I really like using a hydration bladder in my pack (I use a rugged 3 litre PLATYPUS system). I find it’s so convenient, I tend to stay more hydrated. In the winter, however, freezing temperatures can lead to hydration system failure — critical parts can become blocked with ice. Being a determined sort of person, I refused to let that little issue stop me. And side-mounted bottles, albeit nearly foolproof, lack appeal to me. Thus, I have come up with a handful of techniques that, when used in concert, lead to problem-free winter hydration bladder usage. It’s having my cake… and eating it, too.
The following techniques can help you conveniently use your hydration bladder all winter long, while avoiding the most common freezing issues.
- Insulate the drinking tube: I use the cheap foam drinking tube insulation sold with hydration systems, but I find that with the other techniques shown below, this really is optional. In fact, the insulation can hinder locating blockages should you develop one by forgetting to perform one of the steps below. Others have successfully used half-inch plumber’s pipe insulation, but I find this is overkill.
- Blow back to clear the tube: This may be self-explanatory, but there’s more to it than one may realize. In order to blow the water remaining in the tube back into the bladder (which needs to be done after every drink session), you need to have a place to put it, so, after adding water, when filling, be sure to work out the air before sealing the bag. To blow back, open the bite valve (on the mouthpiece) and blow into the tube. Listen for the telltale gurgle then stop; blow only as much as needed!
- Twang the drink tube: After I take a drink, I elevate the tube making sure it’s pulled tight and fully overhead. I then pinch the bite valve open with my fingers and “twang” the tight tube like a guitar string with my other hand. Do this two to three times to ensure any water plugs break apart and fall into back the bladder.
- Keep the bite valve locked: Lock the bite valve closed after “twanging” the tube but before lowering it after every drink session. Also, lock it as soon you fill the system in the morning, or anytime it’s not in use, to prevent water from being forced into the tube or spilling out from gravity or pack/contents compression.
- Keep the bite valve warm: After I take a drink, blow back the water, twang the tube a few times, then lock the bite valve, I also tuck the valve into my shirt collar. I find this is easy to do and not as inconvenient as it sounds, even with extreme weather gear.
- The more water the better: The greater the volume of water in your bladder, the longer it’ll take to freeze. Water stores energy (it sucks warmth from the air), so the more you have, the more cold that can be absorbed before it begins to solidify.
- Warm up your water: Some folks swear by starting off with hot water but I’m not convinced by this method. But try it for yourself if it sounds good to you. You can also add more insulation to the bladder, such as an appropriately-sized bubble-wrap mailer bag, for greater piece of mind.
These steps, as I have learned by practicing and experimenting, have allowed me to successfully use a hydration bladder in ambient temperatures as low as -14°F. That said, this knowledge is not enough. What if something goes wrong? What if we need a way to solve a blockage problem despite our best efforts — if we fail to prevent.
It is inevitable. We will forget a step. I have gotten into the habit of managing my system, finally, but problems can still arise. Typically I find this is the case after stopping for lunch, pack off my back, bite valve not being protected. It’s easy enough to deal with, though.
- Thaw the bite valve: The problem is usually in the bite valve (from nothing more than a few drops of water) so you can start by simply putting it back in your shirt and get moving. Within ten to twenty minutes the value should be clear and you should be able to drink. If not, wait a little longer then try again.
- Find the blockage: If still a no-go, the problem might not be in the bite valve. If you’re sure the tube isn’t pinched or twisted inside the pack (this happened to me once, see footnote), there might be some ice in the tube itself. If you can visually check the tube, do so, but if you can’t, bending it can help you locate the problem area.
- Thaw out the tube: If you do find that you have ice in the tube (because you failed to prevent) you can thaw it by simply and quickly routing the tube back into your pack and placing it alongside the bladder. The warmth from even very cold water in the bladder, believe it or not, will quickly thaw the tube’s blockage. (It can also keep your sandwiches thawed.) Give it thirty minutes or so and try again. If needed, wait longer or employ your backup plan. You have one, right?
Don’t go into the mountains without some redundancy for critical systems, and backup plans for those — especially in the winter. And hydration certainly qualifies as a critical system, even in the winter when you don’t feel very thirsty.
Epic Failsafe (Backup Plan)
I have had very few winter hydration bladder issues thanks to my experimentation and determination, but stuff happens. Say the temps drop as the day wears on, the volume of water in your pack is reduced, and literally ice cold it’s starting to develop crystals; it happens. Moreover, to ensure your own safety and survival, go into the mountains with a Plan B, and maybe even a Plan C. For instance, consider one or more of the following:
- Bring an empty bottle: You can always bring an empty, wide-mouth water bottle like a NALGENE. Doing so will allow you to collect water or pour it from your hydration bladder into a simpler, less problem-prone vessel. Do be sure to bring one of those foam-insulated jackets for your bottle so it doesn’t quickly freeze.
- Carry spare water: The spare bottle doesn’t have to be empty. Carry some additional water in case your system fails to such a degree you cannot fix it in the field. Of course keep this bottle deep in your pack and bring a foam-insulated jacket for it so it doesn’t quickly freeze, as noted above.
- Prepare to collect it: You can also use that empty bottle to gather water from a stream or to contain melted snow. Just be sure to carry a cook stove, iodine, STERIPEN, or other purification system. I cannot recommend a filter in the winter due to difficulty in use and possible freeze issues.
- Hot packs to the rescue: It’s always a good idea to carry a few hot packs when hiking in the winter. And one reason is that they can be used to deal with rare attachment junction freezes by placing an activated hot pack at the base of the bladder. They can also be used to deal with the bite valve if for some reason the shirt-tuck isn’t possible.
- A buddy with water: It’s not a backup plan, per se, but do speak up if you’re having water issues. Don’t try to tough it out. Speak up before your tongue dries out. Ask if someone in your party can give you a little of their water. I carry extra.
Do I and can I guarantee problem-free winter hydration bladder usage because you’ve read this article? No. Just ask my friend, BILL, who has kindly offered me his water more than once while I sorted all this out. But based on my own trials, allowing me to refine the above mentioned methods, you can count on this advice. Unlike your water, it’s solid.
Questions? Tips or tricks of your own? Please share your thoughts below.
Footnote: It should be noted that I inspect mine every time I go out, looking for wear, tearing, scratches, fittings, and seals, and am now very careful about putting it in the pack.