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Can anyone share any experience re-using ordinary PETE disposable water bottles until failure, as a lightweight and low-cost alternative to dedicated water bottles/bladders? How long did they last and how did they break (ie cap lost ability to seal tightly, pinhole leak developed in the bottle where it was creased, etc?)

PETE safety info: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyethylene_terephthalate

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    Designed for single use but to survive some serious abuse during transit from bottling plant to retail store to customer with incredibly low failure rate over incredibly large numbers of units...some pretty nice engineering goes into those things. – mmcc Jul 29 '18 at 19:23
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    I have tested a screw top PET bottle (a slightly squared-off 0.5l bottle) by half filling it and jumping on it. It survived. I have also had a full 1.5l bottle strapped on top of my rucksack fall off and split.. There are too many variables. Reusing disposable bottles can certainly be useful in some circumstances, and isn't inherently a bad idea – Chris H Jul 29 '18 at 21:04
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    Isn't this a canonical "every answer is equally valid" question which is prohibited? Or is this on the other side of the line, included in the "sharing experiences"? I will probably never understand when questions are on/off topic on SE. – spacetyper Jul 30 '18 at 16:30
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    not all PET bottles are the same. I know a lot of hikers that just use Smartwater bottles because they are a good shape, have good plastic structure, lids are durable, and mouth is compatible with Sawyer water filters. I haven't ever used them personally, though, because I just use a camelbak water bladder. – BlackThorn Jul 30 '18 at 16:45
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    @spacetyper, I have the same problem! We're confusing, especially in the category of "too broad" or "opinion-based." It leads to people not reviewing, but we need reviewers! Please help us! Just go with what feels right, and try to ignore any contentious discussions that ensue. That's so much easier said than done, but I'm working on flagging those types of discussions so people can feel more comfortable voting and reviewing. Thanks for caring enough to weigh in! – Sue Saddest Farewell TGO GL Jul 30 '18 at 22:54

12 Answers 12

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A reasonable compromise is any pop bottle -- one designed for carbonated beverages. They are several times as strong as the water bottles. I've never managed to break one.

I have a polyethylene conventional water bottle that fits a pocket in my pack. I also carry a 2 liter pop bottles for times when I will be away from water for the bulk of the day. (Ridge walks, extended passes.) I've done whole trips with the 2 liter staying empty.

The PE bottle has the convenience of the pop-up top. The pop bottle has a screw cap.

Some water bottles have a popup cap. If you search you may find one that matches the standard pop bottle thread.

One of the downsides of a pop bottle: The risk of loosing the cap. If you can't find a popup cap, you can make a leash for it using thin high strength braided nylon line. Secure one end to the cap by drilling two holes in the cap, running the line in one, out the other. Tie it, and put a drop of shoo-goo or silicon seal on it. Tie the other end to the neck of the bottle, leaving about 3-4 inches of slack.

For winter travel, put a pair of socks over the bottle. I used to run all-day orienteering contests in winter. I made up 2 liters of coffee with lots of milk and sugar, put a pair of old work socks over the bottle, and had at least warm coffee at the end of the day.

Sports drink bottles will also work. They aren't quite as tough as the bottles for carbonated beveragges, but they have a wider mouth which makes them easier to fill and clean.

  • Second this. I use 2 liter soda bottles for hiking & cross-country skiing, and they last for years. I use the small water bottles for in the car &c, and they last quite a while, too. I don't think I've ever had one break or wear out (barring getting stepped on by a horse or something), I just change them when they start to look dirty. – jamesqf Jul 30 '18 at 16:34
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    Adding to that, the bottles designed for "sports drinks" such as Powerade or Gatorade seem both the sturdiest and best size, presumably as they are designed for heavier/poor treatment. As a bonus, they often come with a more desirable drink for backpacking than soda or bottled water. – ti7 Jul 30 '18 at 23:52
  • @ti7 The sports bottles are certainly usable, but are not as tough because sports drinks aren't carbonated, nor do they come in a 2 liter size. They do have larger mouths, which makes them easier to both clean and to fill. – Sherwood Botsford Jul 31 '18 at 18:55
  • Depends on the bottle brand, regarding your second sentence. Dasani water bottles for example are just as tough as carbonated soda bottles. Many brands of PETE water bottles (e.g. Smart Water) these days also have fancy or more sturdy bottles than, say, Deer Park, or store brand water bottles. – TylerH Jul 31 '18 at 21:53
  • Yes, in our hillside home I would stockpile water for emergencies and get 2l pop bottles from the kitchen top floor to the basement by letting them drop 3 storeys and hit the ground hard. Lost like 3 in 100, mostly from landing cap down. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Jul 31 '18 at 22:58
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I reuse "single-use" plastic bottles many, many times. Generally, they do not break.

