If you’re mapping out your supply list for your next big camping, backpacking, or other nomadic adventure, one issue you may have come across in your research is the need for access to clean water. Regions around the world lacking access to clean sources of water can be a major threat to health and wellness, so having a reliable method to treat water when visiting these regions is important.
What works better: Water purification tablets or LifeStraw? In most cases, a LifeStraw is a convenient choice for wilderness trips in developed countries. However, if you’ll be traveling in developing nations known for contaminated water, water purification tablets are the better option.
Both of these options can be the “best” choice for you under the right circumstances. To evaluate which one you should choose, you’ll need to know how water treatment works, how to assess your water treatment needs, and how and why water purification tablets versus LifeStraw products suit some scenarios better than others.
Key Elements of Water Treatment
When planning to travel to regions without reliable access to treated water that you can trust, knowing how you’ll get potable drinking water is critical. In some cases, relying on bottled water is an option, but in remote regions or for wilderness travel, including camping trips, you need an effective strategy to treat your water.
When deciding what the water treatment option is right for your circumstances, there are six key questions you need to ask yourself about each option up for consideration:
- Is it able to filter out protozoa in adult and cyst forms?
- Can the option I’m using remove viruses?
- Does it remove bacteria?
- How well does it filter out sediment and other debris?
- How does it affect the taste of the water?
- How convenient is the water treatment method?
The first five questions of this list are fairly straightforward, but the last question, rating the convenience of each option you assess, has multiple aspects to consider. Depending on the environment, length, and purpose of your trip, you may need methods that prioritize quick and easy access to potable water or ones that allow you to treat and store large quantities of water.
Taking the time to understand how different water treatment options work will make your decision process easier and help you choose an option that will suit your needs during your travels.
The Importance of Effective Water Treatment
Many people are under the mistaken impression that “natural” equals “good” or healthy.” This is something that you can see all the time in advertising, and it affects common knowledge about how to safely drink water when traveling.
While the reputation of unsafe drinking water is well-known in certain countries, some people may assume that those cautions only apply to urban areas of developing nations. In the U.S., a common piece of advice for people traveling to Mexico is never to drink water from the tap, but a common misconception is that that advice only applies to cities like Tijuana and Mexico City.
Although it’s true that bodies of water in highly remote regions of the world can have water that’s safe to drink, it’s important to realize that modern water treatment practices are a big reason why rural water sources can be safe to drink on wilderness trips in developed countries like the U.S.
All over the world, there are various biological threats hidden in seemingly “natural” and “safe” water sources, which is why it’s important that you research and prepare for any travel plans that will require you to pass through areas with unsafe sources of water. Global issues with potable drinking water include:
- 1.8 billion people worldwide whose drinking water is contaminated with bacteria and viruses that “transmit diseases such as diarrhea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and polio.”
- All of the countries in Africa are considered to have “unsafe” drinking water that would require treatment on remote trips, including water from the tap.
- Out of all Asian countries, only Brunei, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea are considered to have safe drinking water from the tap.
- Most of Eastern Europe is also considered to have largely unpotable water from the tap.
- In the Americas and Oceania, only the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have tap water that is considered safe.
Keep in mind that having potable water is more than just about having something safe to drink. Clean water is needed for things as simple as brushing your teeth every day and cleaning dishes. Knowing whether or not water sources are safe can also help you to decide if you can shower or going swimming in a specific body of water
How Each Option Works
Water purification tablets and LifeStraw products help treat contaminated water in different ways. To decide between these tools, you need to know what types of contaminants each option can handle and how they both work.
Water purification tablets, which can be chlorine, chlorine dioxide, or iodine tablets, degrade pathogens such as bacteria or viruses that are in treated water. The way these tablets are used is that you first collect water in a container, and then the recommended number of tablets needed for that amount of water is dropped in.
Depending on the brand of tablets you use, you may need only one tablet per liter of water or several. Similarly, the time it takes to treat the water varies as well, and it can range from 30 minutes to several hours.
Different water purification tablets have varying water treatment capabilities. While some have comprehensive abilities to handle all kinds of contaminants, others are limited to handling bacteria only. If you decide that water purification tablets are right for your travel needs, it’s important to make sure that the type you purchase can properly treat the water from the sources you’ll have access to.
In contrast to water purification tablets, which are produced in numerous variations by many companies, LifeStraw products refer to a specific line of water purification devices that were created in 2005. The LifeStraw design was made to help remove harmful microorganisms from the water consumed by people living in sub-Saharan Africa.
What started as a product made for humanitarian uses in helping poor, remote communities get access to clean water became a staple product for travelers all over the world. In addition to being a popular tool of campers and backpackers, LifeStraw-branded water filtration products are still used in water accessibility projects in dozens of countries all over the world.
Much likes the name implies, LifeStraw products are shaped and used as an oversized straw, and once the user inserts the bottom end of the LifeStraw into a water source, water is drawn through the device’s filters using the same suction you would apply to a normal straw.
The LifeStraw’s filter will remove bacteria, protozoa, and debris from the water, and a single LifeStraw is recommended to be used to filter up to 1,000 liters of contaminated water directly from natural water sources.
Pros and Cons of Each Option
Each of these options has its pros and cons, which make them right for different destinations, types of trips, and varying preferences among the travelers using them. Let’s go over the advantages and downsides of using either of the options.
Water Purification Tablets
One of the biggest drawbacks of using water purification tablets is that the amount of time that they take to treat water. While some tablets on the market finish their work in as little as 30 minutes, that’s definitely not the norm, and most that have a wide range of efficacy in terms of what they remove will take at least a couple hours to work.
