How Much Water Does a Canteen Hold?

Instead of single use, more expensive, plastic water bottles, everyone should carry a canteen. Backpackers, soldiers, campers, survivalists and many other people carry canteens regularly. You can find variations on them throughout history everywhere in the world. A good canteen is just basic common sense.

How much water does a canteen hold? It’s a strangely common question and the answer depends entirely on which canteen you purchase. Canteens come in a variety of sizes, though one and two liters are the most common. You are in control of the amount of water in your own canteen.

What Are My Options (Styles and Sizes)

How and where you will carry your canteen should be your first question. Looks aren’t everything, but you can certainly find some really unique canteens if you care to look for them. Remember to take into consideration the weight (when full) and the placement and type of any straps or buckles on the outside. Water is necessary, but you should carry it without losing any skin in the process.

If your canteen ranges from 1-2 liters it’s 2.2 -4.5 lbs or so. You shouldn’t have too much trouble carrying it. Finding other sizes can be a bit difficult, though it can be done.

You can purchase a stand-alone canteen with no frills, but that’s no fun. Decide how and where you want to carry yours first. If you plan to leave it inside a pack, the simple, unadorned version is fine. Perhaps you’d like to carry yours on a belt? That’s not a problem. In addition to the styles for belts, you will find plenty of strap variations for over-the-shoulder or crossbody carrying. Finding the style that fits you best isn’t too hard.

Shapes for canteens tend to stick to a few basic models. You’ll see a lot of rounded, square and bottle shaped options. Similarly you may find some classic nods to the wineskin or oversize flask.

Caps, Covers and Accessories

The style of your cap may seem a small thing, but it can have a surprisingly big impact on your life in an extreme situation. You need your cap to seal and be impermeable. Anything that might let in air or contaminants is bad news. For this reason some caps are even designed to fit with the tubes that attach to gas masks.

Built in cloth covers and canteen carrier bags are fairly standard. These serve a dual purpose: they make it easier to carry, and when wet they also cool the water inside. Evaporative cooling for your drinks can be a nice asset on a hot day.

Add-ons like attached straps or belt loops, as previously mentioned, are another nice bonus you can find without much trouble. You can get cups and stands as well if you want them. Don’t forget to calculate the additional weight. Small things can add up quickly and you don’t want to get bogged down with too-heavy equipment because you chose style over substance.

How Safe Are Canteens

Perhaps you’ve heard of BPA? Maybe you read about hot aluminum (mostly foil) causing Alzheimer’s and you worry about your canteen. While it’s true some plastics do have chemical leeching issues, it’s not the sensational problem you might think. Likewise aluminum from your canteen isn’t likely to do you any real harm. Beyond those two “known issues” there aren’t really problems to worry about as long as you buy a decent canteen.

If you have concerns about what is going into your water, they should not be caused by your canteen. If you don’t feel like it is safe to carry, to put it bluntly, you need a different canteen. Realistically most of the hype over contaminants is taken out of context.

At the end of the day, if it still makes you paranoid, then go with stainless steel. That way you can be as sure as humanly possible that there are no known issues with the material. The trade off is a higher weight.

You’re Going to be Fine

Despite the fact that your body can handle the miniscule amounts of BPA and aluminum, you can avoid any issues with plastics or aluminum by not heating them up. Even if you do take in a little BPA, it would take about 90 cups of water in a day to possibly give you a problem with exposure. If you are drinking that much water, you have a different problem to consider.

Hyponatremia is no joke. If you drink so much water your body can’t eliminate it, at best you will be very sick, and at worst it will kill you. Thus, it’s pretty unlikely you’ll have to worry about BPA.

As for aluminum, your body can handle a small amount just fine. You will probably eliminate it naturally because the tiny bits you might swallow aren’t enough to challenge your body.

Buy a new canteen and keep it clean. Follow proper water storage techniques.  Be aware that certain styles have hard to clean corners, so avoid those when possible. Overall canteens are safe and effective for daily use.

