Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Rethinking the Camelbak

Climbers in every venue tend to get dehydrated. It's always too cold or too hot or it takes too long to stop. Most people are able to tell when they become dehydrated. There are some obvious signs like yellow pee or lethargy. But these signs are late symptoms of a dehydrated body.

Camelbaks and other hydration bladders have made it much easier for climbers to take-in fluids while moving. There is one problem with this piece of equipment. It tends to freeze in cold weather.

There are some simple techniques that may be utilized to keep this from happening.
  1. Purchase and use a thermal control kit. The tube cover is the most important component of this accessory. You may need to cut off the mouth cover. The mouth cover gets in the way of the hydrolock. Following is a photo of a thermal control kit:
  2. Purchase and use a hydrolock. This device keeps the camelbak from leaking. This is especially important at night. In order to keep the bladder from freezing during the coldest hours, you will need to keep it inside of your sleeping bag. If you do not have a lock on the bite valve, you may accidently roll onto the valve and soak your sleeping bag. Following is a photo of a hydrolock:

  3. Every time you take a drink, be sure to blow the water out of the tube and back into the bladder. The most likely place for water to freeze is in the tube and in the bite valve. Blowing the water back inside makes this less likely to happen.

  4. When you are moving in a cold environment, keep the bite valve tucked into the neck of your jacket. This will keep any extra drops of water from freezing.

  5. In extremely cold environments like on Denali or in South America, you might have to wear the camelbak underneath your jacket. This makes wearing a pack uncomfortable, but keeps your water from freezing.

  6. In the most extreme cases, while wearing the bladder on your back, you might even thread the tube so that it goes down your sleeve and comes out at your wrist.
It is extremely important to be vigilant about keeping a bladder from freezing. It is also important to have a normal water bottle just in case you make a mistake. It is very difficult to thaw out a Camelbak after it's frozen in a cold environment.

--Jason D. Martin


  1. I've used a hydration bladder (Camelbak is my preferred brand) for both backcountry skiing and climbing for a few years. Freezing is a problem but I've found that if I raise the bite valve and open it so that it drains after I've sipped, it keeps from freezing even in winter. As a precaution I do keep the bite valve in my jacket. Since I do most/all my climbing and skiing in the Pacific NW, extreme temperatures have not been a problem but I have experienced the frozen bite valve and hose even in PNW "mild" winter temperatures. The other problem with bladder bags is that there is a risk of it popping (don't sit on your pack) or leaking and soaking all your stuff, not to mention leaving you without any hydration system. I keep my resevoir in a separate pouch, an outside pouch and use the normal precautions for keeping my dry stuff dry in the Pacific North Wet. Also, I do carry an empty water bottle just in case. Better yet, I fill bladder half full and bring along a full water bottle. It's been a good compromise between the pros and cons of staying hydration and the risk of system failure.

  2. Camelbacks with the insulated hose, valve and zip-in shoulder strap pocket work fine until the temp drops below about 20 F. After that, they are just a hassle to keep thawed.

    You might be able to keep one going in colder weather by wrapping a chemical hand warmer around the valve and mouthpiece. But, then you're going to have to keep taking the warmer off and on.

  3. Camelbak is a great product, never has any problem with it.
    Camelbak Water Bottle

  4. There is lots more than "one problem" with water bladders. Try around 10!

    The tubes can freeze.
    There are too many delicate parts (tubes, bladders, mouthpiece bite valves) that can easily break or malfunction, and they’re hard to repair.
    They have lots of hard to clean cracks and crevices where funky microorganisms can grow.
    They’re hard to fill, either from streams or with snow.
    It’s difficult to monitor your water consumption and see how much you have left.
    It’s hard to share water with others.
    The mouthpiece can easily drag in the dirt when you put your pack on the ground.
    You can’t use a bladder in camp as a cup for hot drinks.
    You can’t easily put hot water in a bladder and put a sock over it at night, to help dry out wet socks.
    They’re very expensive compared to a simple water bottle.
    (Bonus reason: Unless you’re an adventure racer, are you REALLY in that much of a hurry that you can’t stop and enjoy a drink of water?)


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