Best Ways to Purify Water While Traveling: Filters, Purifiers, and More
I spend half my life in Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. So, I’m something of an expert on how to eat and drink in questionable places without getting sick. In particular, I’ve learned the best ways to purify water while traveling.
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If you’re heading anywhere with questionable tap water, this is something you need to think about. While I hate scaremongering when it comes to travel, water-related disease and illness (think cholera, dysentery, and hepatitis A) are a very real concern in many parts of the world.
Assuming you’d rather not go the bottled water route (which can get expensive, is extremely wasteful, and is not always available in parts of the world), here are five alternatives to purifying water while traveling.
Best Ways to Purify Water While Traveling
Portable UV Water Purifier
SteriPEN Ultra UV Water Purifier for Purifying Water While Traveling
UV water purifiers are hands-down my preferred method to purify water while traveling. I travel with the SteriPen Ultra UV Water Purifier and, after several years, have zero complaints. It’s portable, lightweight, sturdy, and — the best part — it destroys more than 99.9% of viruses, bacteria, and protozoa.
If there’s a downside, it’s that UV water purifiers require batteries. Older SteriPen models relied on proprietary batteries that are difficult to find in more remote regions of the world. Thankfully, newer models like the Ultra are rechargeable via a USB cable that can be connected to any standard, powered USB outlet (like a wall, laptop, or spare battery pack).
How: For this water purifier, you simply push the only button on the unit, then swirl the UV bulb around the water until the timer stops. It doesn’t get much simpler. A smiley face pops onto the OLED screen if you’ve done it correctly, so you can feel a sense of accomplishment.
Survival Straws for Purifying Water While Traveling
LifeStraw: Compact, Portable Water Purification for Travelers
A close second to the SteriPen Ultra … Ultra-lightweight survival straws are among the newest and best ways to purify water while traveling.
Among the many brands now available, LifeStraw is still my favorite — it’s less than $20 USD, filters a minimum of 99.9% of bacteria and protozoan pathogens, and lasts for up to 1,000 liters of contaminated water.
How: They function like a wide drinking straw — stick the business end into almost any water source and sip.
Purify Water with Chemicals
Although chemical purification covers a few different means of purifying water, I’m lumping them all into one method for simplification. Water purification tablets have been used by backcountry hikers for years. They’re cheap, portable, and effective. A 100-pack of Aquatabs, for example, is available via Amazon and they won’t leave your water tasting like chemicals.
The same can’t be said for bleach. It’s dirt-cheap, readily available, and extremely effective at killing nasty things in just about any water. But, it also leaves the water tasting, well, bleachy. Thankfully, you only need about two drops per gallon for it to effectively purify your water.
GSR Outdoors Halulite Boiler for Purifying Water While Traveling
If none of the above are available to you, the age-old method of boiling is one of the simplest and most effective ways of purifying water of any unwanted living organisms. This includes parasites, bacteria, and other pathogens.
You might wonder who the hell travels with pots and pans? GSI Outdoors makes great, lightweight, portable camp pots that are perfect for traveling. I pack their Halulite Boiler on every trip so I can make coffee and breakfast oatmeal no matter where I’m staying. (Incidentally, it also doubles as a place to safely store small, possibly fragile, souvenirs when I’m heading home)
How: Place your water in a heat-safe container (metal, ceramic, or glass will do) and boil over a high-heat source for ten minutes.
Distillation via a Solar Still
Distillation is the most effective means of purifying water when you have access to almost zero materials and you’re struggling to improvise. It’s more of a last-ditch, survival-style means of purifying water (if you’re in a life or death situation that would leave even Bear Grylls scratching his head). It’s time-consuming, difficult, and often yields little drinkable water. On the plus side, it purifies questionable water incredibly well.
How: It requires plenty of time, a tarp, digging a hole, a bunch of leaves, and a cut-off shirt like so:
Get Free Water Anywhere with Water to Go
There are literally so many ways to get clean water when travelling. So why on earth do we need the new water solution found in Water To Go’s unique bottles? Well, the reason is that all the current options come with drawbacks! Boiling water can be exceptionally time-consuming and costly, tablets also take time and can affect the taste of the water, many filters and pumps are bulky, and bottled water is an expensive solution both for your wallet and the environment!
The Water To Go bottle appears to avoid many of these flaws and is also a really simple concept. It looks like a normal water bottle, until you unscrew the lid. Built into the lid is a small filter which gets rid of over 99% of bacteria, viruses, chlorine, fluoride and heavy metals which might be present in your water. There is no wait time, meaning you can fill your bottle with water from a river or a tap you are unsure about and just drink it straight away like a normal water bottle.