The big advantage of many outdoor-use plastic bottles, however, is that the lid remains tethered to the bottle. So, if there's some risk in losing a lid – such as when kayaking or backpacking – I'll use one of those.

Now that I think of it, I should experiment with ways of making lid tethers...

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    I second this. Usually I dispose of a "single-use" bottle because the water in it doesn't taste fresh any longer, not because it fails mechanically. – Dmitry Grigoryev Jul 30 '18 at 11:24
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    I buy the same brand everytime, and keep a couple of the lids around to replace lost one. – James Jenkins Jul 30 '18 at 12:41
  • Thanks that’s a great failure mode I think I under appreciated – mmcc Jul 30 '18 at 13:55
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    @DmitryGrigoryev: The bad taste may be a result of bacterial growth from multiple use and non-thorough washing. Occasionally soak the top of the bottle and the cap in a weak bleach solution and all's well again. Of course, this works equally well for multi-use bottles. – Martin F Jul 30 '18 at 19:53
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    Thin braided nylon line stuck to cap with silicon seal. Sand cap first, then wipe with alcohol to increase adhesion. Shoo-goo may work too. – Sherwood Botsford Aug 2 '18 at 11:44
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This answer may not be the answer you're looking for, nor related to the outdoors, but
Do not reuse PET bottles

PET is a very porous type of plastic and it may become more porous with each use. The problem with these pores is that you cannot clean them fully. Soda, saliva and whatever will get stuck in these pores and they are a haven for bacteria. Don't think that the dishwasher helps. Heating up some types of plastic, especially a plastic like PET, is generally a bad idea.

I'm making it sound a lot worse than it is. A lot of people reuse PET bottles with no issue and there are governmental recommendations about cleaning PET bottles online (a quick googling brings up a page from the Centre for Food Safety in Hong Kong). However, a water bottle made of a more permanent plastic is safer to use and probably not all that expensive, so I don't see a point in reusing PET bottles.

  • that’s a great argument for thinking about what you put in / how you clean / how long you reuse – mmcc Jul 30 '18 at 13:51
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    I agree with not reusing them indefinitely. But the point about hiking is that more permanent bottles weight a lot more, if they are rugged enough. One 1L Nalgene comes in at 180g, while the last PET I used took just 42g for 1,5L. Multiply that by 5 or more if crossing barren areas, and the permanent bottles rack up quite a bit of useless weight and space. The question would be, how harmful are PET bottles actually, when used only for 2 weeks. Chances are, either the tour isn't much longer, or a resupply is necessary anyway, allowing a replacement of the PETs. – Dynat Jul 30 '18 at 14:05
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    en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyethylene_terephthalate has general info but the porosity point is worth mentioning thanks for that – mmcc Jul 30 '18 at 14:21
  • @Dynat a 1 litre Platypus softbottle weights 40g. A 3 litre Platypus hydration bladder weighs 110g. For 5 litre, that means 190g, vs. 147g. I don't know about you, but a difference in 33g for 5 litre water carrying capacity is not the end of the world. – gerrit Aug 1 '18 at 17:11
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    This is the answer that should be marked. Regardless of personal opinion, reusable PET bottles are not designed for the outdoors due to the amalgamation of bacteria. In the military; a PET bottle marked you out as an amateur and someone likely to get sick in the field. Not necassarily from the bottle but if you are skimping on that; what else are you skimping and short cutting? Just my opinion but PET bottles are one-time use, marketed as such and should remain as such. Trying to argue over 20-40g of weight is, quite frankly, outrageous. Take 2 less Werthers originals :-) – Venture2099 Aug 3 '18 at 6:11
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So far, I've always used PET bottles, and they never failed during a hike. Replaced them after each tour for hygienical reasons, but that's it.

