Hydration Part 1: Insulated Water Bottles

Insulated Water Bottles Left to Right:
Outdoor Research; Forty Below; Takeya; Hydro Flask; Primus; Thermos Titanium

An insulated water bottle can be a great piece of equipment for winter outdoor activities. Depending on temperatures and what sort of bottle you’ve got, you can keep your water from freezing or enjoy a hot drink.

I will usually take an insulated bottle with me when I’m backcountry skiing or ice climbing. Sipping hot cider or hot cocoa at lunch time provides a great feeling of well being and helps warm me up when it’s cold.

This is a review of the insulated bottles I own.

Forty Below Bottle Boot $24.95 The Forty Below Bottle Boot is made from neoprene. It’s sized to fit a 1 liter bottle. It works with a standard Nalgene bottle or, a Hunersdorf bottle. The Hunersdorf bottle is lighter than a Nalgene and has a cap design that doesn’t freeze up in cold temperatures.

The Hunersdorf bottle is also known as a Relags Bottle.

The Bottle Boot isn’t terribly effective, but it is low profile and doesn’t add much bulk to your water bottle. It’s not great for keeping hot drinks hot, but does provide enough insulation to help keep your water bottle from freezing solid. If light weight and low bulk are your priority, then this could be a good choice.

Outdoor Research SG Water Bottle Parka $70 This is a foam insulated bottle wrap. OR claims it “makes any bottle a thermos.” That’s not really true as the tests below clearly show. It is a hair lighter than the Forty Below Bottle Boot, and provides more insulation, but is also a bit more bulky. If I was just worried about keeping my water from freezing and wasn’t concerned with keeping a hot drink hot, this would be my choice.

Takeya Actives Insulated Bottle with Spout Lid $23.00 This is a basic, stainless steel vacuum insulated bottle. It comes in various sizes. The spout lid is convenient for drinking out of or pouring, but it is not insulated. I believe that the uninsulated lid is responsible in large part for this bottle’s poor performance in the testing described below. It’s not very expensive, and its performance is fine for shorter days in mild cold.

Hydro Flask 40 ounce Wide Mouth Bottle $49.95 This bottle comes in a variety of sizes. The only one I have used is the larger, 40 ounce capacity version. This bottle is well made, easy to drink or pour from, and performed very well in the insulation test. One of the best I have used, and my go-to for a larger capacity vacuum bottle.

Primus Vacuum Bottle $39.95 Note that the version I own is an older model than the one in the link. I have not used the new “Trailbreak” model. This is a nice, traditional vacuum bottle. It has a vacuum insulated double wall design, and has two caps, an inner, insulated cap, and a cover that can be used as a cup for sipping your hot drinks. It performs well at keeping drinks hot and doesn’t take up much space in your pack. I have owned two of these, and with both of them, the cup lid broke. The glue that holds the outer steel portion of the cup to the inner plastic cup failed and the two pieces came apart. It was easily fixed with a bit of JB weld, however.

Broken Primus Cup

Thermos Titanium Vacuum Bottle I can’t remember what I paid for this. I remember it being pretty expensive, I believe about $150. These bottles are pretty hard to find. They show up occasionally on ebay, but prices can be nuts (saw one sell for over $200.) This is a beautifully constructed bottle. Titanium makes it light, and it was the best performer in the insulation test. For those who simply must have a high quality titanium vacuum bottle, if you can’t find a Thermos Titanium, Snowpeak makes a smaller and lighter version, the Titanium 350ml Kanpai Bottle ($159.95) I have never used this Snowpeak bottle, but my experience with other Snowpeak gear makes me believe it is likely very high quality.

The Test

I tested the insulating qualities of each of these bottles.

All of the bottles were filled with boiling water. Then, they were left outside in the cold for 6 hours. Outside temperatures were just below freezing. After 6 hours, the water temperature in the bottles was measured.

Note that the larger containers have an advantage when it comes to heat loss, as larger regularly shaped objects generally have less surface area in relation to their volume. Having less surface area in relation to volume means that an object will radiate relatively less heat. It is likely that smaller models of these bottles would perform slightly less well. Also, all of the bottles were filled to capacity. Experience has shown that when you drink some of the liquid in a bottle, leaving empty air space, the remaining liquid tends to cool more rapidly.

