Traveling and Water Safety: What You Need to Know

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As you might remember, my trips last year took me to some pretty interesting places. For the two big ones – Nicaragua and Nepal – I would be traveling in developing countries where I wouldn’t exactly have all of the comforts of home. In fact, one big thing that I take for granted every day wouldn’t be available to me at all: clean drinking water. While we ended up buying huge jugs of bottled water in Nicaragua, that wasn’t an option in Nepal. For my trek, I would have to be prepared to treat my own water and ensure its safety. Otherwise, I was pretty much guaranteed to end up extremely sick. No pressure, right? As I prepare for my trip to Africa (less than two months away – EEK), I thought it would be the perfect time to share what I’ve learned. After all, if you’ve ever been sick while on vacation, you know there’s no faster way to ruin your travel dreams than by spending your entire day (or several days) on the toilet.

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Because you probably don’t want to spend all day on this toilet. Just guessing!

While we often think of safe water in terms of pollution, there are many ways that water can cause illness in those who are not used to that specific water supply. Just because the locals are drinking the water doesn’t mean it will sit well with your system! Water sickness is commonly felt within about 30 minutes of ingesting tainted water, so it is easy to differentiate from other types of traveler’s illnesses. There are four main ways that water can cause traveler’s diarrhea (information provided by Travis Merrigan, co-founder of GRAYL):

  1. Bacteria: These tiny pathogens ruin more vacations than bad weather and weird relatives combined! The most common cause of traveler’s diarrhea is bacteria like E. coli, Dysentery, Leptospirosis, Typhoid, and Salmonella. While bacteria is the easiest pathogen to remove from water and generally “only” causes sickness that lasts for a few days, an infection can be fatal.
  2. ProtozoaGiardia, Cryptosporidium, etc.
    1. The Good – Generally not fatal, weight loss guaranteed
    2. The Bad – Difficult to remove from drinking water.
    3. The Ugly – In one study, 33% of Peace Corps volunteers in Africa were afflicted by Cryptosporidosis. Giardia is even more common.
  3. Virus – Norovirus, Rotovirus, Hepatitis A, SARS, etc.
    1. The Good – Probably the least common cause of TD. HepA is vaccine preventable. If you’re not vaccinated, though, you could be in trouble!
    2. The Bad – Extremely difficult to remove from water.
    3. The Ugly – Untreated, HepA, SARS and other viral infections are seriously no bueno.
  4. Other bad stuff – blue-green algae, toxic chemicals, nuclear waste
    1. Too many potential risks to quantify. Don’t assume any filter will protect you against an industrial spill, mine disaster, very high lead levels or other water disasters

If that sounds like an awful lot of ways to get really sick really fast, you’re not alone. You can see why I kind of freaked out when planning my trip to Nepal. But, if you’ve ever looked into water purification systems, the differences can be a bit daunting. Some filter out particles (like dirt or mud) in your water, others are capable of killing bacteria and neutralizing chemicals, while still others can even eliminate viruses and disease from your water. Depending on where you are traveling, you may need a few or all of these capabilities. For Nepal, I knew I’d need them all, and that left me with a few options. In order to get rid of all the nasty stuff in the water, I could either use a multi-step system (what my friend Allison used), use a U.V. light (what my friend Bobbi used), or use a GRAYL Ultralight Purifier bottle (what I used).

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So many options! A little overwhelming (photo courtesy of GRAYL)

It was really interesting to see how each of our different systems worked since we had all made different choices. For me, using the GRAYL, my experience was really simple. Whenever we reached a stream or a faucet, I’d simply grab my GRAYL, separate the inner and outer bottles, and fill the outer bottle. Then, I’d place the full outer bottle onto the ground and press the inner bottle down. The water came up through the purifier and into the clean inner bottle, and I was ready to drink! Bobbi’s system (the U.V. light) worked pretty well, too, but there was always the concern about it running out of battery or just not working that day. Allison had a two-step system, using a funnel filter that reduced the impurities, and then adding chemical drops to her water to kill the remaining germs and viruses. After adding the chemicals, she needed to wait 30 minutes before drinking her water, so it definitely required a bit of planning – especially on the tough parts of the hike when we were all really thirsty! Overall, each of our systems worked – none of us got sick from water while we were in Nepal. It’s just a question of how much time and how many steps were required along the way!

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So easy. Literally took me about 25 seconds per bottle. (photo courtesy of GRAYL)

I made the choice to use GRAYL for two reasons. For one, it seemed like the easiest option. After all, GRAYL eliminates everything I needed to in just one step. You fill the bottom portion of the bottle with water, then press the top portion down to filter everything. A multi-step system involving filters and chemicals and a waiting period seemed inconvenient, and I didn’t want to run the risk of my UV light breaking, as they are known to do. Also, it was cost-effective. While the UV lights are upwards of $100 each and need to be replaced regularly, while the GRAYL cost just $60. A replacement Purifier Cartridge costs just $25, and lasts up to 3 months of use (3 uses per day). So for under $100, you get safe water for 6 months! Call me cheap, but when you’re buying tons of stuff for the trip of a lifetime, every dollar counts.

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I’d rather save my money for views like this (GRAYL is on the right side of my pack)

I used my GRAYL multiple times a day during my entire two week trek in Nepal and never regretted my choice for a second. After coming back and writing about my experience, the people at GRAYL actually reached out to me to talk about water safety and how common waterborne sickness is around the world.

