As I mentioned in a previous post, back in May I did a couple of backpack rambles up in the Kachina Peaks Wilderness, near Flagstaff. The first outing got aborted after only one night by high winds that roared through the mixed conifer forest like a freight train, making the big spruce and fir trees twist and groan in alarming ways that made me wonder if it was safe to be there at that time. No trees came down near my camp because I was in a somewhat sheltered spot, but I also didn’t sleep very well due to the wind noise. The following morning I decided to pack it in and try again at a future date. This turned out to be a good call because the next night the winds grew even stronger.
My second attempt was a week later after the low pressure system had passed and while still a little windy the forest was much calmer than before. I slept well and was able to stay for two full nights and I got in a couple of high quality woods rambles into the rarified air of the San Francisco Peaks. I don’t regret the aborted first attempt, though, because it’s extremely important to learn the full personality of these places. That means going out in poor weather (within reason) and experiencing the darker moods and tantrums that wild, dynamic environs often throw. If one only goes when the weather is perfect then you won’t get out much and you’ll build a skewed picture of how the land works. And that’s really bad.
Anyway, one of the problems with doing overnight trips in this Wilderness is that there’s very little surface water available. There are a handful of stock tanks below the mountain and a few ephemeral springs way up high, but unless you know where they are and have scouted them out beforehand you can’t rely on them for a backpack. There isn’t much worse than schlepping a heavy pack up the mountain and then discovering that your water source is bone dry and you have to turn around. So the usual solution is to pack all your water in with you, which means humping a couple of gallons of water over steep, rough terrain and that’s hard work and detracts from the enjoyment of being in the Wilderness. That’s what I usually do (carrying all my water), but for these two spring trips I tried something else: melting residual snow.
On a previous day hike to the same general area I’d noted that while the snow had retreated very high up the mountain there were still some fading snowbanks persisting in the shady spots as low as 9,000 feet. I figured that if I brought my canister stove and my trusty water filter along I could melt all the drinking water I’d need and avoid having to pack more than a couple of liters at any one time. Sometimes these nutty ideas fail spectacularly, but this one worked great, with only a couple of minor glitches.
Here’s a shot of the residual snowbank that I used:
And here’s a shot of my snow melting operation:
The parts are:
- Stove for melting the snow. I have a JetBoil canister stove, but any kind of heat source will work. Even a traditional campfire will do the job, but I don’t recommend that; campfires are dangerous and stupid, especially on a dry mountain like this one where there isn’t water available to put one out properly.
- Water filter. I use an older MSR pump model, but the ultra-light Sawyers or equivalent will work fine, too.
- The bottom of a plastic water jug cut down to act as a container to hold snow and the melt water. (Also works as a nice wash basin for cleaning up, doing dishes, etc.)
- Bandana to pre-filter some of the junk out of the melted water, which helps prevent the MSR filter’s element from clogging so quickly.
- Couple of water bottles to hold the clean, filtered drinking water.
Basically, my snow melting operation worked like this:
- Feed clumps of dirty snow from the residual snowbank into the canister stove’s pot to be melted. No need to bring it to a boil because I knew I’d be using the MSR filter to actually purify it. Just get it to a liquid state a few degrees above freezing.
- When the stove’s pot was full of slushy water I’d pour it back into the plastic “basin” through the red bandana to filter out some of the larger debris. I did this three or four times to get as much of the gunk out as I could.
- Put the intake of the MSR filter into the basin and pump clean, pure water into the Nalgene bottles.
- While I was pumping the water filter, I started a second batch of snow melting on the canister stove. This way when I finished filtering the first batch I could start in immediately on the second.
- I then repeated this process until I had all the water I needed.
This is not a difficult operation, but it’s kinda slow and you can use up a lot of stove fuel if you’re not careful. That’s why you want to keep the stove busy at all times melting snow and only heat the snow just enough to bring it to a liquid state. Otherwise you’ll waste fuel and time. The trick is to let the bandana and your water filter do the actual purification for you, not the stove.
One of the big problems you have to solve is that these residual snowbanks are very dirty and the meltwater is of similar quality to glacier fed creeks where there’s a lot of suspended solids. In most cases the snowbanks have been sitting around on the mountainside for many months, probably since the first snows back in the late fall. Over that time they collect a lot of dust, dirt, spruce needles, bugs, elk poop, and other forest debris. This is why you have to pre-filter the melted water through the bandana, otherwise your main water filter’s element will clog really fast.
The bandana doesn’t get it all, but it sure helps. Depending on how much melted snow you’ll be filtering and your model of water filter you may have to clean the element a couple times. My MSR filter seemed to clog after about 3-4 liters, which is about normal for it and poor quality water.
After I returned to camp in the late afternoons from my woods rambles the first thing I’d do is melt and filter about five liters of water for dinner that night and the next day’s breakfast and hike. I was camped a couple hundred yards from the residual snowbank so it was relatively convenient to make runs for drinking water. I could’ve camped right next to it, actually, but that would’ve been uncool as birds were using the snowbank too and my presence would’ve disrupted their activities. So I settled for a slightly less ideal site back in the trees.
