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Gear talk: Nalgene bottles- hydration, hot water bottle and more…

‘Nalgene’ is a registered trademark. It is a brand of plastic originally developed for jars, bottles, test tubes, dishes etc. for use in laboratories. A New York chemist, Emanuel Goldberg, developed a plastic pipette holder in 1949. Goldberg and three colleagues began the Nalge company which quickly grew in size. The Nalgene catalogue of plastic based laboratory equipment was developed but it wasn’t until the 1970s that the company noticed many of their products, such as their small, light and durable plastic bottles, were also proving popular with those venturing into the outdoors and Nalgene Outdoor Products was started.

The US made nalgene bottles became popular with backpackers because of their affordability, durability, light weight, wide mouths, versatility and capability of handling dry foodstuffs or boiling water. Originally only available in a muted grey colour, since the 1990s they have been found in a variety of colours. An especially useful part of their design are the graduations in millilitres and ounces on the side, useful for measuring out correct quantities for rehydrating meals etc. The lid is attached to the bottle and cannot easily be lost. Such is the ubiquity of the Nalgene brand that many people will refer to just about any rigid water container as a ‘Nalgene’.

You may wish to be aware of the issues that surround Nalgene in all of its guises and perhaps beware of some of the older products that can still turn up on the second hand market due to their longevity.

The old HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) bottles used to leave a slight plastic taste and smell to water. When the Nalgene Lexan (polycarbonate acrylic) bottles came on the market it looked as though we had a much improved product even if they were approximately twice the weight of HDPE. Water tasted cleaner from these bottles with little or no alteration in taste or smell from liquids contained beforehand. The bottles are also pretty tough, they will take a lot of stress before they break. BPA is used in the manufacturing stage to harden plastics. However, there were alarming stories of just how safe these bottles were when it was revealed that the chemical BPA could leach from the plastic into water. BPA (Bisphenol A) acts like a synthetic hormone and the general advice was to stay clear of such plastics as it acted as an endocrine disrupter. Nalgene phased out production of Lexan bottles in favour of Eastman Tritan co-polyester, which is advertised as BPA free. This has replaced Lexan in all Nalgene products and demonstrates similar properties, taste free etc. I won’t go into the more recent concerns that have been mooted over this product when it is put under stress, a quick internet search will reveal more detail. I am not aware that any concerns have been tested and proven in court.

Another aspect of BPA free Nalgenes is that the screwtops can be difficult to free and open in cold conditions. This is simply circumvented. If kept upside down, Nalgene caps resist freezing shut in sub-zero conditions when kept in an outside pocket of the pack. The standard and most recognizable of the Nalgene products is the classic one litre wide-mouth bottle. Often referred to as a 32oz bottle, it isn’t. A litre is greater than 32oz and the bottles hold more than both measurements anyway. Most of the Nalgene options can be recycled and the plastic type is often, not always, shown on the bottom of the container (resin identification code 7). Always look for a label indicating that a plastic used for water or foodstuffs is BPA free. Todays Nalgenes are BPA, BPS, BPF and phthalates free. If you have remaining concerns as to other chemicals leaching into your water there is little you can do. Glass is an option but is heavy and fragile. Metal containers are an option but are heavy and less fragile. Nalgene even make a stainless steel water bottle for those who want that option. The lighter HDPE Nalgene bottles are back on the market as an ‘Ultralite’ option for ‘outdoor enthusiasts’. Because the wide neck Nalgene is easier to clean they are also good for rehydrating dried meals, whether for cold soaking or hot. That said, repurposed containers from shop bought foodstuffs can frequently be a lighter option.

