While it’s no secret that I support traveling lightly and packing only what’s necessary, the definition of necessary is subjective. And it’s also a tough call about recommending how travelers should stay healthy on the road. I’ve written about how sick I’ve gotten over the years. I even almost died in Laos from contaminated fresh vegetables. Travel health is a tricky subject and one that a lot of travelers assume that they can handle without much planning.
Water in most developing countries is not safe to drink. This means that travelers are relying on bottled water day in and day out. There are, however, other options. I found that carrying a SteriPen and/or a water purification device like the LifeStraw is a good fallback for those on long-term trips. Many backpackers are traveling overland through some remote areas, and in this regard, my SteriPEN saved my hide several times. There are moments when I had no choice but to drink local water — with the SteriPEN I could ensure that I wouldn’t get a parasite when that need arose.
Now, I didn’t leave with one either a SteriPEN nor a LifeStraw for my one-year round the world trip. But, my cousin brought a SteriPEN for us to use throughout India and Nepal, and it came in handy. We used it the vast majority of the time and it helped us stay healthy. Though we had some issues with traveler’s diarrhea, it wasn’t from the drinking water.
What is the SteriPEN?
It’s a small pen-like electronic device that emits an ultraviolet light and purifies either half a liter or one full liter of water at a time. The device operates off of batteries and works with clear water by killing the DNA of harmful microbes and bacteria.
A light wand sticks out of one end of the device — that gets submerged into tıhe bottle of water. Push the button either once or twice to purify a full liter of water or a half-liter. The light turns on and stays on while you agitate the water with the light wand until the dose is complete.
Once the water is safe to drink, about one minute later, the light turns off and flashes green. If it flashes red, you have to repeat the dose because something went wrong. For example, if you accidentally lift the wand out of the water during a treatment a sensor will flag it that the water was not properly treated and flash red.
The UV light destroys the DNA of any microbes and bacteria in the water. UV light is safely used in bottling plants all over the world, so this little light just brings it to the consumer level. Although UV light is bad for a person’s skin and such, when used within the water it’s safe.
Things I liked about the SteriPEN:
- Eco-friendly: We were able to really limit our use of plastic water bottles all throughout India and Nepal.
- Light and small. All we carried for it to work was our one liter Nalgene water bottles and the small SteriPEN Adventurer model.
- Effective: It worked. We stopped using it at one point in India because there were floaty things in the water – but everywhere else it worked and we didn’t get sick for the whole first month we traveled (and when we did get sick it was due to poor food choices!)
- Versatile: It went on the Annapurna trek. All of the bottled water on these treks is carried via porter and pretty pricey. We carried our Nalgene bottles and used the SteriPEN the whole way and didn’t have to purchase water once.
- Easier: I never had to backpack around with several liters of water strapped to my bag. And if we ran out of water at night, no worries about brushing our teeth with tap water, we just purified some more.
- Expensive: Some might consider the price tag steep for something that you might only use a dozen times on your trip. If that’s a concern, or if you’re solo, consider something like the LifeStraw. It’s great for a single person and will give you the same level of safety. With my extensive use for both my cousin and me, the price savings from not buying bottled water made it cost-effective.
- Batteries: The SteriPEN Adventurer takes Lithium CR123 Batteries. My cousin brought two sets of spare batteries from the United States. The US batteries were the only ones that worked. I’m not sure why, but we bought two other sets of backups in India from different locations and neither set worked. We were fortunate that the batteries we had from the States lasted just long enough to get us through our Annapurna trek; the charge on the Indian batteries was just not strong enough.
Should You Buy a SteriPEN?
It depends. If you’re traveling extensively and for quite some time through the developing world: YES. It lowers a traveler’s eco-footprint and will likely save money in the long term. Check the price for it on Amazon now.
If you’re backpacking around the world just once and only in these developing regions for a limited time: NO, it’s likely an unnecessary extravagance. But I do recommend you pack an affordable alternative like the LifeStraw so that you have a solid fall-back if you’re stuck without clean water.
After my cousin left my trip, I headed to Europe and did not need a SteriPEN. I have one now, however, and I brought it on my travels through Africa. Again, though I didn’t use it all of the time, I was happy to have it when I was stuck in a circumstance where I needed to drink something made with local water.
It’s a cool little device and it 100 percent lives up to it’s promise. It effectively sterilizes water from taps, water from rivers, any clear water you can put in your bottle it’ll sterilize. Between the SteriPEN it’s affordable alternative, the LifeStraw, you should have something in your bag that is small and handy.
Quick Tips: Stay Healthy While You Travel
- SteriPEN Adventurer Opti Personal, Handheld UV Water Purifier: Buy the SteriPEN Adventurer for your long-term travels. Handy if you plan to travel through the developing world more than one.
- LifeStraw Personal Water Filter: Portable and effective, this straw can be used from a RTW trip to a camping trip — and everything in between.
- The Healthy Conscious Traveler: 8 Pathways to Smart and Effortless Travel: A wonderful book on staying healthy on the road, including self-assessment tests to discover travel sensitivities, as well as techniques for relieving stress, jetlag, and more.
- How to Shit Around the World: The Art of Staying Clean and Healthy While Traveling: What happens when you travel in developing countries, for long periods of time, without a SteriPEN? This book covers everything from diarrhea to parasites, and other gastrointestinal nastiness.