Here are the results:


The two bottle wraps (Forty Below and Outdoor Research) clearly do not perform as well as the better (and heavier) vacuum bottles. They are good for keeping your water from freezing, but not really great for keeping your hot chocolate hot. The Outdoor research Bottle Parka is the winner in this category, with better insulating performance, lower weight, and just a bit more bulk.

The Takeya vacuum bottle was a bit of a disappointment. It has poor insulating performance (likely due to the non-insulating lid.) I would not choose this bottle, and would instead opt for a Hydroflask.

The Primus, while a good performer for a small bottle, was eclipsed by the outstanding performance (and lighter weight) of the Thermos Titanium bottle. The Thermos Titanium is my favorite. It is just the right size for a day trip in cold weather, it’s pretty light, and it keeps liquids hot for a long time. Unfortunately, the Thermos Titanium is very difficult (maybe impossible) to acquire.

“a perfect gear for real mountaineers”

So, the real-world winner of this insulated bottle showdown for those who can’t locate the Thermos Titanium Unicorn is the Hydro Flask. It’s easy to find, has very good insulating performance, is relatively inexpensive, and its weight is competitive with the other (non-titanium) vacuum bottles. If anyone wants a good solid vacuum bottle for keeping their drinks hot in the cold of winter, I could highly recommend the Hydro Flask.

First Aid, Repair, and Emergency Survival Kit

Over the years, my first aid kit has morphed, getting bigger or smaller depending on my level of optimism.  I’ve carried big kits with everything plus the kitchen sink, and minimalist kits consisting of a few aspirin and a roll of tape.

After decades of fluctuation, I’ve finally settled on a largish kit (at least by climber standards.)  It has supplies in it that allow me to deal with some of the more common backcountry injuries:  blisters, cuts, abrasions, bleeding, and pain.  In addition to the first aid supplies, I have materials to start a fire and repair fabrics.  A small leatherman tool and a small emergency flashlight provide some functionality for repairing and fixing things, cutting, and vision after dark.

I carry this kit with me pretty much any time I head into the backcountry.  I’ve used everything in it at one time or another.

Here’s the contents of my current standard kit.  Total weight is 13.3 ounces.

First aid/emergency kit, with contents labeled.
First aid/emergency kit, with contents labeled.

1st Aid Kit
All packed up into a relatively small package

Climbing Communication and Commands

Communication is key when your partner is out of sight.
Simple communication strategies are especially important when your partner is out of sight.

Go to a climbing crag anywhere in the United States, and you’ll hear a chorus of climbers yelling, “On Belay'” “Belay Off'” “Take'” “Climbing,” “Climb On,” etc.  These communications work fine on a short route, with no wind, where you can easily see and hear your partner.  However, on a long route, where wind and other conditions interfere with communication, “on belay” sounds a lot like “belay off” which also sounds a lot like “take.”

For over a decade, I’ve used a non-standard set of signals and commands when climbing.  I don’t use the standard commands because, in my experience, they are too prone to confusion.  When I climb, I use a simplified set of commands and signals that has tended to work better for me, especially on long alpine routes.  I’ve taken this approach by emulating what my guides in Europe do and adapting their system to my needs.

Here are the commands I use:

When I get to the top of a pitch and secure myself to an anchor, I yell, “SECURE!”   This means that my belayer can take me off belay.  At the new belay, I first take care of whatever I need to do other than pulling up the rope. After I’ve done everything else I need to do, I make sure the belay device is handy, and as my very last task, I pull up the rope.  When it goes tight, I quickly engage the rope in the belay device and yell, “ON BELAY!.”

That’s it.  Only two commands.  Neither of these commands sounds like the other.  They don’t share any long vowel sounds (like On Belay, Off Belay, and Take.)

In the event that my belayer can’t hear me at all, the consistent practice of not pulling up the rope until I’m ready to engage the belay device provides a non-verbal communication.  My partner knows that when the rope goes tight, the very next thing I’m going to do is put him on belay.  If we can’t hear one another at all, he nonetheless knows that when the rope goes tight, within a minute, I will have him on belay and will begin bringing the rope up through the belay device.

When the pitch is 55 Meters long, simple communications are best
When the pitch is 55 Meters long, simple communications are best

This system has proven much better in my experience than the myriad of confusingly similar commands that are the general rule here in the U.S.   Every time a new edition of Mountaineering, The Freedom of the Hills comes out, I look to see if they have revised the climbing commands to make it simpler and more rational.  So far, they’ve kept the traditional, confusing American system.   I’m hoping that this will change eventually.