Around here, melting snow like I’ve described is really only an option for parts of middle and late spring and is highly dependent on the winter snowpack and the temperatures. If it’s been cold with lots of clean, recent snow available then you might not even have to post-filter the snowmelt. Just melt it on the stove and drink directly from the pot – although if I could spare the fuel I’d probably bring it to a boil anyway because I’m paranoid about getting sick in the backcountry.
One thing you have to keep in mind if you want to try this is stove fuel. Melting frozen water is energy intensive and you’ll burn a whole lot more fuel than you normally would. Some kinds of backpacking stoves are better than others at this. The old-school liquid fuel stoves that burn white gas or kerosene, etc are hotter and if you’re going to do this a lot then that’s the way to go. I’ve been watching the outdoor websites and local thrift stores for a deal on an MSR WhisperLite or equivalent and may switch from the canister-fed JetBoil if I can find one.
With that said, my JetBoil canister stove proved to be very competent at melting the snow and I wouldn’t hesitate to use it again for this. Its only real drawback is that the isobutane canisters it uses are kind of expensive and it’s difficult to accurately judge how much fuel is remaining in a canister after a long melt session. For example, after the first aborted trip to the Wilderness I wasn’t sure if there was enough fuel left in the partially used canister for the next trip, so I had to purchase and carry a second one. Turns out I didn’t need it, so I carried it up the mountain for nothing. A liquid fuel stove wouldn’t have had that problem. (Neither would an alcohol stove, but I have no experience with those.)
A few more tips I can offer are:
Put a half cup or so of water in your stove pot to get the snow melting primed. If you don’t then there’ll be no medium for the heat to transfer from the metal pot to the snow and you can damage the pot.
If your water filter is field serviceable (my MSR is) then clean it before you pack things away. That way it’ll be ready to go tomorrow when you need to use it again. If for some reason you drink all your clean water during the day’s ramble then at least the filter will be ready so you can make more drinking water. If it’s dirty or clogged (because you were lazy and didn’t clean it) then you won’t have the fresh water to clean/flush it and you’ll need to hike out or else drink boiled grit. This would suck.
After you’re done, rinse and wipe out the cook pot you’ve been melting the dirty (and possibly contaminated) snow in before you use it for cooking. To avoid problems I’ll usually bring some water to a good rolling boil in the pot and then use it to make a mug of hot chocolate or coffee. The heat from the boiling should kill any critters that may still be lurking in the pot.
If the nighttime temperatures are expected to drop below freezing be really careful about your water filter. Most will be damaged if ice crystals form in their filter elements. To prevent this, put the water filter element (or the whole filter assembly) into a zip-lock bag and sleep with it at the foot of your sleeping bag. That way it won’t freeze.
(Melted residual snow that’s been passed through the bandana five times. It’s still cloudy but definitely drinkable if chemically treated or boiled.)
It’s possible to use the sun to melt some of the snow so you won’t need to use quite as much stove fuel. Before you leave camp in the morning put some snow in your little “basin” and leave it where the sun will find it. When you get back in the afternoon and it’s time to make drinking water you’ll already have one basin melted, free of charge by the sun. Just don’t be too surprised if birds find it and use it as a birdbath or help themselves to a drink. 🙂
And finally, as I’ve been hinting at, boiling or chemical treatment of the melted snow is always an option if your water filter breaks or you don’t want to carry one. You’ll just need to figure out how to get the dirt and junk out of it. Passing the silty water through a folded bandana a bunch of times helps a lot, but won’t get everything out. It’ll still be pretty cloudy. But maybe you could use your plastic basin or some big one-gallon zip-lock bags to settle some of the solids out overnight. Or maybe just drink it. What the hell. Some really serious hikers do that, but they also get sick sometimes, too. So I dunno about that.
Before I close, I’ll share something that happened the last night of this Wilderness outing.
Sometime after I’d fallen asleep, very early in the morning, the darkness of the northern Arizona night split apart and the inside of the tent lit up like broad daylight. I opened my eyes, blinking, and watched as intense golden light filtered through the tent’s yellow rainfly. For a few seconds it pulsed and flickered like something alive and then snuffed out, leaving behind the crazy afterimages of the inside of the tent and the shadows of tree limbs imprinted onto my retinas. I waited an eternity for the low rumble of a far away impact, but it never came, just the apprehensive silence of the mountain. Finally, from way down the mountainside below the forested bench I heard a lone coyote call out as if to ask What the hell was that? to anyone who might be listening.
The next day after I’d packed up my little Wilderness camp and gone back to town I read that a small asteroid had broken up above central Arizona and the fragments had gone down somewhere north of Tucson. I wondered if that’s what the end of the world would be like, the night sky flashing bright like the noonday sun, then an impact more felt than heard somewhere beyond the horizon and then everything changed forever. Kind of a helpless, frightening thought, that. It’s happened before; I suppose there’s nothing that says it couldn’t happen again.