Since my first trip to the Enchantment Lakes area, one of my favorite backcountry items ever discovered has been the Steripen. The technology may seem daunting at first: it supplies direct ultraviolet light to the water you intend to drink, sterilizing it. In clear water, the Steripen’s UV light source destroys the cell walls of tiny creatures (bacteria, viruses, etc), rendering them unable to multiply. When they can’t multiply, viruses and bacteria are unable to create the damaging bloom in your guts which causes illness. Your immune system has no problem fighting off the few, left-over, damaged “bugs” in the water you drink.

I am already a Steripen user and am sold on its basic functions, so I was excited to try the Freedom Steripen which promises a lighter, more compact size and rechargeable battery. The Freedom defaults to treating a half- liter in less than a minute, unlike the older model which had you select your size. To treat a liter, you run the pen twice in the same bottle.

The unit is water sealed, which is important since it is both electronics and water combined. It is rated to sanitize 50 L of water in one charge which is generally plenty for any trip I take. No longer do I have to huddle down and pull out a bunch of tubing and hand-pump machinery at the water; I scoop it into the bottle and treat it right in the bottle. And it treats much faster than standard water filters and without all the pumping or hanging bottles to drip through a system. And no more precarious balancing above a creek to filter water!

Since some water is less than clear, SteriPen comes with a FitsAll Filter – a prefilter to strain out any particles that would inhibit the UV cell-destruction process. This is important, as any particle large enough to harbor bacteria would potentially render the SteriPen ineffective. If UV light can’t hit the water you’re about to drink it can’t do its job. I am not a fan of “little floaties” in my water anyway, so the Steripen prefilter is a lovely solution! Filters don’t have this issue, but pay for it with extra weight and larger size and longer filter time.

The Freedom has an added bonus, it has a flashlight built in; which turns on with the flip of a wrist. The only drawback I see to this is the flashlight did turn on a couple times when I didn’t intend it to, which reduces battery life for the primary function of the unit – sterilizing water. But it’s an interesting addition that may prove useful when you need to collect water at night, or you know where your Steripen is, but not your flashlight.

The older model had a small screen with a “smiley” or “frowny” face to reflect how successful your treatment was. Pretty simple (and even cute!). The Freedom has replaced this screen with a red and green blinking lights. You watch the top and (hopefully) get a green blinking light; an “all clear” message according to the light-code table in the manual.

The first 5 times I tried this, the light blinked red. After deciphering the code table, it turned out to be the very rare “bulb needs replacement” code. I called SteriPen’s service department as instructed in the manual. They were genuinely interested and helpful in solving my problem; expediting my issue with light speed and even paying for shipment of a new unit. Within 2 days the product I shipped back (to the East Coast) was studied (they were interested to look at the damage of the UV tube) and a replacement was at my door. I love attentive service and these guys have it. Of course I prefer a product that functions from the beginning, but as a close second, it’s good to know that something can break and there is a solution easily accessible.

With a new Freedom in hand, I charged it, tested 2 glasses of water at home then ran out into the wilds for a long weekend. I used the pen at elevation, in 30 degrees, in the sun, after setting it in the snow for a while and the battery life didn’t falter. I came home and let the unit sit for a month unused. Batteries need to do this in my house. Then I took it out again without charging in between times (with a backup water sanitizing source, of course). I spent the weekend cleaning water for my whole family at our riverside campsite. No battery problems. Hurray!

Pros

-Light and compact – far less space and weight than a traditional ceramic filter
-Rechargable batteries
-Responsive customer service
-No buttons

Cons

-Light codes are too numerous to memorize
-Flashlight may turn on when unintended shortening battery life

In Summary:

The Freedom is more compact, lighter and more water sealed that my old model. It is also one piece – no compartment to open for battery change and the only opening on it is for a mini USB recharger, which has a rubber seal to cover it. I have to admit, I like my Steripen enough that I protect it. But just in case, it comes with a hard plastic slip on cover for the bulb, and then a neoprene sleeve over the whole unit for extra protection. I never had any trouble with my old SteriPen even after carrying it in luggage to Asia and carrying it on a trail for a month (no battery change required).

My one complaint about the Freedom is that is seems backwards to have to memorize several codes to assure correct functionality. I liked the smiley faces – they were more friendly than blinking LEDs and required no interpretation or memorization. But I appreciate that LEDs use far less battery power, and it still beats hauling the tubing and bulk of a filter. Steripen is still my favorite water treatment option!

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