Alternatives to the Soldier Canteen

by Major James E. Gibson
The author believes that soldiers need more than water carried in a primitive attachment to their belts—they need an easy-to-use hydration system that enhances their battlefield performance.

Water, fuel, and ammunition are three key elements of logistics support on the battlefield. Sources, distribution, and methods of employment of these elements will be affected directly by advances in technology. Fuel, as we know it, may be changed into more efficient forms, or even eliminated. Ammunition someday may become obsolete through the use of nonlethal technologies. Water, however, is the one battlefield need that cannot be omitted or changed as long as soldiers fight battles. Soldiers need water to be effective in any kind of operation. Its importance remains fixed regardless of how advanced technology and warfighting become.

Historically, soldiers have relied on water either supplied to them by servants or carried with them in canteens. The canteen originally was a place rather than a piece of equipment; Webster defines canteen as " . . . a place outside a military camp where refreshment [is] . . . provided for members of the armed forces." The canteen of old gave way to the post exchange of the present, and that "place of refreshment" became a flask or container that the soldier carried on a march. As late as the American Civil War, the canteen, which was constructed of various materials, normally was carried on a strap over the soldier's shoulder or across his body. In World War I, the infantry soldier carried a metal canteen and cup attached to his cartridge belt. The canteen is now made of plastic, but its design and use have remained essentially the same since that time. Somehow modern technology has marched right past one of the soldier's most vital and basic needs. It is time for the Army to take a look at how it can improve the way it supplies, stores, and delivers water to soldiers on the battlefield.

"Hydrate or Die"

Our bodies are almost two-thirds water. Blood is 92 percent water; the brain is 75 percent water; muscles are 75 percent water; and bones are 22 percent water. Therefore, water is essential to the functioning of nearly every part of the human body.

Water moistens oxygen for breathing, regulates body temperature, carries nutrients and oxygen to all cells in the body, protects and cushions vital organs and joints, helps to convert food into energy, and removes waste. Even a small shortage of water can be devastating to a soldier's performance.

A water-requirements calculator developed by the International Bottled Water Association in Alexandria, Virginia, estimates that a 200-pound person who exercises up to 60 minutes a day (the equivalent of a 10-kilometer run) should consume 143 ounces of water. To test the loss of water from the body during exercise, I ran for an hour when the outdoor temperature was about 70 degrees. Even after drinking a pint of water that I carried during the run, I lost about four pounds, or 64 ounces, of water weight.

During basic training, soldiers are required by their drill sergeants to drink water from their canteens. However, on their own, soldiers are not likely to drink enough water to sustain themselves unless it is convenient, safe to drink, and palatable.

Problems With the Current Canteen

Canteens can impart a "plastic" taste to water, making it barely palatable. Certain lower grade plastics, such as the high-density polyethylene used by the milk industry, also can give a plastic taste to water. Bottled water companies solved this problem by changing to higher grade, more expensive polyethylene terephthalate, which does not pass on any plastic taste to water.

Water is most palatable when cool rather than cold. Experts say that water in the 45- to 55-degree range is best for absorption and cooling of the body's core temperature. Water can be kept cool in bulk storage tanks using chillers or ice. When dispensed into canteens or 5-gallon water cans, the water is warmed quickly by summer heat. Conversely, in the winter, water in canteens or cans may freeze.

A canteen is awkward to carry and use. Water weighs about 8 pounds per gallon. Carrying a filled canteen on a strap around the neck or hung from a utility belt already loaded with ammunition and other gear may slow a soldier down when he needs to move quickly. Crawling and climbing are more difficult when a loosely suspended weight is bobbing on a soldier's body. A canteen can catch on brush or wire obstacles while a soldier is on the move.

To drink from the canteen, a soldier must unfasten the flaps of the canvas cover, draw the canteen out, unscrew the cap, drink, then return the canteen to its cover and refasten the flaps. In a tactical situation, a half-empty canteen sloshes audibly, potentially revealing the soldier's position.

The Need for Something Better

Hydration is the new buzzword among health-conscious individuals. The International Bottled Water Association published messages in several national magazines in 1999 that suggested that water is "brain food," "diet food," a "high-test drink," and a "bodyguard."

Hydration, as a concept, must be part of an integrated system that works with a soldier, not simply a commodity carried in a primitive attachment to his belt. Today's soldier needs a hydration system that is made from better materials and is easier to carry and use than the current canteens so he will be encouraged to drink more water and, consequently, will perform better on the battlefield. He needs a hydration system that acts as an enabler to personal combat power, not an obstruction.

An easily available hydration system would allow soldiers to move quickly on the battlefield and encourage water consumption. An easily available hydration system would allow soldiers to move quickly on the battlefield and encourage water consumption.

The soldier of the future will have a heads-up display on his helmet, a weapon that can be aimed around corners, and a computer wired to his pack frame. These systems will be digital, virtual, and almost invincible. The soldiers operating them will be too busy handling information to take their minds off the battle long enough to fuss with a snap or flap to get a drink of water. A hydration system for the modern soldier should be one that he can operate almost intuitively. Taking small drinks on a regular basis is a healthy habit and is easy to do if the hydration system is positioned close to the carrier's mouth and quickly accessible.

The Answer

Ten years ago, a former paramedic preparing to participate in a bike race called the "Hotter N' Hell 100," held in Wichita Falls, Texas, each August, was concerned with getting enough water to sustain himself during the race. Reaching for the water bottle mounted on his bike was dangerous, and water stops were 2 or 3 hours apart. So he fashioned a portable hydration system from medical tubing attached to an intravenous (IV) drip bag. He stuffed the bag into a sock and sewed the sock onto the back of his T-shirt. Thus the idea for the commercially available CamelBak water bladder hydration system was born.

