As August quickly approaches, the snow is melting, the wildflowers are going absolutely crazy, and the mosquitoes are almost unbearable! It must be backpacking season! This week we bring our attention to a new and unique water purification product, the SteriPEN. The fourth installment of Alpenglow’s “Light is Right” equipment reviews for, these reviews are meant to educate and inspire.

When it comes to filtering water in the backcountry, the options are almost overwhelming. Traditional choices include iodine pills, chlorine dioxide tablets, two-part seemingly scientific concoctions (Aquamira), and most commonly, pumps of various shapes, sizes, and functionality. SteriPEN, a small company from Maine, has shaken up these well-known offerings by creating a set of small, light and simple ultraviolet (UV) water purification products.

First, let’s make it clear that the majority of water in both the Lake Tahoe area and the High Sierra should be treated in order to make it drinkable.  Desolation, for instance, is America’s most heavily used wilderness area. Granted, a gushing mountain stream usually looks extremely beautiful, lined with wildflowers, chirping birds and maybe a deer grazing in the distance. However, make no mistake, as even the most picturesque bodies of water can be loaded with pathogens just waiting to send you for an extended visit to your toilet. Microorganisms generally come from human and animal waste and are spread by rain and run-off. The EPA reports that 90% of the world’s fresh water supply is contaminated. Awesome, see below.

Pathogens are divided into 3 microorganisms: protozoa, bacteria and viruses. All of these critters can seriously put you out of commission. Protozoa (amoebae, giardia, cryptosporidia) are generally sized from 1-15 microns and get into drinking water via animal and human feces. They are highly resistant to chemical disenfectants but due to their size, are easily filtered by a traditional pump.

Bacteria (0.2-5 microns) include E-coli, salmonella, and cholera. Nasty! If these bacteria become mixed with human and/or animal feces in drinking water, they become an instant ticket to adverse health. Think bacteria isn’t burly? Ask someone who has had necrotizing fasciitis aka Flesh Eating Bacteria. Good thing that like protozoa, these can be filtered with a good pump.

Viruses are the smallest of the three pathogens and usually cannot be dealt with via traditional water treatment methods, due to their 0.02-0.2 micron size. Examples include Hepatitis and polio.  These gnarly bugs can only propagate in living cells since they do not possess their own metabolism. Viruses are dealt with via a pump that possesses a very small filter pore size, but more commonly heat or chemical disenfectants. Of note here is the fact that viruses are rarely a problem within the lower 48 states.

The majority of backpackers today own some type of pump to treat water, usually from Katadyn or MSR. Pumps function as microfilters, and are worthy of filtering protozoa and bacteria, be it in remote areas of the Sierra or preparing suspect tap water in that bargain hotel in Tijuana. Purifiers, on the other hand, like the SteriPEN, kill all nasty bugs, including the smallest viruses. These are great for backpacking because of their weight, but also for international travel where you might need a quick SteriPEN dunk into that suspect Coke or margarita. Often times people confuse the differences between filters and purifiers, but in general filters are plenty safe for our neighborhood. The advantages of microfilters and purifiers are: (1) simple and ease of use, (2) they disinfect water immediately, i.e. no waiting, (3) they offer continuous performance under various conditions, and (4) they remove dirt particles and sediment from the water. Disadvantages include their size and weight, expense, and maintenance.

SteriPEN differentiates itself from traditional water treatment methods by employing the brilliant power of ultraviolet light to make water drinkable. It’s the same technology used by both leading bottled water manufacturers and major cities to purify water. The SteriPEN does so by destroying 99.9% of the DNA of any pathogen calling your water home. Result? Water you can drink that won’t give you mud-butt.

SteriPEN offers three major models: the Adventurer Opti, Journey, and Classic. While models differ in their battery type, size, and weight, they treat .5 liters of water in 48 seconds and 1 liter in 90 seconds. All have their UV lamps encased in a durable quartz or nylon sleeve and possess an 8000L bulb lifetime. Note that the 8000L bulb lifetime does not differentiate between 0.5 and 1L of treated water, as there is no way to track this value.

SteriPEN’s newest model, the Adventurer Opti, is light, fast, compact and very easy to use. This model was just awarded the Backpacker Magazine 2011 Editor’s Choice Award. The Adventurer Opti is SteriPEN’s most backpacking inclined model, weighing in at 3.6 ounces with batteries. It is powered by C123 batteries, is 6.1 inches long, and possesses an LED flashlight/water sensor. $90

The SteriPEN Journey, also plenty suitable for backpacking, uses universal symbols to take the guesswork out of the water purification process. An integrated LCD screen displays the time remaining (in seconds) until the purification process is completed. When the volume of water has been successfully treated, the device shows a smiley face, allowing the user to know the water is safe to consume. Consequently, the device will show a frowning face if something goes amiss. The Journey also tracks the total number of bulb uses and signals when the lamp usage approaches its life limit. The device is 7.3 inches long, 1.6 inches wide, weighs in at 4.5oz with batteries and runs $100. For the record, any SteriPEN can treat 3 liters a day for nearly 7 years and is 160 times faster than water treatment chemicals!

The Classic, the original SteriPEN model, is also suited for backpacking and will appeal to the budget minded customer. At $70, the Classic offers the same features as the Journey, minus the LCD screen. Instead, it has a light that alternates between green and red. Additionally, the Classic operates on 4 AA batteries, is 7.6 inches long, and weighs 5.7 ounces.

Operating any model of SteriPEN is quite easy, but does require some know-how. In general, the device treats water when two small sensors detect the presence of water. In the Adventurer Opti, this happens from an LED sensor while in the Journey and Classic two small metal pins next to the bulb do so. To treat water, it’s literally as easy as 1-2-3: (1) push button to select volume (.5 or 1L) and activate, (2) place lamp in water, and (3) stir until LCD screen (Journey) or green light (Adventurer Opti and Classic) indicates completion of dose. Important to note is that a reference white light is displayed by the unit while treatment occurs. This is not UV light, as such light is invisible. If the SteriPEN is removed before the treatment time has elapsed, a blinking red light or frowny-face will be shown, model dependent.

Any model of SteriPEN will shut off automatically in either 48 or 90 seconds, depending upon chosen dosage. Dosage amount may vary based on water temperature and quality of the batteries employed.  The turbidity of water can impede the UV light, so it is always a good idea to agitate the bottle at some point during the treatment. Make sure you get the FitsAll prefilter or Nalgene compatible bottle top to remove sediment and chunkiness, shown below. Or cowboy up and make it happen.

Overall, the SteriPEN concept is awesome. Easy to use, light, compact and relatively inexpensive, this is one of the best water treatment methods out there. We carry all three models, and the FitsAll here at Alpenglow Sports and you can feel good about your purchase by keeping water bottles, etc. out of landfills.

Alpenglow Sports is Northern California’s go-to resource for all things outdoor. Summer specialties include trail running, hiking, backpacking, and rock climbing. Come see us for the friendliest most knowledgeable specialty service in town!

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