Whenever you travel to another country, ensuring you have potable water is of cardinal importance. While some countries claim that you can drink water straight from the tap, this might not necessarily be the case if you visit a rural area within that same country.
Trekking, especially at high altitude, can take its toll on your body. The last thing you want is to become sick from drinking water contaminated by harmful bacteria, viruses and parasites like salmonella, protozoa, E. coli, Giardia and Vibrio cholera.
In this article we try to cover what you need to know about purifying water. Let’s look at some of the most convenient and lightweight methods of purifying water while trekking or camping:
Ultraviolet (UV) sterilizers make use of a germicidal fluorescent lamp that produces light at a wavelength in the region of 250 – 270 nanometers. Bacteria, algae and viruses become irradiated as they come in contact with the light at this frequency. This irradiation causes bacteria and viruses to be killed or rendered “disabled” within 30 to 60 seconds, depending on the amount of water.
UV Sterilizers work, no doubt about it. The convenience of simply having to stir your water with a pen for under a minute is a great plus. However, some people choose other methods for mainly two reasons:
- Viruses are only “disabled” merely by the disruption of their molecular bonds at DNA level. While this usually results in their death anyway, some people prefer to rather not have them remaining in the water at all.
- UV Sterilizers don’t remove toxins or other potentially harmful chemicals.
Even so, UV sterilizers are convenient and generally you only hear good things about them from travelers. Also, when visiting remote areas you often don’t need to worry about toxins at all and will generally be more concerned about bacteria and viruses.
One of the famous UV sterilizers on the market is called the SteriPEN ® which we believe is one of the better ones on the market.
Another popular way of making potable water is by using effervescent tablets which are designed to kill micro- organisms. Water purification tablets are easy and convenient to use, and all you have to do is follow the instructions by dropping the correct size tablet in your water container. Tablets are cost effective, especially when compared to other purification methods.
While this method is effective there are two things you may want to be aware of:
- Like with UV Sterilizers, toxins or potentially harmful chemicals are not removed from the water.
- Friends of ours who made use of the tablets claimed they didn’t feel too good from the tablets after using it for an extended period of time. This was not scientifically verified, but they were pretty sure it were the tablets.
Be that as it may, tablets are effective and many people swear by them.
Micron Filters typically make use of hollow fiber micro-tubes that trap contaminants like bacteria and viruses, while allowing decontaminated water to pass through the tube. When we did the Everest Base Camp Trek, we decided on the Sawyer Squeeze Water Filtration System.
The filter is a small tube that comfortably fits in your hand. It is rated as a 0.1 micron filtration system, which means it removes up to 99.99999% of all bacteria and other microorganisms.
The Sawyer filter is convenient in that you can screw it on to a standard sized water bottle, allowing you to drink straight from the bottle through a “filtering straw”. You can also fit the Sawyer in line with your camelbak bladder, providing filtration as you drink throughout the day.
When we did the Everest Base Camp Trek, we didn’t make use of this feature since we would add an energy drink powder to our camelbaks. We would manually squeeze water through the tube into a container which we then poured into our camelbaks. The downside to this was it took some time every night. Nevertheless, it worked well and personally this is our preferred choice for filtering when trekking.
Making drinkable water is not always easy. You need to familiarize yourself with the different methods of cleaning water, and you need to establish if the method will work for your particular scenario.
For example, if you are going to trek in extremely cold weather, both UV sterilizers and Micron Filters will need special care to ensure they work correctly. Since UV sterilizers rely on battery power, you might end up not being able to switch on your device due to the fact that batteries tend to run flat in cold weather. On the other hand, a Micron Filter that is already wet on the inside could potentially freeze and cause the hollow fiber tubes to crack. In both these cases you need to keep batteries or the filter close to your body to ensure adequate heat.
Best advice is probably to have your primary choice of purification together with a backup in case you need it.
It is also important to note that none of the above mentioned purifiers will actually remove toxins and heavy metals. Removing toxins and heavy metals require systems that are not practical for trekking. Wherever possible, try to find a source of water that is less likely to contaminated by heavy metals and chemicals too.