Hiring a Guide

A rope joins two beings who have only one life; the guide for some hours ties himself to an unknown man who is going to become a friend.  When two men share the best and the worst, they are no longer strangers.    The guide does not climb for himself; he opens the gates of his mountains for his companion.    Gaston Rebuffat,  Between Heaven and Earth


Hiring a guide is somewhat uncommon here in the United States.  Very few US climbers that I know have ever climbed with a guide.  This is in contrast to Europe, where guided climbing is much more common. 

Hiring a guide can be an excellent experience.  A good guide will not only guide you up a route, but will also teach you skills that will carry over to unguided climbing going forward.   

The process of hiring a guide is different in Europe than it is in North America.  In the United States, many of the more popular climbing areas are located within national park boundaries.  In these national parks, the Federal Government awards guiding “concessions” to selected guide companies.  Unless a guide is affiliated with one of these concessions, that guide is not allowed to guide in that area.  In addition, there are often restrictions on which routes are allowed to be guided, and which are off limits to guided parties.  (For example,  on Mount Rainier, no guiding is allowed on Ptarmigan Ridge.)  

Because you’re working with a company as opposed to an individual guide, it may be difficult, for example, to retain the same guide if you want to undertake guided climbing in Grand Teton National Park, Mount Rainier, and Rocky Mountain Park.  Because of the concession restrictions, you will likely be forced to use three separate guides, one for each location.  

Regulations are a bit more relaxed outside of national parks, but many federal and state lands regulate guiding activities.  It is often the case that some sort of commercial permit is required to legally guide on public lands.  The reason usually given for these restrictions is the need for quality control.  Personally, I think that this justification is somewhat lame.  I participated in a guided class in a national park that was attended by a park ranger who was there to “audit” the guide service and assess whether or not their guide permit should be extended.  It was abundantly clear that the auditing ranger knew little or nothing about climbing.  Unless somebody died during the class, it would have been pretty much impossible for him to draw any valid conclusions as to the quality of the services provided.  

However, government oversight of some sort isn’t necessarily a bad idea.  This is because, in the United States, there is generally no requirement that a guide have any formal training.  This is in stark contrast to Europe, where every professional guide must complete a very rigorous, multi-year program in the guiding profession.  In Europe, the UIAGM (or IFMGA depending on the language) is the body that must certify an aspiring guide.  Without this certification, a person can not legally guide in Europe.  In the US, they regulate real estate agents, lawyers, and hair dressers, but anyone who wants to can call himself a guide.  

However, although certification is not mandatory in the United States, some guides do go through a certification process.  In the USA, the equivalent of the UIAGM is the American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA.)   The AMGA provides training and certification for guides.  However, not all certifications are equal.  The AMGA provides training and certification in a number of climbing disciplines, including “Certified Single Pitch Instructor”; “Certified Alpine Guide” “Certified Climbing Wall Instructor.”  These various certifications clearly involve widely varying degrees of competence and expertise.  So, it’s not enough to simply know that your guide is AMGA certified.  It is much more important to know exactly what disciplines that the certification applies to.  There are very few US guides who are certified across all of the AMGA disciplines.  To make the situation even more confusing, guide services are often referred to as “AMGA accredited.”  However, this doesn’t mean that all of the guides at that services are certified.

Don’t take this to mean that American guides are unqualified.  There are many good guides in the US, regardless of certification.  However, the lack of consistent requirements means that you need to do more homework when checking on your potential guide’s qualifications.  

So, when compared with Europe, the situation in the US manages to be both more complex in terms of regulations, and yet less transparent and consistent in terms of guide qualifications.  

With regards to costs and booking procedures, North America also differs significantly from Europe.  In North America, you typically reserve a guided trip some time in advance, and you pay a fixed fee by the day for the guide’s time.  Travel expenses, food, etc. are extra.  Differing guide companies have different policies regarding refunds, so it makes sense to ask what will happen if your climb is cancelled or cut short due to bad weather or other circumstances.  Depending on the situation and policies, they might refund your money, might offer to reschedule, or you could just be out of the money.  

