Equipment review: U.S. military surplus two-quart canteen—up to military standards?

Over the years I’ve used every water container imaginable for hiking, backpacking, and sea kayaking, from WWII-era metal canteens to Nalgenes (I tried the CamelBak-style bladders exactly once, and simply couldn’t abide the sucky-tube thing). A couple of years ago I found what I thought could be the ideal container for my needs: A U.S. military two-quart soft canteen with a nylon cover insulated with synthetic fleece.

This combination had several advantages. First, in the desert southwest you need two quarts of water for any reasonable hike. One just isn’t sufficient. Second, the fleece insulation did a good job of keeping the contents cool on warm days. Finally, the flexible container let me squeeze out air as I emptied the canteen, which prevented sloshing and significantly reduced noise when birdwatching or hunting. I noted at the time that the canteen’s plastic material seemed quite thin, but I assumed the designers knew what they were doing.

Maybe not.

First, a few months ago the plastic leash holding the cap snapped in two. Annoying, but I didn’t think too much about it. More recently, while teaching wildlife tracking on a ranch in northern Mexico, the group was out on a hike and I felt my backside getting soaked. I took off my day pack and pulled out the canteen, and found a split in the upper corner of the container. Not good at all. Fortunately my camera was in a separate pocket of the pack, or the results could have been disastrous. Not to mention if I’d been relying on that water to stay alive somewhere, and the split had decided to happen at the bottom corner . . .

The date stamp on the canteen is 1993—not that old when you consider the millions of WWII metal canteens still providing fine service seven decades on. Could this one have received some UV exposure that weakened it, is it a rare manufacturing error, or is it truly a design flaw? All I know is, my confidence is shaken, despite the fact that one failure is the scarcest kind of anecdotal evidence. I have another of these units, dated 1997, that I could continue to use, but my inclination, given the vital importance of water in the desert, is that one strike means this kind of container is out for me.

- Jonathan Hanson, Overland Tech & Travel editor