Procuring water in the North

adam waterA happy man with some water. Time for that brew!

In the previous blog we discussed a variety of ways that we can lose moisture from our bodies and subsequently become dehydrated in cold climes. Today I intend to discuss overcoming these issues and securing for ourselves an adequate supply of water as well as carrying sufficient amounts for a days travel. To do this I will pull from my recent experience in Sweden to relay some of the considerations we went through.

Winter in the Boreal forest presents us with three mediums from which we can source water, Snow, ice and water itself. Of the three, snow is our less favorable option due to an effect known as ‘snow to water ratio’ which describes the volume of snow to the amount of water present should that snow be melted. The result of this ratio is that it increases as the temperature drops meaning your yield of water will reduce as the conditions cool. The table below illustrates just how little water you would be collecting as conditions drop towards -20ºC. In comparison to snow, ice has much higher yields due to it consisting of large amounts of water with fewer impurities. Those that exist are predominantly trapped air bubbles which result in a lower yield per volume when compared directly to water but significantly higher that those collected from snow.


Temp (Centigrade) -1°C -4°C -8°C -11°C -15°C -23°C
Ration of snow to water: 10:1 15:1 20:1 30:1 40:1 50:1

(Table 1: Highlighting the continual reduction in ‘water volume’ collected as snow in sub-zero temperatures; http://Spacemaths.gsfc, 

On a winter trip to Sweden in January 2016 Adam, a fellow Woodland Ways instructor, and I put into practice the various methods of sourcing water in sub-zero temperatures. Or priority was to collect enough water for each 24 hours with the minimum amount of labour. This in turn was linked to fire wood consumption which in turn, linked back to caloric intake and subsequently the maintenance of core body temperature. So as with many wilderness situations there is a strong link to camp admin and efficient energy expenditure. To achieve this we took with us one 10 litre pot with which to process our water. The advantage of one larger pot over two smaller individual ones was to simplify the stove management as it prevented having to repeatedly boil small quantities of water.

Over the trip our daily water consumption averaged around 15 liters combined per day for drinking, cooking, washing, etc… A routine was followed each day that kept us supplied with hot water at all times. Each evening after we had eaten a trip down to the water hole to fill the pan allowed us to boil 5-6 litres. We found that this had two advantages, firstly it was one less task to carry out in the morning to hasten that first coffee of the day, secondly it meant we could fill our canteens with boiling water and stash them at the bottom of the sleeping bags ready for sleep. This made getting into the sleeping bag that little bit more appealing at the end of a cold day. Care must be taken when doing this to ensure the lid is securely tightened and it’s best to insulate the bottle with a sock. Warm it might be, but the last thing you want to rest your feet on is a boiling hot metal bottle! Doing this would ensure the water would remain at body temperature until morning so that you wouldn’t have to endure teeth shatteringly cold water the moment you open your eyes, though this is a sure way to wake your self up it is not the most pleasurable of experiences. The remaining previously boiled water served us for morning coffee and tea with enough water remaining to refill our canteens with hot water as well as the thermos for that ever important lunch time coffee fix.

The above routine required daily cutting through the ice of the lake. Using the axe or ice chisel there were clear advantages to both techniques. It will hopefully become apparent there was one distinct winner in the competition.

axe through ice

Image 1: One of the key themes of the trip was the absolute versatility of the axe
This image shows how it is used to cut a hole in the water

As we always discuss on our Axe and Tree interpretation course (–tree-interpretation-160.html) an axe with a suitable length handle and weight of head is the tool of the north woods. It allows you to perform an extremely broad range of tasks from: collecting fire wood, shelter construction along with a host of craft work, all of which ultimately make life possible in these cold conditions. To those familiar with working with the axe its versatility will be known, it may however not be fully appreciated by many that they can be used just as effectively to cut through ice as easily as processing wood. There are potential risks to the cutting edge should there be any small stones frozen in the ice which can mean a good amount of time spent that evening in camp regaining a working edge, but in the interest of carrying a single too the axe excels. It should be said that in such environments the frozen nature of the wood puts a considerable amount of wear on the axe and carrying an adequate sharpening kit is as crucial as carrying the right tool in the first place.