Nalgene materials specification

The Nalgene ‘Sustain’ line

1 litre Nalgene from their Sustain range
Bottle has ounce and millilitre gradations

In September 2020 Nalgene introduced their new 1 litre Sustain product line that reinforces their greener credentials. Made from Tritan Renew resin and initially available in seven colours, these BPA/BPS free bottles are made from 50% certified recycled content and are dishwasher safe. These narrow and wide mouth bottles look exactly the same as predecessors other than a new ‘circular economy commitment’ logo. A half litre Nalgene Sustain range joined these two months later in November 2020. Nalgene are not alone in this development. There is now a wide and diverse choice of hard side bottles and containers from many manufacturers, some of which have also been embracing more ‘eco’ manufacturing alternatives, such as the HydraPak Recon brand.

Nalgene Sustain Product Group Shot

Smaller Nalgene containers and accessories

Beside their water bottles, Nalgene produce a plethora of smaller bottles for use with liquids, condiments, herbs, hot sauce, foot balm, contact lens fluid or anything else you care to take with you in smaller quantities. Three Points of the Compass has used these over the years and found them ideal for a period, though the plastic can yellow and becomes brittle with time, admittedly, over a decade or more!. After this period of time they can crack without warning. This is probably related to how much the bottles and containers are squeezed and stressed but still, not what you want. Especially if carrying something like sun lotion or olive oil.

Smaller Nalgene LDPE and HDPE containers with a variety of caps and lids

The Nalgene bottle has been around for many decades. Long enough that after market add-ons have been produced both by Nalgene and third parties, such as alternative caps, water filters, handles and bike-bottle holders. There is even a pill holder that screws on between bottle and bottle cap. Titanium and steel pots are also available that nest directly with a Nalgene water bottle. The bottles are even used as a general reference unit of measurement- ‘this rolled sleeping pad is about the size of a Nalgene‘.

Nalgene sipper lid
Nalgene sipper lid

Despite being easier to fill and clean, a wide mouth bottle can be difficult to drink from, especially while walking. Nalgene do make an Easy Sipper lid to fit 32oz and 48oz wide mouth bottles. One of these weighs just 3.2g and pops in and out with ease. Alternatively, the original wide mouth bottles are supplemented by narrow mouth Tritan variants which can be drunk from without the need to stop walking. These may be easier to drink from but are less easy to fill or clean. Everything is a compromise.

Conversely, a wider mouth half-litre Nalgene bottles once found favour with a young Miss Three Points of the Compass when introduced to longer walks as she hated drinking from a narrow neck bottle. Years previous, as a youngster myself, I used one of the original pre-Tritan narrow mouth Nalgene water bottles in the 1970s and 80s for general on-the-go hydration on trail. It got dropped down rocky hillsides, bouncing merrily all the way to the bottom, kicked along trails and around fields (not purposely), generally well used and abused. It never leaked or failed on me. I lost it eventually but never felt the need to replace it and instead moved on to using lighter weight supermarket bought drinks bottles.

The Nalgene flask

Nalgene flask comes with insulating sleeve and 'shot-glass' cap on lid
Nalgene flask comes with insulating sleeve and 'shot-glass' cap on lid
53g Nalgene flask comes with 58g insulating sleeve and 8g ‘shot-glass’ cap on lid

Just occasionally, for a bit of fun and added enjoyment, I have carried the Nalgene flask with me on week long trails. This flattened-in-profile flask weighs 53g (with lid) and is handy for holding up to 350ml (12oz) of the ‘water-of-life’ and will slide easily into a side pocket. This is made of a thin and fairly flexible PET plastic. It can be strengthened by including a 58g polycarbonate insulating sleeve (weighing more than the flask itself). There is also a 8g plastic ‘shot glass’ that presses firmly onto the lid if wanted. I confess that the last time I hiked a Scottish trail with a few measures of good single malt, I simply decanted it into a far lighter mineral water bottle.

