User Review: CamelBak All Clear
Source: received for testing via the Trailspace Review Corps
Overall I found the Camelbak All Clear to be a convenient and easy approach to the problem of providing potable water. No water treatment system is perfect, of course. Backpackable systems do not sterilize the water, but rather purify it to a level safe for drinking. No system suitable for backpacking removes industrial, agricultural, or mining runoff. While the battery cannot be replaced by the user and must be recharged via a USB connection, this is not a serious problem. The battery life of 80 cycles is plenty for trips up to a couple weeks, while the battery can be recharged with a small, lightweight solar panel. The bulb life of 10,000 cycles should serve for a number of years of avid backpacking. The All Clear does kill or inactivate all microorganisms, including viruses, while pump and gravity filters do not remove all viruses (except for those filters using an auxiliary iodine matrix). The weight is reasonable compared to other approaches to water treatment in the backcountry.
- Only 60 seconds to kill/inactivate bacteria, viruses, and encysted protozoa
- Full battery gives 80 treatment cycles (60 liters)
- Bulb rated for 10,000 cycles (about 7500 liters of water, or about 2000 gallons)
- Supplied bottle has directions directly on the bottle
- Supplied bottle has directions directly on the bottle
- Does not remove glacial flour, volcanic ash, “rust” stains, or industrial, agricultural, or mining runoff
- Treats only ¾ liter at a time (good for one person, not so good for groups)
- Requires using Camelbak ¾ liter bottles, preferably the clear one supplied
- USB charging cable requires wall charger, computer, or other available USB port (none supplied).
- Cannot be used for water with ice in it or at temperatures below 32°F/0°C
- Bulb contains mercury (as do all fluorescent and UV bulbs)
- The All Clear UV cap is not a toy — it should not be used as a flashlight, shown in someone’s eyes, nor directly on someone’s skin (strong UV source).
When I was growing up, we traveled a lot and spent a lot of time in the desert, woods, and hills. We drank from streams, lakes, whatever water was available, with no real concern about what was in it. My mother, who grew up in rural Missouri, told us that water in the creek was safe after it had flowed over three rocks (even if there was some dead animal just upstream). If it was murky, we let it settle for a while and maybe strained it through a piece of muslin to get most of the sand, gravel, sticks, and other junk out. We lived for a while in Central America and never worried about the water out of the tap.
There was one major exception — I grew up during the era when the dreaded polio (poliovirus diameter 27 nm or 0.027 micron) was rampant. Since it was suspected to be transmitted through swimming pool water, we were never to drink or swallow water from the municipal swimming pool.
As a teenager and into my late 20s, when backpacking and climbing in the Sierra and Rockies, we would just dip a cup in the stream (or just lay down on the bank and stick our faces in the water) for a drink. I suspect that, being exposed to so many critters, I developed some immunity, because there were times when companions would become ill, usually a week or so after the trip.
Many backcountry travelers drink from the streams and lakes without ill effects. But others get extremely ill. The problem is that as soon as we wander more than a few feet from “civilization,” there are no guaranteed safe sources of water. I discuss the question of water and what’s in it in some detail in my four-part article, "Backcountry Water Treatment" here on Trailspace.
The problem is even more critical when we go to some foreign country. Even straight out of the tap in a fancy hotel, the water may subject us to Montezuma's revenge, Aztec two-step, backdoor trots, beaver fever, loose stool, runs, summer complaint, tourista, trots, Pharaoh’s revenge, mummy tummy, Delhi belly, and many other terms. These complaints are estimated to hit 20 to 50 percent of travelers. Foreigners coming to the U.S. suffer from our “pure” water and food, too.
Staying properly hydrated and healthy is fundamental to having an enjoyable experience. And that means having safe water to drink. But people get sick despite having treated their water or even packing it in. Trailhead interviews of backpackers in the U.S. and Canada point to personal sanitation and careless handling of food as the primary sources of problems rather than contaminated water. Still, it is a good idea, even with diligent hand washing and using sanitizing hand cleaners to treat the water you get out of the streams and lakes.
There are several classes of water treatment suitable for the backpacker — boiling, halogen tablets (chlorine and iodine), filters, and ultraviolet radiation. All these methods have their advantages and disadvantages. You can also buy bottled water, except that some sources of bottled water just re-fill the bottles from the tap.