The primary reason I prefer them over my Nalgenes is the weight. For the weight of one 1L Nalgene, I could fit 7,5L into 5 single-use ice tea PET bottles (they were square-shaped, easier to stow, and thin walled). I crumpled them to save space, compressed half-empty bottles, and none of those showed any sign of possible leakage across a 4 week Iceland hike. Similar with thicker multi-use bottles on 2-week trips, no problems.

Generally, PET bottles often have "ribs" to handle overpressure - those can expand, squeezing a bottle or having carbonated drinks in them won't cause leaks or break the bottle. There are "hydraulic press" videos on youtube that demonstrate how much pressure those bottles can withstand. In contrast, having carbonated water in a Nalgene created quite a mess the last time I tried, because the bottle itself is rigid, and any overpressure will try to get out of the only movable part, meaning the lid.

  • +1 Exactly what I am doing also on my treks. Being able to crumple non-used bottles saves a lot of volume, which can be very valuable when you're on trails where you normally don't carry a lot of water but still want to have the option on loading up on some 3-4 liters per person. – fgysin reinstate Monica Aug 9 '18 at 8:23
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The problem with using the cheap bottles is that if they break, you can be in serious trouble. A quick price check says that 32 oz nalgenes go for around 10 bucks and 2 liter hydration bladders for around the same, so are you really saving that much money for the extra trouble?

I have seen Nalgene 32 oz bottles (which is pretty much the standard for outdoor groups) last 20+ years, while the reusable ones just get crushed after a while.

Companies will also put their logos on Nalgenes and give them away and so they can be free or bought second hand. I have also found a few out in the woods.

The reusable bottles do weigh less, but you have to compare that benefit to how would it be if they break. On short trails, or ones with plenty of places to resupply, they would make more sense. On long hikes in the desert, where you can be most of a day between water sources, not so much.

Quite simply, water is one of the most essential things you are carrying, don't skimp on the cost (especially when it's under $25).

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    So this may be an example of survivorship bias but I’ve had a nalgene leak (lid wouldn’t stay tight) and a dromedary leak (pinhole leak, didn’t notice while filling, leaked under gentle pressure when stowed) and I’ve never had my repurposed bottles leak or fail in any way. But, that’s almost certainly because the nalgenes/dromedaries saw heavy use whereas the plastic bottles were frequently replaced. That said there are usually free bottles available, so keeping them new is a legit strategy. Curious if anyone has experienced them breaking. – mmcc Jul 29 '18 at 19:07
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    When it comes to actually breaking (instead of leaking), Nalgene bottles should be more prone to failing (considering external pressure - internal gets vented through the elastic lid). PET bottles are elastic and will deform under pressure. The much harder Nalgene bottles in contrast will take a lot more pressure, but once they deform, the probability of fractures is a lot higher. When it comes to pinholes, PET bottles are of course at a clear disadvantage, except for the much reduced weight allowing for redundancy. – Dynat Jul 30 '18 at 12:57
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    @dynat that’s a great point about redundancy, you can carry multiple small PETE bottles for less weight (and cost) than one larger nalgene – mmcc Jul 30 '18 at 13:39
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    Not everybody is using and re-using water bottles in an area where the fail of a water bottle is fatal. The worst I usually get is a wet book if I am stupid enough to carry the book and bottle in the same area of my bag. – Willeke Jul 30 '18 at 19:13
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    @Willeke If you are backpacking in parts of the US you can be a long ways out from resupply, I have been close to 90 miles out from the trailhead and in those cases losing a waterbottle is going to be a severe inconvience – Reinstate Monica Jul 30 '18 at 19:17
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On the bottom of the plastic bottle should be a number.

