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How to Safely Turn Snow & Ice Into Drinking Water


In the winter we are surrounded by nearly drinkable water supplies in the natural world: snow and ice are everywhere! Mountaineers and hikers exploring cold environments should master the essential skill of converting snow and ice into drinking water to remain hydrated on longer journeys.

 

a cup of snow

Multnomah Falls and the foot bridge across in the Columbia River Gorge

 

Is It Safe to Eat Snow or Ice?

 

A small amount of ice or snow along your journey is fine, but don’t rely on large quantities of cold snow or ice for rehydrating. Your body will burn a substantial amount of energy converting the snow and ice into water, and the colder substance will lower your body temperature. Keeping your body temperature high is paramount in the winter, so instead try to collect some snow and ice and turn it into drinking water. There’s also the concern of pathogens with snow or ice, even if you avoid obviously tainted or discolored patches.

 

Use a Stove to Make Drinking Water from Ice or Snow

 

The easiest method is to use a modern camping stove that comes with its own fuel, like propane gas or petrol. First, collect your ice or snow. If possible melt ice, as it is more compact and contains more water than snow. Use a pot with good insulation and always use your lid to conserve fuel.

 

Start with only a thin layer of snow or ice on the bottom of your pot — never pack it to the top. Snow is a good insulator, so if you stuff your pot full of snow you can burn out the bottom of your pot. Add a little at a time until you have the quantity of water you want.

 

How to Remove Contaminants from Ice and Snow

 

If you are using a stove and pot or a fire and pot to melt your ice or snow simply bring the water to a roiling boil and allow the water to boil for an additional five minutes to remove many potential pathogens and contaminants. You won’t have access to a multi-stage water filtration system in the wild, so boiling is the safest option.

However, if you can’t use a pot or stove you can still convert ice or snow into drinking water. We will cover these methods below. When using any of these methods bring purification drops or tablets with you to use after the snow or ice has melted. Iodine and chlorine tablets are your best options.

 

Other Ways to Turn Ice and Snow Into Drinking Water

 

Without a stove or pot handy try these three methods to obtain some drinking water:

 

  • Collect ice or snow and wrap it inside a t-shirt or large bandana. Use sturdy branches to suspend the snow above a fire. As the snow or ice begins to melt it will start to drip through the fabric. Use a large cup or container to catch the falling water.
  • Harness the power of the sun: fill a water bag or large Ziploc bag with snow and seal it. Place the bag atop a black garbage bag and allow it to melt in the bright sun. Keep the bag near your campsite so you can check it regularly.
  • Carry an insulated water bottle and fill it with water before you depart. Store the water bottle inside your thick winter clothing but keep it separated from your skin. As you hike or explore fill the water bottle with a fresh scoop of snow whenever you take a drink. The snow should melt by the next time you stop to hydrate. Be sure to periodically use purification tablets.

 

With these methods you will never run out of drinking water, even when exploring the winter tundra. Prepare for your next outing and bring plenty of filtered water to begin!

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