Water is the only drink for a wise man—Henry David Thoreau
On the grand scheme of things, no matter the enviornment, water has to be the primary concern for man’s survival. I’ve done extensive research in the past years about survival in the outdoors. There’s a rule of thumb dealing with the “3’s”. It goes something like, “You can survive without shelter for three hours, without water for three days, and without food for about three weeks.” That’s a generalization and dependent on the survivor’s surroundings. For instance, if a person were caught in a blizzard, their primary concern would be to find shelter from the storm. However, that concern would not be as great if it was a balmy eighty-three degrees outside. But, no matter the temperature or conditions, man must have water. Period. Full end stop. The general wisdom is that at least one gallon of water should be available for each person for each each day. In hot conditions, even more might be required. So, having the means to acquire and filter/purify water must be a component for the savvy outdoors person. This topic came up recently in a group discussion while a few of us were having a weekend in the woods “roughing it”. The conversation encompassed short-term and long-term scenarios, the types of filters/purifiers that are available, and it covered the strengths and weaknesses of each system. We talked about pre-filters, filters, purifiers, tablets, and even the newer ultra-violet devices. One of the most prevailant of these is the Steri-Pen from Hydro-Photon, Inc. and it’s a system that we tried while up in the hills of North Carolina this past weekend.
I have tried different methods of water filtration and purification over the years. There is a difference between filtering and purifying water. Most water “filters” have screens or elements that can filter out bacteria down to a couple of microns. However, they won’t help on viruses because viruses are smaller than that. In most cases, filters typically do the job. But, where a person’s only source of water is one where the water is standing still (i.e. pond, puddle,) there is a greater chance that viruses will exist in that source. One of the most sure-fire ways to eliminate bacteria (such as Giardia and Cryptosporidium) and viruses is by simply boiling the water. Without question, it works. A couple of the down sides are that the water tastes flat after boiling, so it is necessary to roll the water back and forth between containers to re-oxygenate, and it’s not very convenient to have to stop and build a fire every time you need to purify water. That in mind, and for the purposes of this article, I decided to use that as my fall-back procedure. I wanted a system that was a little more convenient and that didn’t significantly alter the taste of the water.
Early on in my outdoors pursuits, I stocked up on Potable Aqua tablets. It’s a fairly simple process of filling a water bottle, dropping a tablet in the bottle and waiting the requisite amount of time. These tablets are iodine based and will kill most all bacteria, however, the iodine tablets leave a rather foul taste to the water once it has been treated. That brought about the secondary tablets that you add to the treated water to neutralize the iodine taste. I used these tablets for several years without incident, but most of the water sources that I used were ones that had running water such as creeks and rivers. More recently, a couple of the major companies including Katadyn and the Potable Aqua brand came out with new tablets made from Chlorine Dioxide. If the water treated from these tablets is allowed to breathe for a few minutes, their is very little taste from the treatment. More important, these tablets will eliminate viruses as well as bacteria. That’s a real plus, but as with any other sytem, there’s a couple of drawbacks here as well. First, in order to destroy Cryptosporidium and prevent entry into your system, you have to let the cholorine dioxide tablets work on the water for about four hours. That means you have to schedule in advance and plan for your water needs since you can’t immediately drink the treated water. And, for a long-term situation (weeks to months), carrying around hundreds or thousands of these little tablets isn’t very practical. That said, for a weekend outing or a week-long expedition, I would have no hesitation in grabbing a few packs of these to handle my water purifying needs.
However, for my pack, I wanted something that would serve during a long-term situation or crisis but not take up too much space when packed. So, taking any kind of tablets out of the equation, the potential answers to my needs were dramatically scaled back to just a few. The first natural thought was to investigate the various filters on the market. I won’t go through every one that’s out there in the stores or on the net. I’ll just talk about the one that I found that seemed to be the most durable and provide the most service in all the ones that I researched. That particular filter which I’m referencing is the Katadyn Pocket Filter. The most important factors in choosing this one included service life, size, and build quality. Elsewhere on our site, Keith Williams did a review on the Pocket Filter, so I’ll just cover the highlights. It has a 20 year warranty, a pre-filter, and the silver-impregnated ceramic filter will eliminate bacteria down to the size of .2 microns. That includes Giardia and Cryptosporidium. The pre-filter is useful in keeping out sediments and other materials from dirty water. Depending on the cleanliness of the water, the ceramic element can be used to filter from 13,000 to 50,000 gallons of water. Just think about that. For one person, the minimum amount of water it will provide is one gallon of water per day for a little over thirty-five years. Not too shabby!! At that rate, you could splurge a little and have two gallons of water a day for about seventeen years. This filter operates at a rate of about one liter per minute, and the ceramic element is very easy to maintain with just a quick scrubbing every so often. The frequency with which you have to clean the element is going to depend on how dirty the water is that you’re filtering. A good thought here might be to have the cone-shaped coffee filters on hand to pour the untreated water through and sift out the sediments a couple of times before running it through the Pocket Filter.
