Purifying Water For Traveling Abroad

Purifying Water For Traveling Abroad


What is one thing you do not want to be doing while traveling to a new and cool place?

Be tied to the bathroom all day because you drank ‘bad water’.

Well, unfortunately many of us travelers have been there. Although it does seem like a right of passage for traveling in developing countries, I think we would all choose to avoid it.

The easiest way to drink safe water is to buy bottled water and many of us rely exclusively on this. Which fine. It is usually pretty cheap, clean, and somewhat available.

However many of us don’t like the continual use of plastic bottles especially in places that don’t recycle. And there always seems to be times when the bottled water runs out and the stores are closed, you’re too far from a store, or you have limited funding. Whatever the reason, at some point you may run out of safe water and need a backup or just want an alternative.

And what happens when you run out of water? Grumpiness. Tiredness. Lethargy. Constipation. Plus all the other effect of dehydration. No thank you, I want energy, joy, and healthy bowel movements!

While traveling in Nicaragua, I faced these tough issues from relying solely on bottled water and I met a few travelers who brought there own ways to purify their water.

I was intrigued! What water purification systems do people use for international travel? After writing this post I now know which one I will be bringing on my next trip! Read on…

The four main water purification systems explored here:
  1. Grapefruit Seed Extract
  2. Activated Charcoal
  3. UV Treatments
  4. Chemical Treatments
What are we even trying to get out of the water? What causes us to get sick? 
  1. Viruses: like Hepatitis A, Rotavirus and Norovirus
  2. Bacteria: like E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter and Shigella
  3. Parasites/Protozoan cysts: like Cryptosporidium and Giardia lamblia
How do we know which one we have? What are the symptoms of various waterborne pathogens?
  • Viruses: fever, chills, dark urine, jaundice, stomach pain, vomiting, headache. Symptoms can start 24 hours to 5 days after ingestion. More detailed information on viruses here.
  • Bacteria: fever, headache, constipation, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, abdominal rash, muscle cramps, bloody stool. Symptoms can show up as early as 6 hours from consuming. For more information on bacteria check out this article.
  • Parasites/Protozoan cysts: Fatigue, diarrhea, flatulence, abdominal pain, weight loss. Symptoms can start about a week after exposure (although it is possible to be asymptomatic).
What is the difference between water filtration and purification?
  • Water Filtration: Removes bacteria and protozoan cysts
  • Water Purification: Removes viruses

Grapefruit Seed Extract

How does it work?

Antimicrobial properties kill unwanted microbes.


  • Easy. Just add drops, wait, and your done.
  • Lightweight. Just a 2 ounce bottle could get you up to 200 uses (about 760 liters).
  • Antibacterial, Antiviral, Antiparasitic and Antifungal (read more here)
  • Great for emergencies. If boiling or other filtration method is not available GSE can be used.
  • Many people use for backpacking and traveling.
  • Cheap. 11$ on Amazon for a 2 ounce bottle with 200 servings of 10 drops each.
  • Multipurpose. Can be used to clean cooking utensils, toothbrushes, fruit and veggies, and some people use it internally to keep travelers diarrhea at bay and to kill parasites and candida (more uses here).


  • Some think it tastes gross. It can make your water have a bitter taste.
  • Controversial: Some studies suggest the antimicrobial effects of GSE are actually because of the added preservatives added to commercial products, not from naturally occurring properties. Because of these additives it could be better to not take internally (read more).

How to use:

  1. Remove solid particles in water.
  2. Add 10-25 drops per gallon of water (depends how dirty your water is)
  3. Shake vigorously
  4. Let sit for at least 10 minutes (more if it is cold)


Questionably good for your health, but convenient, cheap and a great backup.

Activated Charcoal

How does it work:

  1. Adsorption: ions, atoms, and molecules are drawn in and stick to the charcoal
  2. Catalytic Reduction: negatively charged ions are attracted to the positively charged charcoal

These two processes remove organic hazards, chemicals and heavy metals.


