How To Generate Water In The Frozen North

How To Generate Water In The Frozen North

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Water Generation In A Winter Environment

In the above video I share with you a couple of really effective methods of generating water in a frozen environment.

Because they’re frozen, extreme cold environments are, for all practical intents and purposes, deserts.

[N.B. For the benefit of viewers who have difficulty hearing, the text below is based on a transcription of the video and follows its narrative closely.]

In the video I stand on a lake that’s part of a small river system. Underneath is a source of really good, clean drinking water. You don’t even need to boil it. But in winter conditions it’s sealed by ice. You can’t get at the water. And that ice is 1 metre (3 feet) thick. Unless you’ve got a specialist tool, such as an ice auger or an ice chisel, getting at that water underneath the ice is impossible.

There is plenty of water here, though, in the form of snow, and the key to accessing this is fire. Of course, if you’ve got a metal pot or metal mug, it’s very easy to put snow in them, put them near the fire or over the fire, and obtain water.

But what if you don’t have anything like this? What if you don’t have any metal containers at all? In the video I show you two key methods that you can use to obtain water from snow without any metal pots at all.

What you need for both of these techniques is some sort of receptacle to catch drips that you generate with the fire. If you don’t have anything, then even a polythene bag, a rubber boot, or a plastic boot, anything like that, that you can gather water in for drink in an emergency, could be used. So think laterally. Think about what you’ve got.

Winter Water Generation Method #1: The Finnish Marshmallow

The first method I share in the video is known as the Finnish marshmallow. For this technique, you need a stout pole such as from a small spruce tree.

For this technique, you need compacted snow. You might find this on an existing trail through the woods, a snow machine trail, or a dog sled trail, or a trail you’ve created yourself, maybe with your snowshoes. You’ve been backwards and forwards a few times. You’ve compacted it. It’s frozen. That will be good. Dig it up, get a lump of snow, and you’re good to go with that piece of snow.

The tricky bit here is getting the lump of compacted snow onto the stick without breaking the snow. But once you do and get it into position, the heat of the fire will start to melt it. Eventually it’s going to drip. Once it starts dripping, we’ll pop a receptacle underneath to catch the drips.

In the video you can see that it’s important not to have the snow directly over the fire, for two reasons. One is that that water would drip on the fire, and that’s fairly obvious. But also, you don’t want it too close because you’ve got to put something down underneath. And if we’re not using something metal, it’s going to be either wood or plastic. If it’s too close to the fire, it’ll damage it. So you’ve got to strike that happy medium.

To melt the snow you’ve got to get a good radiant heat you can feel with your hand. That’s going to start melting the snow. It won’t start dripping immediately though, because the outside will melt, and that will soak up into the snow. First you need to wait for it to get saturated, and then it will start dripping. That may take a few minutes, maybe even 5 or 10 minutes. But once it starts dripping, it’ll start dripping well.

In the video you can see this progress. After a while it’s not quite started dripping yet, but you can see it’s becoming saturated with water at the bottom of the lump of snow. I hope you can see that on the video. You can see a different colour.

Later you can see it’s started dripping. At this stage I pop a container down underneath.

Now, you might be concerned about scorching, or – if it was plastic – melting, the container. Most of the heat that’s going to do that is going to come horizontally between the base of the fire and the container, so I place a bit of green wood that we chopped off the bottom of our pole to shield the heat. That will help prevent too much direct heat getting to the receptacle.

And you can see, once it starts dripping, it drips out at quite a rate. But it takes a while to get going. I think in this instance, it took over nearly 10 minutes to start doing that. The water basically starts melting, soaks up into the snow. And then once it’s saturated, once the snow at the base is saturated, it’s then got nowhere to go. Gravity pulls it down into your container. Once it does start, however, quite soon you’re going to have a good drink out of that.

The video shows the melting snow producing water at a good rate – drip, drip, drip, drip, drip, drip, drip. And once it does, I try some. It’s cold, it’s fresh. It’s a little bit smoky.

The beauty of this method, though, is, while that’s working, I can go off and do other things, build a shelter, set up a tent, whatever I need to do. I’ve got this water generation going. It’s producing water for me while I can do other things. That’s good.

This Finnish Marshmallow, you can see, looks like a marshmallow over the fire.

Winter Water Generation Method #2: The Water Generator Bag

The second method I share in the video is called either a water generator, or a water generator bag. This technique requires some sort of cloth or piece of material, so that you can gather snow into it. Specifically, you’ll gather loose snow.

Now, in an emergency, you could use a scarf or other piece of clothing. What I carry for this purpose – whether for an emergency or if I just want to generate some water, maybe at a lunch stop, is a mosquito head net.

Make sure you carry one that isn’t treated with insecticides, or make sure you’ve washed it well.

This is the method of choice when you have only powdery snow. Here in the forest, that’s pretty much all you’re going to have. You only get windslab, wind-compacted slabby snow, up in the mountains. In the forest, it’s all powder.