The Katadyn Pocket Filter is almost the perfect water filtering solution for the long-term needs of someone outdoors. The one major weakness to this system is its lack of ability to deal with viruses. Again, viruses are usually not a strong concern in most cases. However, think about what might be happening in the world if you are forced into a long-term situation that requires you to purify your water. With the shrinking of the globe and with reports of various diseases popping up in different hemispheres, it’s possible that the very event that caused the water purification need in the first place is the exact reason to have a way to eliminate viruses. So, that kicks the Pocket Filter in the head for the most part, leaving one viable option that I have found that meets my needs, but does so in a package that’s not overly burdensome. That solution is Hydro-Photon’s Steri-Pen. This is a great little device that’s compact, fairly rugged, and purifies water immediately and eliminates all biological threats including both bacteria and viruses. The basic principle behind this device’s method is to use ultra-violet light from a special bulb that’s stirred in the water for a certain length of time. The ultra-violet light kills all bacteria and viruses residing in the water in just about one minute. Actually, technically speaking, it scrambles their DNA so they can’t reproduce to a level significant enough to cause any harm to your system. What a marvel!!
There are several Steri-Pen models available. The one that I currently have is the Classic model that takes 4 AA batteries. It has about the same girth as when you grip four magic markers at the same time. That’s where the batteries are stored. Positioned atop the battery compartment is the long ultra-violet bulb which you submerge in the water during the treatment process. To treat a liter of water with the Steri-Pen, you simply push the operation button once for a liter of water, and then turn the device bulb-down and dip it in the water until the metal, water-contact sensors activate the bulb. With the bulb still submerged, simply agitate or stir water in the bottle for ninety seconds to treat one liter of water. You will know when the treatment is done because the ultra-violet bulb will turn off automatically. If you’re only treating half a liter of water, push the operation button twice, and follow the same directions. For half a liter, the bulb will shut off after approximately thirty-eight to forty-eight seconds. Once I tried this handy little device, I was sold!! During our weekend in the hills, we tried several methods of purifying water and this was, by far, the fastest process of all of them. We didn’t have to wait four hours like with the tablets, and we didn’t have to take “chances” with viruses not being treated. Within a minute, the process was done and then you drink all you want! In my mind, I had found the perfect device…almost.
After getting over our initial thrill with the speed and compactness of the device, we started critiquing the item and tried to find its shortcomings. Unfortunately, we did find a couple, but I don’t believe they were deal breakers. First, the ultra-violet bulb is like a regular light bulb. It’s made of glass. That fact alone brought about concern for me when thinking about the hard-knocks that gear takes in the great outdoors. We wondered about the durability of the bulb for outdoor activities. One thing to mention is that the Steri-Pen does come with a hard platic protective guard for the bulb, and that would probably take the brunt of any trauma the device might encounter. I guess on that point, only time will tell. Also, the SteriPEN has a very long life cycle. The new Ultra-Violet bulbs have a lifetime of 8,000 doses. The internal circuitry keeps count of the number of doses performed. At dose 7900, the SteriPen starts blinking a red LED as a warning that you are reaching the end of the life cycle of the bulb. At about four liters per gallon, one bulb should provide five and a half years worth of service at one gallon a day. That’s a substantial lifetime of use for something this cutting edge in technology. While it’s not as long as the life cycle of the Katadyn Pocket Filter, it is much smaller and it does eliminate viruses from the water which the Pocket Filter lacks the capacity to do. But, the one drawback that really seized me was batteries. As mentioned, this device works on 4 AA batteries. Newman!!! Now, if I didn’t want to carry hundreds of chlorine dioxide tablets for a long-term situation, I certainly didn’t want to carry that many AA batteries either, even if I had space in the pack! I drew up short on the product with this thought, and felt a little deflation occur within my recently bouyied spirits.
