Water Treatment For Remote Bike Tours

For bike tours that take you away from the hustle and bustle of civilisation (as all the best ones seem to do), it’s crucial to consider how you will find clean drinking water.

That mountain stream might look crystal clear but drinking untreated water exposes you to the risk of picking up giardia (a bacteria with nasty side effects like bloating, gas and nausea) along with a range of other bacteria, parasites and viruses. Water treatment is also important in less developed countries, where tap water doesn’t always meet the high standards that we’re used to at home. The main threats are:

  • Protozoa – Cryptosporidium and giardia. Giardia in particuarly is widespread around the globe.
  • Bacteria – Also present all over the world. Includes E. Coli and Salmonella.
  • Viruses – Rare in North America. Only normally a risk in water contaminated by human waste. Hepatitis A and Polio are included in this group.

So, the principle is simple: treat your water and stay healthy. But how do you decide which method to use and which product to buy? The number of options left us cross-eyed the first time we tried to make a decision.

To make things a little easier, we’ve created this chart showing the options for obtaining safe drinking water:

Treatment Pros Cons
Water Filter Takes out bacteria and protozoa. Treat many litres at once. Little future investment beyond initial purchase. Portable. High purchase price. Hard to replace the filter on the road. Can be time consuming. Doesn’t remove all viruses. Can be heavy or bulky
Water Purifier Kills viruses, bacteria and protozoa. Possible aftertaste. Often requires batteries. Many don’t remove sediment. May not be field maintainable.
Chlorine Dioxide Tablets Small, cheap and light, eliminates viruses and bacteria Aftertaste. Long wait time. Limited shelf life. Doesn’t remove sediment.
Boiling Cheap and effective. Only requires a way to boil water. Takes time to boil and cool. Hard to do large quantities. Doesn’t remove sediment. Uses fuel.
Bottled Water Quick and reliable Not always available. Can be expensive. Creates plastic waste. Not always safe (can be tampered with).

As you can see, there’s no one obvious choice. You can narrow down the options by considering factors like:

  • Budget – Boiling water is free if you’re on a strict budget and chemical tablets are also very affordable. These two options assume you have access to relatively sediment-free water.
  • Trip Duration – A water filter or purifier makes for a big initial outlay but can pay for itself over time. For longer trips, you’ll also want a field serviceable option, not something that requires special batteries to run.
  • Location, Location, Location – A water purifier provides the most thorough treatment if you are going places where there is a risk of contamination from human waste.
  • Weight – If you’re aiming to travel lightly, then you may prefer one of the more compact water purifiers or tablets to a bulky water filters.

In the end, you may use more than one option. For example, we chose the MSR Miniworks EX but also occasionally boiled water and bought bottled water.

Here are suggestions for different types of bike tours:


Extended Travel, Through Developed and Less Developed Countries
On a long trip, you’ll want something that doesn’t require any specialist batteries or other parts and can be fixed by yourself, while on the road. Try the MSR Miniworks EX, which has an excellent reputation and a proven track record. Another good choice would be the Katadyn Base Camp gravity filter ($79.95 from REI).

It’s a bit slower than the MSR Miniworks and the filter size is slightly larger but you don’t have to pump! These filters on their own would be sufficient most of the time and you could buy bottled water any time you were concerned about human contamination and viruses.

Backcountry Travel Through North America and Europe
Since viruses shouldn’t be a big concern and clear-running streams abound, you can boil your water (perhaps filtering through a bandanna or coffee filter to take out the biggest sediment) and bring some purification tablets ($12.95 from REI) for times when you want to save on fuel.

Expedition Trip To Less Developed Countriessawyerwaterpurification
If you’re going exclusively to less developed countries, the case is strongest for a system that will remove viruses as well as bacteria and sediment. For a system that’s easy to maintain, you could filter first with the MSR Miniworks EX or a similar product to remove sediment and then treat the water with purification tablets to kill viruses, anytime you are concerned about human waste contamination.

Alternatively, you could splash out on the Sawyer Complete Water Purification System, which is pricey ($139.95 from REI) but comes with a ‘million gallon guarantee’, requires no pumping and doesn’t use any chemicals.

There are also in-line filters to consider, such as this Sawyer 3-Way Filter ($59.95 from REI). They can turn your existing hydration pack (Camelbak, for example) into a water filter. Convenient!