Finding safe drinking water can be a challenge when #traveling. @thetrexrunner talked to @thegrayl for their tips! Click To Tweet

I spoke with Travis Merrigan, co-founder, to get a feel for how GRAYL got started and get his tips on how we can travel better and more safely. Read on to see his thoughts!

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The Nepali water was lovely for washing my hair (although freezing). Not so great for drinking.

Tell me a little bit about GRAYL and how you got started: We founded GRAYL because we love to travel and get outdoors at every opportunity – that kind of adventure is our lifeblood. Everyone on the team loves the backcountry, everybody has a passport (my daughter used hers before her first birthday)!

On any adventure, you need water. But on our favorite type of adventure, clean, safe water is hard to come by. You can live a week or two without food, but you’re in serious trouble on day three without water. So, we founded a company to see if we could do water better. We set out to create a device that solved our problem better than the stuff we’d been using for years (pump and hose filters, suck straws, single use bottles, etc.).

How has your mission evolved over time? When we started, we had a wider product line – bells, whistles, etc. But what our customers and fans told us is, “We value light weight, simplicity of design, and the highest possible performance – a fast flow rate with maximum impurity removal. So, we focused all our energy on solving that primary problem for our customers.

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How do you help promote clean drinking water around the world? We are constantly working to expand our efforts to promote safe drinking water, but for now, we believe we make the very first water purifier that is highly practical for international travelers. Now, you don’t need single use bottles, and you don’t need to worry about your gut. We think that’s pretty significant.

A traveler makes decisions when they travel that affect the places they visit. Economically, spending money at a street-side food stall or buying directly from a local artist puts money directly in the hands of the local people. That makes a difference! Engaging locals as equals, going to a Guatemalan hip-hop show…these things generate good karma. Not using single-use plastic water bottles is also one of those things. We believe all travelers should tread lightly, be respectful, and don’t trash the place as you leave.

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Yeah, I’d say that’s significant.

After traveling across the world and hiking all over the place with my GRAYL, I’m definitely a convert. I have enough bad luck when it comes to medical issues without contracting some bizarre waterborne disease, quite frankly! While I know that I’ll be able to buy bottled water on my safari, I feel good knowing that I’ll cut down on waste and be able to give that money to the local people in a different way instead. Who knows where else I’ll take my GRAYL in 2017?

LEAVE A COMMENT: Have you ever gotten sick from water when traveling overseas or in the backcountry? What is your usual strategy for staying safe from disease on the road?

This post is sponsored by GRAYL, who contacted me after I independently purchased and used their bottle while in Nepal. All opinions are my own!

 

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10 thoughts on “Traveling and Water Safety: What You Need to Know

    1. Well, she just needs to get you a GRAYL and then she doesn’t have to worry!

      Normally, I don’t think twice about drinking the water where I travel. I don’t know why, I just don’t really worry about it (example: I drank water straight out of the hotel room sink in Ecuador and survived). But there are some parts of Nepal, like Kathmandu, where not even the locals drink it. So at that point, I had to concede defeat.

  1. Technology amazes me the things that are created… so smart.
    I get nervous drinking water in different states, much less different countries. Seriously.. .I live in KY & when we go to Nashville, I’m like, BOTTLED WATER EVERYWHERE!!! 🙂 haha I trust nothing.

    1. Oh my gosh, really?! That’s so funny. I honestly never even think about it, even sometimes in developing countries. Nepal was a different case entirely.

  2. I know of some people here who go to random mountain streams and fill bottles without filtering them. While I agree it’s probably mostly safe, the protozoa definitely scare me. I might be a little cautious when it comes to waterborne diseases, but I absolutely despise the waste created by water bottles, since they’re largely unnecessary.
    That’s such an interesting system, I’m marking that on my “to eventually buy” list 🙂

    1. Well, I think it probably is “safe” in the sense of there isn’t likely to be pollution or diseases, necessarily, but our bodies aren’t used to the bacteria and protozoa in mountain streams. Some people have tough stomachs and handle that kind of thing fine, and some don’t. It’s not worth the risk when there is such a simple solution, in my opinion.

  3. Bottled water will be easy to find in Botswana, even out in the smaller villages. In fact, in some places, it may be your only option as indoor plumbing may be limited in what you can use it for. Just double check that the lid hasn’t already been opened as that is scam that gets run from time-to-time.

    I have the occasional minor annoyances when travelling, but nothing that’s actually impeded travel. My stomach is pretty good about handling anything I throw at it.

    1. Thanks, AndreaClaire! I figured that would be the case, but I’m going to try and avoid buying it if I can. I’ll definitely check the lids when I do!

      I think my stomach is actually pretty good at handling different types of water and food sanitation levels as well, which is kind of funny, since my stomach usually isn’t great at handling anything!

  4. This is great! I’m always really careful about the water/ food when traveling because nothing like diarrhea and vomiting to mess up a trip! It’s so crazy that some (many?) places in the world don’t have clean drinking water. When I was in Africa a few years ago, we definitely drank only bottled/purified water in Namibia, then when I went to Kenya to visit a friend, he bought bottled water for me. He had been boiling tap water and drinking that, but he said even then people usually get “East Africa stomach” which is good to live through once if you’re going to be there for an extended period of time, but not just for a week. I’ve avoided problems so far!

    1. It really is crazy! I feel terrible for people who have to suffer through that on a daily basis. Plus, the amount of trash bottled water generates is so insane. And even then – people aren’t washing their dishes with boiled or bottled water, etc! That was something we faced in Nepal. I don’t blame you for wanting to avoid “East Africa stomach” on your trip! I can see trying to build up immunity if you’re there for a long time, like you said, but otherwise – no thank you!

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