Meridian Design AquaStar Plus

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Modern backcountry travelers aren't as bad off as Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Ancient Mariner when it comes to thirst. Indeed, the options for water treatment are better than ever. While the fears of waterborne contagions in the U.S. backcountry have been greatly overblown, the consequences are dire enough that prevention is still prudent.

However, choosing your poison is frequently a matter of weighing risks versus benefits. Water filters have well-recognized limitations, oftentimes heavy, typically bulky and high maintenance, although they are easy to use and the water has no after taste. Most of the old standby chemicals, in particular iodine, chlorine dioxide and chlorine are compact in the packaging, but offer up a flavoring that many find distasteful. The greatest limitation, though, is that chemicals are temperature dependent, require up to 30 minutes to work, and are easily inactivated.

In the last two years, a new technology has emerged -- ultraviolet light -- that is lightweight, fast and effective (although it is still not suitable for treating large volumes of water and is best suited for individual use). While the Hydro-Photon SteriPen was the pioneer of this portable water treatment method, and it is remains a good option (see our 2003 review by clicking here), the new Meridian Design AquaStar Plus improves overall performance while lowering the price.

Both the SteriPen and AquaStar operate on the same principle: utilizing ultraviolet light to deactivate nasties so they can't reproduce inside your gut. In particular, they use UV-C, which is a form of radiation that never reaches the Earth's surface.

The big advantage of UV-C water treatment is that it takes just 90 seconds to render harmless virtually all bacteria, amoeba and viruses. There is no taste, no issues with water temperature and no fuss. For water that is murky (a non-issue for many areas), simply running water through a coffee filter removes particulates down to 25 microns.

Where the two products differ most is in their power supply, weight and cost. The SteriPen ($160, 7 to 8 ounces) uses four AA batteries that will last for about 15 liters of water with alkaline or 70 liters with lithium batteries. The AquaStar ($95; 4 ounces) uses two CR123 alkaline batteries (fairly common) that last for about 60 liters of water.

The AquaStar requires a 1-liter Nalgene-like bottle that is included and has instructions for use printed on the side -- nifty feature that makes it easy to use. For those who prefer hydration reservoirs to wide mouth bottles, this is not exactly ideal, but certainly manageable -- treat the water in the bottle and pour it into the reservoir.

As an added bonus, the AquaStar has an LED light that turns the water-filled Nalgene into a dandy lantern. Two quick pushes of the button activates the light and not the UV element.

Our testers found the AquaStar relatively easy to use: Just push the button and swirl the water until the light goes out. A few times, we did have issues with inadvertently triggering the UV light rather than the LED, but since the UV element was contained within the bottle, it posed no danger of irritating the eyes or skin and was easily turned off.

Durability appears good, even when out of the bottle, but dropping a full bottle on the lid is probably a bad idea -- one test we opted not to conduct as the result seemed obvious. The one caveat is the low battery warning only comes on when there's enough juice for about 5 liters; carrying spare batteries is highly recommended.

Now that we've seen the light, it's a pretty safe bet we'll only use a water filter or chemical treatments when camping with a group.

SNEWS® Rating: 4.5 hands clapping (1 to 5 hands clapping possible, with 5 clapping hands representing functional and design perfection)

Suggested retail: $95

For more information:www.uvaquastar.com

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