with sensitivity to the ingredients. Chlorine drops and tablets can be used for more long-term use.
For shorter backcountry camping trips, these chemicals in tablet form are a popular option as they are relatively lightweight compared to other options, and they generally work well. These are also a great back-up option (if planning to rely on another type of water treatment) and a recommended part of any hiker or camper’s first aid kit.
If you are planning to pack water purification tablets or drops, one of the most known and reputable brands in this space is Potable Aqua. The initial products were developed for the U.S. Army with Harvard University in the 1940s. They sell both iodine and chlorine dioxide purification tablets and drops.
Water Filtration and Water Purification
Water filtration is a method of purifying water where the water is passed through a fine filter. The filter pores are so fine that they remove many contaminants from the water, resulting in clear, drinkable water.
In standard filters, the size of the filter pores will determine which contaminants the filter is capable of removing. Filter pores of around 0.1 – 0.2 microns (100 or 200 nanometres) will filter protozoa and bacteria, but not viruses. To filter out viruses, the CDC recommends filtration pores smaller than 0.03 microns (30 nanometers). These devices are commonly referred to as water purifiers.
There are other filter technologies such as ion exchange technology which can also purify water of various organisms. These usually work in combination with pore-based technology.
A good water filter or water purifier will clearly list what it is capable of cleaning.
Some water filters also include a carbon filtration stage which is designed to remove bad tastes from the water.
A water filter or water purifier can be a good option for travel, as it can normally filter a good amount of water in a short amount of time. It should remove most contaminants, including some metals and chemicals, and most have carbon filters to produce clean water without any taste.
The disadvantage is that normally the filters are generally only rated to filter a certain amount of water before needing replacement. In addition, the process for filtering the water can require some effort on your part to force the water through the filter pores.
A water filter is also normally more bulky than chemical filtration options, and the upfront cost can be high. It is also very important to understand exactly what the device can and cannot filter before using it.
A good standard to check for when evaluating purifiers and filters is the NSF P231 standard. This was released by the international organisation NSF (this used to stand for National Sanitation Foundation, but today it is just called NSF).
The NSF P231 standard is a tough 10-day test in multiple parts, and a reputable manufacturer should be able to show evidence that their system or device passed the test in full.
It is worth noting that there is also an even more strict standard, NSF P248, which some brands also test to for extra peace of mind. This is similar to P231, but was developed for testing US military water purification systems for use on military operations.
This one is less common for consumer-focused filters, but if you want the ultimate peace of mind, consider investing in a product which has met P248 testing requirements.
Note that there are other NSF testing standards, including NSF 42 and 53. These are primarily designed to test home water filters for taste improvements, rather than to render them safe.
We would definitely recommend investing in a water filtration or purification system that meets NSF P231 testing standards, and which provides proof of the same via an independent laboratory report.
Finally, another option to consider is a UV light emitting device. As the name suggests, a UV light-based device works by shining UV light into water. A high-powered UV light will destroy the DNA of viruses, bacteria, and protozoa, basically making water safe against these threats.
The advantage of a UV light water treatment system is that it will continue to work as long as you have power and the bulb is good. As long as the light is sufficiently powerful it will be effective against bacteria, viruses and parasites, and the devices are normally quite portable.
The disadvantage of UV light is that it doesn’t change the taste of the water, and it cannot remove chemicals or metals. It also requires power, although battery powered options are available.
In addition, UV lights are only effective for water purification if the water is clear. The UV light will be blocked by cloudy water, meaning it won’t be able to effectively clean all the water. As such, these systems should only be used to purify clear water or in addition to another method such as filtration if the water is cloudy.
What to Look for in a Water Treatment System for Travel
Before we go through some of our recommended options for creating safe drinking water when you travel, we wanted to cover what you should be looking for in general.
What does it Treat For?
Probably the most important question you need to ask when shopping for a water treatment system for travel is what it is capable of removing from your water.
The main contaminants you are likely to want to remove from water are:
- Protozoa (includes parasites like Giardia and Cryptosporidium)
Not all purification systems are capable of removing all these contaminants from water. You will want to consider where you are traveling and the sorts of water sources you are likely to have access to when deciding which system is best for you.