I have collected and used examples of all of these methods over the years. These approaches, combined with diligent handwashing and sterilizing, plus careful handling of food, have kept me almost free of the affliction in the backcountry in 3rd world countries as well as in the US, Canada, and Western Europe. Note I said “almost free”. The few times when I was pretty miserable were most likely due to food.
The most likely sources of illness from water are microorganisms like bacteria (E. coli for example) and protozoa (giardia and campylobacter, for example). Viruses are less likely in alpine environments like the Sierra, Cascades, or Rockies.
As a broad generalization, filters will remove bacteria and protozoa, but will pass most viruses, since backpacking filters have pore sizes no smaller than 0.1 micron. The hepatitis B virus is 0.042 microns, for example.
Halogens, in the form of tablets (Aquamira, Potable Aqua, and other iodine and chlorine-based brands) or solution (plain chlorine bleach) will kill bacteria and viruses, and, with sufficiently long times, protozoa (at least 4 hours to more than 24 hours, dependent on temperature). Ultraviolet light will kill or inactivate all the microorganisms.
Ultraviolet sterilization has been used for over a century in a number of applications. It is used in medical practice and required by law in barber shops in many states. It should be noted that the All Clear and SteriPen are “microbiological water purifiers”, and do NOT sterilize the water. Both are rated to kill 99.9999% of bacteria, 99.99% of viruses, and 99.9% of protozoan cysts. SteriPen was the earliest of the widely available ultraviolet systems intended for backpackers.
The Camelbak All Clear is the first of what promises to be a number of competitors to SteriPen for backpacker systems. At 60 seconds for a UV treatment, this promises an advantage over halogens (up to 4 or more hours) or a workout with a pump for 5 to 20 minutes, not to mention carrying that added weight of stove fuel if you boil all your drinking water. However, since the All Clear does only ¾ liter at a time, it is not really suitable for groups.
Trailspace’s Chief of Gear Reviews, Seth, sent me an email asking if I would like to review Camelbak’s new All Clear system. I agreed, but noted that I was not willing to “test to destruction” as a human guinea pig, nor were any of the students or staff in the High Adventure Training course for Boy Scout Leaders that I helped teach in March (2012). [edit to add: I have been told that some readers might not understand that the "human guinea pig" comment is a tongue in cheek joke — read the next paragraph.]
The box claims that the All Clear meets applicable EPA standards (manufacturer registration 88622, establishment 0862272-CH-001), plus the label on the box says the All Clear will kill 99.9999% of bacteria, 99.99% of viruses, and 99.9% of protozoan cysts. So, accepting the words on the box for our health and safety, we spent our weekend in the pouring rain treating the water from the south fork of Butano Creek with the All Clear.
Setup & Power
On receiving the package from Trailspace Gear Review Corps Central, I opened the box to examine the contents, and review the instructions. The supplied items consist of a Camelbak ¾ liter clear plastic bottle (would you expect any other color from the name?) with usage directions printed on it, the All Clear ultraviolet lamp head with a USB charger cord and carrying pouch, and a standard Classic bottle cap, all shown in the above photo.
As I opened the box and removed the contents (including directions in English and French, both of which I read, though not necessarily fluently in either), I searched for a USB charger block to plug into the wall. After determining there was none, I scanned the directions to find that I should plug the cord into my computer or other “standard” USB source.
The question immediately arises, of course, of where to find a USB plug in the backcountry. Failing that, how long does a battery charge last? Back to the instructions and the box — Specified battery life is 80 treatment cycles, or 60 liters (about 16 gallons). Since you do not need to treat water used for cooking or boiled up for coffee, tea, cocoa, or hot apple cider, this means a couple weeks worth of drinking water.
But what do you do for a month-long backpack or a thru-hike on the PCT (2,600 miles) or AT (2,200 miles)? Not all resupply locations have a USB port just waiting for you. And, there are those foreign countries. The answer, of course, is to use a solar panel or one of the “hiker-stride” generators.
