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How to Find and Purify Water in the Winter

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How to Find and Purify Water in the Winter

You can also melt snow for water in high alpine locations where a snow patch may be the only source of water.

Photo © Traci J. Macnamara.

Humans can survive for weeks without food but only days without water. In the winter, finding water and having the right tools to ready it for drinking can be a challenge; however, the winter season also provides an additional resource: snow. Snow can be melted for drinking water, but consider the following recommendations in order to find, melt, and purify water from this source safely.

Melting Snow for Water

In order to melt snow for drinking water, you’ll need two key items: a water receptacle and a heat source. If you don’t have a stove, fuel, or any other means of starting a campfire, but you do have a water receptacle such as a water bottle, then you’ll likely be able to melt small quantities of snow for water. Gather snow from a clean, undisturbed area. If the snow is discolored or if it contains blown dirt or a high volume of leaves, pine needles, or debris, then choose snow from another area that’s clean.

Put snow into your water bottle or other container, and place it directly in the sun to facilitate melting. If you are hiking, attach a snow-filled bottle to the outside of a backpack so that the sun may warm it up while you are moving. If you are not cold or hypothermic, you can also put a water bottle full of snow next to your body, such as inside of a jacket, so that your body heat can melt the snow into water for drinking.

If you do have a stove and fuel or the means to start a campfire, then you can melt snow for water more easily. You will also need some type of water receptacle that can withstand heating, such as a metal pan. Stainless steel water bottles can also be exposed directly to a heat source for melting water. When heating up snow to melt for water, put some water that’s already melted in the bottom of the pan to prevent burning. If you have pots that stack on top of each other, put snow and a little bit of water in each of the pans. Stack the larger pan on top of the smaller pan so that you can efficiently melt snow in both pans at the same time.

While melting snow for water, take precautions to prevent and treat burns in the backcountry, as cooking-related burn injuries are among the most common camping injuries. Once you have melted the snow into water, consider whether or not you need to take additional precautions to purity it.

Since snow falls from the sky, it often isn’t subject to the same sources of contamination as water that you might get from a stream, river, or lake. Because snow does not come from a stagnant or flowing water source, it will likely not have come in contact with animal feces, urine, or other sources or disease and decay. However, if you have collected snow from an area that does not look clean, or if you are aware of other environmental concerns, you make take additional steps to purify snowmelt water as you would normally purify water from backcountry sources.

Other Winter Water Sources and Considerations

Sure, you can still drink water from streams, rivers, and lakes in the winter. But make sure that you go through the process of purifying water before you drink it. Approach frozen water sources cautiously, as slipping on ice or stepping on ice that breaks into the water can cause you more harm than good.

If you have trekking poles, use them to help you step cautiously on your approach, and then use your poles to try to break through the ice if a crust has formed on top of your desired water source. Once you’ve crushed through the ice, then dip your water receptacle into the water, and treat as usual.

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