“Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.”
-The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
I’m not a big fan of English Romantic poets but that famous line about thirsty boatmen came leaping to mind recently when I was faced with the prospect of empty water bottles as the sun was setting.
Actually, all the water I could ever hope to drink was placidly rippling right at my feet. The regrettable part of the equation was the fact that the gentle ripples were caused by a billion insects swimming through a liquid that wouldn’t meet the federal food standards for vegetable soup because it was too thick.
The tiny wildlife pond in the Charles C. Deam Wilderness Area wasn’t exactly the cool refreshment I had been seeking.
The bigger problem was the fact that the filthy ridgetop pond was the only water within an hour’s hike. Lake Monroe, Indiana’s largest reservoir, was less than a half mile from my camp but the most direct route would have involved rappelling several hundred feet. The other option, hiking two miles by trail down to the shoreline, didn’t look good either.
So there I stood by a scum-encrusted waterhole in the gathering twilight while my tongue began to turn into a piece of beef jerky. I would have to resupply here or spend an exceptionally unpleasant night dreaming about bottled water.
I was equipped with a well-known backpacking water filter but judging by the looks of the pond, I wasn’t convinced that the water didn’t harbor viruses that the ceramic filter element couldn’t handle on its own. I decided it was time to try out my newest toy, the Steripen Protector Opti water purifier.
The Steripen is certainly the easiest method of backcountry water treatment. Using ultraviolet light instead of chemicals or filters, it kills every microbiological nasty in 32 ounces of water within 90 seconds. Previously, the only way to get that kind of result was to either boil the water, wait for chemical filtration to work or use only top-end water filters. Since waiting 20 minutes or longer for chemicals to work is never convenient, coupled with concerns about ingesting the questionable byproducts of the process, hikers have looked for a better method of purification.
I love my backpacking filters but there are two drawbacks. First are the logistics of deploying, using and maintaining the pump. Second, and more important, is concern that viruses or the tiniest microbes can still get through most filters. In fact, most manufacturers suggest treating the water afterward with chemicals if there is a question of safety.
In the case of the wildlife pond, I first filtered the water then gave the Steripen its first real test. A bit smaller than a cell phone, I took the cap off the quartz probe, hit the button and waited for the green indicator light. Once the unit was ready, I submerged it in my water bottle and swirled the water for 90 seconds. Aside from the soft blue glow from the lamp, nothing else appeared to happen. Once the light went out, the process was complete.
Now, it was Truth-or-Dare time.
Taking a deep breath, I said a silent prayer asking for a relatively painless death then poured the water down my desiccated throat. I’m not sure what I was expecting to happen, but nothing did.
It didn’t even taste like broth.
Later the next day when I finally crossed a nice clear brook, I didn’t hesitate to fill my bottles, treat them with the Steripen and head on down the trail in less than five minutes. Since I’m still here and my digestive tract hasn’t imploded, I guess the purifier worked.
What are the downsides? So far, I’ve not found too many.
First, the device is battery-powered and could conceivably fail due to the rigors of outdoor living. However, after playing with the unit for a couple of months and having actually carried it on several trips, it seems as robust as any water filter. The Protector and similar Adventurer models use long-lasting lithium CR123 batteries that are estimated to treat about 50 liters of water. The less-expensive Aqua model uses the more common AA batteries.
One concern I had was the fact that the ultraviolet light cannot treat the threads of your water container. Steripen acknowledges this problem and simply advises to dry the rim of the container. I also upended the bottle with a loose cap to allow a bit of purified water to wash the threads. Given my limited understanding that it takes more than a few ingested microbes to make you sick, this procedure seems reasonably safe.
The Steripen Adventurer retails for $89.95 and is widely available through outdoor retailers and online. The equally-effective but slightly larger Aqua only runs $49.95.
For more information:
Steripen website: http://steripen.com