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Winter Hydration Systems and Drinking Bottles

Staying properly hydrated and fed is very important in Winter
Staying properly hydrated and fed is very important in Winter

While there will always be a heated debate about what the best water bottles or hydration system required for winter hiking are, I think we’d all agree that the minimum requirements for winter use are as follows:

  • The water you bring on a hike can’t freeze
  • The warmer the water stays the better, because drinking cold water in cold weather can chill you
  • The bottle cap, hose, or mouthpiece shouldn’t freeze in place and prevent you from drinking your water
  • Your water container should be able to withstand hot liquids

While there are many different winter systems that satisfy these conditions, each of them has pros and cons that are worth looking at to help you decide what’s right for you and the climate where you plan to hike.

Hydration Reservoirs and Drinking Tubes

I know many people who use hose-based hydration systems for 3 season hiking and prefer to use them in winter because they lower the barrier to staying hydrated in drier winter air. If you intend to use a system like this, it’s best to purchase one with an integrated insulation sleeve like the Camelbak Insulated Unbottle that you can switch between different backpacks depending on the amount of gear and insulation you need to carry during the day. While Camelbak and other manufacturers sell snowsport specific skiing backpacks with integrated hydration systems, these are often not large enough to carry enough winter clothing or gear on longer hikes.

Drinking Tube Insulation
Drinking Tube Insulation

In addition to reservoir insulation, you’ll probably want to add drinking tube insulation to your hydration system to keep the hose and mouthpiece from freezing. While these can be a bit tricky to slide onto a drinking tube, they tend to be interchangeable between brands so you can mix and match components to suit your preferences.

The theory is that the body heat that radiates from your back will keep your hydration reservoir from freezing in winter. You can augment this by filling your reservoir with boiling hot water, surrounding it with insulating clothing inside your backpack, or even stuffing a Grabber handwarmer into your pack’s hydration pocket to heat it while you are hiking.

In addition, there is a techniques commonly used to keep you drinking hose and mouthpiece from freezing. After taking a sip of water, blow into your drinking hose to push any remaining water in the hose back into the hydration reservoir so it doesn’t freeze in place. This takes some practice to become automatic, but it really does help to keep the hose clear, even if it is wrapped using drinking tube insulation.

If there’s a downside to using a hydration reservoir it that they are difficult to refill with boiling snowmelt on overnight trips without burning your hands or getting your gloves soaked. But provided you are not hiking in very cold temperatures or taking extremely long day hikes, a hydration system can be adapted successfully for cold weather use.

Insulated Water Bottle Holders
Insulated Water Bottle Holders

Nalgene Bottles

Wide-mouth Nalgene Bottles (32 ounce size) are also a very popular choice for carrying water in winter, because they can safely hold hot liquids, they stand up by themselves, they’re easy to refill and clean, easy to drink from, and most hikers have a few sitting around the house already.

Like hydration reservoirs it’s best to augment them with an insulation sleeve to help keep their contents hot through the day particularly if you hang one from your hip belt while you are hiking. If you carry multiple Nalgenes, it’s easiest to cover all of them with an insulation sleeve, but you can also store them in your pack smothered in an insulation layer like a down coat and they will stay warm all day.  With all water bottles, it’s best to use wide mouth ones in winter so that ice doesn’t form in their neck and to store them upside down to prevent the threads from freezing, even if they’re stored in an insulation sleeve.

If there’s a downside to Nalgene bottles it’s that you often need to take your gloves or mittens off to open them which can be clumsy due to the lid keeper strap. This can be very uncomfortable or downright dangerous if you are in a very cold or windy place, like on a mountain. It is also possible to crack Nalgenes made out of hard plastic, so you should use the Nalgene bottles made out of high density polyethylene, if possible.

Taking off your gloves to open a water bottle can be hazardous in Winter
Taking off your gloves to open a water bottle can be hazardous in Winter

Hunersdorf Bottles

Personally, my favorite winter water bottle is called a Hunersdorf Bottle, which is similar to a Nalgene but does not have a keeper strap connecting the bottle and the cap. These bottles are often recommended by mountaineering guides for expeditions because they can be opened without taking your gloves or mittens off in cold weather. Like Nalgene Bottles, they can safely hold boiling hot liquids, they’re easy to clean, easy to drink out of and stand on their own.

