Gear Review: How to Carry Water in the Mountains

November 11, 2016

Spending time in the mountains begets self-reflection. In addition to all the touchy-feely reflection, I cannot help but consider how well my gear did or did not perform. How to carry water while climbing, skiing or getting lost bushwhacking is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. I’ve seen a myriad of techniques deployed by my various partners and have experimented with many myself. Before I showcase my favorite methods, it is only appropriate to give a nod to several others that have discussed this subject and review the common approaches.


Nalgene or Similar


Andrew Yasso of the American Alpine Institute wrote about carrying water in the mountains here. He seems to favor standard Nalgenes inside the pack. The biggest beef I have with Nalgenes is the bulk. They aren’t light and take up the same amount of space in your pack even if they’re empty. I have stuffed empty Nalgenes with shirts, underwear, gloves or anything small and stuffable to more efficiently use the space but that is not a proper way to pack. Good luck if you need something out of that bottle quickly. The other issue is getting water expeditiously. Stopping, taking off your pack and digging a bottle out every time you need a drink is a huge waste of time. And on high-angle terrain this becomes cumbersome and risky. The other downside is if you’re keeping your Nalgene inside your pack, and want to make it easy to reach, you’re packing it right on top, which is worst place for something heavy like water (heavy items should be packed in the bottom of the pack, as close to your back as possible).


Of course, many backpacks are equipped with mesh pockets on the side designed to carry Nalgenes. This is fine for backpacking, but bending down to buckle your ski boots or tighten your crampons will launch those bottles right out of the pockets. On sloped terrain (especially rock or ice), this can mean watching your bottle achieve terminal velocity right in front of your panic-stricken eyes.  I’ve seen people add security to this pocket system by using a buckle or compression strap to capture the top part of the bottle; however, this usually requires either another person to help you free the bottle or removing the pack.


Hydration Bladders


Rainier Mountaineering Inc. describes the pros and cons of hydration bladders versus water bottles here. A key point they make is that if you’re going to use a hydration bladder, blowing air back through the mouthpiece and hose will greatly reduce the chance of freezing. I’ve had hoses and bite valves freeze several times, even with the extra-insulating sleeve. This is beyond frustrating and renders all that water (and weight) useless. You can stop, dig out the bladder, and drink directly from it in a pinch, but that is even more cumbersome and inefficient than the Nalgene method. 


RMI points out that a danger to using a bladder is not being able to monitor your water intake very precisely. I agree with this, but I have found after a decade or so of using bladders, I’m pretty good at gauging my water consumption. Although, at high altitude and while fatigued, it is best to limit these types of estimations that require conscious thought. Keep it simple, stupid. And in the spirit of simplicity, the process of refilling bladders needs examination. It often requires unpacking additional items to get to the bladder and disconnecting/reconnecting the hose.


Alpine Staw, Ziploc Bags, Gatorade Bottles, Etc


Blake Herrington has some excellent alpinist pro-tips for drinking and collecting water here.


Chris McNamara sums up many of my opinions regarding various storage solutions for backpacking here. He ultimately recommends the MSR DromLite bags.


I’ve used Gatorade bottles with varying degrees of success, depending on the discipline. For more backpacking-oriented activities and warm weather climbing they seem to perform alright. They are fairly popular among ultralight backpackers



I have developed two primary methods, depending on the season.


Spring Mountaineering & Summer Alpine Climbing


After dipping into the ultrarunning scene, I was immediately interested in the prospect of carrying small, collapsible flasks on the chest, as seen on many running vests. Dynafit has recently been making some crossover mountain running/skimo packs with this feature. I finally found some 500ml flasks and carrying pouches from CAMP and have been testing them for about 6 months now. I’m hooked.




With the addition of a small key ring, I am able to attach these pouches to any backpack with a daisy chain along the front of the shoulder straps.



This method hits most of the nails on the head:

- Easily monitor water intake

- Immediate access for drinking

- Quickly refill from available water sources while approaching or on route

- Less prone to freezing than a hose/bite valve

- Secure attachment to the pack

- Packs to nothing when empty


Downsides and Considerations:

- I wouldn’t use it for offwidth/chimneying or much beyond 5.9, because it’s not super durable against abrasion and does obscure gear loops and feet.

- I wouldn’t use it for temps much below 25F. The bottles will start to freeze and are not easy to open/close with bigger gloves on.

- These bottles from CAMP and others like them are not immediately compatible with water filtration systems like Nalgenes are (if you care about that kind of thing).

- Carrying a full liter of water on your chest can be heavy. I’m using the 500ml flasks, but smaller sizes are available.


In general, I’m really stoked on this set up. I’ve climbed numerous mountains and alpine rock routes with this method and so far it works really well. Depending on the objective and schedule, I may want to carry more water, or have the option to store additional water overnight. In that case, I include a 2L MSR DromLite reservoir. This fixes the last 3 downsides I listed above. I marked my DromLite with a sharpie at the 1L line so I can ration water more easily. The ability to pack these little bags down to almost nothing really appeals to me. I also really like the design for the lid, which has 3 different options for drinking. The flip nozzle also doubles as a great irrigation tool for cleaning out cuts and scrapes.




Fall & Winter Climbing


For colder weather climbing, the exposed flasks on the chest straps will eventually freeze. The salts contained in Gatorade or other electrolyte drinks will lower the freezing temperature of your water, which helps but doesn’t solve the problem. The issue then becomes: how to easily access water, on the go, and keep it from freezing. Hydro Flask makes some excellent insulated bottles, which keeps a drink mix at a stable temperature for many hours. I’ve used their 40oz bottle with some success, affixed to my backpack’s waistbelt using a carabiner.

A piece of p-cord around the neck works well for a secure attachment. The obvious hole in the Straw Lid will also work with some carabiners. The hole is actually wide enough that most of the small, lightweight 'biners barely fit and it becomes difficult to operate the gate, hence the p-cord solution.



Any carabiner attachment is plagued by an irritating swinging motion. In addition to looking like a shitshow, this type of attachment can get hooked on things and compromise your balance or movement. As well, the Hydro Flask, although very insulating, is freaking heavy. My 40oz size with a Straw Lid weighs 17.5 oz, then add an ounce for a carabiner. Coming in at over a pound just to carry water is a bit ridiculous.


A much better method is to use one of the Outdoor Research water bottle parkas to add extra insulation around a Nalgene. I'm not quite sure why more companies have not developed similar insulation systems, but good on ya OR! These things are rad. The latest version of the parka with a standard Nalgene weights 11 oz. This saves nearly half of pound compared to the Hydro Flask. 


One of the biggest benefits to the bottle parka is a solid, wide strap of velcro, which can be used to attach the bottle to a harness, waistbelt, backpack, etc. This eliminates the swinging motion while keeping the bottle at your side. With this method, water stays warm and accessible. However, the wasted space problem still exists. Theoretically, you could use a collapsable flask in the bottle parka, but this seems like it would be annoying because the parka is not designed for this type of use. The only other minor gripe I have with this method is that with the parka strapped to the waist belt of my backpack, it does brush against my arms while skiing and climbing to some extent. Not a big deal though.


For longer trips or where water is scarce, I'll again pair this with a DromLite bag inside the pack. 


 Carrying a nalgene with OR's bottle parka on the backpack waistbelt while climbing steep snow.




Top: Detail on the velcro attachment system. The strap is actually sandwiched between two different pieces of velcro for extra security. 

Bottom: Attached to a backpack waistbelt.








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