Deep snow. That’s what we want. In the video I fill the bag using a shovel but obviously if I didn’t have a shovel, I’d just fill it with my hands (with gloves on).

You can quickly gather a nice bag of snow. Again you want to suspend it near to the fire. And again, that’s going to take a little while to start melting. The snow, particularly because it’s powdery snow, is going to soak up the water quite a lot. Maybe even more than the compacted snow. So it’s typically going to take a little while to get going.

There’s quite a lot of snow in the bag in the video, and unlike the Finnish marshmallow, there’s no danger of it falling off the stick. Also, unlike the Finnish marshmallow, this type of snow is more readily available. So the water generator bag is something you can do pretty much anywhere, even if there aren’t any trails with compacted snow. You can easily get what you need to do this.

Towards the end of the video I have the water generator bag working really nicely. I have a nice fire, set up like a grill, radiating a good heat. Taking my glove off I can feel it’s really surprisingly hot.

The bag, full of snow, becomes saturated at the bottom, and before too long it’s dripping nicely into my cup.

A water generator bag all set up. Photo: Paul Kirtley
A water generator bag in use by the author on a winter trip in Sweden. Paul Kirtley.

The bag is suspended from a stick but here is a useful little tip for you: If you find a stick cutting down into the snow, pop another one across, at right angles where the main stick is cutting into the snow. This spreads the load and stops the stick cutting through.

The cord on the bag is not tied off with anything special, just an overhand knot at the top to suspend it at the right height. And that’s it.

I have a taste of this water and compare. It’s really rather good. Really refreshing, cool. It’s still a little bit smoky, but not as smoky as the water from the Finnish marshmallow.

It provides a really refreshing drink.


So there you have it, two simple, straightforward methods for generating water in a frozen environment.

You don’t need any metal utensils. You need very little equipment.

The main thing you need is the ability to light fire in the northern forests.

I hope you find these techniques interesting. Let me know in the comments below if you’ve used these techniques. And if you haven’t used them yet, let me know if you are inspired to give them a go.

Related Material On Paul Kirtley’s Blog

10 Bushcraft & Survival Skills To Try This Winter

Winter Magic: Return To The Northern Forest

Northern Forest Firelighting Fundamentals: Bringing It All Together

Choosing And Using A Snowshovel For Winter Camping And Travel

13 thoughts on “How To Generate Water In The Frozen North

  1. Knowing there was a shovel in the filming scenes I found myself wondering about the possibility of using the shoes as the catchment vessel, or even as a pan in which to directly heat the snow,over the fire. Assuming the shovel is metal, are there any drawbacks to this?

    1. Hi Adriana,

      You could use a shovel as long as you didn’t overheat it. And by that I mean either burn off the paint or warp the metal.

      Warm regards,


  2. Correction above should read ” using the SHOVEL as the catchment vessel, not SHOE.

  3. Paul,

    Very informative videos on collection of water in a winter environment. You never know when you may be in a situation such as the video depicts. Thanks and keep up the good work.

  4. Hi Paul, I ‘ve never used your method of producing snow-water, but will remember it! What do you
    suggest in country where no fire fuel exists; eating snow is a poor means of satisfying thirst. Admittedly,
    I’ve never been in wilderness country where firewood couldn’t be reached within a reasonable trek. You
    provide excellent food for consideration regardless of outdoor experience
    Respectful Regards
    Jim Watkins
    Pacific Nw

    1. Hi Jim,

      As always it’s good to hear from you and it’s good to know that this info is finding a warm welcome by viewers such as yourself.

      It’s a good question regarding producing water above the treeline. One method I learned from some Norwegian soldiers was to carry a water bottle on a shoulder strap inside your jacket while skiing cross country. You generate a good deal of heat doing this and you can melt snow in the bottle as you go. I’ve tried this and it works although to fill your bottle is quite hard as the volume of snow reduces so much when it melts.

      Another method, for a static camp, which someone told me about only recently – and I therefore haven’t tried yet – is to use a black bin liner/trash bag containing snow. Lay it out in even relatively weak sunlight and the greater heat absorbancy of black is sufficient to melt the snow it contains, which itself is much more reflective. I’m guessing the colder the ambient temperature, the less effective this is but I don’t have any data points so can’t comment specifically.

      Warm regards,


  5. You could also use a long wooly sock or even a cotton shirt to do the same then dry them afterwards near the fire. Great video tho thanks.

  6. Dear Paul by watching your video I notice one thing that many survival instructors don’t mention for melting snow for drinkable voter,snow don’t have minerals so its wary important to have some electrolyte solutions for that voter or eat salty food.
    ATB from Serbia

    1. Hi Nenad,

      Yes, that is true and a very good point which should be made for those who are relying on melted snow for water over an extended period of time rather than just for a day or so.

      All the best,


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