After thoughtful deliberation, I found that my friend Terrill’s Steri-Pen was different from my “Classic” version, so I decided to do a little research when I got back home. And, I’m glad I did. Terrill had the Adventurer model. First it was smaller than my model since it used two CR123 batteries instead of four AA batteries. The difference between the two is that four AA batteries will do about one hundred one-minute cycles, and two CR123 batteries will do about fifty. I would say the Adventurer is about 2/3 the size of my Classic. But, more importantly, the Adventurer model also has an accessory that allows for charging rechargeable CR123 batteries via an optional solar charging box. Voila!! My heart soared once again! Immediately, I had a system fall into place in my mind. I could get one or two of these systems (the extra would be good as a back-up) since they are so small, and since lithium-ion batteries are very light, I could get a few extra sets of rechargeable CR123 batteries. Getting the extra batteries would allow me to rotate the sets and use one set while charging the others. It would also help extend the service life of the batteries as you can only go through so many recharge cycles per set. Even with the two Steri-Pens and extra batteries, they would still only occupy the same amount of space as one standard water filter. Thinking through these options and having found my solution really got me jazzed!! I was back on track to outfit my gear with a long-term water treatment solution that addressed all biological elements, had a long life cycle, was compact, and performed its job in seconds rather than hours. So, there’s not much to talk about beyond that is there? Just a little, if you don’t like swishing dirty water in your mouth. You’ll often run across water sources where there are particulates in the water giving a dirty appearance, but the SteriPen outfit has you covered there as well.
Besides the optional solar charger, you can also get a pre-filter to use on your Nalgene type bottles. This attachment screws onto the mouth of your Nalgene style bottle and filters out the dirt and sediment when you dip the bottle into the untreated source to fill it. There’s a valve in the center of the pre-filter attachment that pops out and lets air out of the bottle while filling and helps it to fill more quickly. If you don’t have one of these, as mentioned earlier, it would be a smart thing to have a few cone-type coffee filters to station in the bottle mouth to filter out dirt and sediment. It will help elmininate that “gritty” taste in your water. But, I found the pre-filter attachment that I used in conjunction with the Steri-Pen during our weekend outing did its job quite well. Most of the time, I chose to fill my bottle from falling water to keep from stirring up sediments in a shallow area. But, even during those times I dipped the bottle into water that was stirred up, I found that the screen did a fairly good job of eliminating most of the dirt from the water before I treated it with the Steri-Pen. Either way, I used the Steri-Pen all weekend for my water and have suffered no dire consequences as a result. As far as a purifying solution goes, I think the Steri-Pen really is without peer. It’s the fastest method going. It’s fairly compact in comparison to other methods including service life. And, speaking of service life, while it isn’t as long as the Katadyn Pocket Filter, it still has a fairly long life for the amount of space it occupies in your pack–especially with the optional solar charger.
So, I have found my answer to the question of long-term water treatment needs. However, I’m a little bit like Monk with some of my obsessive-compulsive qualities, and I have a thing about redundancy. Even though the Steri-Pen provides everything I need including compact size, long service life, and fast-acting results, there’s still a little niggle in the back of my mind about durability–especially in regard to the glass bulb. If circumstances are ever so bad that I get to the point when my life depends on using equipment like this to provide clean water for me to drink, then I want to make sure that I truly am covered. That’s why in addition to the two Steri-Pens, I am going ahead and getting the Katadyn Pocket Filter as well. Based on my research, my opinion is that the Pocket Filter is the best and most rugged filtering device for its size on the market. Besides having a longer service life than the Steri-Pens and other filters, I don’t have to worry about glass bulbs breaking or electronics shorting out for some reason–even if it doesn’t eliminate viruses on its own. As a fall-back position from the Steri-Pens, I think the Katadyn Pocket Filter is the next best solution on the market for the individual person. I am sure that if I examine my pack carefully enough, I can find enough unnecessary gear that I could remove to provide enough free space for the Pocket Filter. However, to make it clear, I will be using the Steri-Pen as my first line of defense to treat my drinking water. Considering all the pros and cons in the arena of this discussion, I believe that, on balance, the Steri-Pen provides the best overall solution for my water treatment needs. I highly recommend checking this piece of equipment out along with the Katadyn Pocket Filter. Between these two items, I’ll bet that you have all your bases covered when it comes time to quench your thirst!!