In this Travel Berkey Review, we take a close-up look at this portable water filter that we really put to the test on some waterfall-chasing road trips.
In fact, we had never even considered using one of these filters until one day the folks at Berkey reached out to us and wanted to send us this filter so we could try it out.
As a condition for this product, they asked that we review the Travel Berkey, but they didn’t tell us what to write so we can be brutally honest about our experiences.
Normally, we don’t do solicitations like this, but I guess the timing was perfect as the amount of plastic consumption in our travels (especially bottled water) has always bothered us, and this water filter was one way to combat that.
After all, when we’re on-the-go as often as we are on our domestic waterfall road trips, it’s hard to turn down the convenience of bottled water despite the environmental costs that they impose.
So without further ado, here’s our impressions of this water filter that we didn’t realize we needed…
What is the Travel Berkey?
The Travel Berkey is simply a water purification system in the form of a water filter.
They come in different sizes, but the Travel Berkey size is 1.5 gallons, which is said to be good for 2-3 people.
That said, we’ve successfully used it on a trip that involved 7 people, where it was a convenient way to fill up our water bottles or to purify tap water for the purposes of cooking.
How does the Travel Berkey work?
The way the Travel Berkey (or any of the Berkey filters) works is by putting water into the filter and letting gravity pull the water through the filter before the filtered water trickles into a lower container for use.
The filter itself contains charcoal, which can catch or filter the majority of impurities in the water while letting the water pass through.
This principle has actually been demonstrated on some episodes of the show Naked and Afraid, where some survivalists figured out how to make their own filter out of charcoal and bamboo (as opposed to boiling water and waiting for the water to cool).
Indeed, this filter doesn’t require any electricity nor “elbow-grease” for it to work, and I tend to think of it as a convenient way to get clean water based on bushcraft principles.
That said, there is some degree of maintenance and preparation work to maintain the filter’s reliability and performance, and that involves periodically cleaning the filter as well as priming the filter.
Below is a video explaining more about the Berkey Filter.
Cleaning the Charcoal Filters on the Travel Berkey
We would generally know that the filters of the Travel Berkey would need cleaning when the output of the filter is really slowing down (where waiting a couple of hours isn’t enough to drain the entire filter portion).
In order to clean the filter, we just have to unscrew the wingnuts and remove the two charcoal columns from the Travel Berkey.
Then, we would wipe off the collected gunk on their surfaces with a ScotchBrite pad (two of them are included) or a stiff toothbrush.
I’ve also maintained my backpacking carbon filters with the abrasive side of a sponge, and I’d imagine this is also true of the Berkey.
You NEVER want to use soap or chemicals because they’re essentially contaminants that will clog the filter.
Moreover, you NEVER want to put these elements in the dishwasher because these filter elements are fragile (you’ll notice small granules of charcoal flaking off just by handling them), and you could ruin that dishwasher (let alone destroying your filter element) by doing so.
After re-attaching the charcoal columns, if the output of the filter improves, then we can keep using the same filters as is.
However, if even this step doesn’t improve the performance of the filter, then it may be time to replace the charcoal columns with a pair of new ones.
Anecdotally, these filter elements are supposed to last years though I’d imagine the replacement frequency really depends on the quality of the water that you subject these elements to.
Priming the Charcoal Filters on the Travel Berkey
As far as priming the filter is concerned, this is basically running the filter backwards by putting running water backwards through the Berkey’s charcoal column.
The reason why you want to do this is to try to expel any air occupying the filter elements that would hinder or otherwise block the output of the filtration system.
The air generally accumulates when the filter has not been in use for a long time so the air replaces the water that had occupied the filter when it was in use.
To do the priming, assuming the filter elements have been detached already, we first have to attach the rubber priming button or ring to the threaded end of the element.
This ring helps to force the water through the filter element instead of having lots of the water miss the intended target (i.e. the filter element’s channel).
Next, we would put water through the rubber priming ring and essentially let water flow “backwards” through the filter element such that filter element starts to “sweat” water, which usually takes around 5 seconds.
When Julie first primed the filter prior to our first use of it, she found that putting the filter section upside-down beneath a faucet was slow and inefficient.
So she eventually figured out that it was far easier to run a garden hose through the filter section upside-down, which seemed to do the job much faster.
We generally have to prime the filter if it has been the first time we’re using the Travel Berkey, or if it has been the first time in several weeks that we’ve used it (like the first time on an upcoming trip).
We’ve found that it’s a good idea to prime the filter at home first so it’s ready for use on the road.
That way, you don’t have to waste valuable vacation time priming the filter when you just want the thing to work.
Why use the Travel Berkey?
As far as we’re concerned, the primary reason why we were sold on using the Travel Berkey on our road trips was to save money, especially when you consider the high markup of bottled water.
Not only that, but we’ve learned that sometimes bottled water can be sold out (especially if the weather has been hot) so this can be one less headache that we’d have to deal with.
Speaking of bottled water, the single-use plastics that they’re packaged in tend to become plastic pollution in both our environment as well as in our bodies.
