Finding Drinking Water in the Winter

Finding drinking water in the winter can be challenging. Lakes and rivers ice over, water bottles freeze, water purification pumps aren’t reliable, and melting snow is time consuming and fuel dependent.

So, how does one stay hydrated? Is it better to melt snow or gather water from a frozen lake? Is snow safe to eat?

Finding drinking water in winter conditions can be challenging.

Melting Snow vs. Breaking Through the Ice

In the winter, you can find drinking water by gathering it from frozen lakes and rivers or by melting snow. Each comes with unique challenges and benefits.

Melting Snow

Melting snow takes a lot of time and energy. You have to gather loads of it to get a small amount of water. If you are using a stove, make sure you have enough fuel to melt snow for the duration of your trip.

Contrary to popular belief, melted snow needs to be purified as it can contain harmful bacteria. You’ll need to melt the snow and then boil the water. To save on fuel, you can use water purification tablets to make melted snow safe to drink. If you decide to do this, make sure you read the product description – some purification tablets will not work in cold water or take much longer to work.

How to Melt Snow

Add an inch of water to the bottom of your pot before attempting to melt snow. If you forget this step, you could burn the bottom of your pot. As the snow melts, slowly add more to the pot. Stirring can help speed up the melting process.

Can I Eat Snow?

Eating snow is dangerous and will not hydrate you. When you eat snow, your core body temperature drops and your risk of hypothermia increases. Your body also has to work to heat and melt the snow, which results in you actually losing more water than you take in.1

Other Considerations

  • If you are depending on snow for water, make sure there is adequate snow coverage.
  • Melted snow does not taste great. This is especially true if you forget to add an inch of water to your pot.
  • Gathering snow is safer than breaking through ice to get drinking water.

Breaking Through the Ice

Gathering drinking water from a lake or river is time consuming and tiring. The good news is, once a hole is made, it is easy to gather water.

The level of difficulty depends on how thick the ice is and what tools you use to chip away at it. Your best bet is to use an ice chisel, spud bar, ice saw, hand auger, or some combination of these.2 In times of desperation, an axe will also do the trick, but it will require lots of energy output from you and can be dangerous. In addition, axes become less effective as the ice gets deeper.

Other Considerations

  • After snowfall, lakes and rivers can be hard to find without a map. Ensure that you know the area you are visiting. If you don’t, bring navigation tools.
  • Venturing onto the ice is risky business. If the ice isn’t thick enough there’s always a chance of falling through. Know the risk, assess your situation, and learn what to do in the event that you or somebody else falls in.

Choosing a Water Bottle and Prevent it from Freezing

Now that you’ve successfully gathered water, you need to make sure that it doesn’t freeze. Use a solid water bottle with a wide mouth. You can buy a water bottle insulator which will help slow freezing. There are several other ways to keep your water from freezing:

You can carry your water bottle inside your winter coat and your body heat will help warm it. If you do this, make sure you aren’t making yourself cold.

Another way to slow freezing is by burying your bottle in the snow. Bury the bottle upside down so that the water begins to freeze from the bottom first. Don’t forget to mark the area where your bottle is buried.

Finally, you can put a hot water bottle in a dry bag and throw it in your sleeping bag. Many winter campers do this as a way to add extra heat to their sleeping bags. That said, make sure to take it out if it begins to freeze and make you cold.


Lightweight water bladders freeze too easily to bring on a winter excursion. Plus, if you try to fill them with boiling or hot water, they can be damaged.

Water purification pumps are not reliable in the winter. Once they freeze, the filter can be damaged and rendered inefficient.

Liquid chemical water treatments can freeze. Tablets are a better choice, but make sure they work in the cold.

Signs of Dehydration

While prevention is key, understanding early signs of dehydration can help prevent a bad situation from getting worse.

Signs of mild dehydration: thirst, dry mouth, lethargy, headache, dark urine, dizziness, muscle cramps, constipation, bad breath, and altered mood.

Signs of severe dehydration: unconsciousness, delirium, dizziness, rapid heart rate, low blood pressure, sunken eyes, dark urine, and extreme thirst.

If you or someone you know is experiencing any of these symptoms and dehydration is suspected, replenish fluids as soon as possible. Water should be your go-to for re-hydration, but sports drinks are acceptable if you don’t have access to water. Avoid caffeinated beverages as they act as a diuretic, causing you to lose fluids. Some cases of severe dehydration will require hospitalization.

Happy Winter Adventuring!

I hope this post gave you some tips for finding drinking water in the winter months. Stay safe and happy adventuring.

For more winter posts check out:

Winter Layering: How to Dress for Winter Activities

10 Ways to Make the Most of Ontario Winters


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