Features of Water to Go Bottles
When I first held the Water To Go bottle I was very impressed by its build quality; using a tough plastic, the bottle feels very rigid and strong and is very much built to live up to the stresses and challenges of a life on the road, where it will be frequently slumped down in the side of your rucksack, dropped occasionally and generally not receive the love it deserves. You can expect to get a lot of life out of your bottle!
When drinking from the bottle, you suck through a straw which helpfully folds back into the lid. This means it takes up marginally less space in your bags, but more importantly, it considerably reduces the risk of dirt and grime accumulating on where you put your mouth. There is no bonus in drinking clean water if the straw itself is dirty.
The filter not only makes the water safe to drink, but also makes the water taste nice. Sucking water through a filter is not as easy as drinking from a regular bottle; I found it similar to how I imagine breathing on Mount Everest, or sucking concrete through a straw, would be. This is a small price to pay for clean water however, and I found you could still drink at a more than satisfactory rate. The way that the filtration system works is pretty impressive as it can literally turn any water, no matter how dirty into clean, drinkable water. If you don’t believe me, you can check it out for yourself here.
The bottles come in either a 50cls which weighs 98 grams or you can opt to carry a slightly larger one at 75cls which weighs about 138 grams.
Maintenance of Water to Go Bottles
Very little maintenance is required, and that’s awesome! All you have to do is replace the filter after 200 liters or 1 year, whichever comes sooner. Replacement filters are very reasonably priced at £17.99 for two and are small and light enough that carrying a spare while travelling won’t be a problem.
Free Water when Traveling: Final Thoughts
The Water To Go Bottle feels almost too good to be true But I think it is actually just a really great product. Having used it a number of times on a few hikes and my current adventure cycling around the world, taking water from a variety of different, dubious water sources, it has always provide me with a refreshing, clear and most importantly, safe, source of drinking water. I have confidence in the product which means I’m not left worrying if it is safe to drink. I love the fact it is ready to drink from straight away, and in some circumstances, that could be crucial! I would definitely recommend the Water To Go bottle to a wide group of travelers, whether you’re going off the beaten track into nature, or just somewhere where the local taps can’t be trusted!
Please note that this article was written in partnership with Water to Go but despite this, all opinions are ours and remain completely unbiased.
Vaccinations for South America: Make Sure You’re Prepared!
Vaccinations are many travellers least favourite part of preparing for a trip. It can be confusing to know which ones you need, let alone how far in advance you need them and how much they are going to cost! Despite the headache that travel vaccines may give you, they are one of the most important parts of preparing to travel which is why we’ve created this handy guide to make sure you have the right vaccinations for South America!
Disclaimer: This is probably a good time to remind everybody reading that we are not doctors and therefore you should always seek official medical advice before you travel. This post has been put together from hours of extensive research and personal experience. I repeat we are not doctors so make sure you book in to see yours!
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Book an Appointment at the Travel Clinic
You should visit your local GP or travel health clinic at least 6 weeks in advance to allow time for you to get all the vaccinations that you require for South America. This is because some vaccines have to be administrated in stages over a period of time. You don’t want to pay for your first two jabs before realising you don’t have time to get the final one!
Although anyone can opt to go to a travel clinic, those of you living in the UK may find that a trip to your registered doctor’s surgery may be enough. Some practices in the UK are able to administer travel vaccinations whereas others are not, so always inquire first.
We always advise consulting with a medical professional regarding travel vaccinations.
When you visit your travel clinic, make sure you tell them exactly where you are intending to visit, along with any adventure activities you have planned. Different jabs will be advised depending on where you are doing and what you are doing. For example, if you are going deep into the Amazon Rainforest for a period of time, you may need additional jabs compared to if you plan on staying in cities.
One of the questions that we see asked the most in our South America Backpacker Facebook Community is ‘My nurse said I should get this jab but my friend has just been to Brazil and didn’t need it. Should I get it?’
Advice between medical officials can differ but this doesn’t make it any less valuable. Weigh up the risk that you are willing to take to save a few bucks. Personally speaking, I always get whatever the travel clinic recommends me to. You may end up paying for something you didn’t need but most jabs have a long protection period that usually come in handy on future trips!
Despite this, it is important to know what is mandatory when it comes to travel vaccinations and what is just advised. The two are very different and vaccinations which are merely advisable will depend on where you’re going and what you’re doing (and in some cases budget).
Mandatory Vaccinations for South America
The following are all of the vaccinations required for South America. They are the ones that you should make absolutely sure you get if you are travelling to the continent.
