I can count on my fingers the number of plastic water bottles I’ve purchased in the past two years.
And no, that’s not because I survive exclusively on Diet Coke, have developed an advanced set of minimart shoplifting techniques, or (now I’m getting really crazy) stick solely to regions of the world with clean tap water. It’s because when I’m in the US or other areas with healthy H20, I drink straight from the tap. And when I’m on the go, I use portable water filtration and purification systems.
Just in time for the holidays, I’m going to share why I believe this is the greatest gift you could ever buy yourself or another traveler in your life.
sounds fancy — actually simple
Most of my favorite places to travel are simply not tap-fill friendly — and 80% of travel-related illnesses are caused by contaminated drinking water. Anyone who’s ever been on a high school student exchange and sat through four pre-trip briefings extolling the horrors of not brushing your teeth with bottled Fiji Water* knows that in much of the world, it’s simply not safe to drink straight from the tap, even if the locals are doing it (after all, they’ve had plenty of time to adapt to local bacteria). But buying water in single-use bottles is not the only option — and it’s far from the best one.
I am just not about that landfill life, guys. You simply cannot be an environmentally-friendly traveler and toss multiple plastic water bottles per day into a landfill where they’ll sit for long after we’ve left the planet (and just try to find a recycling bin in a remote corner of Peru). Even if you’re lucky enough to find a recycling facility in the Philippines, you can’t un-use the of non-renewable energy resources that went into producing and shipping that single-use bottle in the first place.
But let’s say you are basically just like a straight up real-life version of the evil loggers from and you do not GAF about recycling or renewable energy or any of these other socialist concepts invented by Al Gore. I can work with this too, because there’s a big ‘ol incentive to using portable water purification that almost no one can look away from: it saves you cash in your travel budget to spend on way more exciting stuff.
An example: Thailand is hailed by travelers as being one of the cheapest countries in the world. Yet buying by the half liter bottle as most travelers do, 100 gallons of water costs $210 USD — in a country where bottled water costs about a third to a sixth of what it costs in the US. Using the standard recommendation of 8 cups or 2 liters of water per day, we’re talking around $420 a year in water alone in a country where that amount buys me a month’s rent in a luxury apartment (including all bills and a weekly cleaner). Say what?!
For that same hundred gallons, you could pay for a $24.99 filter refill. Let’s dig into that…
*Sidenote, since I brought it up and do get this question quite often: I brush my teeth with straight tap water in every corner of the world. Even Costa Rica, so take that Miss Kats! Never have I ever used bottled or filtered water to clean my teeth. No particular reason for this other than I’m lazy, I’m pretty relaxed about this kind of thing, and I had my middle name legally changed to Danger in the 8th grade so I’ve got to live up to the billing. All that said, you can use either of these methods to filter clean water to clean your teeth with, too.
everybody loves water, no?
Over the past two years, I have tried and tested two different systems: the UV-light powered SteriPen, and a self-filtering Clearly Filtered bottle. I have used both these methods extensively across Southeast Asia, Central America and South America and I have not died from a water-borne illness even once. In fact, I feel fantastic (and, since I started my December goal of drinking 10 cups or 2.5L per day of water, I also feel extremely hydrated.)
The portable water purification market is a little confusing, and it might seem like there are several options available, especially when it comes to self-filtering bottles. But they all have pros and cons and varying levels of protection, and if you’re planning to travel through much of the developing world, it’s essential to find one that filters for viruses and not just particles (ie. not a Brita filter).
Once you find the right system, you’ll reach a certain level of travel nirvana — no more dedicating a chunk of your budget to simply staying hydrated, no more waking up hungover and trudging miserably to the minimart in search of safe h20 (I mean, um, going to yoga, mom), no more rising landfill guilt. Clean, safe drinking water will be right at your fingertips anywhere there’s a tap or stream.
The SteriPen was the first portable purification system I ever tried. I asked for it for Christmas two years ago, and it’s been around the world and back several times since then. It’s a fairly straightforward system: take the cap off the UV wand, and insert it into a cup or bottle of typically un-drinkabletap water. After 90 seconds of agitation, water everywhere from Nicaragua to Nigeria is safe to drink! The UV light purifies water without yucky chemicals and without changing the taste, odor or color of the water (which can actually be a bad thing — see below). Obviously, you’ll need to pack a separate reusable water container of some kind. For me this wasn’t a big deal as I use them stateside and had several already.
The SteriPen has many makes and models to fit various needs. The new version of the one I carry, the travel version, is a convenient size and weight and has a USB rechargeable battery (making my complaint about having to find replacement batteries null). And the UV lamp lasts for 8,000 treatments, or about seven years — if you reach that, the company will replace it free of charge.
Cost: $99 (but on crazy sale with Amazon right now for $59!)
Lifespan: Sterilizes 40 half liters of water on one charge
Pros to Steripen
• You can sterilize water in any container — and add to it. Want to stir in an electrolyte pack? No problem. Want to squeeze some lemons into your water? Go right ahead! This is a big bonus over the majority of self-filtering bottles on the market.
• The SteriPen can be easily shared by multiple travelers. Make sure everyone has their own reuseable bottle, and pass the pen around every time you collectively refill. Great for families.
