The Highs: Rugged, works quickly, does not affect water flavor

The Lows: A bit large at 7¼” long

The Verdict: A great way for world travelers to ensure safe water

Several weeks ago we took a quick look at the Katadyn Exstream XR water bottle purifier.  As you may recall, the Exstream is particularly suited to backpackers and hikers, as it not only kills bacteria, viruses, and protozoa, it also filters out sediment.  If it has a downside, it’s the fact that the Exstream XR processes relatively small amounts of water at a time.
If instead of hiking or backpacking, you’re traveling to a country in which the tap water and/or bottled water is of questionable quality, what can you do? An option more suited to travelers is the SteriPEN.  You’ve probably seen or heard about these devices.  The SteriPEN concept is simple:  use ultraviolet radiation to kill the bad stuff in water, and do so quickly.

The SteriPEN Journey – as the name implies – is targeted at travelers who want to ensure that the water they drink is free of bacteria and viruses.  The Journey couldn’t be much simpler to use.  Push its button once, and it’s ready to purify 1 liter of water; push the button twice, and it’ll treat 1/2 liter of water.

SteriPEN Journey LCD

After pushing the power button as described above, the two metal contacts (see below) need to be put into the water to be treated:

Metal contacts on the SteriPEN Journey

You can use the SteriPEN with a glass or bottle of water, and can even use it with standard bottled water bottles, thanks to its built-in, conical stopper-style design.   After pushing the power button (once or twice, as above), insert it into the water and the UV lamp illuminates; the LCD timer will count down the remaining seconds to completion.

SteriPEN Journey in action with water bottle

Can you trust this thing?

All water purification devices require users to make a leap of faith.  Aside from the SteriPEN’s UV light, you can’t actually see anything happening.  After use, you can’t help but wonder, “Did it work?”

Hydro-Photon, manufacturers of all the SteriPEN models, have thoroughly documented the testing their products have received.  Their website lists no fewer than 16 lab tests by independent test labs; here’s what the company has to say about testing:

At HYDRO-PHOTON we believe that stringent testing under adverse conditions is essential to the development of safe and reliable products. Therefore, we have conducted a wide range of testing at several certified independent laboratories and test facilities including the University of Arizona, the University of Maine, the Oregon Health Sciences University and at A & L Laboratories. This testing proves that SteriPEN exceeds the standard set forth in the U.S. EPA Guide Standard and Protocol for Testing Microbiological Water Purifiers.

Reader David commented on his experience with a SteriPEN – the Classic model – about a month ago (note that he and his friends in fact did use it while backpacking:

I have used the steripen classic whilst backpacking for a week in New Mexico. I was with a group of 7 people in the high desert, so we were purifying 6-10 gallons of water a day, either chemically or with the steripen.

I was initially skeptical when one of the others brought the pen along, and I was prepared to chemically treat (with chlorine dioxide) all our water. Of course UV is a well-established technology for purification at the industrial scale (plenty of science there) but I was worried about how that could be scaled down, made portable and usable in the field. I worried about user error, and a lot about the Murpheys of power consumption and breakage.

We brought two sets of the recommended lithium batteries, each of which the manufacturer suggests should give 100 treatments. While expensive, lithium has more power, weighs less and has a longer shelf-life. We did not count treatments, but we only used the first set in spite of frequent use.

We used it often for a couple reasons: it’s much faster than chemicals (which take at least 30 minutes, and sometimes several hours to work) and it left no objectionable taste (which, after a few days, can be a big deal). On a lower level, it is also really cool to watch, particularly if you have colored Nalgenes and treat your water at night.

The operation wasn’t bad, occasionally overly-aggressive stirring left the sensor out of the water, which automatically turns off the lamp and requires you to start from scratch. A gentle swirl works better. We found the pen occasionally finicky about a wet sensor or pressing the button too many times, but these were minor, and decreased as we grew familiar with the system. We kept a clean (not sterile) cloth in a zip-lock bag to dry the sensor as required, and to dry the whole thing when we were done (as recommended). The wet cloth was no doubt a home for bacterial, but we reasoned that any that might transfer to the lamp were certainly the first to die. So while it is not very complicated, practice and patience help. I will add here that, as in many things, it pays to read the directions and follow them: this is your health after all.

In terms of trust, I agree with Lordhamster, and while the manufacturer cites a large number of studies “proving” the effectiveness, that isn’t really enough to eliminate all doubt. On the other hand, the leap of faith that this goofy blue light is cleaning the water isn’t much different than the belief an odd chemical smell means “safe water.” All I can really say is: none of us got sick. That doesn’t prove anything of course, but I was happy about it at the time. Still am.

There were a few conditions of our experience that bear mentioning: We were able to get our water out of wells and livestock tanks, so it was **probably** pretty safe to begin with. Our wild water was always clear. Since the UV can’t work in high turbidity water we had coffee filters for sediment, however we never needed them. Above all, we could nearly always draw water from a spigot, so it went straight into the bottle without contacting the threads. When we had to dip and dunk, this system got be a lot trickier, as the UV light cannot treat water droplets on the thread, neck, lid etc. Typically we would designate one bottle for scooping, pour really carefully into the others for UV treatment, and then dose the scoop bottle with a ton of chemicals. Done assembly-line style this worked ok.

So a good investment? you really need to consider your use: for one or two people on a short backpacking trip, chemicals will probably be lighter and simpler. For a large group, however, the weight may start to balance out, particularly if you will not be able to “top off” regularly, so you’ll be low on water and thirsty when you arrive at each source. For international travel, I think the pen comes into it’s own: purifying (not filtering) low-turbidity water available from a tap or spigot for that added reassurance, and fast.

My recommendation, for whatever it is worth, is that I bought one for myself based on my experience. I chose the classic for the ease of battery replacement, even though it is larger and heavier than the “travel-specific” one. When not on a camping trip or international journey, it lives in our “disaster kit” to bolster our emergency water supply in case municipal treatment is in doubt.

There are 63 user reviews of the SteriPEN at Buzzillions, most of them quite positive; the average score is 4.5 stars (out of 5).  One user had issues when using the product in the tropics.  Read those reviews here.

Wrapping up

One important note:  SteriPEN products are intended for use with clear water.  If the water being treated is cloudy, it needs to be pre-filtered prior to treatment.  (SteriPEN sells products to handle pre-treatment.)  Cloudiness in the water will not allow the UV light to properly treat the water.

The SteriPEN Journey shown here weighs 4.5oz. or 128 grams; as mentioned above, it’s slightly over 7 inches long and is 1-1/8″ wide at its base.  It comes with a handy sheath that you can wear on your belt, if you’re so inclined. 

The Journey is good for 8000 cycles – enough to purify 4 liters of water a day for 7 years.  In terms of treatment time, it takes 90 seconds to treat a liter, and 48 seconds for a half liter.

The SteriPEN Journey typically sells for ~$99; it’s $82 at Amazon at present:  SteriPEN Journey at Amazon

If you’d like to learn more about the SteriPEN Journey or other SteriPEN models, visit the company’s website:  SteriPEN

If you’ve used a SteriPEN or otherwise would like to weigh in, please comment!

The Fine Print:  I have no connection to SteriPEN, but did receive a sample to assist in the writing of this post; this post does contain an Amazon affiliate link.

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