Last updated: 7 January, 2017
It’s only when you’ve been travelling for a while in countries with unsafe water that you truly appreciate being able to drink what comes out of the tap back home.
Sure, you can usually buy bottled water cheaply in those countries, but you’re not always sure where it came from. The environmental impact of plastic bottles is also hard to ignore when you see them washing up on the beach around you.
Water purifiers can give you the best of both worlds: clean, safe water on demand, without destroying the environment in the process. They’re a varied lot, though, and picking the wrong one can leave you with foul-tasting water and major stomach problems.
You’re looking for something that will kill bacteria, cysts and viruses. It’s the last of those in particular that many devices won’t destroy. At a minimum you need something that won’t make the water taste worse than it already does. Ideally it should filter out particulates, chlorine and metals so it tastes better.
Finally, it needs to be appropriate for travel — light, robust and reliable, at a price that won’t break the bank.
There aren’t many that fit the bill, but luckily there are a few. Here are five water purifiers actually worth buying for travellers.
The LifeSaver was originally developed to provide clean water to people in developing countries who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it, and it shows in the design.
It’s a simple piece of equipment that’s easy to use, reasonably robust and lasts a long time without needing maintenance. That makes it equally useful for travellers as well.
It’s relatively heavy, at around 22oz (625g) when empty, so may not be for you if you’re an ultra-lightweight traveller. The purification cartridge lasts for an impressive 4000 litres before needing replacement. There are 1500 and 6000 litre versions as well.
You’ll need to replace the carbon filters more frequently, though. Depending on how dirty the water you’re using is, it’ll be roughly every 250 litres.
Filtering of the 750ml capacity takes under a minute, which compares favourably to many other approaches. I’m a big fan of the failsafe filter and cartridge, which won’t let you pump water after they’re used up. That’s a much better approach than trying to remember how much water you’ve used, or using your stomach as a petrie dish to find out.
That the LifeSaver functions just like a normal water bottle is also very handy. It lets you tip the water into something else to let you rinse out a cut, cook or brush your teeth with it.
Probably the most well-known portable water purifier, the various models of Steripen use a UV lamp to kill the bugs and bacteria. You just dunk the lamp into a cup or water bottle, stir for a minute or two, then drink. It’s a simple, inexpensive process, but it does have some limitations.
Firstly, it only purifies — there’s no filtering mechanism. This means you can’t use cloudy/dirty water with it, and while the treated version is unlikely to make you sick, it won’t taste any better than when you started. The reliance on battery power also isn’t ideal, although at least this Ultra model charges via USB. Cheaper versions use hard-to-find disposable batteries.
While it’s good to be able to purify water in any vessel, I’d much rather carry a bottle with a UV lamp built in. That way I could purify when necessary, and just use it as a normal water bottle the rest of the time.
Still, if the water you’re filtering is reasonably free of dirt and minerals to start with, the Steripen Ultra is a worthwhile, easy option.
Drinksafe Travel Tap
There are several different models of purifier in the UK-made Drinksafe range, but my preference is the “Travel Tap” for one simple reason. As well as sucking water through the filtering/purification mechanism like the other models, you can also use the Travel Tap by gently squeezing the bottle.
This simple change greatly increases its usefulness, letting you do things like rinse your toothbrush and irrigate wounds with clean water. I also like that you can remove the filter mechanism if you know the water is safe, meaning you don’t use it up unnecessarily. A lanyard and insulation sleeve are included in the package.
The Travel Tap has an 800ml capacity. It can purify up to 1600 litres of water before the auto-shutdown mechanism kicks in and the filter cartridge needs replacing. That’s pretty good — if you’re drinking two litres a day, it’s over two years of daily use. Water flow is around 300ml/minute. That’s fine most of the time, but perhaps a little frustrating if you’re particularly thirsty.
There’s plenty to like about the Grayl. Rather than a straw or traditional pumping mechanism, this purifier works more like a coffee press. You fill the bottom part up with water, attach the top part and press down.
No more than 30 seconds later, you’ve got up to 16oz (a little under 500ml) of clean water in a stylish container. It’s super-simple and reliable, and the filter eliminates pretty much everything including viruses.
So what don’t I like? Well, a couple of things. The capacity is a bit low — at less than half a litre, you’ll get through it very quickly in hot countries. Of course, being able to fill it up again from almost anywhere negates that problem somewhat, but not entirely.
Secondly, it’s more expensive for lengthy trips than some of the other options. The filter costs around $25, and only treats 150 litres of water before it needs replacing — assuming you can find one wherever you happen to be, of course. Take an extra filter from home if you’re likely to need one.
Overall, though, it’s a good option, especially for shorter trips.
Aquamira Frontier Flow Red Line Bottle
Finally, if you’re looking for an inexpensive, effective all-in-one purifier and don’t mind having to suck through a bite valve, the Frontier Flow Red Line bottle fits the bill. Note the “red line” part — that’s the filter that wipes out viruses, as well as bacteria and chemicals. The cheaper “green line” version doesn’t include virus removal, so isn’t as useful for travel.
Filters last for 450 litres, which is reasonable without standing out. It’s lightweight, holds a useful 22oz (660mls) of water, and can be attached to a backpack via the built-in ring.
Since you have to bite on the valve and squeeze the bottle to filter the water, you can’t really use it to fill up hydration packs, wash dishes or irrigate wounds. If you’re happy to only drink direct from the bottle, though, this is a cost-effective option that works well.
Which Would I Buy?
So, crunch time — if I had to buy a water purifier for an upcoming trip, which would it be? All things considered, I’d go for the Grayl for most short to medium-length trips. It’s effective, durable and easy to use, and recent price drops have made it more affordable.
Being able to filter out light sediment and other particulates, while still having the option of using the filtered water outside the bottle, makes it more useful than many of the alternatives.
If I was planning to spend months or years somewhere where the water quality was dubious, I’d opt for the LifeSaver instead. With much longer-lasting cartridges, it’d easily pay off its higher price, and not having to find replacements so often would also be very useful.
It also seems more robust than most of the alternatives, which can never be a bad thing.
Do you carry a water purifier? Which one, and why?
Product images via respective manufacturers.