Water Collection for Winter Hiking

During winter backpacking trips, gathering water is a completely different story than during 3-season trips. We're kind of spoiled most of the year really. If there's a water source we can fill a bottle and use a filter or use a quick working chemical treatment that makes the water safe to drink in 15-20 minutes. But those methods are not the best options in winter.

With water frozen over and snow covering much of the ground, now is a good time to review why filters and chemical treatments are not as effective during winter trips and run through a few methods to collect water.

Why 3-Season Water Collection Methods are Ineffective

Filtration: Water Filters are a popular option during 3-season backpacking. They are lightweight, easy to use, and make almost any water drinkable right from the source. But in winter, filters need to be used with caution because they could crack or freeze, allowing dangerous contaminants into your water.

Chemical treatments: Iodine and chlorine dioxide tablets are fast working chemical treatments, but they are not as effective in cold weather because the time it takes for the chemical reaction to occur is slowed. Although, if faced with a situation where chemical tablets have to be used, such as conserving fuel, before bed bring water up just to a boil and pour it into a water bottle and add a chemical treatment. Now you have a hot bottle to put into your sleeping bag to help keep you warm and the water will be ready to drink in the morning.

melting snow for drinking water Probably not the best idea for melting snow. Image courtesy of John Mayer

2 Options for Winter Water Collection

Heating Snow: Heating Snow is the #1 method for collecting water during the winter. If there's snow on the ground water is easy to come by, it just takes time and fuel. To heat up the snow, first add some water to a pot and heat that up then add a little snow. Once there's slush in the pot, add more snow. Fill up the pot and bring the water to a boil for a few minutes and pour it into a water bottle. Repeat until there's enough water to fill a couple water bottles. But beware that heating snow doesn't come without its challenges. If only snow is added without first adding water a hole can be burned into the bottom of the pot. Heating snow also requires more fuel so be sure to bring extra along.

Winter Solar Water Collector: While this is not the fastest option, if you plan to hike around during the day a solar water collector is an easy way to make sure there's water waiting for you when you return. Here are the steps to making a solar water collector:
  1. Dig a hole that's one foot deep and about two feet across.
  2. Spread a black trash bag over the hole and form a shallow dish so water can gather in the bottom.
  3. Pack clean snow around edges and as the sun heats the black trash bag the snow melts and water will collect in the shallow dish.

drinking water Image courtesy of Jono Hey

Collecting water in the winter is just one of the many differences between a winter trip and a 3-season trip. But with proper planning and use of time once on the trail, you'll be able to make the necessary adjustments and preparations so you can enjoy all the beauty backpacking in the winter has to offer.

Finally, here are a few water tips to keep in mind during the winter:

  • To keep water bottles from freezing, put them in a wool sock or insulated bottle cover.

  • Turn water bottles upside down so the ice forms at the bottom of the bottle instead of at the opening.

  • At night, make some water for drinking before bed, make another bottle of hot water to put in your sleeping bag, and a third for drinking in the morning and to make breakfast.

  • Bury a pan or bottle of water about 1 foot down in the snow and cover it up at night. Snow is a very good insulator so the water will not freeze and you'll have water ready to drink in the morning.

**This guest post is written by Ryan Rankin. Ryan lives in San Francisco but grew up fishing and running in the woods of Wisconsin. When he's not busy with work, he tries to head into the Sierras for some rest and relaxation. You can follow more of his writings at The Amateur Outdoorsman.

Looking for more winter camping tips? Try these:
Join the Conversation