My guide and friend, Franco Obert, of the Chamonix Guide Company
My guide and friend, Franco Obert, of the Chamonix Guide Company


The profession of guiding, and the process of hiring a guide is quite different in Europe than it is in the United States.  
First, as already mentioned, European guides must be certified by the UIAGM.  If you hire a mountain guide in Europe, you can be assured that he/she has undertaken a very rigorous formal curriculum in guiding.   
Second, in Europe, any certified guide can guide pretty much anywhere in Europe.  There are no “concessions” like in the US.  You can climb with the same guide in Chamonix, Zermatt, and the Dolomites.  
Third, the fees are calculated differently in Europe.  In contrast to North America, where a guide’s fees are typically a fixed daily rate, in Europe, the fee is dependent on the route climbed.  Generally, the longer and more serious the route is, the higher the fee.  As in North America, expenses (typically hut fees, and teleferique costs) are the responsibility of the client.  One advantage of the European system is that you typically don’t pay for days not spent climbing.  If you’re climbing out of your guide’s home base town and the weather is bad, you won’t pay for days spent trapped in town by bad weather even if you’ve made reservations to climb with him.  Unless you’re requiring your guide to leave his base of operations, if you don’t climb due to nasty weather, you typically don’t owe anything.  Similarly, if the climb is aborted due to sickness or other such event, you’ll only owe a reduced fee for a single day.  
Overall, I much prefer the European approach to guiding.  It makes it much easier to develop a long-term relationship with an individual guide, and it’s much more flexible.  Also, because of the requirement for universal certification, you can be assured of a uniformly high standard of competence when hiring a guide in Europe.
Some Advice About Being Guided:
I’ve hired a number of guides, in the U.S., Canada, and Europe.  Here are some observations about getting the most out of hiring a guide.
Selecting a lesser traveled route will endear you to your guide.  Most areas have a number of “trade routes” that are climbed with monotonous regularity by guides.  Choose something else,or better yet, collaborate with your guide to choose a route.  The lesser known route will be less crowded, the experience will likely be more enjoyable, and your guide will be excited to be doing something new.  
Be honest with your guide regarding your abilities, and don’t get in over your head.  Your guide isn’t there to drag you up a climb that you aren’t technically capable of climbing.  Remember, your guide isn’t Superman.  He’s trusting his life to you just as you are placing your life in his hands.  You have a responsibility to look after his safety that is not any less than his responsibility to take care of yours.  Similarly, just because you’re being guided, you can’t give up responsibility for your own safety.  Continue to exercise independent judgement, and don’t turn your brain off just because you’ve got a guide with you.    
Observe your guide carefully.  Watch the way he uses his crampons and ice tools, how he climbs rock, what clothing and equipment he favors.  Examine the paths he chooses, how he places protection and belay anchors, the way he manages the rope, how he moves, etc.  Ask questions as time and circumstances allow, but don’t waste too much time with questions while on the mountain.  Make a mental list of questions to ask him after the climb is over and you’re relaxing in a restaurant having a post-climb feast.  This is a great opportunity to learn how an expert climbs.  Take advantage of it.   
There are advantages to hiring a guide that is local to the area that you’re climbing at.  This is particularly the case in Europe.  A local guide can often get you on the very first cable car in the morning, the best spot at a crowded hut and other perks of local knowledge and connections.  
Lastly, don’t be afraid to find another guide if your experience with a particular guide is less than you had hoped for.  I’ve never had the misfortune to climb with an incompetent guide, but I have climbed with a guide that was a poor fit for me and my personality.  We just didn’t have much fun when we were in the mountains.  Luckily, I’ve found a number of guides that have been terrific, particularly my Chamonix guide, Franco Obert, a wonderful man with whom I have shared some of the best days of my life.

The amazing Barry Blanchard
The amazing Barry Blanchard

Some things I learned from Barry Blanchard:

I had the terrrific opportunity to climb with Barry Blanchard, one of the most notable climbers in North America.  Over the 10 days we spent together, I learned a lot of useful and interesting things:
1:   Snickers Bars, cheese sticks, and pepperoni are the foundation of mountain climbing nutrition. 
2:  It’s possible to climb 5.9 sport routes in your sneakers (if your name is Barry Blanchard.) 
3.  Always bring more than one pair of gloves with you on an alpine climb.
4.  Bring lots of 6 mil cord for retreating and improvising anchors.
5.  Not all alpine climbs have to start at 2:00 a.m. 
6.  Coiling your rope in a mountaineer’s coil makes it a lot easier to carry when wearing a pack.
7.  Keep a sense of humor no matter what’s going on, and remember climbing is fun (even when it isn’t.)