I checked my two solar panels, a Brunton that puts out 27 Watts (left image) and a Goal 0 that puts out about 7 Watts (right image). Both provided plenty of power, though on expeditions I usually prefer the Brunton (25 oz) over the Goal 0 (14 oz), largely because it will recharge the batteries for my Nikon DSLR in 2 hours (same as at home with a wall socket). In the two accompanying photos, the “C” displayed in the LCD screen indicates that charging is in progress, while just above it is the usual “scrolling battery” that shows the progress of the charging process.
The supplied bottle is basically the standard Camelbak ¾ liter bottle with a cap that must be removed to drink. This means that, in principle, you can use the Camelbak Groove bottle (“straw” filter system), Eddy, or other ¾ liter Camelbak bottles with the flip-up bite valve. The cap size is also the same as the standard Nalgene bottles, though the instructions are very specific about using only the supplied bottle.
I did make a few runs with other Camelbak ¾ liter bottles (the green one in the photo is an old BPA version). Although I did not get analyses made by the local Health Department, no one got sick, and the water tasted OK.
The water must be at least as clear as “weak lemonade.” SteriPen describes this level as “much closer to clear than opaque, Obviously not clear, Obviously cloudy, Objects viewed through the water are visible but blurry, As cloudy as weak lemonade.”
Depending on the source, the instructions suggest running the water through the Camelbak pre-filter. Since the pre-filter is not supplied in the box, I went to my neighborhood REI to examine one. The screen is pretty coarse. I suspect it would let anything smaller in diameter than about a millimeter through, although I did not actually measure the screen size.
Since I already have a SteriPen pre-filter with a much finer mesh screen, I used that during the testing (in the images above). This implies that water containing much particulate matter, such as glacial melt (which would appear milky from the flour-like materials ground up under the glacier) or streams that run through volcanic tuff (such as much of the Sangre de Cristo section of the Rockies) may very well prevent effective treatment with the All Clear (same with the SteriPen).
Where possible, I let the water settle for several hours or overnight, then decant the clearer water from the top. Note that UV systems, as with all other backpacker systems, do NOT remove industrial, agricultural, or mining runoff. Be aware of the sources of the stream or pond from which you are taking your water.
UV light doing purification
The operation of the All Clear system is simple and straightforward, as shown in the sequence of images above. Fill the bottle with clear water to the fill line (¾ liter), screw on the UV cap, press the blue button for two seconds, then turn the bottle inverted and upright 180° continuously (analogous to stirring with a SteriPen) for the full 60 second countdown (visible in the LCD screen).
Do NOT look directly at the UV lamp, and do NOT use the lamp as a flashlight or night light (it is ultraviolet light, after all, intended to fatally damage microorganisms, and could cause damage to your eyes or other parts of your body – this caution is in the Instructions!).
At the end of the cycle, the light turns off and a checkmark and “UV” will appear in the LCD screen. Remove the UV cap, wipe the threads with a clean cloth before drinking the water (water on the threads is not treated), and put the Camelbak Classic cap on the bottle (or, as I did, use one of the Camelbak bite-valve caps).
I used my Camelback flip-up cap with bite valve most of the time instead of removing and replacing the cap every time I took a drink. This is much easier when in the middle of a rock pitch. The Classic and flip-up caps have a loop that you can simply clip a carabiner through and attach to a gear loop on your climbing harness. But with the Classic cap, you have to remove the cap to drink, then screw it back on – a two-handed operation, where the flip-up can be done one-handed, as can the unclip/reclip to the gear loop.
For turbid, murky, or cloudy water, such as from skuzzy ponds or shared with hippos, the instructions say to follow a fairly lengthy procedure of pre-filtering to remove large debris, then filtered two times “through an MSR Miniworks Microfilter or commercial equivalent” (interesting to see this specific recommendation, since Camelbak is not part of the Cascade Designs corporate umbrella). Then run the water in the All Clear bottle through two full UV cycles. In general, if the water is still tinted, do not drink it or cook with it.
I did run some other tests and carry the All Clear on several short hikes. I did not carry it on an extended expedition, since I needed to complete the evaluation in a fairly short period. The two weekend trips included one in the Sierra that featured a blizzard that dropped some two feet of snow on my tent overnight and one with our group of 25 adult Scout leaders and nine staff in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
It worked fine on all outings. On two of the day hikes (both during heavy rainstorms that dropped snow on the local SFBay Area mountain peaks), I refilled and treated the All Clear bottle at streams fully flowing from the rain runoff, one of which is shown in the photo below.