Nalgene flask being put to use on the West Highland Way in 2013. Rowardennan Lodge YHA
Nalgene flask being put to use on the West Highland Way. Rowardennan Lodge YHA, 2013

Winter use

Nalgene bottles remain a good robust product especially suited for winter use. Guaranteed for life, Nalgene bottles will (supposedly) withstand temperatures between -40°C and 212°C but should only be two-thirds full if expecting freezing to occur. Nalgene bottles have an enviable reputation for not leaking. So fill one with boiling water and you have a hot water bottle. Just make sure the top is screwed tight. Tuck one of these into the foot of a sleeping bag prior to turning in and it’ll make an otherwise initially cold bag very welcoming and will stay warm for hours. It may be advisable to stretch a sock over it to prevent burning the skin. Water doesn’t need to be boiling for this to be effective either. One comfort and survival technique is to simply heat water to hot, pour into a Nalgene, warm with it for a while before drinking it when it has cooled sufficiently, then repeat, and repeat. This is a good way of tackling colder nights on trail by balancing hydration with the hot water bottle effect but obviously demands more fuel to be carried for the stove. You can also stretch wet socks or gloves over a bottle filled with hot water to dry them out but that is more advisable outside of the confines of a sleeping bag so as not to drive moisture into the insulation layers of a bag or quilt.

There are also flexible wide mouth Nalgene bottles available. Three Points of the Compass has a ’32oz plus’ capacity flexible Nalgene Cantene. This is only packed on winter hikes but isn’t used for hydration. Instead it makes for a good sized pee bottle, especially useful for the long hours spent inside a tent during long dark winter nights. This can also be a useful facility in Scotland in warmer months when anticipating a multitude of midges.

Not having to exit the tent for a pee on freezing wet nights or balmy evenings when midges are swarming across the mesh screen is one of life’s simpler pleasures. Just don’t get your bottles mixed up if you use one for the same purpose!

Remember, pee is exiting the body at body temperature. If you are really feeling the cold, screw the cap down and snuggle up to the bottle in your sleeping bag. This dishwasher safe container will stand unaided due to a gusseted bottom and the cap is fixed to the neck of the bottle with a loop of plastic so isn’t getting lost in the dark. This hack isn’t confined to the gents either, ladies, practice with a Sheewee before leaving home.

Nalgene 32oz softsided bottle with gusset base
Nalgene 32oz softsided bottle with gusset base
Narrow neck two litre Evernew bladder used for water, sits beside a wide-neck one litre Nalgene Cantene, used as pee bottle overnight, outside the shelter. Fortunately there is no chance of mixing these two up in the darkness. Gairlochy on a winter hike of the Great Glen Way in 2021
Nalgene bottles
Rigid Lexan bottles from Stormlite and Lifeventure

Nalgene bottles are amongst the lightest rigid bottles on the market. Despite the usefulness of Nalgene bottles, Three Points of the Compass seldom uses them for three season backpacking trips. Not for any reason attached to robustness or effectiveness, purely due to an ongoing wish to keep pack weight reduced where possible without needlessly reducing practicality.

A modern litre capacity Nalgene weighs 178g and if taking two or three of these the weight can quickly add up. For a water bottle, I now use the lighter weight, BPA free, plastic bottles sold that previously contained a sports drink or mineral water despite these lacking the long term robustness of a Nalgene. This is counterbalanced by ubiquity and cheapness. In addition this reduces, slightly, the major ‘single-use’ complaint against this type of bottle. With care, a Smartwater bottle or similar will last a thousand miles or more on trail even with daily use. Alongside these Three Points of the Compass tends to use flexible bottles and bladders, favouring various products from HydraPak and Evernew. These give me increased packability. something hard sided Nalgene containers cannot offer.

Where Nalgene led the way, other manufacturers followed. There is a wide choice of hard plastic, often Tritan, bottles available from other outdoor gear suppliers. No doubt some will be Nalgene under licence, others may have more dubious credentials. Nalgene are reasonably priced so it is simplest to stick to brand. The product is good, time tested and with the Sustain line, address some of the issues of responsible use of plastics. If you want a hard sided water bottle, consider Nalgene.

Custom designs on the standard Nalgene bottles can be ordered
Custom designs on the standard Nalgene bottles can be ordered

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