If you want to be a responsible traveler, the first step is one of the easiest: get a water purifier.
If you are buying bottled water all the time as you travel around the world, you are a walking environmental disaster. Single-use plastic is clogging our rivers, filling our oceans, and overloading our landfills. “Oh, but they get recycled,” you may be thinking, but you’d be thinking wrong. That’s just a rationalization to make yourself feel better because in fact, only a tiny percentage of single-use plastic bottles get a second life in a travel jacket or a park bench. Most of them just end up on the ground or thrown in with the regular trash, to stick around until our planet dies.
In the USA the recycling percentage is a lame 23%. So imagine what it is when you pop the top and guzzle a liter of water in Nepal, or India, or Peru. Wave goodbye to that bottle as it floats out to sea and ends up here:
Even if you’re torn by the convenience of it all, look at it as a math problem. If you spend $2 a day on bottled water on a year-long trip, that’s $730. Most of the water purifier options highlighted here are under $100. Even if you throw in spare filters and a name-brand water bottle that’s insulated, you’re still saving enough money to pay for weeks of lodging or to travel longer. Here are the best travel water purifiers you can pack.
SteriPEN UV Water Purifier
This is the hands-down traveler favorite, the simplest to use of the various water purifiers and the most effective in a wide variety of situations. The water has to be clear, so no muddy rivers, but it works great for water from a tap or a stream. For me it’s been the best travel water filter I’ve used in my years of traveling.
In short, the UV light from one of these SteriPENs kills everything in the water in about a minute and you can drink it right away. I’ve used one of these in around 20 different countries now and have not gotten sick even once. From Mexico to Peru, Kyrgyzstan to Cambodia, any place where the tap water is dicey I’ve packed one of these and avoided buying tons of plastic. My wife and daughter have used it and their stomachs have been fine too.
Depending on the model, a SteriPEN for clearly filtered water will set you back $60 to $90, but a recharge lasts for a long time and it doesn’t take up much space. You can see much more detail at this SteriPEN review post with all the options.
This long-running Swiss water filtration brand has evolved into the big leader in this world, buying SteriPEN a couple years ago and Micropur purification tablets before that. They were mainly focused on the serious backcountry hikers and emergency workers willing to pay $200+ for a pump purifier through most of their history, but now Katadyn has something for all price points.
They make several sub-$100 pump portable water purifiers, including the Hiker Microfilter ($55-$70) and the BeFree collapsible filter bottle. If you’re a backpacker couple, you might want to check out their 6-liter Gravity solutions. These hold 10 liters and hang from a hook or branch, so you can keep filling up your bottles for a while.
Lifestraw Travel Water Filter
When Lifestraw first came onto the scene as a company, their product seemed to do the impossible. You could stick their straw into a nasty muddy stream, suck water out, and feel secure that your gut would be fine. Here’s one of their marketing guys demonstrating it at a conference I was attending:
Crazy, right? The hiking crowd rightfully went nuts over this Lifestraw, seeing it as a lifeline when drinking water from a stream where there might be animals pooping upstream or who knows what kinds of pathogens in the water. Many years later, it’s clear that the original works and they have a sleeker-looking steel version too.
You probably want something with more volume for normal travels though, and they know that, so more products followed to filter more volume and also serve the more casual traveler. They’ve got a $45 water bottle with a built-in water filter called Lifestraw Go, a one-gallon hanging gravity kit, and the cool universal kit pictured at the top that I’ve been trying out myself lately. That’s my regular go-to Avex bottle with the cap changed out for their filter.
I love this $35 kit because it doesn’t make you give up your favorite bottle or change your habits just to have a travel water filter on hand. You can connect it to any standard wide-mouth or medium-mouth water bottle opening used by the major companies. In other words, this will clip into your existing bottle from Kleen Kanteen, Camelbak, Avex, Hydro Flask, and a zillion more, including the Nalgene ones that aren’t big enough to stick a fist into.
The kit comes with two openings for two sizes, plus a screw-on cover to keep it from leaking. You need that because this is a suction filtration system. It doesn’t take all that much sucking power, thankfully, but the downside of that is you can have a leaky bottle when turned upside down without the cap.
The advantage of this kind of water purifier system, compared to a SteriPEN using UV light, is that it will filter out nasties instead of just killing them. While in practice this hasn’t mattered in my experience with tap water, the extra filtering could be helpful for water from other sources, especially if you have a weak stomach. This should make you feel better: “Removes 99.999999% of waterborne bacteria (>LOG 8 reduction), including E-Coli. Removes 99.999% of waterborne protozoan parasites (>LOG 5 reduction), including Giardia & Cryptosporidium.”
Grayl Ultralight Filters
The way Grayl bottles work is you fill up the outer cup, push down the inner cup with a filter, and then drink what’s in the middle. This water bottle with filter works like a dream with tap water, in theory just fine with water from a stream, getting you filtered water in just 15 seconds. There’s now a larger version that takes longer but has a higher capacity.
My experience has been good, but not always great. I’ve used a Grayl bottle in several countries and been relatively happy with it. I say “relatively” because the filter seems to get clogged up rather quickly if the water is not super clear and when that happens, you need to have the strength of a weightlifter to push the inner section down and get to your water. I ran into this multiple times in rivers where the water was reasonably clear, but there was a fair bit of silt in it. I managed to rinse mine out when back at a safe water source, but eventually you’re looking at a $25 replacement filter each time.
If you will mostly be purifying tap water or clear stream water though, as you would with a UV wand, a Grayl will do you just fine and will potentially offer more protection because of the filtration. I used one for a week in Peru and had no issues. Their bottles come in multiple colors and retail for $60 at REI, so it’s a good investment. Get the larger one if you’re a heavy water chugger though: the original only holds 10.9 ounces.
Other Water Filters for Travelers
I don’t want this post to go on for days, but there are plenty of options for travel water purifiers beyond what I’ve listed here. I just know these brands and trust them. I’ve tried a few knock-off brands over the years that have come and gone, often for a good reason because of some major fatal flaw. I’m usually willing to go with a cheap option, but when it comes to luggage or my health, I get more strict on the standards. The cheaper ones tend to break faster too.
I will say, however, I’ve heard good things from others about Sawyer bottles, Aqua Pure, and Water to Go. These all work with a similar principle, putting a filter between what goes in the bottle and what goes in your mouth. I like solutions like this except for one essential time: when you need to brush your teeth. Then it’s best to have a pump, SteriPEN, or Grayl so you can pour instead of suck.
There are other travel water filter bottles that combine technology, working as a pump and a bottle, like this Lifesaver Liberty one that filters up to 2,000 liters before you need to replace the cartridge.