Product Reviews: Portable Water Containers

It’s been a few weeks since the last post here because although preparedness is a priority for me, spending time with family is also important, so I took a little break for the holidays. This week we’ll get back into the swing of things by looking at portable water containers.

By “portable” I mean containers that are small enough to carry with you all day when traveling on foot, typically stashed in a backpack or perhaps hung from a belt. Since water is heavy, you cannot possibly carry enough to survive on for very long — but you can carry enough to keep you going for a day or two, and that could make all the difference in reaching a “real” supply of potable water. Basically what we’re discussing here is water to drink during an evacuation, and that’s typically going to be stored in your car-kit (which we’ll examine in detail in a later post).

The obvious choice is to pick up a few of those ubiquitous plastic bottles, but don’t even think about using those. The plastic degrades quickly, which means they leak, and they leak in the worst possible way: Everything seems fine when you throw them in your backpack, and when you check them a couple months later they’re still fine, but a couple years later when you’re no longer paying attention their content slowly oozes into all your stuff and makes a big mess. Then when a real emergency occurs, not only is your water gone but many of your other critical supplies are damaged as well.

A car-pack sitting in your trunk or in the back of a minivan is subjected to extreme temperatures and constant vibration, and that makes the problem of reliability even worse, so any solution we choose has to be quite rugged to be acceptable. Remember, we’re talking your drinking water here, which is crucial to staying alive in any emergency so we cannot afford to take unnecessary chances. Let’s look at a few alternatives:

  • Stainless steel bottles

    I don’t trust any type of plastic container in a harsh environment, but stainless steel can handle a lot of abuse. I’m a little concerned about how well the caps will hold up since those are typically plastic, but they’re a fairly heavy plastic so they should be a lot more reliable than a cheap plastic bottle.

    Because this falls in the fill-it-yourself category you’ll need to make sure you treat and rotate the water. Don’t cut corners on the rotation schedule here: The high heat will probably make the water go bad faster (i.e. icky things can start growing in it), so I recommend you be very conscientious about emptying, washing, and refilling all your bottles at least once every 6 months.

    Personally, that kind of rotation is way more than I want to take on, and if you price the bottles you’ll find that you don’t save much if any money over buying prefilled cans (see below). I do however keep a few empty stainless steel bottles in my car kits, so that if I’m ever reduced to begging water from the Red Cross my family will at least have something decent to carry it in. If you watch for sales you can sometimes get these as low as $5 or less for a 1-quart bottle.

  • Aseptic boxes

    Next we look at a commercial solution: Water packaged into the same little boxes that fruit juice comes in for kids’ lunchboxes. They even come in different sizes (up to a liter). Since the package is “aseptic” we don’t need to worry about bugs growing in it, but if you read the fine print on the box you’ll see that it nevertheless has an expiration date. Why? Because the package isn’t designed to last forever. These things fall prey to the same problem as plastic bottles: they leak. This is not just an abstract possibility; I used to keep these in my car packs but eventually gave up on them because I got tired of double-bagging them in ziplocks to keep my gear dry. The cardboard is not very strong, and the banging-around they get every time you rearrange the stuff in your car is just too much for them to survive.

  • Pouches

    Another commercial solution is water packed in pouches. These are smaller (4 oz each) and because they’re intended for use in lifeboats, you know they can handle sitting out in the hot sun for years before you need them. Unfortunately my experience is that they also leak — the material is tough, but not tough enough to handle the poking it gets from everything else in the pack when you move things around. I had to start double-bagging them just like I did with the boxes, and I finally gave up on these as well.

  • Cans

    Our last commercial solution is canned water. That’s right, packed in cans just like food would be. It sounds a bit silly at first, but it’s the only form of storage I’ve found that I trust to last and don’t have to keep rotating. (They claim to be good for 30 years, but I haven’t tested that myself yet.) The packaging is aseptic just like the boxes and cans, meaning the water is actually sterile so nothing will ever grow in it so long as the can is undamaged, and the metal can is tough enough to take a beating. Mind you, it’s still possible to damage these if you work at it, but they’re tough enough for our purposes.

    Don’t forget to pack a can opener. Better yet, pack a couple.

    One detail to be aware of is that the cans are not filled all the way. The manufacturer isn’t trying to trick you here; they deliberately leave a bit of empty space at the top of the can so it will float if there’s a flood. It also reduces the risk of bursting if the can freezes, although you’re really not supposed to subject it to freezing.

    But what if there’s a blizzard? This blog is aimed primarily at residents of California, most of whom won’t need to deal with hard freezes. If you live in Alaska (also a high-risk area for earthquakes) or high altitudes, all I can suggest is putting each can inside a 1-gallon ziplock to provide a bit of protection from leaks. Please let me know if you think of anything better.

You may notice that I haven’t mentioned cost yet. Small containers are a very expensive way to store water no matter how you do it (in the neighborhood of $25/gallon), but you’re not going to need very many of them so the cost isn’t really the determining factor in your choice of methods.

On this topic, my recommendation is simple:

  • Get a few of the pre-filled cans. Of course more water is always better, but only get as many as you think you (and your family) can carry.
  • Throw in a couple of empty stainless steel bottles to carry any additional water that you might acquire during an on-foot evacuation.
  • If you have to evacuate in a car, grab as many of your 5-gallon jugs as you can fit into the car.