If you anticipate being in a scenario where having quick access to water is a big concern, such as while undertaking an arduous hiking trip, you might not be interested in sitting around waiting for your water to become safe to drink. An obvious solution to this issue would be to treat the water before you actually need to use it.
That’s a great point to consider because one of the advantages of tablets is that it can allow you to treat larger quantities at once and then store that treated water for future use. If you’re traveling with a large group, this may be an even bigger point in favor of using these tablets. Of course, that won’t be of much use to backpackers who are highly mobile and striving to travel as light as possible.
Carrying around a large container, full of water or not, can be a huge inconvenience, so this option may be best for long-term campers or people visiting areas of developing countries where relying on bottled water isn’t ideal. Another downside to using water purification tablets is the taste that they leave behind.
While water purification can be one of the best options for removing all the harmful contaminants like bacteria, viruses, and protozoa, not only will the tablets not remove any sediment, but they will also often leave behind an unpleasant taste, especially if they’re iodine tablets. This can be neutralized with other tablets, but that will be an additional expense and yet another supply to carry with you on your trip.
The LifeStraw biggest drawback is its lacking efficacy at removing viruses. That’s no fault of the products’ design, as generally, no filter has pores small enough to filter our viruses. As a result, if virus-contaminated water is a concern where you’re traveling, as is the case in many developing nations, the LifeStraw isn’t the right option for you.
However, if you’re traveling in rural or wilderness areas of a country like the U.S., the LifeStraw can be an easy-to-carry and quick way to have drinkable water whenever you need it. Broadly speaking, you’ll still be able to shower without needed to treat water from natural sources in developed nations, so not being able to treat and store water with the LifeStraw is less likely to be a concern.
Additionally, you won’t have to worry about packing the right number of water treatment tablets, as each one is single-use, and new ones will be needed whenever you next run out of treated water. In contrast, the LifeStraw’s 1,000 Liter use recommendation means that a single straw can last a camper for quite a long time.
Relative to other types of camping gear, both options are relatively expensive, but while the roughly $10 packs of water filtration tablets will start to add up over time, a single LifeStraw, which can last you months, only costs $20. The straw’s filter will also remove sediment and debris that can make drinking water from natural sources quite unpleasant.
If you’re only traveling in areas with relatively safe water sources, a filtration device is likely your best since you won’t need protection from virus-borne diseases that are threats in the area you’re visiting. Compared to other filtration products on the market, the LifeStraw is simple to use, requiring no batteries, assembly, or maintenance other than regular replacements.
Of course, it’s important to stress that despite claims to the contrary from some proponents of the LifeStraw, this product does not remove viruses, and is not recommended in less developed countries that are less likely to have uncontaminated water sources due to underdeveloped or lacking sewage systems and public water treatment facilities.
Other Water Purification Methods
While water purification tablets and LifeStraw are among the most popular choices, there are several other options for portable water purification, including using charcoal, UV purifiers, chemical tablets, as well as other methods.
There are several low-cost ways to treat water that some backpacking and wilderness blogs recommend that might surprise you, including using sunlight or bleach to clean your water.
The idea behind using sunlight to purify your water is something that has been done in developing countries for a long time, and it’s based on the same premise as UV purifiers: the rays in UV light can neutralize harmful contaminants in water. In the same way that UV light is harmful to your skin because it can damage your DNA, UV light will cause bacteria and viruses to degrade in the water you’ve collected for treatment.
The way it works is that you collect water in a clear container and leave it in direct sunlight for three or more hours. During that time, the UV light is expected to sufficiently degrade contaminants and treat the water. Another method is to add around eight drops of bleach in the water and let it sit for a similar amount of time.
While these options can work consistently, they’re not 100% foolproof, especially in areas where there the water is highly contaminated, or the types of contaminants aren’t susceptible to these treatment methods. Also, with the sunlight method, it depends on you having reliably bright sunlight to treat your water, which may not always be the case.
A more reliable method can be to boil your water, but you might not always have access to a heat source, storage for the treated water, or time to sufficiently boil the water, so this is a better option if you’ll be in once place for relatively long or know that that method is good enough to treat local contaminants.
Choosing Which Option Is Right for You
When making your travel plans, make sure that you research what the best practices are for having access to clean, potable water because it’s very important for your health and wellbeing. Both water purification tablets and LifeStraw products can be effective methods for treating water from unknown sources, but whether they’re right for your trip depends on where and how long it is.
For long-term campers or travelers going to visit developed countries that will be staying in one location for multiple days or weeks at a time, the slower method of using water purification tablets can be the best option.
Although having to wait for your water to be treated might get tiresome, you’ll likely have space and time to deal with this option, which will also help meet your need to have clean water for showering, brushing your teeth and other tasks. On the other hand, LifeStraw products can be a backpacking-friendly option that allows you to have a quick and convenient way to safely drink from natural water sources.
If the areas you’re traveling to make a LifeStraw a reasonably safe option for you to use, it’s not only convenient but also potentially the more affordable option, especially if your trip is long enough to require you to purchase multiple packs of water purification tablets, which can quickly outstrip the cost of a Life Straw that won’t need to be replaced for several months.
A LifeStraw will also allow you to avoid the unpleasantness of the taste may tablets will add to your drinking water, as well as filter out sediment commonly in water from natural sources. At the end of the day, be sure to consider your safety first before convenience and comfort because whichever water treatment option you use should improve your trip and not leave you vulnerable to uncomfortable and potentially life-threatening illnesses.