With the axe being of such importance to your overall well being in such environment it is imperative that we make sure you minimise the risk of loosing it at the bottom of the lake when you finally break through the ice. This is one of the very few times that we use the axe with a lanyard around the wrist which prevents the axe sinking into the deep! Although the axe made short work of the cutting the hole there were a number of draw backs that we started to notice, some of which became more apparent when we switched to using the ice chisel. Firstly, the short reach of the axe meant that you had to be right on top of the hole which has the negative effect of once the ice having been breached and the channel around the hole fills with water  which meant that you were likely to repeatedly splash yourself, wetting your cloths which would promptly freeze. Secondly the limited weight of the axe head along with the relatively short length of the handle results in you having to expend a lot more energy when compared to the ease of the ice chisel. As a result you had to make sure that you thermo-regulated effectively while making the hole as you do have the tendency to over heat. Thirdly being so close to the spot you are weakening, there is a slight risk that should the ice start to fail you have less time to react; an unlikely situation but still an unnerving possibility.

One of the main concerns whilst in Sweden was staying dry. Staying dry means staying warm and much time and effort went in to ensuring this happened. One of the key risks to us in regards to getting wet while out on the ice, beside the obvious risk of breaking through for an early bath, was walking in to over flow hidden by snow which would soak our moccasins if unnoticed. Overflow on the ice is a useful indicator as it informs of weak ice or holes near by and acts as a safety warning allowing to react to issues before they become one. Its relevance for water sourcing is related to the weight of the ice pushing down on the water forcing it up where it spreads out across the ice and remains unfrozen by the insulating snow. This can happen with considerable speed and means you have to jump back to keep your feet dry. Another advantage of the extended reach of the ice chisel. Come our first morning on the trial what had been a small amount of over flow had spread over 9 feet. The issue now was that in traditional footwear we were unable to approach our water source without getting soaked. This was easily over come whilst around camp by fetching water in our rubber boots but did have other implications once the toboggans where packed and ready to go. Additionally from getting your feet wet, walking into surface creep also has the effect of encasing your snow shoes and the underside of your toboggan with ice making them ever so slightly heavier the result of which is to upend the toboggan to scrap it clear and having to knock the ice from the snow shoe lacing. The simple way to avoid the above situation was to cut your water hole back along the train in the direction you had come the previous day so that when in the morning you load up to continue the way ahead is unaffected by over flow from the water hole.

ice chiselImage 2: The much more efficient stance employed whilst using the ice chisel. Safety line ready to go encase any accidents should occur

After a few day on the trail we had established a routine that enabled us to make our lives more comfortable. Part of this was getting our ice chisel up and running, courtesy of Kev Keane, to see how it performed compared to the axe. For those unfamiliar with the ice chisel, it is a large metal bar lashed to a 5.5 foot spruce pole with a crude bevel on it, allowing the user to stand up to chip their way through the ice as well as test for ice safety. Similarly to when using the axe, we attached a safety line from the chisel head up to the hand to ensure that should the binding come loose, the chisel head would not be lost into the lake. The extra weight and length of the chisel made cutting through the ice a much simpler task, allowing us to stand further from the water hole and distance ourselves from any splashing.
This simple tool which has a long history of use throughout the north is an elegant solution to the need for making holes in the ice, be that for water or hunting and fishing. Before the introduction of metal trade goods many, indigenous peoples crafted their chisels from antler, utilising the robust base of the antler for the cutting edge. Once again this tried and tested knowledge illustrates the benefit of indigenous technologies.  To call them ‘simple’ is to not appreciate that these tools are the result of hundreds, if not thousands, of years of product refinement. They simply have not changed for a long time because they work.

Through extensive testing of both techniques during the trip there was a clear preference for the ice chisel over the axe. This is not surprising due to the historical preference of northern peoples and our own experience. On the flip side, it has to be said that a constant feature of the trip was the absolute reliance that was placed on the axe for wellbeing and comfort. Should you wind up lost and in a real survival situation there is no doubt as to which tool you would want to have. In the north woods the axe is king and a whole range of specific uses relating to this tool shall be covered during future blogs.




– A Snow Walker’s Companion; G & A Conover; Ragged Mountain Press Camden, Maine. 1995.

– Snow to Water Ratios

– How much water is lost during breathing? Zieliński J1, Przybylski JPneumonol Alergol Pol. 2012;80(4):339-42.

– Cold-induced responses in the upper respiratory tract, Jari J. Latvala, Kari E. Reijula, Philip S. Clifford & Hannu E. Rintamaki, Arct Med Res 1995; 54: 4-9

– Outdoor Action Guide to Hypothermia and Cold weather Injuries, Rick Curtis, Princeton University, Outdoor Action Programme, 1995

– Respiratory Humidification Basics,, WILAmed GmbH

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