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Updated March 2022
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Buying guide for Best canteens

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, but an overnight hike should also begin with a canteen full of water. Proper hydration is an important consideration for most outdoor activities from hiking to camping to boating. One of the best ways to replenish body fluids is with a portable water container commonly called a canteen.

Canteens have been around in some form for thousands of years, starting with sacks made from animal skins or hollowed gourds. Canteens were later made of clay, metal, or even porcelain. Military-issue canteens were generally made of steel or aluminum for durability and were often used as a portable mess kit. Food-grade plastics have largely replaced metal in today’s camping canteens.

While many hikers and campers now carry high-capacity hydration packs, there is still a place for the more compact and lighter-weight canteen. Having an emergency reserve of potable water is always a good idea, and keeping a full canteen in a passenger vehicle is a good safety practice.

canteen
Soaking a cloth-covered canteen in water can create an evaporative cooling effect, keeping the contents cooler longer.

How to buy the best canteen

Is a canteen worth the investment?

There was a time when canteens were standard equipment for soldiers on the march, hikers on the trail, or explorers in the wild. They carried a traditional metal canteen on a strap with other survival gear. However, many people now use alternatives like disposable water bottles or high-capacity hydration packs.

Today’s metal or plastic canteens still serve some important functions, especially for campers and hikers. A day hike might not require a heavy hydration pack, but small disposable bottles might not hold enough water. A traditional canteen fills that gap and also includes accessories like a heat-safe cup and eating utensils.

Materials

The original canteens were made of materials such as clay, hollow gourds, wood, porcelain, or metal, but durability and the possibility of contamination were always issues. Water bags made of animal leather were also popular with nomadic cultures.

The first commercial water canteens were made of metals such as carbon steel, stainless steel, or aluminum, which were prized for their durability, light weight, and relatively food-safe quality.

Design

Traditional canteens are typically round, which maximizes storage capacity and eliminates sharp corners and edges that could damage other hiking equipment. A durable cloth strap holds the canteen close to the body for easy access, and a cloth or metal cover helps insulate the contents and protect the canteen from the elements. The top is sealed with a tight-fitting cap or multipurpose cup.

Modern adaptations of the canteen more closely resemble large flasks, with a curved design that fits comfortably around the waist, in a back pocket, or stored in a backpack. They may also be attached to a carabiner, utility belt, or armband. The canteen’s design may not affect its performance, but it can make a difference in terms of your comfort.

Capacity

Most canteens aren’t designed to hold an entire day’s ration of water or other fluids. Standard military canteens hold 32 ounces (1 quart), which is enough for a typical march or training session. There are larger hiking canteens available, but it’s important to remember that a gallon of water weighs 8.3 pounds, a considerable amount of weight to carry on a hike. Some flask-style canteens or insulated water bottles hold less than a quart, sometimes as little as 22 ounces. When choosing a canteen for hiking or camping, consider the distance between clean water sources. A canteen should be refilled as often as possible, whenever possible.

Many early Chinese canteens were made of elaborately decorated porcelain.

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What features should I look for in a canteen?

Colors and designs

While a standard-issue military canteen may only be available in olive drab, camouflage, or gunmetal gray, canteens designed for recreational hiking and camping come in a wide array of colors, graphics, and designs. Outdoor equipment manufacturers often add their own names and logos to their canteens.

Plastic canteens can be produced in virtually any color, from a highly visible fluorescent green to your school’s colors.

Metal canteens can also be painted or tinted with an array of colors. The outer fabric or metal protective shell and the carrying strap can also be tinted to match the theme of the canteen.

Accessories

One of the most sought-after accessories for a canteen is a multipurpose cup that serves as the stopper during hikes but then can be a drinking cup, cooking pot, or mixing bowl when necessary. Even if the canteen itself gets damaged, the cup is still a useful accessory to carry. Other accessories can include a set of metal eating utensils that nest securely in the carrying strap or shell. A cloth covering can be soaked in water and allowed to air-dry, creating an evaporative cooling effect.

Ease of use.

There are canteens intended for younger users, including those with a cap that’s easy to open and a smaller capacity that’s easy to carry. Look for a cap that’s attached to the canteen and the carrying strap, usually with a chain and carabiner. The canteen should also be easy to refill from a number of different sources, from a spigot in camp to a flowing stream on the trail.

canteen
DID YOU KNOW?
Ostrich eggs and hollow gourds have been used as primitive canteens for thousands of years.
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How much do canteens cost?

Inexpensive

You can find water canteens intended alongside water bags and insulated water bottles for $20 or less. They may have a smaller capacity, however, and they rarely include accessories or a carrying strap.

Mid-range

Outdoor supply stores carry military surplus canteens and complete canteen kits for camping or hiking in the $20 to $45 price range. These canteens usually have a generous capacity, adjustable carrying strap, good insulation, and helpful accessories.

Expensive

Canteens and canteen kits that cost more than $50 are made of high-quality metal, such as stainless steel or titanium. In general, these models are well engineered and extremely durable, but some of the added cost has more to do with the brand name than any added functionality.

Standard military canteens hold a quart, but many soldiers now wear high-capacity hydration packs.

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Tips

  • Carry liquids other than water in a well-marked canteen. Many campers fill them with cooking oil, liquid detergent, soup, and premixed hydration beverages. Make sure the canteen has a clear label detailing its contents.
  • Clean the canteen interior thoroughly between uses. It can be very difficult to see contaminants like mold and algae inside the canteen, so use a bottle brush to scrub it out.
  • Canteens should be filled to capacity if possible. Air gaps can cause the contents to warm or cool more rapidly.
  • Heat beverages and foods in the canteen cup. You want to use a cup made of non-corrosive stainless steel, not a reactive metal like aluminum.
  • Check whether your canteen is insulated. Many aren’t insulated by design, so choose what you put in it carefully. Fresh milk won’t stay at a safe temperature for long in an uninsulated canteen. Powdered milk mixed with water would be a better option.
canteen
Medieval pilgrims carried holy water and healing oil in special metal canteens.

FAQ

Q. How much does a full canteen weigh?

A. A typical hiking canteen holds about a quart of water, which means it weighs 2.08 pounds plus the weight of the canteen itself. A gallon canteen weighs over 8 pounds, a considerable amount of weight to carry on a short hike. If weight is an issue, consider buying a smaller canteen and refilling it more frequently on the trail if possible.

Q. Should I buy a metal or plastic canteen?

A. Both metal and plastic have their advantages and disadvantages. Many manufacturers have shifted to BPA-free plastics, primarily because of their lighter weight and improved durability. Older metal canteens can rust as the stainless steel lining deteriorates over time.

Q. Can I carry other liquids in a standard canteen?

A. It isn’t unusual for hikers and campers to fill their canteens with such essentials as cooking oil, sports beverages, or wound-cleaning medications like hydrogen peroxide. However, these contents should be very clearly marked to avoid accidental ingestion, and the liquids should not be corrosive or toxic.

Q. Can I leave water stored in a canteen indefinitely?

A. Drinking water can develop impurities over time, especially when exposed to the air and other elements. The water stored in a plastic or metal canteen should be changed periodically (every 24 to 48 hours is a good idea), and the canteen should be scrubbed clean before refilling. Leaving a clean canteen empty until required is also a good practice to avoid the formation of bacteria, algae, or mold.

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