Disclaimer: The information on this page is given as personal experience and should not replace genuine survival or water safety advice. Seek professional knowledge and guidance in all situations, but feel free to use my personal thoughts on obtaining free water as a place to start your research.
Water, more than most things, is essential to life, and when on the road it is important to find constant access to clean water without having to buy bottled water constantly. Bottled water is expensive and terrible for the environment, so if you are able to find free water you will be doing yourself and the environment a favour.
Dirty Water Can Kill You (Or Make You Very Sick)
Every year, over 315,000 children die as a result of diarrheal diseases caused by the consumption of unsafe water and poor sanitation. To put that into perspective, that is around 900 children dying a day, not to mention adults. [Figures from Water Aid: Donate to support clean water around the world here]. Dirty water can be contaminated with any matter of nasties including E. coli, cholera, salmonella, protozoa (such as giardia and cryptosporidium), viruses (such as hepatitis A, polio and rotavirus), or chemical pollutants. These are really bad and can cause serious sickness or worse, so it is very important to make sure that you can get continuing access to free water on your travels.
Carry Water Containers
In order to take advantage of free water sources and to carry water, you need containers to hold it. Any container will do, but try to get a metal container as glass containers break easily and plastic containers (bottles) are bad for the environment and degrade over time, leaking chemicals into your water. If you can get a water bottle fitted with a water filter, this will solve a lot of your problems as it will allow you to filter water in your bottle.
Ask People For Free Water
The most common way I have obtained free water over the years is simply by asking people. If you explain that you are travelling and would like to refill your bottles, most people will be happy to fill them up with drinking water for you. I have knocked on house doors, asked in pubs and restaurants, and utilised human kindness in many different parts of the world on many occasions. I choose where I ask for water, but I don’t recall anybody ever refusing to provide me with free water when I have asked.
Drinking Tap Water
Many countries around the world have drinkable tap water and quite often I drink tap water when I am in these countries. [See this infographic on NeoMam for more on this] As I do this often, I think I have built up a little bit of an immunity by doing so (or possible my immune system is strong), but my partner has got sick in countries where I have not. This could be due to local microbes (or other nasties) that locals build up an immunity to, that I have also built up an immunity to or am lucky enough to not be affected by. Thus you must be careful when drinking tap water, even when considered safe, as it may not be suitable for you personally or may be contaminated by local pipes. In order to steralise water, read on.
Drinking From Streams
Across Iceland and Norway (as well as certain parts of a few other countries), I have drank straight from streams. It was always fine, although this may not be good practice for everyone and you never know what nasties might be lying in a stream upriver. Once again, steralise the water before drinking it and only drink clear water from fast flowing streams.
Free, public water fountains are available in many cities around the world. Keep an eye out for these and fill up when you get the chance.
If you have water that you don’t know is safe to drink, you can steralise in some of the following ways:
- Bring it to a rolling boil for 1-5 minutes (dependent upon which source you listen to), and increase boiling time by one minute for every 300m you gain in vertical altitude. Note: Boiling water will not remove solids in the water.
- Use a pump purifier, water bottle with a built in purifier, or an ultraviolet purifier to purify the water in your flask. There are many different versions of each available on the market, so do a little research to see which will be most practical and most effective for your needs.
- Use steralisation drops or tablets. Once again, there are many different options available to buy. They are not free, but they are very cheap.
- Build a water filter. Typically you need some form of a funnel (even tree bark will do) which you then fill with layers of sand, charcoal, grass, and gravel, then allow the water to run through your filter. This is, in essence, what expensive water filters do.
Always Get Clean Water
In summary, always drink clean water, otherwise you risk endangering your life. If you are going into an area where obtaining clean water is a serious concern, get proper advice for your own safety. This page only shows techniques I have used and should not be used as survival advice.