For backcountry travel in the United States for example, the more pressing concerns are protozoa and bacteria, which most purification options should be able to handle.
Viruses are much smaller than bacteria or protozoa, and so not all systems are capable of removing them effectively.
However, viruses are most commonly transmitted via human waste, and this transmission is far less common in the USA and other developed countries due to good waste management practices and low population densities in the areas where travelers might need to filter water sources. For backcountry camping in the U.S. for example, a system that can remove viruses isn’t typically needed.
Travelers to developing parts of the world will normally want to consider a water treatment system that can also remove viruses, as these can be more common in these areas. Of course, those of you wanting to err on the side of caution (not a bad thing), might want a system that can handle viruses regardless of destination.
It is important to note that most water treatment options, especially those used for travel related purposes, are normally not capable of removing things like fuel oil, toxic chemicals, or radioactive materials. In scenarios like this, which normally are disaster related, the CDC recommends using factory-sealed bottled water.
Additionally, these methods are also not going to be able to make ocean or seawater drinkable as they do not desalinate the water.
When it comes to what a product can remove, different methodologies have different certification and testing requirements. Generally, any producer of a water filtration or purification system that believes in their product should be willing to have it independently tested to an agreed standard. Ideally these tests will be provided in full for you to look at.
Products for example may conform to EPA standards. This was developed by the US-based Environmental Protection Agency in the 1980s, and provided a framework for testing micro biological water purifiers, including chemical purifiers, in order to demonstrate if they produced water that was safe to drink.
The EPA guidelines focus on reduction of microbiological contaminants, including bacteria, viruses and cysts. This is based on percentage reduction.
For example, to be effective against bacteria, the EPA states that a treatment system should remove 99.9999% of any bacteria present in a water source, making it safe for consumption. This reduction may also be referred to as a Log 6 reduction as there are six 9’s in 99.9999%.
For viruses, there should be a Log 4 reduction, or 99.99%. For Protozoa, Log 3 or 99.9%.
The main thing is to check that the manufacturer has done some level of independent laboratory testing against an agreed upon standard.
How Long Does It Take to Produce Safe Drinking Water?
When evaluating a water treatment system, you should investigate how long it takes to produce safe drinking water.
In most cases, manufacturers will provide an estimate for how long it takes to filter a certain amount of water, say one litre or one gallon.
As an example, a device with a filter might be able to filter 10 litres of water in one hour. Some devices such as the LifeStraw simply filter water as you drink.
Systems like UV light systems normally take 1 to 3 minutes to purify around a litre of water, making them relatively quick.
If boiling water, it will depend on how long the chosen heating source can get water to the boiling point and then add on 1 to 3 minutes to allow it enough time to boil.
Chemical purification methods normally take a while to purify water, normally at least half an hour, but it can be four hours or more.
Does it Improve the Taste of the Water?
Whilst the main reason to purify water is to make it safe to drink, you may also want to improve the taste of the water.
Some water filters and water purifiers can improve the taste of the water. They do this through use of an activated charcoal filter which traps various chemicals, including chemicals that can affect the taste of the water like chlorine. It is worth noting that these filters nearly always have a shorter lifespan than the filters used for actual filtration, so might need to be replaced more regularly to be effective.
Water filters and purifiers will also remove sediment from water, turning it from cloudy to clear. This can make it much more visually appealing to drink.
Boiling water and UV light purification normally makes the water safe to drink, however it will not change or improve the taste of the water. It will also not affect how the water looks.
Chemical treatment methods such as tablets and iodine drops can change the taste of the water, in most cases making it taste slightly worse. They also won’t improve the clarity of the water.
How Easy is it to Use, Maintain, Clean, and Store?
When it comes to a product that is designed to create safe drinking water, you ideally want it to be as easy to use as possible. We recommend looking at the instruction manual for any product to get a feel for how many steps are involved in producing clean water.
If a product has a complicated, multi-stage process, there is a higher likelihood that you are going to get something wrong, potentially leading to drinking contaminated water. Ideally, the process should be simple and easy to remember.