Cons to SteriPen
• The SteriPen purifies but does not filter. So while it’s effective against viruses, bacteria, portozoa, and all other kinds of nasty invisible stuff, you can’t use it with cloudy or dirty water as there’s no way to filter the particles. Also, it won’t improve taste. You could combine it with a super cheap carbon filter bottle (like the Camelback Groove or a Brita bottle) to negate this issue.
• While I think the rechargeable battery move was a brilliant one, it’s still kind of pain to have one more thing that constantly needs to be plugged in.
• Honestly, it can be a bit of a pain. While I was a gung-ho user at first, over time I grew impatient over having to fill up, uncap, and sit there stirring before I could take a gulp.
About Clearly Filtered
Simply fill the bottle from the tap and immediately start to drink — that’s the magic of the self filtering Clearly Filtered bottle. Water will be sucked through the filter on demand, and what comes out of the straw is clean and clear.
Clearly Filtered removes all the bad stuff — bacteria, metals, viruses, parasites — and is far superior to its competitors (with a longer lasting filter, and more thorough filration) at Camelbak, Brita, etc. Speaking of the filter: it doesn’t require cleaning, and flow will be restricted when it’s time for a replacement, so you never have to wonder. It needs swapping out every 100 gallons (or 378 liters). At the super high-end usage of about 2.5 liters per day (three bottles full, which is the equivalent to ten cups of water), it will need replacing roughly every 150 days. In reality, as you can pop the filter out when you’re drinking safe tap water and most travelers don’t come close to hitting the recommended daily servings of water (some studies show the average American drinks a mere per calendar year). Using that metric, one filter could last nearly two years.
Like the SteriPen, there are many versions of the Clearly Filtered bottle. While the stainless steel is more stylish (which I believe we are all aiming for in our water carrying vessels) I’ve tested both and found the BPA-free plastic Athletic Edition is the best model as it lets you expel water by squeezing — hence, you can rinse a wound, brush your teeth, squirt water at you boyfriend or really any other number of uses. It also makes drinking easier by allowing a gently squeeze to help the water make it’s way through the filter.
Lifespan: Filters last 100 gallons, replacement filters cost $24.95
Pros to Clearly Filtered
• The filter needs replacing a lot less than a SteriPen needs recharging (though admittedly the recharges on the SteriPen are always free.)
• As previously mentioned, you can remove the filter and use it as a regular water bottle when you’re in a region that has safe tap water.
• It’s INSTANT. This is the big one. I am currently chugging three full bottles a day through this system, and I don’t think I could have reached that goal if it wasn’t so darn convenient to use.
Cons to Clearly Filtered
• You can’t add flavors or infusions to the water. It’s not the world’s largest drawback but it would be nice to add in a vitamin or electrolyte pack on occasion.
• This is the big one: you do kind of have to get used to the sucking system. Personally, I don’t even notice it anymore unless I’m at the gym or hiking or engaging in some physical activity in which I want to be straight gulping that delicious hydrogen oxygen cocktail. That said, every time a new friend tries drinking from my bottle, they always note with surprise that it’s “hard to drink.” I do think that after a few days it becomes such second nature that you don’t notice it ( you learn the subconscious squeezing trick). I’ve actually grown to be kind of fond of it, as it’s one of the rare times I do not spill a beverage all over myself — particularly handy when on bumpy transit.
I love having both — because they each have their strengths and weaknesses. That said, these days I’ve primarily switched to using the Clearly Filtered bottle for day to day use, with the SteriPen sitting understudy in case my bottle should tragically disappear or malfunction. I also loan it to friends, and use it on those days I want to add something to my water.
Overall, I’m overjoyed to have access to clean drinking water straight from the tap, anywhere in the world.
A Few Final Notes
Unfortunately, there are still situations that render both these solutions useless. On Gili Trawangan in Indonesia, the water coming out of the taps was brackish (contained salt), which is a no-no with either of these products. So there, I utilized water refill stations whenever possible as compensation.
Remember to research your destination before departure. You might be surprised to find some of the places you’re headed are all clear — for example, I was thrilled to reach Panama City and find that I could take a few days off filtering and drink right from the tap (an extreme rarity in Central America).
Using either method, if you have access to a fridge, it’s great to fill or filter before bed and stick it in to chill so you can wake up to clean, ice cold H2O.
Why This Matters to Me
I’ve been spending a lot of time lately reflecting on why I write this blog and what the bigger picture is. Over time, living and traveling sustainably has become more and more important to me — and I want this blog to come along for the ride. Especially when it comes to sharing simple changes like this that require little sacrifice on the part of the consumer — and in fact, can overall enrich their lives.
I hear from you guys all the time about the places you’ve gone and the things you’ve done because you read about them on this blog. That makes my heart soar, and it’s good for you and it’s lovely for me. But if I can convince even a small percentage of y’all to order a product like this and eliminate a few more single-use plastics from their life, then that is good for the whole planet. I often make self-deprecating jokes about the triviality of this job but this time I’m playing it straight — what could be a prouder accomplishment for a blogger?
I’m not perfect. I forget my canvas totes and take the plastic bags. I drink Diet Cokes and cross my fingers they actually get recycled. I fly in big jet planes that emit carbons all over the place. But I’m working on it. Let’s take a step towards more sustainable travel. If anyone needs me, Imma just be digging out my old pom poms and working on some cheers for anyone who takes this step with me.
Is there another personal filtration system you know and love? Let me know in the comments — I’m a fan of anything that keeps you safe, hydrated, and away from single-use plastics.