How to make your own water from ice and snow
© copyright 2004, by Gary Benton
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The snow was walling faster now, as I made my way back to camp. The temperature had dropped quickly also, so I was becoming chilled. Snowflakes the sizes of a quarter were falling lazily in the evening air. Off in the distance I could see the smoke from our campfire, so I knew one of the men that had accompanied me on the hunting trip had returned early. I just hoped that he had the coffee pot on, or even had enough sense to melt some snow or ice for water. The small stream that ran by the camp had frozen over the day before.
When camping in the winter water can be at a premium. While at the same time it looks like with all the ice and snow, water would not be a problem. I agree, it is not a serious problem, if you know what to do and how to do it properly.
If you have a choice between using ice or snow, always choose ice first. Ice will give you more water than snow of equal size. Also, ice is usually cleaner and may not require filtering before you use it. The big problem with snow is that small twigs, rocks, and other foreign objects may be in it. Ice, is usually from a stream, tree limb, or other water source and not on the ground.
Ok, now you have either ice or snow, how is the best way to melt it? I carry an old white (I do not recommend a different color because the dye may bleed) pillowcase with a very small hole in one corner of the sewed end. Make sure it is at the very tip. I then hang the pillowcase near but not over the fire. The heat from the fire will melt the ice or snow and as long as you have a container under the pillowcase it will catch the dripping liquid.
If you have to melt snow or ice in a container over a bed of coals, avoid scorching. If the container becomes too hot, the resulting water will taste burned. I usually move just a few red coals over and place my melting container on top of the coals. I constantly move the snow or ice to keep it from burning. Also, snow will have to be pushed down into the container occasionally.
When using snow that needs cleaning, I will filter the water through two layers of cloth to make sure it is clean of bits and pieces from the ground. As I stated earlier, ice may not need filtering at all. Even though you have filtered the snow or ice, it is still not safe to drink as is. All water not from a known clean source should be purified with purification tables, or by boiling. Keep in mind that even clean looking streams, lakes and rivers, may not be a safe source of healthy drinking water. Always purify any water from unknown safe sources.
Also, do not melt snow or ice in your mouth to quench your thirst. While often seen in movies, this is just basically dumb. Using your mouth will not only lead to chapped lips, but will also lower your body temperature. The heat used to melt the ice or snow will come from your core temperature, thus lowering it in the process. Another old trick that you may have heard of, is to fill a container with snow or ice, place it in your shirt and allow your body heat to melt it. Well, speaking from experience here, it works…but you will get a terrible chill. There are easier ways to melt ice or snow. Both of these procedures could seriously affect you, if you are close to experiencing hypothermia (the lowering of the body’s core temperature).
In a survival situation, you should keep in mind that you might have to do whatever it takes to procure good drinking water. You may even be forced to use the high-risk procedures that I have not recommended, i.e., melting snow in your mouth or using body heat to melt snow. I suggest that a person who is prepared will not have to resort to risky techniques to survive except in the most unusual situations.
Additionally, most folks never consider dehydration a problem in the arctic or in cold regions, but it can be a serious problem. Since it is cold most folks just naturally take in less water, or only drink coffee. Limiting your water intake will dehydrate you very quickly and coffee will do the same. The body uses water from its tissues and organs to process coffee into waste (urine). Avoid alcohol for the same reason (unlike in the movies, never give alcohol to a victim of the cold). You can tell if you are becoming dehydrated by the color of your urine (dark brown urine is a sure sign of dehydration).
Another area to consider when using ice or snow is making sure it is not near your toilet area. Never use ice or snow down hill from where you designated bathroom is. Urine, dirty wash water, and other waste may melt through the snow, especially if you heat water to wash with, and run under the top layer of snow. Additionally, when the temperature warms a bit, it will all slide down hill on you anyway.
Water in cold areas is a small problem if you use good common sense. Remember not use your body to melt snow, filter water if needed, and always add purification tablets or boil any water you get from ice or snow. Make sure you know the source of your ice and use only “clean” snow. Avoid burning your water source by stirring it and to keep your fire low. By using these simple rules, your winter camping experience can be a real joy, instead of a nightmare.