As well as ease of use, you will also want to consider how easy the product you choose is to maintain, clean, and store. It should be easy to take apart for any cleaning, and there should be guidelines on how best to store it between uses. A water treatment solution isn’t something you are likely to be using every day, so between trips you want to be sure it is something you can pack away for next time without worry.
How Much Water Can It Purify at a Time?
Most systems for creating safe drinking water have a set amount of water they can treat at one time. This amount varies based on a number of factors, but is something to consider depending on how much water you need to treat at a time.
For many systems, you can calculate the volume of water purified over a period of time by reading the instructions. For example, a UV light system might be able to purify a litre of water in a minute. A filter based system might be able to do between 0.5L and 3 litres a minute. A UV-light system might take 30 minutes to purify a litre of water.
When thinking about how much water you need to purify, you should consider a number of factors. How many people do you need to provide water for? Is the water for drinking only, or do you also need it for things like cooking, personal hygiene and washing dishes?
You should also consider if you need to be able to carry treated water, and if so, how much. If you will have regular access to water sources, you might not need to carry a lot of water for example. However, you won’t want to wait four hours each time you find water for a chemical purification tablet to be fully effective.
It’s also worth remembering that different systems work slightly differently. For example, a filtration system will always provide the same sort of flow rate, so the amount of water you can purify over a time period will remain the same.
With boiling water you just need a larger vessel and you can boil more. With chemical purification tablets, you can normally add more tablets (based on manufacturer guidelines) to purify a larger amount of water at a time.
If you are able to carry a good quantity of water, then a system that allows for bulk purification might be easier than one that has a fixed output.
The main thing is to figure out how much water you are likely to need to filter on your trip, based on duration, water usage needs, and number of people. Then you can see if the solution you are choosing will be adequate.
How Long Will It Last?
Different options for creating safe drinking water will last for a different period of time. This is often measured in the total volume of water you can purify over the lifetime of the product.
For example, water filtration systems that use a filter might be able to purify anywhere from 100 – to 4000L+ before the filter component needs replacing.
This is because the way the filters work is that they actually get blocked up by stuff they are filtering out of the water. Over time, all the pores will be blocked and the filter will stop allowing water through. Smaller pores get blocked quicker than larger pores.
UV light-based systems are normally battery powered, and so will only work for the life of the battery before needing charging. The bulb will also have a maximum estimated lifespan before it needs to be changed, usually around 8,000 litres.
A chemical-based system will be able to purify a specific amount of water based on the chemicals used. This is generally around a litre per tablet.
Boiling water will last as long as your energy source lasts.
How Durable Is It?
Depending on where you plan to use it, a water purification system is likely to be a critically important part of your travel kit. Having access to clean water is really important, and you need to be able to rely on the product you are buying.
No matter what water treatment method you choose, you want to make sure that you can rely on it and any products you buy. Depending on the item, this might be making sure it isn’t likely to leak, break, or be damaged by moisture. You should carefully read instructions on how to best store, use, and clean products before your trip.
Obviously different types of water treatment will have different levels of durability. A sealed packet of water purification tablets will be more durable than a glass bottle of iodine drops for example. A UV filter will normally have a bulb that might be prone to breakage if not stored correctly.
For water filters and purifiers, these are normally designed to be quite sturdy. Ideally, the product will have been tested to withstand a certain amount of impact. If it stores water, you want to be sure it’s not going to leak. Out on the trail, you want something that is going to be able to handle being dropped or bashed around a bit without failing.
Definitely be wary of anything that has small fiddly bits of plastic that might easily break, as this could cause a serious problem. Devices that rely on power and have built in electronics might also be susceptible to failure in damp conditions or if dropped.
We would normally recommend having a fall-back system to your main solution, just in case. For example, if you opt for a filter-based water purification device, consider packing chemical water purification tablets as a backup.
How Much Does It Weigh?
Weight is an important consideration for any traveler. If you are planning a back country hiking trip where you are carrying everything on your back, then you will definitely be thinking about weight a great deal.