While the plastic pollution in our environment may not motivate some people to ditch bottled water, the toxic soup of chemicals leaching into the water definitely motivated us to do something about it.
Indeed, when bottled water or plastic jugs full of water are sitting in the car on a hot day, the heat causes the chemicals to leach into the water, which in turn gets ingested when we drink from them.
Who knows what the breaking point will be before this results in the body giving into the onslaught of toxins and eventually manifesting itself as some sort of cancer?
Indeed, the true cost of plastic pollution is externalized in the markets (as evidenced by their “cheap” cost), but Nature finds a way of imposing their true cost.
When to use the Travel Berkey?
So far, we’ve found that the Travel Berkey is most useful when there are readily-available water sources.
For example, we can fill the Travel Berkey with tap water and let the filter catch some of the chlorine or other impurities that find their way into the municipal water supply (which is technically already “clean” to begin with).
We’ve tried it on tap water at home as well as some cities like Las Vegas where the tap water had a heavy chlorine smell to it.
However, the Travel Berkey’s filtered water seemed to significantly reduce the chlorine concentrations in the water.
We’ve also filled the Travel Berkey with natural streams where the charcoal filter can filter out parasites like giardia or other pathogens that wildlife can introduce into the waterways.
Indeed, this covers the vast majority of situations that we’ve encountered, and it’s why they’re ideal companions on our road trips.
Now there maybe situations that would test the capabilities of the Travel Berkey such as stagnant ponds (when water is scarce) or water contaminated by sewage (if you find yourself in an urban disaster or survival situation).
While I generally wouldn’t seek out such situations to prove a point, it may be the only option left if boiling water is not possible.
Who is the Travel Berkey for?
Given our experiences, I’m convinced that the Travel Berkey is primarily meant for road-trippers or RVers.
It’s primarily a portable water filtration system sized for people who are on-the-go with the luxury of more luggage or cargo space.
That said, the 1.5 gallon capacity of the Travel Berkey is said to accommodate 2-3 people, which might make it too small for home use.
For that, they have the Big Berkey (which itself comes in several sizes) to serve larger households or a larger variety of household needs if the municipal water supply from the tap isn’t doing the job.
In our personal situation, we have a reverse osmosis (RO) system, but that actually requires more water to pass through its filtration system than the Berkey does to get the same volume of purified water.
On the flip side of the size equation, the Travel Berkey was too big for trips that require flying as luggage space is severely limited.
For something like that, we’d be better off using a combination of a collapsible bucket combined with my backpacking pump filter (like my MSR MiniWorks-EX, which I’ve had for well over a decade).
Either that, or something even more compact like a steri-pen or iodine tablets are other alternatives.
What don’t I like about the Travel Berkey?
As much as we’re finding the Travel Berkey to be useful, there are some things about it that we weren’t thrilled about.
First, there is no level indicator to let us know how much water is left and whether we’d need to fill more.
While we could pull up the upper half of the filter and look at its level or accessorize and buy a replacement spigot with a water level indicator, this is really more of an inconvenience and not a deal breaker.
Second, the positioning of the water dispensing nozzle is not low enough to dispense all of the purified water.
Therefore, there’s always water below the output, and even tilting the Travel Berkey leaves some water behind that would have to be poured out the top.
Again, this is also an inconvenience, and I wonder if it’s a design flaw.
Third, the Travel Berkey can be time consuming to use because the filtering takes time and its charcoal columns need priming prior to first use (or first use in a long time).
Because of the pace of filtering, we tend to fill it up the night before or as soon as we check in so the filter can do its thing while we’re busy doing other things like sanitizing the accommodation and unloading our luggage.
Fourth, the Travel Berkey is too big to bring on international trips, where luggage space is valuable.
Even when we flip the upper half of the Travel Berkey to fit into the lower half, it’s still too big to bring with us on our travels as it’s still slightly larger (even when disassembled) than a bear cannister.
And if you’ve been backpacking with those, you know how bulky-but-necessary they are!
Finally, there are some capabilities that it doesn’t come with like the fluoride and arsenic filtering, which require accessorizing to address.
That said, we did just fine without such an accessory on a recent five-state trip encompassing Nevada, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and California.
Final Thoughts / Conclusion
The Travel Berkey is something that we never knew we needed until we got a chance to use it.
Indeed, after using it on our road trips, we’ve found that it was one of the few items that we’ve used almost every day.
The only times that we didn’t use it was for short stays where it was too inconvenient to bring it up for limited use after checking in late, and then having to bring it back down as we’d be checking out early.
In general, when it comes to water purification, there’s a trade-off between convenience and effectiveness, and the Travel Berkey pretty much hit the sweet spot for road-trippers on the go.
Heck, Julie even found a use for it as far as purifying tap water for cooking as well as for backup drinking water if there’s something wrong with our reverse osmosis (RO) system at home, so it’s still useful even when we’re not on the go.
These days, it has become a mainstay of any road trips that we do, especially given the COVID-19 realities that we’re living with that make it less palatable to fly if we don’t have to…