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How to Filter Your Water to Keep Plastic out of Mother Nature’s Mouth

single use plastic

Coming soon to a local waterway…

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.

UV-based Treatments

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.
Steripen purifier

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 Classic 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 used to make a UV-based system that’s integrated into the water bottle. But now they’ve discontinued that it looks like and teamed up with Lifestraw instead for this filter bottle.

Water Filters

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 $25 item is your suction. You can drink right through it. There’s also a collapsible bottle from Katadyn 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 Vario 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 Vario sells for around $120 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.

Chemical Treatments

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!

Stephen Mueller

Wednesday 15th of July 2015

Thanks for the great tips and tools! I'd love to give them a try. And I'm trying my best to be a part of the solution.


Thursday 9th of July 2015

I really was shocked by the amount of plastic used in Myanmar a few months ago when I was travelling through. Not only were there so many plastic bottles, but people even took a plastic bag to put their plastic bottle into when they bought it. Very shocking stuff, especially in countries where it is so warm that you have to buy loads of water to avoid falling over!

I'd never seen these UV pens before, so it's a great idea! Thanks for sharing


Thursday 9th of July 2015

Thanks for choosing SteriPEN! Great to hear you're not leaving a trail of plastic water bottles when traveling!

Tom in San Roque de Grecia. Costa Rica

Wednesday 8th of July 2015

Do you still offer your walking tour de a Ciudad de Guanajuato? I will be staying en la ciudad for the nights of September 4, 5 y 6, 2015. Then I will move on to stay in Leóñ until October 3. This is my second trip to the area since my first in May for ten days. If you are not doing the walking tour, I am still up to a get together for a nice lunch to discuss moving to GTO from Costa Rica next Spring. Please let me know what your fee would be for one or the other, I will need to pencil you into my budget plus work on my questions for our meeting.

Thanks, Tom San Roque de Grecia, Alajuela, Costa Rica formerly Grecia, Alajuela, Costa Rica

Tim Leffel

Wednesday 8th of July 2015

Tom, yes, you can book here:

Weekdays are better than weekends as more stalls are out. I won't be in town then, so you'll have another guide, but you'll enjoy it! Contact me by e-mail for the living question.