However, even travelers with checked luggage don’t have infinite luggage space! So you are unlikely to want to pack a big bulky water purification system for travel, or carry it with you when you are out sightseeing.
So when choosing a method, just be realistic about whether it will be practical. Are you OK with carrying a camping stove, fuel canister, pot, and water bottle in your backpack each day? Are you going to be able to fit a water filtration system in your suitcase?
Does it Have Replaceable Parts?
Different systems for treating water might have parts that are replaceable, and it is worth understanding what these parts are and what the replacement costs are.
Most filter systems, for example, will have replaceable filters, but some may have additional elements like hoses or seals that you are able to replace.
A UV light-based system might have replaceable batteries or a replaceable bulb.
When comparing prices of different options for creating safe drinking water for travel, it is worth checking the different prices of these replacement parts and their estimated lifespan so you have an idea of a total lifetime cost.
When you are comparing different water treatment systems, it can be hard to get an idea of how they compare from a cost point of view. You can try to figure out the cost for the duration of a specific trip or compare it based on the cost of use per gallon or litre of water.
Some methods are harder to compare than others. For example, with boiling water, it will depend on the costs of your energy source and vessel. It may cost you nothing if a stove and kettle are available for free use at your hostel. But someone else may need to purchase a camp stove, fuel canister, and kettle, and then be needing to replace the fuel after every so many uses.
It is often easier to more directly compare chemical purification tablets, water filters and UV systems as they often provide information on how much water they can treat before they need to be repurchased or a part needs replaced.
One good way to compare is to see how much it would cost you to filter one litre of water using the system. To do this, you just need the cost of the system and the amount of water it can filter.
For example, you might spend 100 dollars on a water treatment system that can filter 1,000 litres of water. 100 divided by 1,000 is 0.10. So filtering water using this system would cost you 10 cents per litre.
Of course, if the system has replaceable parts, such as a replaceable filter which costs 25 dollars, your future cost will drop. So over the total lifetime of the product your overall cost might be lower. However, calculating the initial cost per litre or per gallon is a good starting point for comparison purposes.
What Water Sources Does It Support?
Depending on the type of travel you are doing, you might need a different style of water treatment method. For example, if you are primarily traveling in a country where you just want to filter the tap water for safety, then most methods will work fine. Most methods work most effectively in clear water.
However, if you are planning a trip that will require you to source water from lakes, river, puddles, etc. or other sources where the water is likely to be cloudy or dirty, then you want to make sure the method you choose will be able to work.
For cloudy water, UV light and some chemical methods are normally less effective. In these scenarios, boiling water or using a water filter/water purifier is normally recommended. It may also be a good idea to combine methods, i.e. filtering the water first and then adding chemical purification tablets.
Where you are getting the water from is also important. For example, filling up a bottle from a tap is normally relatively easy. However, if you are sourcing water from a shallow stream, you might need a device that has a pump or tubing that allows you to capture the water.
The main thing is to pick a device that is capable of working in the various scenarios you will need to use it in.
What Temperatures Does It Work In?
It is really important to check what temperatures the device you plan to buy is capable of working in. This is especially the case if you are planning on traveling to a cold weather destination.
When the temperature dips below freezing, obviously water freezes. If you think you will be dealing with frozen water, this is obviously something to consider.
Devices with batteries may not work as well in cold temperatures. If you are using a water filter system, then any water inside the filtration system will also freeze. Some filters will be permanently damaged if this happens, and so are not rated for use in freezing weather conditions.
Most devices will work fine in warm weather, although do always check what temperature range the device is rated for and compare it with the temperatures you expect to encounter when using it.
The Best Ways to Get Safe Drinking Water for Travel
We will now go through our pick of the best options you have for getting safe drinking water for travel.
Before we do though, a quick note. We are not qualified water purification experts or medical professionals, and you should seek professional guidance as to the best water filter for your needs and specific situation. This article is for information purposes based on our experiences, and does not constitute health advice.
We would stress that water purification is a complex topic, and drinking water that is not properly treated can be life threatening. So please ensure you research the topic thoroughly, understand the risks for your needs and destination, and get qualified advice if you are unsure.
Boiling water is the CDC preferred method for pathogen reduction where possible. It is simple and highly effective and there is minimal chance of getting it wrong.
The advantage of boiling water is that it works with any water source and it kills bacteria, protozoa and viruses. It is also fairly fast, depending on the volume of water and the power of your heat source. You just need to heat the water to boiling point and allow it to boil for at least 1 to 3 minutes (depending on altitude). All you need is a heat source and a vessel for heating the water.
Boiling water works well on back-country hiking trips as well as on a trip where you have access to a stovetop, such as when staying in a hostel with a kitchen, an apartment rental, or on an RV trip. On a camping trip, all you need is a camping stove and heat source like this.
An electric kettle is another option, although most electric kettles are designed to turn off when they reach boiling point so are not effective for purification as they do not allow the water to boil long enough. Some electric kettles are available with a purification function, which boils the water for three minutes to purify it, although these are not common.
If you use a stovetop kettle then this is not an issue as you can allow the water to boil for as long as needed.
The disadvantage of boiling water is that it is only effective for pathogen removal. It won’t improve the taste of the water and it won’t remove chemicals or other particles.
For travel, you also need to consider the weight of the equipment you will need to carry with you to boil the water. If you are camping, you are likely already planning on bringing a burner and stovetop pan. However, for a day hike or overseas travel, you are less likely to want to carry this sort of equipment.
It’s also worth remembering that unless you are using boiled water for a hot drink, cooking or washing dishes, you will also normally need to wait for it to cool down before drinking it, so you will need to plan ahead.
Overall, though, boiling water is an excellent option for purifying water in many situations, including many travel situations where access to a heat source is easy. We’d recommend it for things like camping and multi-day hiking trips where you already plan to bring a heat source, RV travel, and overseas trips with prolonged stays in places which give you access to a stovetop like apartment rentals.
Chemical purification or disinfection involves adding some sort of chemical to water in order to kill pathogens. The chemicals involved are normally chlorine, iodine or chlorine dioxide.
Chemical purification is commonly used, alongside filtration, in order to provide safe drinking water in homes from a municipal supply.
The chemicals for on-the-go water purification are normally available in either tablet or liquid form. This needs to be added to the water and then left to work as directed by the manufacturer, usually for a period of 30 minutes up to several hours.
According to the CDC, most chemical disinfectants are effective against bacteria and viruses. However, they are not all effective against protozoan parasites such as Cryptosporidium and Giardia.
Chlorine dioxide is the most effective and usually the recommended option for parasites, but it needs to be left in the water for a prolonged period of time, normally around four hours to be fully effective.
It is important, as with any purification method, to check exactly what the chemicals in the product you purchase contain, what they are effective against, and how long water needs to be treated to be effective.
The advantage of chemical purification systems are that they are relatively cost-effective and they are very lightweight, especially in tablet form. Tablets tend to have a long shelf-life, and they are a great option that can be used either on their own, in conjunction with, or as a backup to another option such as a water filter.
The main disadvantage of chemical purification is that it can add a chemical taste to the water, and as you are consuming chemicals, they are not all recommended for long term use. They also take time to work, and effectiveness can vary depending on factors like water temperature. Some are also not recommended for pregnant women, or those with sensitivity to the ingredients.
Generally the most effective options contain chlorine dioxide, which is safer for longer term use compared to something like iodine. It also tends to add less taste to the water and is effective against pathogens including Cryptosporidium and Giardia when used correctly.
Some recommended chemical purification options are:
- Potable Aqua Tablets – 1 tablet will purify 1 litre of water. Takes 4 hours to be effective. Uses chlorine dioxide, effective against bacteria, viruses and protozoa. Slight chemical taste. Check price on Amazon here and REI here.
- Aquamira Water Droplets. Comes as two 1oz (30ml bottles) which together can treat up to 30 gallons (113 litres). Takes 4 hours to be fully effective. Uses chlorine dioxide, effective against bacteria, viruses and protozoa. Slight chemical taste. Check price on Amazon here and REI here.
