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Outdoors/Adventure

As Alaska trail temperatures plummet, remember: You can’t drink ice through a straw

  • Author: Vicky Ho
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published September 28, 2017

The view from the summit of Matanuska Peak on Nov. 12, 2016. (Vicky Ho / Alaska Dispatch News)

This is an installment of Cautionary Tales, an ongoing series about lessons learned the hard way in the Alaska outdoors.

I don't recall exactly when it first happened, or which trail I was on at the time. Safe to say it was sometime in late fall 2015 in the Chugach front range.

But I remember clearly the sense of confusion that set in as I sipped, and sucked, and no water came out. I bit the mouthpiece of my hydration bladder tube, and my eyebrows furrowed at the sound of crunching ice.

That's what it felt like to try to drink water through the frozen hose of my hydration reservoir.

Consider this episode one of the side effects of learning to hike in Alaska as temperatures plummet. Much like the time I woke up to frozen hiking boots on a camping trip, this icy introduction to winter water management gave me plenty to chew on as I waited for the thaw.

I do things a little differently now.

If I'm using a hydration bladder after the snow starts to fly, I'll blow air back into the tube so there's no water left to ice over. Some colleagues swear by the insulated tube sleeves that come with some bladders. But I've used the warmth from my hands to thaw an iced-over tube too many times to bother with hydration reservoirs anymore in winter.

Upside-down Nalgene storage is one way I manage the ice that forms in my water bottles. This photo was taken ahead of a night spent in a bivy at the summit of Matanuska Peak on Nov. 11, 2016. (Vicky Ho / Alaska Dispatch News)

Nalgene bottles are my go-to, but even they require some management. I keep them inside my backpack so they're less exposed to the cold. Of equal importance: I turn them upside down.

Have you ever had to punch through a layer of ice in your Nalgene to get to the water below? The first time, it's annoying. By the fourth or fifth time, I've had enough. Ice will form where the surface of the water meets air, so storing my bottle upside down means that layer of ice will be at the bottom of the Nalgene when I'm ready to drink.

This requires, of course, extra care to make sure the bottle is completely sealed before I stash it in my pack. Otherwise, calamity.

Vacuum-insulated bottles will be less susceptible to freezing over, but since they're heavier, they're not my first choice for carrying regular water. For quick lunches out in the field, though, I like bringing one filled with hot water. That way, I can have coffee and an instant lunch (for example, soup or dressed-up mashed potatoes) without having to sit in the frigid cold and wait for water to boil.

When I'm camping in winter, my water bottles go into the sleeping bag with me so they don't freeze. They're chilly bedfellows, though, so I'll wrap them in some extra clothing (ski socks work nicely). Insulated water bottle sleeves are probably a nicer, less smelly way to go.

One reader suggested filling bottles with boiling water before bedtime — which makes for a warm, cozy cocoon that night and good drinking water come morning.

Vicky Ho is the night homepage editor at Alaska Dispatch News. An avid hiker and skier, she's also a mediocre runner, terrible biker and part-time employee at a local outdoor retailer. Contact her at vho@alaskadispatch.com, on Twitter @hovicky or Instagram @hovcky.

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