“Is snow safe to eat?” That may sound like a ridiculous question, but it is a little more complicated than a simple answer yes or no. Who hasn’t stuck their tongue out on a snowy day to catch a few fluffy snowflakes or broke an icicle off a tree and sucked on it? Appealing as snow looks—pristine, fluffy and as if it would taste like whipped cream—it isn’t necessarily safe. Pollution and bacteria can mix with snow, even in remote mountainous regions.
Though you should be more concerned with hypothermia rather than getting sick from eating contaminated snow, you can still use snow to hydrate yourself if caught ill prepared in a blizzard. However, you should melt snow BEFORE consuming it! Eating snow lowers your core temperature. In turn, your body works harder trying to stay warm. In a survival situation, you need to conserve as much energy as possible, and trying to raise your core temperature just may exert more energy than you can muster. You also put yourself at risk of getting hypothermia when you eat frozen snow.
How to Melt Snow for Drinking
Lost in the Wilderness or Stranded on the Road
Snow contains a lot of air and will produce less water than you think. First, make a fire—equally as important in a survival situation as staying hydrated—or light your survival stove. Avoiding discolored, dirty or trampled snow, gather a handful and pack it down into an enamel canteen cup. Place your canteen cup directly on the flame or next to the fire. Keep adding compacted snow into your cup until you melt down the desired amount.
If you pack lightly, stick a Ziploc in your pack. Fill up your Ziploc baggie with snow and layer it in between clothes to use your body heat to melt the snow. Do not let the baggie directly touch your skin. A clear, plastic container, such as Tupperware, filled with snow and set out in the sun to melt also works.
For enough water for drinking, cleaning and washing up for an entire family, build a camp fire and shovel a bunch of snow into a large Dutch oven. Place the Dutch oven next to the fire or directly on top of the flames and let the snow melt. Add more until you have reached the desired amount. However, I hope that you have already prepped and stored enough water for the possibility of frozen pipes and don’t need to melt snow for drinking water if you are at home when a bad winter storm hits.
Unlike heat, cold does not kill microorganisms, bacteria or germs. To be cautious, filter the melted snow using the Lifestraw or Aquamira Frontier straw filters. In a pinch, you can run the water through a towel, bandana or other cotton material to filter out large particles and dirt.
Venturing out in harsh conditions isn’t for the beginner. You should go prepared with a pack of essential equipment, which includes a method to gather and filter water.