- MSR Aquatabs – 1 tablet will purify up to 2 litres of water. Takes up to 30 minutes to be effective. Uses Sodium Dichlorisocyanurate. Effective against bacteria and viruses and some protozoa, but not Cryptosporidia. Quite a chemical taste. Check price on Amazon here and REI here.
- Katadyn Micropur MP1 – 1 tablet will purify 1 litre of water. Takes 4 hours to be effective. Uses chlorine dioxide, effective against bacteria, viruses and protozoa. Slight chemical taste. Check price on Amazon here, REI here.
We would recommend checking what each one contains and the manufacturers’ guidelines on use before committing to a purchase. Note that many manufacturers will claim no aftertaste but most people agree that there is usually some level of chemical taste in the water purified using these chemicals.
We generally suggest that most people consider buying these as a backup for their other systems as they are easy to transport and last a long time. Even if you are not planning to use them, a pack of these are great to add to an emergency or first aid kit.
There are a range of popular water filter products on the market. Generally, a water filter is designed to remove protozoa, including parasites like Cryptosporidium and Giardia, as well as bacteria from water. A water purifier, which we cover in the next section, can additionally remove viruses.
Many water filters have multi-stage filtration and often include a carbon element which can remove some chemicals from the water and improve the taste.
The advantages of a water filter are that they are generally good value, you can use them anywhere, and they work on both clear and turgid water. They are also quick to filter the water so there is no waiting period in most cases.
The disadvantage of a water filter is that it doesn’t work in all temperatures, you have to maintain them, you have to carefully follow the instructions to ensure you get safe drinking water, they don’t filter viruses, and the filter will generally need to be replaced after a certain volume of water has been processed.
The CDC states that filtration is regarded as moderately effective at removing bacteria, and combining water filtration system with chemical purification is the most optimal option if possible as this will also protect against viruses.
The main water filters we recommend are:
- LifeStraw Go – combined water bottle and filter system, this is what we use when viruses aren’t an issue. Uses a straw filter that you suck through to filter water. Capable of filtering up to 4,000 litres (1,000 gallons) of water. Removes bacteria, parasites, and protozoa but not viruses. Check price on Amazon here and REI here.
- Sawyer Bottle – combined water bottle and filter system. Inline straw filter that you suck through to filter water. This comes with syringe for back-washing the filter, which Sawyer claims means the filter will last for a lifetime of use as backwashing cleans the filter and extends its life. Removes bacteria, parasites and protozoa but not viruses. Check price on Amazon here
- Katadyn BeFree – combined water bottle and filter system. Inline straw filter that you suck through to filter water. Capable of filtering up to 1,000 litres (250 gallons) of water. Removes bacteria, parasites and protozoa but not viruses. Check price on Amazon here and REI here.
We recommend comparing these options to see which best suits your needs and budget. We personally own and use the LifeStraw Go which we’ve used on back country hikes in the USA where there hasn’t been filtered tap water available, including on a multi-day hike to Havasu Falls in Arizona.
However, the Sawyer Bottle is a compelling alternative thanks to the fact it can be backwashed, meaning the filter pores can be cleaned out and the filter lifespan extended.
A water purifier is similar to a water filter in that it uses a fine filter mesh to remove pathogens from the water. However, a water purifier will also normally have the capability to remove viruses, usually due to a much finer mesh.
The advantages of a water purifier are that you can use on both clear and turgid water, and they also remove the majority of pathogens including viruses from water. This means they are suitable for most scenarios around the world. Most include a carbon filter that also improves the taste of the water.
In terms of the time to produce water, as the pore size is finer they tend to be a bit slower than a water filter, but are still quite quick. They are normally capable of purifiying 0.5L – 3L a minute, although it can take a bit of effort to do so.
The disadvantage of a water purifier is that it doesn’t work in all temperatures, they tend to be more expensive than water filters, you have to maintain them, you have to carefully follow the instructions to ensure you get safe drinking water, and the filter will need to be replaced after a time period.