#1, PET bottles leach antimony (a metallic element, Sb, atomic number 51) into the water.

Over time and with sunlight exposure, more antimony leaches out of the plastic and it is harmful, and PET water bottles are recommended only for 1-time use.

Other plastics can also be harmful.

Probably some kind of stainless steel water bottle is the safest.

See this for a comparison of the different types of plastics

  • +1 That's a nice link with a concise overview. Thanks. – JimmyJames Jul 30 '18 at 13:56
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    “Over time and with sunlight exposure, more antimony leaches out of the plastic and it is harmful, and PET water bottles are recommended only for 1-time use.” why would that be worse if you re-use (i.e. refill) the bottle? – Michael Jul 30 '18 at 15:27
  • "Over time and with sunlight exposure" << That's why. 1 time use indicates a very short cycle of production, transport, purchase and consumption. Re-use is, by definition, extending that cycle. – Venture2099 Aug 3 '18 at 6:19
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TL;DR

Reusable water bottles have a higher failure rate than other containers, but they are reliable enough for short trips, and bringing 2 or 3 in case 1 fails should be reliable enough even on medium-length trips.

Citation

I go through a lot of bottles of water, I would estimate thousands of them per year, as I am supporting a family of 6 on a daily basis and some other people intermittently and everyone in the family drinks a lot of bottled water with some of us trying to reuse them when we remember to do so. Therefor, the high rate of failures I note below is partially due to the volume of bottles used being much higher than your normal person or family. Also, we are not careful with them, so they take a beating.

First, don't buy the super cheap reusable plastic bottles

Beware of the super cheap, plastic, reusable bottles, as some of them are junk and should be expected to break on the first or second outing if not handled with extreme care. I am not even considering the ones that you can get for a buck or two on the discount shelf.

Disposable water bottle failure

I have had disposable water bottles fail for me many times and in various ways. Leaks due to improper sealing at the cap, leaks in any random place due to tears or tiny holes, catastrophic tears that immediately empty the container, etc.. There are a variety of ways they can go bad.

I would say disposable bottle failure rate per bottle for non-reused bottles is way less than 1%. But I do reuse a lot of them, sometimes for a week or two. When heavily reusing, I would estimate that the failure rate is greater than 1%, but I don't keep track and cannot specify how much greater. Probably less than 10% though.

Reusable bottle failure

We have also used a lot of permanent, reusable water bottles, and we have had problems with those as well. Some of the problems are the same or similar: leaks due to bad seals at the cap, catastrophic destruction from bottles tearing or crushing, and tiny holes in some of the flexible plastic containers.

That said, I would estimate that the failure rate for the permanent bottles was lower than the failure rate for the disposable bottles. Disposable bottles are not made to be quite as tough, so they fail more often.

My conclusions

I'm not sure what the upper limit is on my reuse of disposable bottles, as I don't keep track, but more often than not I replace them because I was in a situation where I could just grab up another new one, not because the old one broke. That is anecdotal evidence that they can usually be reused a bunch of times without failing.

If you are going out for an ultra-light trip for a weekend, reusing disposable water bottles should be fine. I have done this, and I have reused the same water bottle for a week or two. If you are going out for more than 1 day, I would highly recommend that you bring at least 2 of them, even if you plan to be able to refill them often, just to be safe in case one does malfunction. Though malfunctions are not common, they happen at least enough that I would not risk being out with only 1.

If you do not need ultra-light, I would recommend a permanent steel bottle. I have had malfunctions even with them, but it is far less often. I have had leaks at the seals even on metal bottles, and I have dented and punctured them. However, dents and punctures in steel bottles is usually due to some form of damage that would have obliterated some lesser bottle. Even when dented, they still work great as long as they are not leaking; I had a steel bottle I used for a while even with a big dent in it. Be careful though of points in dented steel bottles being sharp enough to cut through your pack, or even cut you, if the ends of the dent are bent sharply enough. My preference is the ones you can also cook in, not the drinking-only ones that have paints on them and might be lined with other materials.

