Gadling gear review: SteriPEN Sidewinder

SteriPEN is a company that has built its reputation on providing products that ensure hikers, backpackers, and travelers safe drinking water no matter where they go. Their products, including the SteriPEN Traveler, which we reviewed here, use ultraviolet (UV) light to kill off 99.9% of all bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and other harmful elements that can find their way into our water. But most of their purifiers are powered by batteries, which can be difficult to come by when traveling through remote areas, and have a penchant for going dead when you need them the most. The company has found a way around that however, in the form of the Sidewinder, a purification system that is powered by a hand crank, and never requires batteries of any kind.

The first thing you’ll notice when you remove the Sidewinder from its box is that it is large, especially when compared to SteriPEN’s other products. That is due in part to the fact that it comes with a 32 oz (1 liter) BPA-free bottle, but the hand crank system is not especially small either. Prior to beginning the purification process, the bottle is filled with water. and then clicked into position on the Sidewinder itself, with the UV light completely immersed in the water. The entire unit is then flipped over, and you’re all set to begin making clean drinking water.

From there, you simply begin turning the crank to generate the power necessary to illuminate the ultraviolet light, and in theory, 90 seconds later you have water that can be safely consumed. I say in theory because it takes a bit of practice before you get the hang of the process, as you must turn the crank at the proper speed in order to get the UV lights working properly. Fortunately, SteriPEN included a pair of red LED’s on the Sidewinder which illuminate when you’re turning the crank too slowly. When the lights are off, you’re doing just fine, and you’ll know you’re finished when the UV lights turn green as well. It is a simple process, but one that requires some practice before putting the device to use in the field.

Once you get the hang of it, the Sidewinder has the potential to provide plenty of drinking water for an indefinite backpacking trip through just about any part of the world. But just because the water is free from harmful bacteria doesn’t mean that it necessarily tastes any better. SteriPEN has helped to address that issue as well by including a pre-filter to help remove particulates from the water prior to purification. The filter fits on to the top of the bottle and is a much appreciated addition to the package and further indicates that SteriPEN has a good understanding of their customers needs.

While the Sidewinder is a well designed and built products, it does come with a few caveats for anyone considering it for their next adventure. For starters, as I mentioned above, it is quite large, which makes it a less than ideal option for those looking to travel light. I personally found it a bit too bulky for my pack, much preferring the smaller Journey LCD, which I carried with me through Nepal last year. It also requires a good deal of physical work to actually purify the water, asking its user to turn the crank for 90 seconds, at a rather brisk pace, for each liter of water cleaned. Considering you’ll need several liters of water per day, possibly more depending on your destination, you may end up getting quite a workout while you’re on the go.

So just how good are the SteriPEN purification systems? In my personal use of their devices, I have yet to contract any kind of water borne illness or suffer any ill effects, even while traveling through locations where several of my companions fell victim to a variety of maladies. The UV light seems to work as advertised, although it is impossible to prove a negative, and perhaps I’ve simply been fortunate. I highly doubt that however, and a SteriPEN purifier of some type will be mandatory gear for all future travels to remote areas across the globe.

Which SteriPEN I take with me is a bit open for discussion however. While I appreciate the eco-friendly nature of the battery-free Sidewinder, its larger size poses a bit of a problem when lugging it around on longer treks. But if you’re going to be camped in one place for an extended period of time, it is a fantastic option for sure. For those requiring a more compact and lighter weight purification system, I’d give the nod to the aforementioned Journey LCD or Traveler however. Either way, you can bet you’ll have safe drinking water no matter which device you use.

The Sidewinder comes with a $99.95 MSRP, which is more expensive than iodine tablets or other similar purification options. But on the other hand, SteriPEN’s approach is also much more reliable and safe as well. Having used both options, I’ll stick with the UV solution for my future water purification needs.