Stoves and Water Management
Recommended winter gear for melting snow and carrying water:
- Stove (liquid fuel recommended for below 15º F)
- Firestarter (flint and/or lighter and matches)
- Nalgene bottle (32 fl. oz., weighs 6.2 oz.)
- Small Nalgene bottle (Optional, 16 fl. oz., weighs 6.2 oz.)
- Thermos/metal flask (18 fl. oz., weighs 11.1 oz)
- Pot large enough for melting snow (I use the Snow Peak Trek 1400 Titanium Cookset, 7.4 oz)
- Stove repair kit (if you use a liquid fuel stove)
- Fuel (11 fluid oz. is usually sufficient for a weekend and 20 oz. for 3 days trips)
NOTE: The methods I’m going to explain in this post are for trips in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State. This is important because you may be hiking somewhere that has colder temperatures that require different methods. Here in Washington, I’m usually hiking between 2000–8000ft and camping between 3500–7500ft. What I consider “deep cold” is typically 5º F–15º F, which is when the methods described here matter. Otherwise, expect temps to be on average between 15º–35º F here in the winter. These are thermometer temps, not wind chill. In the photo above, I’m camping on a solidly frozen alpine lake at about 5500ft. The nighttime low was 6º F.
I don’t like being cold. I want to be comfortable all the time when I’m out in winter conditions. The simple methods I’ll explain here are how I stay comfortable in winter conditions that scare most people away.
How to Pack Water
Winter gear is heavy. In very cold weather, my total pack weight is between 27–30lbs. That’s with a 4-season tent, bear vault, avalanche gear, food, and water. To keep my pack weight down, I carry only enough water required to reach where ever I will be camping, which for an all-day hike is 1 liter or 32 oz., or sometimes 1.5 liters—which admittedly is often a little less than I probably need.
When I start hiking, I typically have 2 Nalgene bottles and a metal flask.
- FULL: Small Nalgene bottle (Optional, 16 fl. oz., weighs 6.2 oz.)
- FULL: Thermos/metal flask (18 fl. oz., weighs 11.1 oz)
- EMPTY: Nalgene bottle (32 fl. oz., weighs 6.2 oz.)
Notice that the larger Nalgene is empty. This bottle is only for use at camp as a hot water bottle. In theory, I could just use the smaller bottle for that purpose, but the larger bottle lasts longer during the night. In a 15º F rated sleeping bag the hot water bottle loses warmth about halfway through the night. In a zero-degree sleeping bag it will last longer, and in an expedition bag (–20º F) it usually stays warm most of the night.
With only 1 liter of water, I’m very thirsty by the time I reach camp at the end of the day. (Bear in mind that there are fewer daylight hours in the winter so camp setup comes sooner unless we are hiking in the dark.) I usually reserve a small amount (about 1/3 of a cup) of this water to use as starter fluid when melting snow. That is, I don’t want to just put snow in a pot and put the pot over a flame. This can damage the pot. I’ll start by heating a small amount of water and then add in the snow. I use a titanium pot with 1.5 quarts (1.4 liters) capacity.
Use the Water in the Small Nalgene Bottle First
I start the day with a small 16 fl. oz. Nalgene bottle on my pack belt where I can access it easily while hiking. I’ll drink this first. If I don’t drink it all before lunch I risk letting it freeze.
Important rule: Never allow water to freeze in your water bottles. If you fill a Nalgene with water and it starts to fully freeze up before you can use it, just pour it out to maintain the use of the bottle. If water freezes a full plastic Nalgene it is unlikely you will be able to unfreeze it. The bottle just becomes a useless weight.
Use the water in the Flask second
Once my small Nalgene is empty, I rely on the flask. This will get me the rest of the way to camp. I’ve never had ice form in the flask. I use a Hydro Flask Wide-Mouth Water Bottle – 18 fl. oz., a design that has been replaced with a 20 oz version. A flask will allow you to maintain liquid all day in very cold weather, provided the liquid was hot when you filled it.
In weather above 25º F, I usually don’t bring the flask because I don’t need it and it weighs more than a 32 ounce Nalgene bottle. Above 25º F the two Nalgene bottles are moving as I hike and usually will not fully freeze. I will not always fill the larger Nalgene completely because I just want to carry 1 to 1.5 liters. The warmer the weather, the more water I carry. I carry a water filter only when temperatures are consistently above freezing. I plan to melt snow or boil stream water when temperatures are dropping below freezing.
In deep cold or weather below 20º F, I bring the metal flask filled with hot tea. This hot tea will cool down by the end of the day but remain fluid until I reach a camping spot. Some of that tea may end up in my diner, but that okay.