Another benefit of bringing 2 disposable water bottles instead of 1 reusable one on a trip is that, even though each disposable is more likely to fail on its own, I would say that having multiple disposable bottles all fail on 1 trip is probably less likely than having the 1 reusable bottle fail. So 2 or 3 disposables is likely more reliable than 1 reusable.

Summary

The failure rate is low enough when reusing disposable water bottles that you can do it for days, often even weeks. But the failure rate is high enough that it would be unwise to trust your hydration to only 1 of them. If the trip is longer than a day, bring at least 2, and if the trip is for weeks, bring even more than 2.

1

Not a true outdoors hiking scenario but thought I could share my experience with reusing single use bottles.

I drink lots of double concentrate squash, I prepare 3x 1 litre bottle of diluted squash before work each day, throw them in a should bag or back pack and carry them 3 miles to work and back like this.

They bottles themselves will last me for a very long time, but the caps wear out after about a month of being opened and closed ~20 times a day each.

I have never had any other source of leaks other than loose caps.

  • Interesting about the lids—Thanks I was looking for exactly this sort of info. – mmcc Jul 30 '18 at 13:56
  • I read "drinks lots of double concentrate squash" and got a mental image of someone drinking thick gourd paste... Until this day I've only ever known "squash" to be that nasty stringy boiled vegetable stuff I can't enjoy because I have a resurfacing memory of my baby niece gagging and slowly regurgitating a large gob of squash one of the first times I ever tried it at my Mother-in-law's. Today I learned something new about non-North American culture. – ShemSeger Jul 30 '18 at 14:46
  • @ShemSeger and others: In the UK, "squash" is a sweet fruit drink. It's in concentrated form so the drink is made by adding water -- and CO2 if you have a soda maker. It was an extremely popular drink among kids when i was growing up. The equivalent in North America is "cordial" where it usually only for making alcoholic beverages. – Martin F Jul 30 '18 at 20:22
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I used to complement my 3 litre hydration bladder with one or two 1.5 litre plastic bottles in dry climates, where carrying 3 litre of water may not be enough.

However, when I first hiked on multi-day trips in areas where water filtration is essential, I realised that the Steripen does not enter the relatively small opening of those bottles. Therefore, I bought a proper bottle with a larger opening, at a non-profit store in a U.S. National Park.

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During my years in school my mum always reused ordinary water bottles to give me and my brother. Never had any issues with them breaking or something similar. But after some time they'd get somewhat dirty on the inside, which made me stop use them and instead buy a designated water bottle, which was way easier to clean on the inside.

  • We did this too, they would eventually look very 'crumpled' as well. – Aravona Aug 1 '18 at 10:05
  • Yes, after a while the plastic looked a bit like frosted glas or something. – Suimon Aug 1 '18 at 10:36
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My reason to not buy bottled water is that it often takes several times as much water to make the bottle as the water it contains.

But when you buy a bottle of water, for whatever reason, you should at least re-use the bottle a few times to get the most out of the water used to make the bottle.

You should always think whether your re-use of a bottle is safe and suitable for your situation, but when staying in build up area or in an area which is well supplied with places to buy/refill your bottles, re-using water bottles for a few times is safe and brings down the waste.

It is of course better to use a bottle which will not add to the waste pile, and when you are done with whatever plastic bottle it should end up in recycling.

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I usually buy one single-use bottle and keep it until losing it. One bottle I had for around a year, it was a PET bottle. Another one I've now used for almost a year and replaced it just because it was a bit unstable and - might have been my imagination - got smelly faster. Or maybe I just wanted a change.

What I remember about an even older bottle is that I couldn't remove the dents any more after a while of use, so you would be looking for a stable bottle. I've not had any plastic bottle break, but that might just have been luck. I use these bottles almost daily, but do not maltreat them otherwise.

I heard, but don't know much about particles of plastic leaking into the water, but don't see how this is different for new bottles compared to used ones.

About cleaning: I half fill them, shake them strongly, and repeat that two to three times. With this, they don't develop any smell/taste for two days at least (but depending on the bottle). The only thing that needs occasional special cleaning is the cap.

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