Hepatitis A is a liver disease which is spread through contaminated food and water. If contracted, it can have very serious health implications which is why it is a required vaccination. It is most widespread in countries where food hygiene is of a poor standard, this means travellers are at higher risk of catching it.
Good to know: Depending on availability and your vaccine history, it is possible to combine the Hep A vaccination with Hep B or Typhoid. If you require Hep A as well as either of the other options, make sure you speak to your doctor or travel clinic to see whether a combined option is available.
Hepatitis A is spread through contaminated food and water.
Although some travel vaccinations are provided in the UK free of charge under the NHS, others will come with a fee. For more information on which vaccines the NHS cover the costs for, have a look at this travel vaccine information page.
How far in advance should you get vaccinated for Hepatitis A?
The Hepatitis A jab is administered in one dose and must be given, at the latest, two weeks before you travel.
This bacterial infection can be very dangerous if contracted as it affects your internal organs. Symptoms include constipation, headaches and a high temperature. Worse still, typhoid can be fatal. It is highly contagious and therefore very easy to catch if you come into direct contact with an infected person. It is also spread through contaminated food and drink.
Protection against typhoid comes in two forms. It can either be administered in a single vaccine where you will need a booster jab every three years. This will only apply if you continue to travel to areas where you are at risk of infection. The second option is via oral capsules. You would need to take four tablets every other day with the last being taken one week before you travel. A booster dose is required every five years if you are travelling again.
How far in advance should you get vaccinated for Typhoid?
The Typhoid vaccination consists of one jab and must be administered no later than two weeks before you travel.
Yellow fever is found in Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela. It is a tropical disease which is transmitted by mosquitoes. All travellers going to South America are recommended to get the vaccine and try to protect themselves against mosquito bites. Check out our ultimate South America packing list to see what items we recommend to keep the mosquitos at bay!
If you are travelling from a country at risk of yellow fever transmission, you could be asked to supply proof of immunisation upon arrival. This usually comes in the form of a small yellow booklet marked with your injection details. You will need to keep this document safe. Treat it like your passport as it is just as important and losing it could cause huge disruption to your backpacking trip.
Although proof of immunisation is not always enforced at borders, you would be very foolish not to invest in the vaccine if you find it is something that is required for one of the countries that you are intending to visit. Once administered, your Yellow Fever vaccination card is valid for life. This is also true of older vaccination cards, even if they have an expiry date on them.
The only people who may be recommended a booster injection will be people who fit all of the following criteria:
- You must be travelling to an area with a risk of Yellow Fever
- Your last Yellow Fever vaccination was more than 10 years ago
- You were last vaccinated when you were under two, had a weakened immune system or were pregnant.
How far in advance should you get vaccinated for Yellow Fever?
This vaccine consists of 1 dose which must be given at least 10 days prior to travelling.
As well as the injections mentioned above, you will also need to make sure that your routine vaccinations are up to date. That includes Mumps, Measles, Rubella, Polio, Diphtheria, Tetanus and Whooping Cough.
Recommended Vaccinations for South America
Plenty of vaccines are recommended for travellers visiting South America. However, depending on your itinerary and route, you may find that some of these options are not applicable to you and your travels. In order to help you decide which ones you need, we’ll explain exactly what each jab protects against, where is advised and what the risks are.
Hepatitis B is a highly infectious viral infection. It is passed through contaminated blood and bodily fluids. As well as leading to serious liver problems, in extreme cases, it can be fatal.
Some of the most common methods of transmission are through sex, (always use protection guys) and also through having a piercing, tattoo or other medical treatment in an unhygienic place with unsterilised tools. For this reason, it is always worth carrying a sterile needle kit!
Good to know: Hepatitis B can actually be spread through sharing a toothbrush!
How far in advance should you get vaccinated for Hepatitis B?
The course of immunisation for Hepatitis B consists of three vaccines which are normally spread over a period of six months. However, if you depart for your trip sooner than this, never fear. This vaccine can be done in just 3 weeks if absolutely necessary. Be aware that you may already find that you have received this vaccine as a child but it is always best to check.
Although generally, the risk of backpackers contracting this disease is low, it is sometimes advised for those who intend to travel for an extended period of time and who plan to be in regular close contact with the population.
If you require this vaccine for travel, you will need to get the meningococcal meningitis with a MenACWY vaccine. This protects against 4 different strains of meningitis, the A, C, W and Y strains.
How far in advance should you get vaccinated for Meningitis?
This vaccine consists of a single injection which must be administered at least 2-3 weeks before travel.
