A Little Review… The SteriPen vs LifeStraw for Water Purification While You Travel

Review Steripen AdventurerWhile 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 almost died in Laos from contaminated fresh vegetables. Staying healthy while traveling
is a tricky subject and one that a lot of travelers assume that they can handle without much planning.

Carrying a SteriPen (or more recently a water purification device like the LifeStraw) is a good fallback for those on long-term trips. Many backpackers travel overland through remote areas. It’s in the most remote parts of my yearlong round the world trip that I needed my SteriPen to save my hide (that and my travel insurance, because it surely saved my life, too). 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 have a SteriPen or a LifeStraw when I first packed for my 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 on water from the tap in India, and neither of us got sick from the water—though we had some issues with traveler’s diarrhea, it wasn’t from drinking water.

Of note is that many serious water purification options aim for survival situations and disaster preparedness, and those cost a lot. For long-term travelers, this review aims to assess which are a good fit for trips that might include a range of situations where you need purification as an option, but you’re likely not relying on either device for a years-long water solution.

Review: What is a SteriPen?

Review of how SteriPen Adventurer performs in waterA SteriPen is 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 on 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—you submerge that end into the water and then 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 my SteriPen:

  • Eco-friendly: We really limited our use of plastic water bottles all throughout India and Nepal.
  • Light and small. All we carried for it to work was a one-liter water bottle (I use a single-wall stainless steel Nalgene) so we could sumberge our small SteriPen Adventurer.
  • 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 my Annapurna trek. Porters have to carry the bottled water you drink on Himalayan treks, and it’s 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.

Drawbacks:

  • 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 works well for a single person and will give you the same level of safety. My cousin and I shared our SteriPen, so the price savings from not buying bottled water made it cost-effective and it was easy to share.
  • 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.
  • Floaties: In order to remove particles, you would have to actually use one of the company’s other devices, as this doesn’t remove particulate matter from water.

Review: How Does a LifeStraw Work?

LifeStraw ReviewThis device is a straw that you use to suck water through the filter and into your mouth. You can submerge the straw into any water source—a water bottle or a river—and the straw cleans the water as it passes through the hollow-fiber membrane. The company also sells a LifeStraw Go water bottle and filter combination, but I find that impractical for travelers. Then you are using your filter 100% of the time, even if you head to Europe or some such.

The LifeStraw comes off as more of an emergency backup option for hikers than something that travelers would want to use daily for the four months that I used my SteriPen in India and Nepal. It will work in a hairy situation, but it’s not necessarily the best option if you want regularly filtered purified water.

Benefits of the LifeStraw:

  • Longevity: The microbiological filter provides 4,000 liters of safe drinking water, meaning it will easily last your entire trip, and you don’t have to worry about finding batteries, like with the SteriPen.
  • Light and small. Just like with the SteriPen, all you need to carry is a water bottle (I use a single-wall stainless steel Nalgene). Although the marketing materials show people drinking directly from a river, you probably won’t be using it that way, so plan on carrying a water bottle.
  • Effective: This device eliminates the most serious water-bourne illnesses, including those that travelers most frequently encounter on the road, including bacteria and parasites—these are the most common causes of travelers’ sickness.\
  • Price: At just US $20, the straw is an easy option for those unsure they need water filtration but want a backup. It was developed for use by people in developing countries, which is part of why the price-point is so low.

Drawbacks:

  • Limited uses: This is a straw that purifies as you suck water into your mouth, meaning you can’t share water with another person and you can’t use it for cooking, or to drink tea or something else provided to you by a local. The SteriPen, on the other hand, can purify anything that’s clear and it’s clean inside of the bottle and can be used for anything you might need.
  • Viruses: There are a few things not eliminated by the straw, including chemicals and viruses. Meaning it’s effective on river water and such, but might still leave a few things in your water if you’re using on water from taps in developing countries. It’s very effective, just not 100% effective, which could really matter to some people. Should You Buy a Water Purification Device?

It depends. If you’re traveling extensively and for quite some time through the developing world: YES. These devices lower a traveler’s eco-footprint, saves money in the long term, and will save you from tricky situations with water that just seems suspicious.

  • The SteriPen is not something many travelers will no use every day of a trip, but when you do, you’ll be glad it’s in your bag. But, if you’re backpacking around the world just once and only in these developing regions for a limited time the SteriPen is likely an unnecessary extravagance.
  • No matter the length of your trip, I recommend world travelers at least pack an affordable alternative like the LifeStraw. You need 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, although 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.

Both of these are cool little devices that 100 percent lives up to the promise of making unsafe water clean. They effectively sterilize water from taps and rivers—any clear water you can put in your bottle can be effectively sterilizes. 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

  • 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 offers a frank and unapologetic discussion of everything from diarrhea to parasites, and other gastrointestinal nastiness. It doesn’t shy away from any topic that may impact your health—it should be a mandatory primer guide for all travelers.
  • How to Stay Healthy on the Road: A full rundown of the illnesses I’ve survived over the past decade on the road, as well as my hard-learned advice for staying healthy while traveling.
  • Oral Rehydration Salts: Besides travel insurance and ensuring I had clean water, ORS are essential in every travel kit and I think any traveler takes great risk if they travel to remote places without these—death from diarrheal illnesses is often due to dehydration, not the parasite itself.
  • SteriPen Adventurer Opti Personal: The SteriPen Adventurer works best for long-term travels, or those spending a lot of time in the outdoors on treks, camping, etc.
  • LifeStraw Personal Water Filter: Portable and effective, this straw can be used from a RTW trip to a camping trip — and everything in between.
  • Best Travel Insurance Options: The short of it is that World Nomads and IMG are my two favorite companies that I’ve used for every one of my trips this past decade.

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32 Responses to A Little Review… The SteriPen vs LifeStraw for Water Purification While You Travel

  1. David S November 26, 2017 at 11:30 am #

    I’ve had my Steripen since 2008… 8 trecks in Nepal plus backpacking at home. Works great, provided good (not Asian knockoff) batteries are used.

    The sensors DO need occasional cleaning. A wipe and Steripen works.

    • Shannon November 26, 2017 at 11:52 am #

      Thanks for sharing your experience! Working after more than nine years is a testament to a good product. Mine is also still working since around that same time. Cheers. :)

  2. Janet October 12, 2017 at 11:41 am #

    Mine worked great in South America but now I am in India and it just stopped. It charges but the uv light does not come on. I think it is the sensors. . It tried tech support until it kicked me out. I love it when it works.

    • Shannon October 12, 2017 at 4:14 pm #

      Oh nooo! That is the worst when it stops unexpectedly. My cousin and I ran into a problem on a long trek, where the brand new batteries we had bought in India weren’t good enough (likely knock-offs or very old), so they couldn’t power it. We ended up having to do exactly what we had tried to avoid — buying bottled water high in the Himalayas! Hope it starts working again for you.

  3. ShannonOD February 4, 2010 at 10:29 am #

    Thanks for the extra tips Rob – you are very right about the batteries, we
    took two sets and it just did us since the ones that we bought (which were
    energizer but could have been sitting on the shelf for years maybe) didn't
    work.

    You are spot on about the filtering, it doesn't take out the floaties, but
    we never got sick from it either – it never came to needing a coffee filter,
    but that's an awesome tip if I ever do need it down the line.

    Cheers and thanks for lending your advice since it seems it's been working
    so well for you – it's a genius little product, I just think the whole
    battery situation is a bit troublesome for long-term travel in particular,
    perhaps they're work on that though! :-)

  4. robwilliamson February 4, 2010 at 9:12 am #

    Purchased the Steripen Adventurer and love it. Small, lightweight, very effective. It doesn't filter the water. I see some people think of it as a filter. It disrupts the DNA in all the Bacteria, viruses, crypto and giardia and protozoa etc. So they can't reproduce and make you sick. They get passed right through you with no ill effects. Drawback is the problem with the Charger for it if you get that. It takes about three or four days to fully charge a set of batteries. I use the disposable lithium CR123 batteries and take about four sets of them with me. That's enough for almost 200 litres of water for drinking and brushing teeth. That's a lot of water. Four sets take up little room. Lithiums weigh very little. But in a major city, you may find a branch of a big battery manufacturer like Energizer, and they can get you good batteries, not the cheapy third world unknown batteries that don't work. I prefilter cloudy water through a couple coffee filters if it is not clear. Don't want to drink floaties. ;) I've yet to get sick with the Steripen. The only drawbacks are the slow solar charger, and the availability of batteries, so take extra sets.

    • ShannonOD February 4, 2010 at 5:29 pm #

      Thanks for the extra tips Rob – you are very right about the batteries, we
      took two sets and it just did us since the ones that we bought (which were
      energizer but could have been sitting on the shelf for years maybe) didn't
      work.

      You are spot on about the filtering, it doesn't take out the floaties, but
      we never got sick from it either – it never came to needing a coffee filter,
      but that's an awesome tip if I ever do need it down the line.

      Cheers and thanks for lending your advice since it seems it's been working
      so well for you – it's a genius little product, I just think the whole
      battery situation is a bit troublesome for long-term travel in particular,
      perhaps they're work on that though! :-)

  5. robwilliamson February 4, 2010 at 2:12 am #

    Purchased the Steripen Adventurer and love it. Small, lightweight, very effective. It doesn't filter the water. I see some people think of it as a filter. It disrupts the DNA in all the Bacteria, viruses, crypto and giardia and protozoa etc. So they can't reproduce and make you sick. They get passed right through you with no ill effects. Drawback is the problem with the Charger for it if you get that. It takes about three or four days to fully charge a set of batteries. I use the disposable lithium CR123 batteries and take about four sets of them with me. That's enough for almost 200 litres of water for drinking and brushing teeth. That's a lot of water. Four sets take up little room. Lithiums weigh very little. But in a major city, you may find a branch of a big battery manufacturer like Energizer, and they can get you good batteries, not the cheapy third world unknown batteries that don't work. I prefilter cloudy water through a couple coffee filters if it is not clear. Don't want to drink floaties. ;) I've yet to get sick with the Steripen. The only drawbacks are the slow solar charger, and the availability of batteries, so take extra sets.

  6. Catia January 17, 2010 at 2:28 am #

    There's 2 styles of Steri-pens that I've seen, the one pictured and the one I bought.

    The one I have has a filter (that fits quite a few styles of bottles) to get rid of the floaties before zapping the water and uses regular AA batteries. They still do recommend lithium batteries (averages about 200 charges of .5 litres) to using over alkaline batteries (which gives only 20-40 charges).

    I'm glad you mentioned the batteries, I'll have to pack some spares so I don't run out :)

    • ShannonOD January 17, 2010 at 5:17 am #

      That's really great to know Catia, I had no idea that the other SteriPens
      used a different battery – AAs are so much easier to find then the small
      specialty ones! Next time I am looking at these I will definitely consider
      the one you mention. :-)

  7. ShannonOD January 16, 2010 at 10:17 pm #

    That's really great to know Catia, I had no idea that the other SteriPens
    used a different battery – AAs are so much easier to find then the small
    specialty ones! Next time I am looking at these I will definitely consider
    the one you mention. :-)

  8. Catia January 16, 2010 at 7:28 pm #

    There's 2 styles of Steri-pens that I've seen, the one pictured and the one I bought.

    The one I have has a filter (that fits quite a few styles of bottles) to get rid of the floaties before zapping the water and uses regular AA batteries. They still do recommend lithium batteries (averages about 200 charges of .5 litres) to using over alkaline batteries (which gives only 20-40 charges).

    I'm glad you mentioned the batteries, I'll have to pack some spares so I don't run out :)

  9. ShannonOD January 3, 2010 at 3:18 pm #

    That's just crazy that you guys had the exact same battery problems! As you
    say, that's a real detraction from the device considering it's designed for
    travel outside of the states – thanks for weighing in on this with your own
    experience. I'm actually not taking one with me on this upcoming trip –
    while I also love the green value of it, the batteries were a big issue for
    us too.

    So I guess that means that you guys aren't using it anymore?! I'm going to
    do some research on the other straw device you mention, that seems like a
    much more viable option than continually seeking out the right batteries in
    developing countries :-)

  10. Audrey January 3, 2010 at 3:01 pm #

    I fell in love with the idea of the SteriPEN when I first saw it used by an American guy biking across Burma a couple of years ago. So, before we left for the Latin America portion of our journey I bought a SteriPEN Adventurer (with a solar-powered charger) and was super excited to reduce our environmental footprint (i.e., reducing plastic bottle waste).

    Unfortunately, I seem to have gotten lemon rechargeable batteries that died after about a month (it would take one night to charge the batteries & it could only power the device to clean 1/2 a liter). And, because I didn't have spare batteries with me the device became obsolete because the batteries seem impossible to find outside the United States. They are CR123a batteries, not regular CR123 batteries.

    So, I'm torn. I love the idea of this device, but it could have been better designed to take batteries that you can purchase in the countries where you need to use the device (i.e., developing countries).

    I just learned about another device that was developed for children to use in Africa, but would also be great for travelers. It is a straw with a filter at the end so it cleans water as you suck through the straw.

    • ShannonOD January 3, 2010 at 10:18 pm #

      That's just crazy that you guys had the exact same battery problems! As you
      say, that's a real detraction from the device considering it's designed for
      travel outside of the states – thanks for weighing in on this with your own
      experience. I'm actually not taking one with me on this upcoming trip –
      while I also love the green value of it, the batteries were a big issue for
      us too.

      So I guess that means that you guys aren't using it anymore?! I'm going to
      do some research on the other straw device you mention, that seems like a
      much more viable option than continually seeking out the right batteries in
      developing countries :-)

  11. Audrey January 3, 2010 at 8:01 am #

    I fell in love with the idea of the SteriPEN when I first saw it used by an American guy biking across Burma a couple of years ago. So, before we left for the Latin America portion of our journey I bought a SteriPEN Adventurer (with a solar-powered charger) and was super excited to reduce our environmental footprint (i.e., reducing plastic bottle waste).

    Unfortunately, I seem to have gotten lemon rechargeable batteries that died after about a month (it would take one night to charge the batteries & it could only power the device to clean 1/2 a liter). And, because I didn't have spare batteries with me the device became obsolete because the batteries seem impossible to find outside the United States. They are CR123a batteries, not regular CR123 batteries.

    So, I'm torn. I love the idea of this device, but it could have been better designed to take batteries that you can purchase in the countries where you need to use the device (i.e., developing countries).

    I just learned about another device that was developed for children to use in Africa, but would also be great for travelers. It is a straw with a filter at the end so it cleans water as you suck through the straw.

  12. ShannonOD December 25, 2009 at 8:02 am #

    Considering how long you'll be in those regions, I think it could really work well for you…as long as you bring some batteries!! :-)

  13. Peter Loh December 25, 2009 at 8:23 am #

    Very nifty! Might investigate this for my travels… In Africa for two months & Asia for four months next year!

    • ShannonOD December 25, 2009 at 3:02 pm #

      Considering how long you'll be in those regions, I think it could really work well for you…as long as you bring some batteries!! :-)

  14. Peter Loh December 25, 2009 at 1:23 am #

    Very nifty! Might investigate this for my travels… In Africa for two months & Asia for four months next year!

  15. Anil November 21, 2009 at 5:56 pm #

    I didn't know such a thing existed, pretty cool. I guess though it wouldn't help if the water were murky. Would be disinfected probably but look gross. I could see something like this being very handy especially in some remote places.

    • ShannonOD November 21, 2009 at 11:54 pm #

      Yeah, it wouldn't work for murky water – and I stopped using it when there were large, visible floaties because that was just gross! But it really did come in handy along the way :-)

  16. ShannonOD November 21, 2009 at 4:54 pm #

    Yeah, it wouldn't work for murky water – and I stopped using it when there were large, visible floaties because that was just gross! But it really did come in handy along the way :-)

  17. Anil November 21, 2009 at 10:56 am #

    I didn't know such a thing existed, pretty cool. I guess though it wouldn't help if the water were murky. Would be disinfected probably but look gross. I could see something like this being very handy especially in some remote places.

  18. ShannonOD November 16, 2009 at 7:06 am #

    I think I'd probably agree with you – three days seems hardly worth the price tag! Another traveler mentioned an interesting option of the filter-inside water bottles, but I haven't much looked into that, could be beneficial though if the cost were more reasonable :-)

  19. Laura November 13, 2009 at 3:31 am #

    I was totally sold on this until I saw the price. I'm going to Egypt next year and could use it, but I'll only be there for about 13 days, so I'm not sure if it's worth it.

    Interesting read for sure!

    • ShannonOD November 16, 2009 at 2:06 pm #

      I think I'd probably agree with you – three days seems hardly worth the price tag! Another traveler mentioned an interesting option of the filter-inside water bottles, but I haven't much looked into that, could be beneficial though if the cost were more reasonable :-)

  20. Rachel Cotterill November 12, 2009 at 9:58 pm #

    I have a water bottle with a built-in filter… had never heard of this device before. Glad it worked for you :)

    • ShannonOD November 13, 2009 at 2:20 am #

      I've wondered how the filters work – the thought of relying on a filter in India made me nervous…but I take it yours works well?

  21. Laura November 12, 2009 at 8:31 pm #

    I was totally sold on this until I saw the price. I'm going to Egypt next year and could use it, but I'll only be there for about 13 days, so I'm not sure if it's worth it.

    Interesting read for sure!

  22. ShannonOD November 12, 2009 at 7:20 pm #

    I've wondered how the filters work – the thought of relying on a filter in India made me nervous…but I take it yours works well?

  23. Rachel Cotterill November 12, 2009 at 2:58 pm #

    I have a water bottle with a built-in filter… had never heard of this device before. Glad it worked for you :)

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