Putting a Solar-Powered Purifier through its paces

Tested: SteriPEN Freedom Solar


Here in the United States we’re fortunate to have abundant resources, clean drinking water among them. The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 regulates every public water system in the country, and while a small percentage of the population is served by sub-par water systems, we can drink from the tap with near certainty that there’s no crypto lurking in the glass. Drinking from a stream in the American backcountry isn’t quite as safe — can you be sure a bear didn’t just unload upstream? — but some people think the fear of giardia is overblown, and some epidemiologic data suggest that poor hygiene (e.g., handwashing) could contribute significantly to the risk of illness. Our attitude? Better safe than sorry, particularly when traveling outside the United States in places where water is known to be contaminated. We sent our correspondent to Costa Rica for the final installment of The Road to La Ruta armed with the SteriPEN Freedom Solar ($105). While the water in Costa Rica is generally safe to drink, the CDC warns of hepatitis A and typhoid — and we didn’t want that coming back to HQ.

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In the water purification game there are a number of options that will turn contaminated water into something drinkable. It’s important to note that filters and purifiers will not clean water contaminated with chemicals, so if you’re hiking around the Niger Delta, best to bring along something in a bottle (Scotch works). What you can remove are dangerous microorganisms, which are caused by human and animal contamination and typically fall into three categories: bacteria (e.g., E.coli, salmonella), viruses (hepatitis A), and protozoa and cysts (cryptosporidium parvum, giardia). These are unpleasant, with symptoms ranging from diarrhea to projectile vomiting. The good news is that purifiers can zap them, and that’s exactly what the SteriPEN does, using short-wave ultraviolet light to destroy the DNA of microorganisms and render them harmless.

The SteriPEN is small and lightweight, easily tossed in with other gear in a daypack or camera bag. The Freedom Solar version is ideal for international travel: it’s outfitted with a USB-rechargeable battery that can be juiced from an outlet, computer or the solar panel that comes with it. The SteriPEN’s lamp is good for a total of 8,000 treatments, and each charge can purify 20 1L treatments or 40 1/2L treatments. Using it is simple: activate the UV lamp, submerge it in the water and stir until the sensor illuminates, indicating that the treatment is complete. An LED indicator guide in the instruction manual shows what different red/green combinations mean so you don’t get caught with your lamp down. One downside of any UV purifier is that it doesn’t clean dirt or other particulate from the water, so if you’re taking it from a natural source you’ll want some kind of filter as well, whether that’s from another brand or the pre-filter that SteriPEN sells for $13.

Our correspondent used the SteriPEN for drinking water while traveling from a surfing vacation (and an interview with Robert August) in Tamarindo, Costa Rica, to the starting line of La Ruta in Jaco, and then across the country to the finish line at the shore of the Caribbean. He’s still alive. Of course, we can’t say that he’d have been ill without it; it’s a safety precaution. What we can say is that the route of La Ruta travels along plenty of farming communities where water purification is a no-brainer.

Filtering and purifying is never fun. It’s like putting on a condom: you interrupt the adventure and turn it into something vaguely clinical. We’ll still cup our hands and drink from streams in the high wilderness (take that to mean what you will), but in most cases we’d rather be safe than sorry, particularly when the solution is as easy as a pocket-sized pen and a sunny day.