Unfortunately, South America has a huge issue with stray dogs. As such, it is very commonplace to see feral animals roaming the streets and trust us when we say, not all of them are nice. If you are doing a lot of outdoor activities during your travels or spending time in rural locations, the rabies vaccination is advised.
To see whether rabies is present where you are going, check out this list of countries.
It is particularly important if you will be volunteering with animals or doing work/staying in places off the beaten track. Although the Rabies vaccine will not prevent the disease if you are bitten by a rabid animal, it will give you a longer window of time in which to seek medical assistance (24 hours increases to 72 hours). This is very useful if you are bitten outside of a major city.
Sadly, the rabies vaccine is one of the more costly vaccinations to get. In the UK, you can expect to pay around £120-£180 for a full course whereas in the US it can be between $197 – $957USD! This figure will depend on your location and whether or not you hold health insurance.
The Rabies vaccination is advised for travellers who are planning on volunteering with animals or looking to get off of the beaten track.
Rabies Prevention Tips!
If you decide not to invest in the vaccine, follow these tips to make sure you stay safe!
- Avoid touching or petting stray animals.
- Never run from an aggressive animal and instead pick up a stone as if you are going to throw it at them. You probably won’t need to but it is a good way to get them to back off.
- If you are bitten, scrub the wound with soap and water until all the saliva is removed. If you have alcohol or an iodine solution, use this to clean the wound before seeking urgent medical assistance.
How far in advance should you get vaccinated for Rabies?
The rabies vaccination consists of a course of three injections. They have to be administered at different times which means that this is a jab you need to adequately designate time for. Don’t forget to get vaccinated for Rabies at least 4 weeks before you leave for your trip.
Once you have received the injection, you may need to go for a booster if you are travelling to a high-risk area again or had your vaccination longer than a year ago.
Other health risks in South America
- Dengue fever
As many travellers will already know, Dengue fever is transmitted by the bite of infected mosquitos. Unlike the mosquitos which carry the malaria virus, the ones which transmit Dengue are most present during daytime hours so it is important to protect yourself around the clock.
Symptoms include headaches, fever and severe muscle and joint pain. If you think you have contracted Dengue, you should seek medical advice from a doctor.
There are several vaccines for Dengue under development, although none are universally available and there is debate as to their effectiveness. The best way to protect yourself is therefore through bite prevention. Wear long sleeves when possible and use a mosquito repellent with a high DEET factor.
Malaria is an infection present in many different places all over the world. It is spread by the bite of infected female mosquitos which usually come out in the evening. Although, if caught quickly, malaria can be treated and cured, if left untreated the infection can be very serious and even prove fatal.
Malaria is not present everywhere in South America but you will still need to consult a medical professional or a malaria map to work out if you need to take precautionary tablets.
To access an up to date malaria map for your country of travel, click the link and select your destination.
Although bite avoidance is the most effective malaria protection, you may find that you are prescribed a course of malaria prevention pills prior to travel. There are a number of different kinds of anti-malarial tablets available, however, they vary in their side effects, how they are taken and what they do. Speak to your doctor or medical clinic for advice on the best ones for you.
If you are prescribed pills, make sure you follow the instructions exactly as these can be ineffective if taken incorrectly. Most courses will require you to begin taking them prior to travelling to an area of exposure. You may also be required to continue to take them even after you have left the high-risk area.
Another mosquito-spread disease, Zika generally poses a low risk to most people. The bite from an infected mosquito can cause a mild infection however, the effects can be very serious for pregnant women.
In order to lessen your chances of contracting the virus, take precautions to avoid being bitten by using a high factor DEET mosquito repellent, wearing long sleeves when possible and also sleeping under a mosquito net in affected areas.
For more information on any of the vaccinations in this article check out the following recommended resources:
- NHS Travel Vaccinations – An overview of the most common travel vaccinations and the parts of the world where they are advised.
- Travel Health Pro – Contains information regarding the water status of a country as well as STIs and food hygiene.
- Centres for Disease Control and Prevention – A highly recommended resource on travel vaccinations for travellers from the US.
- Fit For Travel – For backpackers looking for in-depth vaccination information regarding specific areas. They also have a malaria map for each country.
- London Travel Clinic – This is a great site for travellers from the UK who are looking to get an idea of vaccine prices at a private medical clinic.
Sheree Hooker | Editor @ South America Backpacker + Winging The World
Sheree is the awkward British wanderluster behind wingingtheworld.com, a travel blog designed to show that even the most useless of us can travel. Follow Sheree’s adventures as she blunders around the globe, falling into squat toilets, getting into cars with machete men and running away from angry peacocks.