Few outdoor product manufacturers have attained the market dominance enjoyed by the Nalge Company, once an obscure maker of laboratory storage containers, after company president Marsh Hyman discovered his son’s Boy Scout troop was using their one-liter bottles as canteens early in the 1970s. The subsequent rebranding of Nalgene Outdoor Products was successful beyond the wildest dreams of marketing people who had previously relied on guys wearing lab coats and pocket protectors as customers. So successful, in fact, that I seriously doubt anyone reading this has not at some point had a drink of water from a Nalgene.
I drank the water, and the Kool-Aid, early on. The original one-liter white HDPE bottles with the wide cap were light, tough, and fit perfectly in the side pockets of my Camp Trails frame pack. They were easy to fill from a stream or bucket, and didn’t leak. You could chill the contents with ice cubes, or freeze the whole bottle with impunity. The Austrian Olicamp bottles I’d been using were leakproof and tough, too, but had a tiny opening and a fiddly two-piece top, so—despite years of yeoman service, including a backpacking trip spanning southern Arizona and three mountain ranges—I shelved them and shamelessly embraced their replacements.
Smaller Nalgene bottles that soon followed were ideal for toiletries, spices, and first-aid supplies. In fact, so enamored was I of Nalgene products that I spent an absurd sum special-ordering some of the first Nalgene 20-liter jerry cans then available in the U.S. I strapped two of them into my FJ40 and thought it was a pretty stylish setup.
The facade began to crack—literally—a few years later. Previously I’d noticed that the odd small bottle I used for toiletries or other incidentals had degraded. The translucent plastic would turn dull and opaque, then tiny stress cracks would appear. Forceful pressure with a finger would punch right through the material. At first I blamed this on the stuff I was putting in them (although an internal voice chided me that the containers were originally intended for lab use, and thus presumably should stand up to contents a lot more caustic than Suave Green Apple shampoo). But then one morning on a remote beach in Mexico I reached into the back of the Land Cruiser to pull out one of those stylish jerry cans, and the side split open right under the handle, spewing half my water supply into the sand.
Still I doubted my own doubts. UV exposure certainly could have been at fault in the jerry cans’ demise (inspection had shown the second one to be compromised as well)—although I’d had previous plastic water containers last longer. Regardless, my confidence was now shaken. I switched to Nalgene’s harder Lexan water bottles, but wondered why I should have to. The more oxidized white bottles I found in my pile of assorted Nalgenes, the more annoyed I became. (I have no idea if “oxidation” is the correct term for the problem, but that’s what I called it.) Once I narrowly avoided disaster when a camera bouncing around in my center console punched a small hole in an old six-ounce Nalgene bottle of window cleaner I kept there. Fortunately the hole was above the level of the liquid and I discovered it before it tipped over onto the camera.
Whatever the mechanism might be—UV degradation, shampoo corrosion, planned obsolescence (just kidding, Nalgene)—I’ve concluded that white HDPE Nalgene bottles seem to have a finite, potentially annoying or even hazardous, life expectancy. I can’t be sure what it is—given the hodgepodge of examples I’ve purchased over the years, there’s no way to determine the age of a compromised bottle. The apparent capriciousness of it is odd too—one two-liter square bottle I know I’ve had for ten years is still in fine, pliable shape. But the situation has reached the point where I look at every Nalgene not purchased the week before with suspicion—and that’s no way to have to view one’s outdoor equipment. I still use the small bottles for toiletries, having as yet found no leakproof substitute made in as wide a variety of sizes, but, like any disillusioned disciple, my former accolades have turned to acrimony, and I now spurn every Nalgene product for which I can find a reasonable substitute. Steel Wedco or plastic Scepter jerry cans hold bulk water; and an indestructible NATO canteen carries drinking water on hikes.
Then again, I just might go back to those Austrian-made Olicamp bottles. You see, out of curiosity, while writing this I dug them out of the recesses of my gear storage—they were right there next to the SVEA stove and Sigg Tourist cook kit. Thirty years after I carried them across southern Arizona, they’re still perfectly usable.
Anyone at Nalgene listening?