How to get clean drinking water while winter camping

by | Nov 25, 2023 | Winter camping

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You may not realize it, but it’s easy to become dehydrated in colder weather than you might think.

The cold, dry air actually causes you to lose water through the process of respiration.

This is why it’s so important to drink enough water when you go winter camping.

In general, you have three different ways you can get water and purify it to safely drink.

Method #1: Get water from a stream

A small stream in winter

The easiest thing you can do is pre-plan your route by locating and marking streams on your map and collecting water from them along the way.

If you’re going to be camping near a stream, make sure to bring a lightweight water filter with you.

We use and are big fans of the Katydyn BeFree 1.0-litre water filter, which you can fill with water and drink directly from.

These types of compact devices can easily remove bacteria and other contaminants from the water, making it safe to drink.


Do not try to retrieve water from larger and deeper bodies of water that are partially frozen—including rivers and lakes.

Falling through thin ice is one of the biggest dangers of winter camping, which can lead to drowning or hypothermia.

If you’re going to use this method, stick to small streams where the risk is lower.

Even with small streams, it’s possible to fall in.

Be sure to check the thickness of the ice before attempting to retrieve water, and always use extreme caution.

Also, be aware that some streams may have a thin layer of ice on top that can easily break through.

If you see an area where the water is visibly moving or bubbling underneath, do not attempt to collect water from there.

Method #2: Melt snow

Melting snow in a pot over a camp stove

Melting snow isn’t ideal because it takes longer and isn’t very fuel efficient, but it’s a fine option if you’re in a location where there are no streams or bodies of water nearby.

To begin melting snow, start out by gathering it from a clean area.

The problem with going ahead and packing your pot entirely with snow is that once you place it on your stove, the fire can create an air space between the bottom of the pot and the snow.

This causes inefficient melting and even burning the bottom of your pan.

Instead, pour around a quarter-inch of drinkable water into the pan first, then set it on the snow and add packed snow to it.

This method will quickly yield great drinkable water.

As the snow melts, remember to add more snow to the top.

Remember that snow is 90% air, so you’ll need to keep adding more as it liquifies.

Make sure to bring it to a boil for a few minutes to kill off any bacteria.

Before drinking the melted water, ensure it’s clear and free of debris.

You could use a handkerchief, an old t-shirt, or a clean sock to filter any particles floating in the water.

Once purified, allow it to cool a bit before enjoying the taste of fresh, clean snow water.

Method #3: Use a hand ice auger or ice chisel on a frozen lake

An ice hole in a frozen lake

This method only works in the coldest part of winter, after lakes have had enough time to freeze over and are safe to walk on.

January and February are usually safest, but depending on your location and the potential for milder winters due to climate change, you should always check the ice conditions for the local area before venturing onto a frozen lake.

Now let’s take a look at the two most popular tools for creating holes in the ice: ice chisels and hand ice augers.

Hand ice augers

An ice auger

This is what we use when we go winter camping.

A hand ice auger is a 6-inch hand ice auger with sharp blades can quickly drill through the ice in around 30 seconds, making it efficient.

Prices range from 60 to 120 Canadian dollars, with replacement blades costing around 30 to 45 dollars.

It’s relatively lightweight but can be bulky to carry around.

Ice chisels

An ice chisel on a frozen lake

The ice chisel, often used by winter trekkers, requires more time and effort to create a hole.

If purchasing from Lure of the North, prices range from 150 to 160 Canadian dollars, but other manufacturers have options from 45 to 200 dollars.

An ice chisel is more versatile in that it can create holes of various sizes, even large enough for a polar bear swim.

Which is better?

As a snow walker, you may prioritize weight and size when selecting your equipment.

In this case, the ice chisel may be a better option as you only need to carry the chisel head and can easily fashion a handle out of a sturdy tree branch upon reaching your destination.

Remember to consider your specific needs and preferences when choosing between an ice auger and an ice chisel, keeping in mind factors like convenience, hole size, and ease of use.

Ice auger:

Pros Cons
Faster at cutting holes More cumbersome to carry, especially for trekking
Easy to use with sharp blades Limited to a 6-inch hole diameter
Blades can be replaced Costs more to replace blades
Can be disassembled for easier transport May require repair if damaged


Ice chisel:

Pros Cons
Compact and lightweight Takes more time and effort to cut holes
Can create holes of varying sizes Requires a handle, which may need replacing
Versatile: can be used for other tasks Sharpening can be more difficult
Less likely to break Price range varies widely

Tip: If retrieving water from a frozen lake with an auger or chisel, you’ll also want to have an ice skimmer on hand, which helps remove all the excess ice from the hole.

While it’s possible to drink directly from lakes and not get sick, it’s still always a good to boil the water for at least a minute to kill off any bacteria.

More about winter camping:

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Elise & Ross

We’re Elise and Ross, avid backcountry campers and outdoor adventurers! We started Gone Camping Again as a way to share our knowledge and experience about wilderness living and travel. Our hope is that we inspire you to get outside and enjoy all that nature has to offer!

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