I’ve been using Hunersdorf Bottles for going on 4 years and I like them because they have all the benefits of a wide mouth polyethylene Nalgene, but weigh several ounces less.

Forty Below makes an insulation liner for Hunerdorf Bottles which can also be opened while wearing mittens and which is closed using a velcro tab instead of a zipper. This is very handy when you need a drink but really need to keep your mittens on, no matter what, to prevent frostbite.

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  1. Great article Philip.

    +1 for the Hunnersdorf bottles. Bought mine from 40 below many years ago and still use it to this day on cold weather hikes.

  2. I’ve generally used a wide mouthed Nalgene while winter camping, and can’t quite see the benefits of the Hunnersdorf. The Nalgene weighs 1.3 oz less (3.5 oz to 4.8 oz from the links you posted). I removed the annoying lid keeper years ago, and the caps have plenty of grip to open with even the beefiest gloves.

  3. Thermos!

    • Thermos is right! It’s a pound of extra weight that I happily carry in winter hikes. Still need other systems to compensate the limited volume a Thermos can hold. But nothing beats a lip burning sip on top of a mountain.

      Hand Warmer in the bladder pocket is a great idea, will try next time.

      • Thermos for day hikes only, and for soup rather than plain drinks. Not worth the weight for a multi-day hike. I sometimes leave a Thermous full of coffee or cocoa in the car for after a day hike. I usually wrap the Thermos in a pair of wool socks to keep the contents hot all day, unless it isn’t that cold out.

    • I’ve carried a small thermos and decided it wasn’t worth the weight. Regular insulated bottles smothered in my down jacket stay hotter just as long.

      • Phil, are you saying that soups stay as hot in a nalgene wrapped in insulating layers in the backpack as it will in a thermos? Or are you saying that water says warm enough and you don’t think soups are worth the weight plenty? I LOVE hot soup for lunch on a winter hike.

      • The latter. Not worth the hassle. Cold pizza is though. :-) The perfect winter food.

  4. I’m of the Nalgene variety, and I prefer to use the very basic, semi-rigid 32 oz bottles over the slightly larger rigid ones. I fill them with hot tea in the morning and then stuff them into a thick spare wool sock. That’s not quite as effective as a neoprene sleeve, but I haven’t had a bottle freeze on me yet.

  5. I got my hunnerdorf more then 30 years ago … before I bought a nalgene. Does anybody know what plastic is used in Hunnerdorf’s? I have been reluctant to use mine for concern of BPAs.

    Temps in the CO mtns when snowshoeing are rarely below 0F and I have not had a problem with regular nalgenes and can easily remove the lid

  6. Thanks for all the info. Plenty of room for thought.

  7. Years ago, someone taught me to put a flexible straw in my Nalgene — makes it much easier to cope with the keeper strap and lessens the risk of spilling water all over myself.

    Good idea to use a hand warmer with a Camelbak. Thanks for the tip.

  8. I also carry a hunnersdorf everytime out. I use the hunny as a hot water bottle at night and I find they stay warmer longer than a nalgene, although my tests were very unscientific.

  9. I did a trip this weekend and wrapped my Nalgenes in bubble wrap for lack of a better insulator. I just ordered a 40 Below kozy (nice product!) but plan to rotate in bubble wrapped Nalgenes from my pack when I need replenishment. No need in buying three of them and its probably lighter as well.

    Stowing them upside down is a great idea though, hadn’t thought of that.

    • I’ve actually stopped carrying more than 1 kozy to save weight. The kozy goes on the bottle outside my pack and the other bottles snuggle inside my pack next to my insulated clothing. Saves about 8 oz.

  10. This is a well-debated topic but I have seen a lot of hydration hoses freeze even with insulation (and blow back) when the temps really drop. A little water always stays in the valve and it can freeze solid fairly quickly. Most AMC leaders will not let you on a mid-winter hike with one so readers beware –even if it works for you.

  11. NIce! One more detail regarding Hydration Systems: We recommend using push-pull drinking valve in winter (instead of the bite-valve). There’s less chance of freezing the push-pull valve. It has higher flow, no silicone parts. Also: Use tubes with a wider diameter, which makes them less likely to freeze.

  12. Yesterday when my bite valve froze on me I used the handwarmer packet perking away in my pocket to thaw it – just held it around the valve for a few minutes while I walked. Not the way to plan to do things, but it was a fix in the moment.

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