A few years ago, I visited friends in Mexico and was delighted to find a water dispenser unit in their kitchen.
You know, the one with a 5-gallon (18.9 l) jug of pure water that is oft delivered by a man wearing a crisp, blue uniform.
Towards the end of my stay, I saw one of my friends filling the jug with tap water and my face went green with despair.
I had unwittingly been drinking tap water in a country where the term Montezuma’s Revenge (a.k.a., traveller’s diarrhea) originated. Suffice it to say, I ended up having crappy diarrhea (pun intended) on the plane ride home and for days thereafter.
But it could have been so much worse . . . as in typhoid fever worse.
Being water wise and diligent is one of the key ways to stay perfectly healthy during your travels. Here are 4 water questions you should ask yourself early on in the trip planning process.
Is the tap water safe to drink?
When we travel overseas, we expose our body to pathogens it isn’t used to. This is especially the case when it comes to local tap water and groundwater.
Local water may contain native, non-lethal pathogens to which your body isn’t accustomed and drinking it could cause diahrrea, giardia, hepatitis A or other illnesses that can cast a pall on your trip.
Worse yet, in many parts of the world, due to sub-standard sanitation methods or contaminated groundwater, local water may contain deadly pathogens like typhoid and cholera.
Early on in your trip planning process, check the BYG (Before You Go) Guides for the countries you plan to visit to confirm whether the tap water is safe to drink or not.
Then you’re in luck because you don’t have to be on guard during your trip!
Just be sure to bring a filtered water bottle like the Brita Squeeze & Go.
In doing so, you’ll be doing the environment and wildlife a serious solid by keeping your bottled water usage to a bare minimum.
The Brita Squeeze bottle is my favorite hydration companion when I’m day hiking, road tripping or sightseeing in countries where the tap water is safe to drink.
Because it has a mini filtration system, you can easily fill it up with tap water in your lodging and at water fountains and the like while on-the-go.
And, because it’s a squeeze bottle, you can easily transfer filtered water into a cup or second bottle, which is super convenient.
Then move on to Tips 2 thru 4 below.
And keep in mind that when the tap water isn’t safe for you to drink, that means it also isn’t safe for you to brush your teeth with, shave with or handwash a dish with.
In most cases, it will be perfectly safe to take showers with; just be sure to keep your mouth closed at all times. And NEVER get local water anywhere near a fresh cut or wound.
Can I recycle plastic bottles there?
When visiting locales where the water is not safe to drink, one of your safest options is bottled water.
Some hotels in these locales will offer guests two complimentary bottles of water every day. Multi-day group tours often do the same. And, in many places, bottled water is easy to find at grocery and corner stores.
The negative side of using bottled water in locales such as these is that, oftentimes, they do not have a recycling infrastructure to prevent plastic waste from wrecking deadly havoc on birds and marine life.
So before your trip, check to see if each of the hotels, hostels, vacation rentals, etc., on your itinerary has recycling bins, whose contents are taken to an actual recycling plant, not a landfill.
If not, then plan ahead to use one or more DIY water purification methods detailed below so you can keep your bottled water purchases and consumption to a bare minimum throughout your trip.
And for the few plastic bottles you do use, you can flatten and store them in your checked luggage so you can recycle them when you get home.
Note: NEVER drink water from a bottle with a broken seal because it has likely been filled with tap water by an enterprising local.
What’s my DIY water purification plan?
Boil, Boil, Void All Trouble
The best and most surefire way to purify tap water is to boil it.
You’ll need to heat the water to a rolling boil so it reaches 212° Fahrenheit (100° Celsius). Note: water’s boiling point is lower at higher altitudes.
Keep this in mind as you plan lodging and accommodations for your trip . . .
Will there be an electric kettle or kitchenette in your hotel room? A stove and a pot in your hostel or vacation rental? Or should you bring your own mini electric kettle like the Bonavita Dual-Voltage Kettle?
I recommend bringing an insulated thermos to store the boiled water in as it cools, preferably in a refrigerator. Be sure to keep the water covered as it cools to prevent any re-contamination.
In cases when boiling water is not an option, you can use chlorine dioxide tablets instead.
They contain the same chemical compound used by water treatment plants in many locales where the water is safe to drink.
The purified water shouldn’t have a residual taste, but in case it does, you could bring along a Brita Squeeze bottle, which filters out the taste of chlorine.
To eat or not to eat …?
If you’ve never noticed the major role water plays in the foods and drinks we enjoy every day, you definitely will once you journey to a locale where the water isn’t safe to drink.
When dining out, it is best to stick to food that is fully and freshly cooked; food in factory-sealed packaging; beverages in factory-sealed bottles and cans; and hot beverages like coffee or tea made with fully-boiled water.
Don’t even think about having a fresh salad!
Or ice with your drink. Or soft-cooked eggs. Or juice or milk that isn’t pasteurized. Or soda from a soda fountain (wherein soda syrup is mixed with local water).
When it comes to fresh fruit, only eat that which you can, and have, peeled yourself—like oranges and bananas. Just be sure to rinse them with purified water before you unpeel.
And when it comes to street food . . . some of the best food in the world is street food, so instead of foregoing it altogether, my rules of thumb are:
- I only eat street food that is fully and freshly cooked.
- I only buy from street vendors who keep their stalls, carts, gondolas, etc., clean and neat, as it gives me greater assurance that they are more diligent in selecting and storing food for safe consumption.
- I eat street food sparingly and only when I really, really want to try something—because it looks and smells so good! But I know that in doing so, there is ALWAYS A RISK of getting sick, so I never travel without antidiarrheal medicine. Never.