  • Multi purpose: Can take charcoal pills with water to clear up travelers diarrhea, can help reduce a hangover, can eliminate bloating and flatulence
  • Removes bacteria, possibly viruses and protozoan cysts
  • Used in many filtration systems on the market
  • Lightweight on its own, just .08 ounces for 100 capsules
  • Inexpensive. 100 capsules for 7.44 on Amazon
  • Good at removing weird tastes and odors


  • Unclear if can be used on its own to purify water
  • Not much evidence proving it eliminates viruses
  • Has limited abilities for removing all pathogens if water is highly contaminated especially when water is murky and/ or has sediment (it overwhelms the adsorption). You also don’t know when the charcoal is ‘full’ and needs to be replaced.


Great for making your water taste better and charcoal pills are great to take after consuming questionable water. Not much support for relying on as sole water purification option.

Uv Treatments: like Steri Pin

How does it work:

Breaks down the integrity of the DNA in the pathogen, killing or nullifying.


  • Works on viruses, bacteria, and parasites
  • Fast: 1 liter in 1.5 minutes
  • 1 charge can purify 50 liters of water and can be charged 300 times (=15,000 liters total)
  • Lightweight
  • Easy: stick pin in water


  • Only can be used in clearwater. If water is murky the uvs effectiveness can be blocked. Must be careful with keeping contaminated water separate (like residual water on the rim/threads of water bottle) as it does not kill bacteria after using (whereas a chemical treatment would). Read here.
  • Must be recharged (some take AA batteries and other can be charged USB).
  • Higher upfront cost: $80-$100 for the USB charging option on Amazon.

How to use:

  1. Place pen in water, push button and agitate water
  2. 16 oz- hold for less than a minute/ 32 oz- hold for 90 seconds


Great for to purify water while traveling, as water has usually been filtered and is clear but may still contain pathogens. UV rays can quickly kill these pathogens making water safe. May not be ideal for backpacking with only murky water sources.

Chemical Treatments: Chlorine or Iodine

How does it work?

Kills pathogens on contact.


  • Lightweight
  • Compact
  • Continual disinfection (will disinfect anything it comes in contact with- like water on lip of bottle, or if treated water is used to clean food)
  • Cheap


  • Leaves a chemically taste to water (some iodine systems have taste neutralizers)
  • Takes longer than UV: 30 minutes to 4 hours
  • Needs clear water
  • Does not kill the parasite cryptosporidium
  • Long term health effects from using chemicals for water treatment (ok for once and awhile treatment).
  • Cheap, but doesn’t purify as many liters as above: Tasteless iodine is $11 on Amazon for 25 quarts (only 23 liters).

How to Use:

  1. Drop tablets into 1 quart or liter of water, cap loosely and wait 5 minutes. (See specific instructions for each product.)
  2. Shake container to sanitize screw threads, then tighten cap.
  3. Wait 30 minutes.
  4. Add taste remover tablets (if applicable) and shake well.
  5. Wait 3 minutes.


Great if you don’t mind a little added flavor to your water, have limited space/weight, and only use occasionally.


For my next travel adventure I will definitely be traveling with a SteriPEN, for on-the-go clean water. Even though there is a higher upfront cost, I would feel comfortable using it as a primary water treatment and only buying bottled water when needed. I will also bring along activated charcoal to take if I experience digestive distress from accidentally ingesting pathogens through food.






What about you? How do you ensure you have plenty of clean water to drink when abroad? Or do you have more information to share? Please do!



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4 thoughts on “Purifying Water For Traveling Abroad

  1. I used Steripen during most of a 5 month trip in South America and ! loved it! It was so easy to use, and I barely bought any plastic bottles throughout the trip. The only bummer with the Steripen, is that it is easy to break (at least 5 years ago it was). 4 months in it stopped working because it had a big bump in my backpack. I bet they have made them more durable over the years though!


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