All Things Being Equal (Materials)

If every canteen was simply a matter of style and size choices, you’d have no need to ask about them. The material your canteen is made from matters. Fortunately you have plenty of options to choose from.

  • Plastic and Nalgene- First of all, Nalgene is a type of plastic, though it is often listed separately, which can cause confusion. When considering plastics your choices are basically hard or soft. Nalgene is notable because it is incredibly durable and odor/flavor resistant. Modern Nalgene is also BPA free from most sources.
  • Stainless steel- A good steel canteen is worth having if you aren’t clumsy. The downfall of metal is that it weighs more than plastics, and it dents. While this is usually not a world ending (or canteen destroying) problem, it can easily effect other aspects of equal importance. If you dent the cap or spout, you may not get a decent seal. No seal means possibly contaminated water. It may also lead to evaporation problems will cause you water loss, albeit probably just a small amount.
  • Aluminum- Softer and lighter than steel, aluminum is a good, light weight, alternative if you want a metal canteen. Unfortunately it also has all the same problems as other metals. In addition, the lighter material is easier to bend and break.
  • Miscellaneous- If you go looking you will find alternate options. Glass and ceramics are breakable, but that won’t stop a savvy seller from making it into a canteen. Certainly you can find wineskin like canteens made of leather and other waterproof fabrics. Most likely these are lined and treated, so always look at how they are made.

A Little History

How long have canteens been around? That’s a tough question to answer. Wood, leather, animal bladders and hollowed out gourds are among the many ways our predecessors carried water.

Old School

The term “waterskin,” most likely comes from the use of cow (and other animal) bladders as early canteen ancestors. It may sound disgusting to people today, but the flexibility and capacity of a bladder made it ideal for carrying water on journeys.

Naturally, as metalworking gained popularity and improved so did canteens. Not every version was successful though. For example, lead inclusions in the metal caused some problems. (Lead is a historical source of many poison issues, from women’s makeup to children’s toys. It’s no surprise that it was tried for something as commonplace as a water canteen.)

Recent History

Glass canteens with cork stoppers were made in the early 1900’s however glass can be more of a problem than a solution in real world situations.

With the advent of modern plastics, canteen production changed forever. Plastics are cheap to produce and easy to mold. Nalgene and other advances in plastic technology continue to make it simpler and more cost effective to mass produce decent quality canteens to this day.

Final Thoughts

Water is life. Therefore, it only stands to reason that your canteen is your lifeline. If your canteen is too big it will add unnecessary weight. An oversize canteen is more likely to rub you the wrong way or even slow you down. A too-small canteen won’t hold what you need, which makes it almost useless. Be smart and sensible in your choice. Keep in mind the average adult needs a minimum of 2 liters of good clean water every day, more if the weather is extreme or you plan to do anything strenuous.

Additional Questions

What other options exist for carrying water on your person? As noted, there are many types of water bottle. Hydration bladders are arguably just another style of canteen, but you might look into them if you haven’t done so already. Surprisingly, this is one area where there haven’t been a whole lot of advances in technology. Occasionally a new material is created, but the style and function isn’t effected.

Should I repair a broken canteen? It is extremely difficult to get a good seal on a broken Nalgene or other plastic canteen. Even a small hole may leak water out or allow contaminants in. Similarly, it is no simple task to repair metal and any imperfect seal will have the same problem as it would with plastic. You are better off scrapping old and busted canteens. No one wants to waste good gear, but you should leave some things to the pros or the dump.

How do I clean and sterilize a canteen? When you have a metal canteen, boiling water should do the trick. Nalgene is designed to hold boiling water, so it may work on that type as well. Alternately, for other plastics a 50-100 ppm mixture of bleach in water is probably better. After bleaching, rinse several times and mix up a solution with some baking soda in it. Leave the baking soda mixture inside for a few minutes and rinse again. Do not heat the bleach water since higher temperatures degrade the bleaches ability to sanitize. You can also use vinegar to rinse out water storage, but the other two methods are preferred.

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