When it comes to the worldwide garbage problem and the giant gyres of waste floating around our oceans, are you part of the problem or a part of the solution?
If you buy just two single-use plastic bottles a day and you’re on the road for a month, that’s 60 of your plastic bottles that have a better chance of fouling the ground than getting recycled. In progressive cities of developed countries, maybe 12 of those will get processed and reused in some form. In developing countries, it’s often close to zero. Something that held water you consumed in one afternoon will still be around generations after you’re gone.
If you prefer the pristine over the garbage-strewn and would like future generations to be able to enjoy a clean planet sometimes, here are the tools to do your part. They don’t just represent a moral high ground either. If you’re a frequent or long-term traveler, they’ll easily pay for themselves several times over when you add up what you’d spend on bottled water during that time.
If you want quick, easy, and lightweight, it’s hard to beat the various SteriPEN products. I’ve stayed healthy in every country I’ve been in the past decade or so thanks to this device and it has treated hundreds of gallons of water consumed by my family as well. You stick the lighted wand in tap water, swirl it around a bit, and you’ve got drinkable water without the pathogens.
My favorite is the (now discontinued) SteriPEN Freedom because it’s the smallest and recharges by USB. There are other cheaper options though, like the Classic3 version ($70 instead of $100+), which now uses AA batteries (preferably you’re using rechargeable AAs), the Steripen Ultra and the SteriPEN Opti Adventurer.
Camelbak makes a UV-based system that’s integrated into the water bottle. You simply fill up the Camelbak All Clear with tap water, rotate it up and down a couple times while the light is on, and you’re all set. You remove the light top and put on a regular one for drinking.
For water that’s not coming out of a tap, or in areas where you’ll be off the grid and don’t have a solar charger, a real filter is a better option. The simplest one is called LifeStraw and “the pump” for this $20 item is your suction. You can drink right through it. There’s also a bottle from Vapur with a built-in sucking filter. It takes more effort than just “glug glug glug” to drink out of it, but then there’s nothing else to carry and it packs down small. Or go up a step and get the LifeStraw Go: the straw mechanism is built into a 23-ounce bottle and it removes “99.9999% of waterborne bacteria.”
For a more traditional pump mechanism and higher volume, The Katadyn Mini is a good option from a brand that makes a lot of the heavy-duty filters used by expedition groups. It filters a half liter a minute through the pump and will process 7,000 liters before you need to replace the filter. It’s low-maintenance and easy to clean. The Katadyn Mini sells for around $110 at Moosejaw.
When I first backpacked around the world, we used a little cup system for brushing our teeth each night. You filled up the top, it went through a charcoal filter by gravity, and filled the cup at the bottom. This process is still used by some camping systems, but a more elegant version for travel is the Grayl Legend Water Filtration Cup. This works like a French coffee press: you fill up the stainless steel container, press down the filter, and get 16 ounces of water in 15 seconds. It’s pretty slick. You can get one for $70 at Moosejaw or at REI.
The cheap and easy treatment that’s easiest to carry is the size of a packet of pills. Iodine pills are cheap and easy to find, but they have a rather strong taste and can stain your bottle. Commercial Micropur tablets are a better bet, but note for both of these that you have to wait a little while before the water is ready to drink. Get a pack of 30 Micropur tablets for $13 at REI.
Note that if you’re renting an apartment somewhere for any length of time, clean water is usually something that has been sorted out for you. If you can’t drink the tap water, there will be a house filtration system, 5-gallon jugs delivery, or at least a Brita pitcher. Fill up a reusable bottle before you go out so you’re not stuck buying single-use plastic at a convenience store. And remember, just because your tour guide, restaurant waiter, or hotel clerk hands you another stream-clogger every time you walk inside or get in a van, that doesn’t mean you have to take it!