Mystery Mondays: Keeping Water From Freezing

Crystal D. sent me this email:

I am going camping in the Grand Canyon and I will be at the bottom of the Canyon for about 5 days. I will be taking lots of water with me, and I am worried that the water will freeze due to the freezing temps. Could you give me some helpful tips on keeping my water, and food from freezing, and any other helpful hints?

Ah! The Grand Canyon.

Ah! The Grand Canyon.

Crystal, I’m not sure if there is any way to 100% prevent your water from freezing, but here’s what I’ve found out for you:

Thoughts On Keeping Water From Freezing

1. Water freezes when the temperature of the water reaches freezing, not when the air temperature reaches freezing. It takes a lot of energy (relatively speaking) to change the temperature of water even one degree up or down.

2. Water that is in motion takes longer to freeze. This is why you float a tennis ball in your outdoor pond during the winter. However, I can’t really think of a way to keep camp water in motion once you’re at camp.

If you can, put your food and water into an ice chest. An ice chest will keep things warm as well as cold. To get started, you can run hot water into the chest to heat it up. (If you’re using a Styrofoam chest, be sure not to melt it!)

Then, when you pack your food and water, they will absorb the heat from the ice chest. At the very least, an ice chest will help keep the temperatures constant and insulate from colder temperatures outside the chest.

If you’re backpacking into the Canyon (and I’m assuming you are) you might want to try an extra space blanket instead of an ice chest. At the minimum, you could try a insulating wrap around the bottle made from closed-cell foam.

Now, if you’re going winter camping, a thought is how much water do you need in a liquid form?

Enough for drinking, cooking, and washing; the rest can freeze. However, you still need to leave room in each container so if the water does freeze, it can expand without cracking the container.

Since it takes quite a bit of energy to change the temperature of water, then a larger container will freeze slower than a smaller container. If you can, carry large containers of water, then you’ll be better off than carrying small containers. Ice will form at the top of the water, so if you can, store the water bottle upside down so the ice forms at the bottom of the bottle. Of course, you have to be certain that your bottle or water container won’t leak.

Make sure you have the right water container for your winter adventure!

Make sure you have the right water container for your winter adventure!

Solar Power:

A solar hot water heater will heat water, either to drinkable temperatures or more. However, you can’t fill it with ice (especially if the ice is in the shape of 3 gallon water containers!) so it might take some pre-planning to use.

Put your water containers in the sun all day where they can absorb heat from the sun. Once your water is warm (or as warm as it will get) then wrap closed cell foam around it to retain the heat.

Wind chill and solar heat and do NOT contradict each other. Wind chill is the “feeling” that it is colder than it is and since water isn’t affected by feeling, any sunny area will work for your water. Keep that mind when you are finding a sunny spot for your containers. If you can find a place that is sheltered from the wind, but also against a natural “wall” like a rock, then you can also get the heat that is reflected from that surface being heated by the sun.

Melting Water:

I NEVER recommend drinking water from the “wild”. Meaning streams, rivers, ponds, etc, because of the extra steps you need to take to make it safe for drinking. The verdict is out on whether eating or drinking snow is safe or not; make your own choice. For me, I really don’t recommend drinking melted snow either — you just have no way of knowing what is in it!

My thoughts are that this isn’t Hollywood, so if you get sick you have to deal with it. And who wants to do that!?

Now, you might run into needing to melt the safe drinking water you brought with you. First off, remember that if your container freezes solid you will not be able to get the ice OUT of the container! You don’t want to try and hold a plastic water bottle over a campfire or stove for it to melt — takes too long and can ruin the plastic.

So, the best bet is to melt cubes or slush — something you can get out of the container! Remember that it always takes more fuel and time than you think to heat water so plan accordingly by starting the process BEFORE you need the water AND by bringing extra fuel for your stoves.

Because it takes so much energy to convert water from one state to another you should have some water in the bottom of your pot when you are melting ice or slush. Heat this water up and add snow to it slowly so it turns to slush and then water. This is much more efficient. If you dump in straight ice, you will only burn the bottom of your pot or container and not make any water.

If you’re really serious about camping in the snow, or where water will freeze, then a good investment is gear designed specifically for winter camping. Camelbak has a thermal control kit for the hose to their hydration packs that might be useful.

Camelbak Thermal Control Kit.

Camelbak Thermal Control Kit.

What are your suggestions about keeping water from freezing?

Do you drink melted snow?

What’s been your experience?

FYI: If you food is frozen, you need to be careful about eating food that has been frozen and thawed several times. It would be better to carry as many dry foods as possible rather than wet foods that could freeze.

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