Concern 2: Getting Water Safely

Mountain Education Resources
Concern 2: Getting Water Safely

I want to be fairly clear, here, even though you are hiking over Spring snow in the High Sierra, getting water for cooking or drinking has its challenges and hazards. I know you’d think it would be simple because its everywhere, but that’s partly the point, it gets soft and melts, making for hazardous travel and dangerous approaches to open water. A little forethought as you come up to it can keep you safe.

Just before sundown is the usual time when you’re thinking about making camp, pitching the tent, and going to get water for dinner and breakfast. This is, also, the time of day when the snow is the softest, especially near lakes and creeks where the edge of the pack is exposed to the warm air of afternoon. Listen to the rushing melt-streams underneath the soft pack so that you don’t fall through and into the creek below as you wander around the lake or alongside the creek.

If the only exposed water in the area of your camp is a lake, be careful how you approach it. The snow at the edge of the lake is either an icy berg or a soft layer of surface snow. Stay back from the edge and assess which it is before getting too close. Approach while carefully testing ahead with your pole. If you are postholing already, pay attention to what you’re posting onto, grass or edge-of-lake rocks, when you pull your foot out of the hole. (This won’t be too big of a deal if you have waterproof boots and gaiters on). If you can spot a safer location where the snow has melted off the grass already, obviously, go there and get your water as summer-usual.

However, we are not always so lucky, depending on the depth of the winter pack, so assume the worst and stay back from the edge of the snow/open-lake edge. Consider bringing a pan with which to scoop water from the lake to your water bottle. A filter’s hose should reach into the open water while you remain at a safe distance on a snow-packed platform where you’ll fill your canteens. If you have wide-mouthed, quick-filling bottles, consider just dipping them directly, if you can reach that far (if the snow is solid enough, or I can pack the snow good enough to make a secure platform, this is my method of choice for filling enough canteens to supply dinner, breakfast, and tomorrow morning’s hike).

Now, that brings up another question, do you have enough water storage capability to make one filling trip to provide for dinner and breakfast? I use a lightweight and small volume (when crushed) two-and-a-half gallon water bag that works great in the tent as a storage resevoir for several days’ supply (good for sitting out the multi-day storms). I just take my wide-mouth, one-liter Nalgene out to the edge and dip-n-fill the bag, then trot back to my waiting, warm tent to start dinner inside (Concern 3). This bag works great for large groups, too.

If there is no easily accessable dry ground or melted-out rocks from which you can keep your balance while dipping or pumping for water, and you’ve looked all around the lake, you can, also, dig a hole through the snow on the lake beside a stomped platform to create open-water access.

Now, the usual place to look for open water at a lake where there probably will be open or dry ground that you can stand on is at the inflow or outflow to the lake. Check your map for the shape of the lake that corresponds to both and head over there. As you get close, keep your ears alert for sounds of the creek beneath you. If you have to cross it on a snow-bridge and you’re post-holing already, jump it or take as big a step as you can (if the creek is narrow, of course). If you fall in and get real wet, you’ve got to get back to your tent as fast as you can to change into dry clothes and prevent hypothermia. If the air is hot and the sun is out, this may not be the emergency it could be, so laugh, get your water, and then change your clothes.

If your source of water is a creek, be careful as you approach the edge (say you’re camping further downstream or in a meadow) and probe ahead for the soft spots so you don’t fall in. If you are on a steep incline to a narrow creek bottom, be extra careful you don’t slip while on your traverse into it on a buried rock or branch and fall into the water. Look for exposed rocks that have already melted out on which to rock-hop over to the open water. Do not assume that the grassy ground at the edge of the snowpack alongside the creek is safe to step onto. My hiking partner did so, once, and sunk in up to his chest and had to be rescued out!

If there is no open water where you are or the weather is so bad that you’re not leaving your tent, simply melt the snow outside your door. Scrape off the surface debris down to the pure white stuff with the edge of your glove, then dig out a pot-full and bring it into the tent. Fire up your stove, place another pot on the burner, and scoop in one spoonful to melt. When it does, put in another two. When they melt, put in four and so on. If you try to melt the whole dipping pot, only the bottom layer will melt, be absorbed by the snow above it, making a dry air layer, and the pot will burn. If you don’t have a dipping pot, use your drinking cup to ladle the snow from outside the door into your pot. Once you have a suitable amount, pour it into a storage container, and start all over (this will be your drinking water for overnight or for breakfast in the morning).

There are lots of other ways to find water:
– dripping water off rocks,
– running water off rocks or granite slabs,
– melting snow on a black plastic sheet in the sun, or
– using a plastic sheet to catch real slow drips to funnel into a canteen.

Primarily, be cautious where snow meets water, above moving water on snow bridges, and on slippery surfaces, whether buried and wet, icy, or on rocks covered with stream-spray. If you get wet enough to make most of you cold, do not hesitate to strip to dry clothes, especially if the weather is cloudy and cool already and get out of the wind.

This is all stuff to keep in mind when travelling and camping in snow country. For the most part, it will be the most beautiful and fun time you’ve ever had in the spring snow – there’s no bugs, dirt, bears or mice to contend with and as long as you don’t get wet or cold, you’ll return again and bring your friends!

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