Safe Water Abroad

“Water, water everywhere … Nor any drop to drink.” This is quote from Samuel Taylor Coleridge about a ship caught in the doldrums, surrounded by saltwater but none to drink. Water can be plentiful but not necessarily safe to drink. When traveling internationally or even hiking in the great outdoors, you need water but safe water. Here are some things to consider:

Bottled water is usually available for purchase in most places but can be quite expensive. Check the seal on the bottle to make sure you didn’t buy a tap-water-refill.

You need to be cautious when locals tell you a water-well or facet is good water because it may be safe for them, but not for you. Research your area of travel beforehand to determine the safety of the tap water. Google: “Is the tap water safe in _____________ .”

Brushing your teeth is a no-brainer at home but internationally use your brain. If water is not safe to drink, it is not safe to use in brushing your teeth. Many people have gotten sick from brushing their teeth with bad water. I have a habit of putting a little dab of toothpaste on my toothbrush, so I don’t have to rinse as much. Rinse your toothbrush with your clean water.

By the way, if you are in a location with unsafe water, keep your mouth shut when you shower.

What about ice? Ice made from bad water will make you sick. I have had more trouble with locals about the ice than anything. Sometimes the ice company has filtered water but not always.

Cooked food, coffee, and hot tea made with unfiltered water should be fine since it is boiled. Water should be brought to a full boil for one minute for it to be safe and a full boil for three minutes for high altitudes. Raw unpeeled fruit and vegetables washed with contaminated water can make you sick; an additional rinse with clean water will help.

Boiling water is also an option to disinfect water. As stated above, boiling water for one minute on normal elevations will kill most pathogens. If you had real sketchy water, use a rolling boil for ten minutes just to be sure. Keep in mind, boiling water will not remove chemical pollutants.

If you are going into a primitive situation, you should carry some container in which you can boil water. I would suggest a 32 ounce single-walled metal water bottle and a single-walled metal camp cup that is no smaller than 25 ounces. The containers should be stainless steel or titanium. Avoid ones that are painted or aluminum. You can find these that come as a unit and the water bottle nests inside the cup (I bought my set at Self Reliance Outfitters.) Caution, you should never boil water in a double-walled metal water bottle or metal cup because they can explode on you. When using a metal water bottle to boil water, put it at the edge of the fire or suspended above the fire so as not to warp the metal.

Chemical disinfection is another method of eliminating pathogens from water. Chlorine bleach is the most common method and it is available for purchase anywhere in the world.

Chlorine bleach has the active ingredient of sodium hypochlorite and can be used to disinfect water. If water is cloudy pre-filter it with a t-shirt, coffee filter, etc. The bleach should be regular un-scented bleach; do not use scented or no-splash bleach. Bleach comes in different strengths, 6 percent and 8.25 percent (concentrated).

When you are disinfecting 1 liter/quart of water add 2 drops of ether 6% or 8.25% bleach. Disinfecting 1 gallon add 8 drops of 6% bleach or 6 drops of 8.25% bleach. The formula for 4 gallons is 1/3 teaspoon for 6% bleach or 1/4 teaspoon for 8.25% bleach. The formulas can be doubled for cloudy or extremely cold water.

You should stir the treated water and let it stand at least thirty minutes before drinking or pouring to another container. Taste can be improved by letting it sit for a longer time or by pouring it back and forth between two clean containers.

You can also use 2% tincture of iodine (common first aid iodine). If you are disinfecting 1 liter/quart, add 5 drops of iodine. You can double the drops if the water is not clear. It should be stirred and let stand for thirty minutes before drinking or pouring to another container.

Water purification tablets can be purchased online or from outdoor stores. You should follow the instructions on the bottle.

For more information on disinfecting water see the EPA website on the subject here.

Carry a least one water bottle. You can use a reusable stainless steel bottle, BPA-free plastic bottle, or even a couple of empty Dasani/Aquafina type bottles. You may stay at a place that has filtered water so you could refill your bottles rather than buying bottled water.

Hint: You cannot carry a filled water bottle through a TSA security checkpoint, but you can carry an empty bottle. After you go through security you can refill your bottle and save the expense of buying expensive airport bottled water.

Water filter products are a great item to have. Technology for water filtration is great. Some that I am more familiar with are the LifeStraw filters, LifeStraw Go Water Bottles, Grayl Geopress, Sawyer Mini Water Filtration System (screws on a Dasani/Aquafina bottle), and the Berkey Sport Filtered Water Bottle. I have used most of these but I prefer the Grayl or Sawyer products.

I never travel internationally without a Sawyer filter in my carry-on because they are so small (about 5 inches long) yet effective. The Sawyer comes with an optional straw so you can drink water from any receptacle or stream but one caution, the threads may not fit an international water bottle—I carry a bottle from a US brand.

When it comes to water filters, you do not need be a water specialist, but you need to know a little technical information to help protect yourself. There are water filters and there are water filters! You need one that filters out harmful pathogens. The one that protects you from harmful pathogens should have 0.1-micron filter membranes that filter out most pathogens to the point of 99.99999%. Note: There are many water filters available that filter out lead and chlorine but not pathogens, be sure it filters out 99.99999% of pathogens such as E.coli, Giardia, Vibrio cholera, and Salmonella.

Dirty dishes can make you sick. I became sick with a stomach bug from a small amount of water left in a plate. The plate was put in front of me and I saw the half-teaspoon of water—ugh oh! It was in Haiti, and they had washed the plates then stacked them right-side up together. The trapped water and the hot climate made a great incubator for the bad microbes to grow. I threw caution to the wind and the next day it hit me!

If you find yourself in a similar situation, wipe the plate with an antibacterial hand wipe or at least rinse with clean water. I always carry some of the wipes that are packaged in the small individual size. They are great to have and handy to carry. I am sure this is not an approved method by health experts but often in the field you often have to do the best you can do.

The best and safest method to sanitize hand-washed dishes is first to wash dishes with detergent and rinse. Then use a solution of 2 teaspoons of chlorine bleach per 1 gallon of clean water and soak in the solution for two minutes. Drain and air dry the dishes. A rinse is not needed after the solution soak. If you are responsible for a group of people, this method would be highly recommended. Here is the link to Clorox’s website on sanitizing dishes.

Disclaimer: I am not a health expert or microbiologist, just a traveler. Do more of your own research and ask a professional.

You need to keep hydrated but stay safe out there—don’t drink the contaminated water if at all possible. In an extreme situation, dehydration can kill you and drinking questionable water may make you sick but can be treated. It would be a difficult decision to make and one would need to consider all the options. Hopefully, you and I will never be faced with that dilemma but most survival experts say in an EXTREME situation, drink the water before dying of dehydration not just because you are thirty.

Enjoy the Journey!

%d bloggers like this: