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 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—sometimes in the form of tepid tea— and 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 but rather a few poor food choices.
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 the device for a years-long water solution (and you need it to be portable!)
Review: What is a SteriPen?
A SteriPen is small, pen-like electronic device that emits 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 push the button either once or twice to purify a full liter of water or a half-liter, then submerge the light wand end into the water. The light turns on and stays on while you agitate the water with the light wand until the dose is complete. (Models vary slightly on how to operate it, so read the directions!)
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. We carried a one-liter water bottle (I use a single-wall stainless steel Nalgene) so we could sumberge our small SteriPen Adventurer, and those two things were all that we needed for it to work.
- 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, we had 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 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 U.S. 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 to power the device.
- 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?
This device is a straw that you use to suck water through the filter and into your mouth. You can submerge the LifeStraw 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. If it’s built into your water bottle, 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 borne 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.
- 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 countries with developing infrastructures: YES. These devices lower a traveler’s eco-footprint, saves money in the long term, and save you from tricky situations with water that just seems suspicious.
- The SteriPen is not something many travelers will 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 then 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 live 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 and its 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.