When I’ve raved about my favorite travel gear brands on here before, it’s been about clothing, shoes, and luggage. When it comes to SteriPEN though, I’m not just raving about a product that’s fashionable or rugged. I’m a big fan because this is a product that has a quantifiable positive impact on our planet.
In short, a Steripen is a water purifier. But it’s a life-changing one. Which leads me to a story…
Pure Water From Impure Mountain Streams
In August of 2017 I went on the toughest hike of my life, in Kyrgyzstan. Sure, I’d hiked through the Himalayas twice, including three full weeks on the Annapurna Circuit and in parts of India where a wrong turn could put you in a field of marijuana plants stretching as far as you could see. I have done three multi-day hikes in Peru, including the Inca Trail. But those were a walk in the park compared to the six days of going up and down 1,000+ meters from a starting point of 3,500 meters, for 7 or 8 hours on trails we made up as we went along.
This was real backcountry hiking, the kind where there are no wimpy things like beds, chairs, bathrooms, or cell phone signals. We had a crew of porters hauling tents and sleeping bags though, plus a terrific guide named Daniyar who was calm and cheerful, never getting flustered by my slowness, or a sick porter, or bad weather. He probably got paid the equivalent of a fruit picker on a U.S. farm for doing an expedition leader kind of job out in the field.
There was plenty of water around, but the source was often questionable. In the high mountain valleys of Kyrgyzstan, there are few other people around, but there are lots of animals. Even at 4,000 meters, there are a hundred cows and horses for every human. So the porters carry propane tanks for days so they can not only cook dinner, but boil water for 10 minutes at a time (then let it cool) so everyone has water they can trust.
We hikers had secret weapons though in our collection of hiking gear. The porters never had to boil water except for coffee and tea because we used our SteriPENs to purify the water from streams. We drank as much as we wanted and never ran out. We just stuck the wand in the water, waved it around for about a minute, and were all set. One of my buddies even had a Quantum version that would prepare four liters at a time.
Daniyar kept eyeing us with fascination as this magic wand let us fill up, stir, and move on. He was probably more amazed to hear that none of us got the runs and we had used this mysterious sorcery in dozens of countries before, with no ill effects. “I know it looks unbelievable,” I told him, “but I’ve used it for years and so have my wife and daughter on vacations, no problem.”
At the end of the last day, the four of us who were the wimpy foreigners carrying packs with just water bottles and cameras huddled together to figure out the proper tip amount for him. “He really seems to like that Steripen,” one guy pointed out and we all nodded.
“But he’d probably rather have the cash,” I said. After a bit of back and forth, we gathered the cash we were going to tip him, but decided to bring up the Steripen as an option if he really wanted it. After all, three of the four of us were carrying one, so we’d still have a back-up between us for the rest of the trip.
On the last day, as we all said our goodbyes, we motioned Daniyar over, out of sight of the porters, whom we were tipping separately. “Here’s the deal,” our designated spokesman told him. “We were very happy with our trip and your crew. We want to give you a good tip. You can have this amount, which we are glad to hand over, or we can give you one of the Steripens so you can use it on your future trips.”
He grinned broadly and pointed to the water purifier.
“Done,” I said, and handed it over. My buddy handed him some new AA batteries to go in it. Hugs and smiles all around.
The Perfect Water Purifier
At this point I’ve lost track of how many countries I’ve used a SteriPen in, but it’s definitely more than a dozen. At this point I still haven’t gotten the runs even once after using one. You just wave the UV wand around in tap water or clear stream water for less than a minute and a half and it kills everything that could hurt you in a liter of water. If I had bought bottled water all those times, I would have gone through the equivalent of a tractor trailer container by now probably—I’ve been using one of these on every trip to a “can’t drink the water” country for 12 years.
For most travelers, the easiest version to carry is the Classic 3 one, which is what I gave to our guide. It’s a little larger than some of the others but that’s because it uses four AA batteries, which are easy to find or easy to use as rechargeable ones. It retails for $69 and is sometimes on sale for less. After two sets of batteries the thing will have already paid for itself if you just count up what you would have spent buying water. Then you’ll have years and years ahead of you for it to keep paying off. (Each has at least a two-year warranty.)
This is all you have to carry. No pump, no charcoal filter, nothing to replace except the power source—which as I said can recharge instead. It takes up very little space in your bag (less than a pair of socks) and doesn’t weigh much.
The Various SteriPEN Versions
I have tried every SteriPEN product on the market over the years. You can even see a demo video with bad camera work for the Adventurer Opti version that I recorded seven years ago or so on YouTube. While it’s light at less than four ounces, I don’t like that version as much simply because it uses odd-sized batteries that are expensive to purchase or require a proprietary charger. It usually retails for $90.
The Classic version above ($69) may be larger, but it uses AA batteries, which you can always find anywhere in a pinch. Or you can buy rechargeable ones with their own compact travel charger for less than $20 on Amazon. I even have a Goal Zero solar charger version that will connect to a portable solar panel. That came in handy on the hike because I could clip it to my daypack and charge up spare batteries.
I was a big fan of the small, USB-rechargeable Freedom version that came out a few years ago, but my battery went kaput after about two years and apparently I was not alone—it’s no longer available. It was also marketed as Pure+, outside of the USA and Europe. Both are now hard to find outside of eBay and outlet stores.
The SteriPEN Ultra is a $99 version that is also USB rechargeable and it has an LED display to let you know how much time is left while it is purifying. It weighs about five ounces and one charge will purify around 50 liters.
If you have a group of people who want to share, you may want to go for the Quantum version. That looks like the Classic version but works in conjunction with a four-liter bag with a reflective interior that allows you to purify four liters at a time in 2 minutes, 30 seconds. You then transfer that water to everyone’s refillable water bottle and off you go.
All of these come with a Neoprene carrying case and they fit easily in your backpack or daypack. If you can purify 50 liters on one charge, imagine how many single-use bottles that saves! You can avoid shoving more plastic into Mother Nature’s mouth.
You can see more about the brand at this link, but know that it was recently bought by the larger Katadyn company, which has specialized in more traditional pump and filter water purifiers. You’ll need one of those if you’re filtering water that’s cloudy or silty.
See other favorite travel gear brands used on this adventure: Oboz and Craghoppers.
Disclosure: HydroPhoton and Katadyn have supplied products for review on several occasions. This post contains affiliate links that will result in a commission for the publisher if a product is purchased. You will never pay more, however, than if you went to the selling company’s site directly.