When I reach camp, I refill the flask first, as well as a cooking pot. I melt snow for dinner, usually starting with a Miso soup or a Pho broth drained off noodles. This helps me to rehydrate. Later, I’ll melt more snow to fill my empty 32 oz Nalgene with hot water. This hot water bottle goes inside my coat to keep me warm around camp or I’ll put it in my sleeping bag if I’m ready to sleep.
In the morning I’ll start the day with boiling water for the flask and small Nalgene bottle. Same routine each day to resupply my water. Around camp, I’m also filling my mug with tea from my cooking pot. Although I try to get by with carrying only 1–1.5 liters, I’m always consuming more than that each day.
I avoid putting boiling water in Nalgene bottles and then drinking from the bottles. I don’t know how the plastic reacts to the heat and I don’t want to consume chemicals that might be released by that process. That is, I only carry the large empty Nalgene bottle to fill at camp for use as a hot water bottle. Sometimes it is between my feet in the morning if I’m socializing on my mat or just enjoying the views.
The Importance of Your Stove
Stoves are essential for maintaining water supply because I never carry all the water I need and I never build campfires. Melting snow with a stove is the essential method of water resupply.
No campfires: I usually camp high up on the snow in alpine zones where campfires are prohibited because organic matter (wood) is too scarce to burn. The lack of organic matter is a year-round issue. Building fires is just unnecessary trouble and I don’t need them.
No water filters: Water sources such as streams and ponds are often frozen or unreachable in winter, so there is no reason to carry a water filter. Freezing weather can damage expensive water filters. I use a water filter in the shoulder seasons when I am snow camping, but only when temperatures are mostly above freezing.
Bring both cook and no-cook food: If you’re an ultralight backpacker that cold soaks food—someone use to camping without a stove or hot food—I recommend making an exception for cold weather. Always bring a reliable stove for melting snow, creating hot water bottles, and warming meals. This method is the way to stay completely warm and comfortable in cold conditions. That said, backup no-cook meals are also recommended because situations can arise that prevent setting up a stove.
Don’t lose your heat! Avoid staying out in the cold and wind unprotected. Always put on layers and wind protection first when you arrive at your camp and then start cooking. It is hard to regain body heat once you lose it. The main secret to winter comfort is to never lose your heat. If you do lose it and your stove fails, you will not have a hot water bottle and you’ll be in your sleeping bag shivering for a long time. Don’t make that mistake!
Canister fuel and liquid fuel stoves: Both canister fuel and liquid fuel stoves will work in the mild winter weather conditions found here in the Cascade Mountains, but a liquid fuel stove usually performs better at high elevations in colder and windy conditions. I use an MSR Whisperlite International stove. If you use a liquid fuel stove it is important to understand how the design work in order to position the pump correctly and make sure the coil is heated by the primer flame. Do not light a liquid fuel stove in or near a tent because the primer flame will instantly melt the tent. The windscreen is an important part of the liquid fuel system as it protects the flame ensuring efficient heat. Windscreens are not safe on canister stoves. A canister stove with its own built-in windscreen is recommended, such as the MSR Reactor Stove System. That said, many hikers manage with simple PocketRocket stoves.
Because stoves are so essential to water supply, always follow these tips:
Tip 1: A flint is the most reliable all-weather fire starter and all you need to ignite a stove. If you decide to use a flint, practice at home first. It is not as easy as it sounds. Regardless of what type of firestarter you prefer, it is wise to carry multiple starters—flint, small lighter, and/or matches—because any one of them can fail in cold snowy conditions. Matches are most likely to fail, followed by lighters. The clear lighters allow you to see the fuel level in your lighter, but are made of cheaper materials and tend to fail a lot compared to the better Bic lighters.
Tip 2: No group should rely on just one stove. Everyone should bring their own stove and some extra fuel in case someone’s stove fails. Stoves are critically important and failures are not uncommon.
Tip 3. Bring enough fuel. 11 fluid ounces of fuel is usually sufficient for a weekend, as is a fuel canister, but I have started to bring 20 ounces just to have extra fuel in case someone else in the group has stove problems. It happens.
Tip 4: Always bring a stove repair kit. This applies to MSR liquid fuel stoves because these stoves can be repaired and serviced in the field. Canister stoves cannot. A stove that fails is a serious problem. At the very least, bring the tools (the wrench and cleaning needle) so you can unclog the fuel jet if necessary. A tutorial video for servicing MSR stoves is available here: https://youtu.be/O1WSGFBq-FI. Get the service kit that is specific to your stove. Practice servicing your stove at home. I promise it is not as easy as it looks in the MSR videos. The first time you use the jet and cable tool to pull out the fuel line cable on an old stove can be painful and hard. When you can calmly service a liquid fuel stove on a cold dark winter night in the wind on a mountain top, you are a Jedi winter backpacker.