The operating limitations are no higher than 140°F/60°C and no lower than 32°F/0°C, or water containing ice. The cap should not be exposed to temperatures above 140°F/60°C, or below -4°F/-20°C.
I was curious about the low temperature usage, since this would reduce battery life. I chilled the UV cap in the freezer to a low point of -6°F/-21°C. The unit seemed to work adequately down to 20°F, though I would not advise going beyond the manufacturer’s limitations.
In any case, the water being treated must be liquid with no ice in it, hence above 32°F/0°C.
I tested the battery capacity by running repeated treatment cycles to see when the battery indicator said it was discharged. At 20 cycles, the battery indicator showed 3 out of 5 bars. The “LO” message showed up at 80 cycles, meaning that the limit was 79 cycles. I suspect that the capacity will vary by one or two cycles, depending on the exact usage conditions and whether you start with a truly full charge.
The recharge time is specified as 5 hours from empty, with the measured time being as close to 5 hours, using a USB wall block, as I could measure by making occasional checks to see when the LCD indicated a full charge.
FCC Part 15
The instruction sheet includes an FCC Part 15 notice, stating that the UV cap is compliant within the limits of a Class B digital device. This is the first time I had seen this notice on any outdoor gear other than GPS receivers and radios. I checked for interference with other electronic outdoor widgets, finding only a bit of static on several bands of my ham radio handheld when the cap was held within an inch or so of the antenna. In principle, Part 15 applies to all electronic and electric devices. With the plethora of new electronic widgets getting out into the woods, I suspect we will see more of these notices.
A number of the participants in the High Adventure course were, if not actual ultraLight backpackers, at least incipient ones. The 13.6 ounces for the full All Clear setup seemed a bit heavy to some of the more dedicated in the group. The following list compares weights for several treatment systems. Note that weights listed for the AllClear and the “filter-straw bottles” include a bottle, and the Sawyer includes two 2-liter bladders (grey for the unfiltered water and blue for the filtered water and use as your hydration bladder). Halogen systems require an added bottle, as does the SteriPen.
My personal choice?
If I have a source with clear water or can get the water clear enough with settling and a prefilter, I would use the AllClear for my personal water (plus maybe one companion) for long day hikes and backpacks up to a week or so (longer if I carry my solar panel).
The AllClear is a bit more convenient to use on the trail than the SteriPens I have. I have used the SteriPen in the U.S., South America, Europe, and Africa. If the water is turbid or I have good reason to suspect significant protozoa, I use a filter (Katadyn Hiker Pro usually, sometimes Sawyer gravity filter 2 liter), followed by either a SteriPen or chlorine dioxide tablets . Cooking water has to be heated anyway, so no further treatment is needed.
I have been using the SteriPen on tap water in foreign countries (a few times in a restaurant, when I was unsure of the source of their “bottled” water), and think it would be more convenient for that glass of water the waiter brings than pouring the water into the AllClear bottle and using that approach. But remember, you can’t use the UV treatment if there is ice in the water.
Comparative weights of some water treatment systems as carried in the field:
Camelbak All Clear (bottle, std cap, UV cap, case): 13.6 oz
Camelbak All Clear UV cap only: 7 oz
Camelbak Groove (¾ liter bottle with “straw filter”): 6.9 oz
Camelbak ¾ liter bottle with bite valve and non-filter straw: 7.2 oz
SteriPen Venture Opti (UV) with batteries: 3.6 oz
SteriPen Venture contact (UV) in solar case with spare batteries (Opti is same): 11.5 oz
SteriPen Pre-filter: 1.5 oz
MSR MiOx kit (generates chlorine dioxide from rock salt and water): 5.8 oz
Katadyn Exstream XR (bottle with filter straw and “virus treatment”): 9.6 oz
Katadyn Hiker Pro pump filter kit (incl prefilter): 15.6 oz
Sweetwater pump filter kit (incl prefilter): 13.4
First Need pump filter kit (incl pre-filter): 14.2 oz
Sawyer 0.1 micron gravity filter 2 liter: 16.2 oz (including the two 2-liter bladders)