The CamelBak hydration system is essentially a plastic water bladder connected to a length of hose that fits into an insulated bag that can be strapped on the carrier's back or attached to a rucksack. The hose is positioned close to the wearer's shoulder strap to eliminate snagging on obstacles. It can be situated so the end is near the carrier's mouth for easy access. The "bite" valve at the end of the hose makes the water readily available to sip or drink. The hose can be run through an insulated tube to protect the water from body heat or exterior temperature extremes. The bag can be exchanged or filled easily, and its opening is large enough to accept ice cubes. According to the manufacturer, this system "keeps the water supply away from bacteria-breeding mud and leaves your hands free for more important things." Since the water does not slosh, it is silent. The tubing is compatible with most personal water purifiers, so it may be used in situations where potable water is not available or when local water sources may be contaminated.

The CamelBak system already is used by soldiers in Panama. Staff Sergeant Andrew Laskoski, a platoon sergeant stationed there, purchased one to replace his Army-issued canteen. He was quoted in a newspaper article as saying, "Thing is, [with the CamelBak system] you can fight and still be drinking water, not hauling out your canteen. It's kind of a necessity, but we gotta buy our own." Sergeant Laskowski's statement shows that soldiers have identified a need for a better hydration product, but they are forced to purchase it themselves.

The use of the CamelBak product by the Navy has become so widespread that a caution message was published concerning the possible loss of small parts, such as hose clips, from the system. The message warned that any loose item on a carrier flight deck could get sucked into a jet engine and cause damage, and gave instructions on how to secure the system better. It is interesting to note that there was no knee-jerk reaction banning the product. Apparently, the Navy likes the CamelBak hydration system.

The Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) sells the CamelBak system in clothing sales stores and post exchanges. The cost ranges from $50 to $70 for a basic system. The exchange at Fort Lee, Virginia, and probably other locations offers a "stopgap" kit for retrofitting the current canteen with a mouthpiece and clip that can be attached to a tube and run from the current canteen. One kit costs about $3.50 without the tube, and another costs about $8.50 and includes an insulated tube.

The CamelBak hydration system and others like it are being manufactured by a growing number of sports equipment firms and used widely by sports enthusiasts such as snowboarders, bicyclists, and runners. Bottled water is certainly an option, but it is expensive, creates waste, usually requires two hands to open and use, and sloshes audibly when carried.

Close, But No Cigar

The Army Soldier and Biological Chemical Command's Natick Soldier Center in Massachusetts has developed a modular lightweight load-carrying equipment (MOLLE) system that will increase soldier performance on the battlefield. The MOLLE has an accompanying hydration unit that can be placed into one of its side or top pouches. The hydration unit can be removed from the MOLLE and carried on the soldier's back using attached straps if desired. This is a good idea, but the MOLLE hydration system still appears to be a product of "canteen mentality" that views water as an accessory rather than as a necessity. There still is a need for a system that is dedicated solely to water, such as the CamelBak system, and is an issued item rather than a personal purchase. Such a hydration system represents an excellent opportunity for the military to use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies to support soldiers in the field. Development of the Land Warrior fighting system is expected to continue until fiscal year 2015, so there is sufficient time to incorporate a COTS hydration system into it.

A Workable Facsimile

The military could develop its own hydration system that would be less expensive than a COTS system like CamelBak by incorporating the bagged water technology currently available. The Water Packaging System (WPS) has been in use for about 2 years and has been field-tested successfully in Bosnia. The WPS is a commercial, vertical-feed form-fill-and-seal machine that packages water in 1-liter bags at a rate of 28 bags per minute. Each WPS is emplaced near a reverse osmosis water-purification unit and a containerized ice plant (CIP). Both the WPS and the CIP are housed in trailer-mounted expandable shelters.

The small water bags produced by the WPS could be fitted with insulated hoses, valves, and bag carriers to work like the CamelBak system at lower cost. A personal filter pump could be issued for emergency personal resupply. During training, refills could be drawn from tap water, "water buffaloes," or 5-gallon cans. However, bulk storage facilities require constant monitoring to ensure water quality, and they are difficult to move on the battlefield. A better method may be to use packaged water that has been chilled and placed in insulated containers for quick distribution in the field. Using disposable bags in a one-for-one exchange operation would minimize disposal and sanitation problems. A process for collecting and recycling the plastic bags would, of course, have to be a part of the system plan.

A change to the current water storage and delivery system is long overdue. A potable, palatable, easily available hydration system that allows soldiers to move easily and quickly on the battlefield and encourages water consumption would be an important force multiplier. Soldiers under fire on the battlefield should be able to get a drink of water without taking their hands off their weapons. They need an easy-to-use, bagged, insulated water supply storage and delivery system fully supported by the logistics structure. That capability is available in the civilian sector in the form of the CamelBak hydration system or in the military by incorporating some of the characteristics of the commercial system into current water-packaging technology. Either way, the Army's immediate goal should be to provide soldiers in the field with a greatly improved hydration system. ALOG

Major James E. Gibson is an Active Guard/Reserve officer currently assigned as the operations officer of the 1st Brigade, 91st Division (Exercise), at the Parks Reserve Forces Training Area in California. He has a bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Alaska and a master's degree in organization management from the University of Phoenix. A Quartermaster officer, he has completed the Combined Arms and Services Staff Officers Course, the Army Command and General Staff College, and the Army Logistics Management College's Logistics Executive Development Course, for which this article was prepared.