There are a range of products on the market that purify water. The products we recommend are the following:
- LifeSaver Bottle. Combined water bottle and filter system. Uses built-in pump to force water through filter. Capable of filtering up to 4,000 litres (1,000 gallons). Filters out bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Check price online on Amazon here, REI here
- Survivor Filter Pro. Hand powered pump filter, no built-in water storage. Capable of filtering up to 100,000 litres (26,417 gallons) when regularly backwashes with supplied syringe. Filters out bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Check price online on Amazon here
- Grayl UltraPress. Combined water bottle and filter system. Uses French Press style mechanism to force water through filter. Capable of filtering 150 litres (40 gallons). Filters out bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Check price online at Amazon here, REI here and Grayl here
Each of these products works slightly differently, so you will want to evaluate them based on your needs. We personally own and use the Grayl UltraPress which we purchased for a trip across East Africa.
We didn’t want to have to be constantly buying bottled water, but knew that the risk of water borne viruses was a real concern. As such, we wanted a filtration system we could rely on to fully purify water for drinking.
In our case this was primarily going to be water sourced from taps, so whilst it was normally clear to the eye, we had no idea what it might be carrying.
To be on the safe side, we figured a system that filtered out everything including viruses was a good idea, which meant our LifeStraw Go wasn’t going to cut it, and we opted for the Grayl UltraPress as it was relatively lightweight and easy to use.
If you want something really lightweight with a longer lifespan, then the Sawyer Filter Pro might be a better option. This doesn’t include a bottle, but because the filters can be backwashed, the lifespan is very long.
UV Light Purification
UV light purification uses UV light to purify water. It basically scrambles the DNA of the pathogens in the water, meaning they cannot reproduce. So whilst they are still in the water, they will not be able to cause you any harm.
The advantage of UV light systems are that they are effective against most organisms. The devices are usually very lightweight and portable, and the process for using them is quite straightforward. They also normally last for a long time, making them cost-effective over time.
The disadvantages are that they only work effectively on clear water. If the water is cloudy, the light cannot penetrate and it will not be effective. They also do not improve the taste or remove other impurities from the water. You also need to ensure the batteries are charged and, as with all the systems, it’s important to follow the instructions for effective sterilization.
The main brand for UV light purifiers for travel are Steripen, who are owned by Katadyn. They make a range of UV light purifiers, and we suggest checking out the following models.
- Katadyn Steripen Ultra – 50 litres (13.2 gallons) per charge, 8,000 litres (2,113 gallons) lifetime. Effective against bacteria, parasites and viruses in clear water. Check price online on Amazon here, REI here
- Katadyn Steripen Ultralight –20 litres (4.4 gallons) per charge, 8,000 litres (2,113 gallons) lifetime. Effective against bacteria, parasites and viruses in clear water. Check price online on Amazon here, REI here
We would also recommend that in situations where you are going off-grid, it is a good idea to bring a back-up option like chemical purification tablets just in case something goes wrong like the bulb breaking or the electronics failing for some reason. This is unlikely, but it is never a good idea to have a single point of failure when it comes to safe drinking water.
We think the best use for UV light purification systems is when you are going to be traveling to destinations where you are unsure about the tap water. Tap water is normally clear, so using a UV light purifier will be an effective way to achieve peace of mind.
Throughout this guide we have linked to a number of authoritative third-party websites on topics relevant to drinking water, water safety, and water disinfection.
We wanted to include those here, as well as some other useful third-party resources you might find helpful when researching topics related to safe drinking water and traveling.
- Check out this detailed fact sheet from the World Health Organization (WHO) about facts on drinking water access around the world.
- The U.S. CDC has put together this great resource page which is a great place to start when looking for food and water safety tips when traveling.
- For more information about travelers’ diarrhea and its prevention and treatment, check out this fact sheet by the UK National Travel Health Network and Centre as well as this research literature review on the topic
- For more information on water treatment and disinfection, the U.S. CDC has a number of great online resources available including this overview page about safe drinking water when traveling, this comparison chart of different water treatment options, and this guide to water disinfection methods.
And that’s it for our guide to safe drinking water for travel. We hope you found it useful! Before you head on, we also wanted to share some other content we’ve put together that you might find useful.
And that’s it! As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts, comments and questions on this guide if you have any. Just pop them in the comments section below and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.