Tales of cold winter climbs, backpacking and skiing trips, not all of them successful, along with articles on mountaineering, whitewater, photography and more.
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The Krummholz Zone was last updated on:
November 4, 2001.


• by John David Fawcett •

One of the reasons I look forward to cold weather trips is the prospect of melting snow for water. By melting snow I can set up camp in places far from "established" water holes and I can explore places I might not have visited if I had to carry in heavy bottles of water. Drinking plenty of water is always important when backpacking, especially in the winter when the humidity is lower. An easy test is to check the color of your urine. Some say "clear at least once a day", but I prefer "if not clear, drink". Without enough water, the blood becomes thicker and moves through the body much more slowly, increasing the chance of frostbite and hypothermia.

Melting snow is a fairly simple operation, but be aware that it requires lots of snow to create a full pot of water. It also takes a lot of time and fuel, is a little tedious and, especially below tree-line, the snow may be filled with little pieces of bark, twigs, pine needles, etc., that you'll notice only when it's all melted.

Although I have on occasion just packed the pot full of snow, I usually pour about half an inch of water from my water bottle into the pot and keep adding snow as everything melts. As a result, I've never had a problem with the pot scorching from melting snow alone. Cold, dry snow holds less moisture than warm, wet snow and will take much more time and fuel to melt into a reasonable amount of water. On winter trips lasting three days or less I usually carry one large 33 ounce MSR bottle of fuel.

There is usually no shortage of clean snow when winter camping, however, it is also possible to get water from a stream or lake instead of melting snow. It takes about 80 calories of heat to melt snow or ice into water. That's almost the same amount of heat required to bring water to a boil, so you can see why it is preferable to use liquid water or combine snow and water. If you are near a lake or river, you're probably better off chipping a hole in the ice to get the water. If the ice is too thick to chop through, use the ice itself. You'll save much time and fuel if you melt ice instead of snow. A possible danger while collecting running water is falling in since the banks of the lake or stream will be partially frozen making it difficult to reach the water. One method I've used is to tie a length of thin accessory cord around the neck of my water bottle, toss it into the stream and fish it out with a hearty yank. Actually, it's kind of entertaining trying to get the bottle as full as possible without filling it full of dirt. I always boil any water melted from snow and treat water dipped from a stream or lake. Also pay special attention to guidelines on length of water treatment vs temperature if you're using a chemical treatment system. Just because it is winter and the water is cold doesn't mean that the parasites are on vacation. Giardiasis is a lousy way to remember that great trip. Some folks may notice that boiled water has a rather flat taste, but I think warm snow-water tastes pretty good.

Having suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning, I avoid cooking in my tent. Besides being potentially lethal, cooking or melting snow in your tent makes a lot of steam which then condenses on everything in the tent. I usually prepare most of my water in the evening, starting off by making enough for several large mugs of hot chocolate and my meal. While eating, I fill two or three Lexan bottles with boiling water, put one bottle in an insulating jacket and then stuff them all in the foot of my sleeping bag. The water will stay warm for quite a while and in the morning I can quickly make breakfast and break camp. I drink as much water as I can hold at breakfast and take a one liter water bottle with me, either in an insulated bottle parka on my hip belt or in the inside pocket of my jacket shell. Occasionally, I will also carry another one liter bottle in my pack, surrounded by extra gear. Remember to carry the bottle upside-down so the lid will be less likely to freeze on. The Lexan bottles are unaffected by heat, but the lids are not Lexan so are softened considerably. Turn the bottles upside down for a bit, then carefully retighten the lids, otherwise they have a tendency to leak. When the bottles are filled with boiling water and closed tight, the air inside creates a bit of a vacuum as the water cools. Periodically, this can result in the lids cracking and leaking. The trick is to close it just tight enough to prevent it from leaking, but not so tight that it's going to split at the top when it cools. Of course during the day, you can always open it now and again to equalize the pressure.

When the belt/jacket bottle is empty I switch it with the bottle in my pack since I've found that I drink only if I have easy access to the water. Be aware that if you carry the water bottle outside your person or pack, even in an insulated bottle parka, there is a possibility that it will freeze. I usually carry the water in my shell jacket or in a bottle parka attached to my pack hip-belt and I've never had a problem with water freezing, even in sub zero weather. If it freezes while inside your jacket, you're either dead or pretty close to it.

You can also keep your water from freezing by burying it deep under the snow. Snow is a great insulator and will keep the water around the freezing mark. In the morning there will be a thin layer of ice along the top, so make sure you bury the bottle with the lid down. Another alternative is an insulating vacuum bottle. They tend to be bulky and heavy but will keep water warm for quite a long time, even at extremely low temperatures.

Nearly all experienced winter backpackers agree that you shouldn't build a fire unless it is absolutely necessary. Starting a fire in the winter can be difficult and you'll be doing nothing to help the fragile environment. While you're busy gathering wood, trampling the flora and building a fire, you could have produced a gallon of water from snow using a stove such as the MSR XGK-II. Spring eventually comes and other hikers will not be too thrilled to find charcoaled logs and soot-blackened rocks near the trails. Since you'll already be carrying a stove, packing a small amount of extra fuel will be no big deal, and it will be a more responsible way of using the backcountry.

"Teach your children what we have taught our children, that the earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself." - Sealth (Seattle), Chief of the Duwamish to President Franklin Pierce

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