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Nalgene Ultralight - Best Backpacking Water Bottle Ever?


Aaron Zagrodnick

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When hitting the store for a backpacking water bottle we may be inclined to at first reach for our favorite color bottle or the bottle featuring the most appealing printed design on the side. While there’s nothing wrong with that when it comes to having a water bottle around the house or at work, when it comes to choosing a hiking or backpacking water bottle other performance factors should be considered. With weight being paramount in the backcountry, the prototypical standard, Tritan Nalgene bottle may not necessarily weigh you down, but there’s a better option in the same company’s lineup.

Nalgene HDPE Ultralight – Best Backpacking and Hiking Water Bottle Ever?

Wide-mouth (left) and narrow-mouth HDPE Nalgene bottles

The Ultralight HDPE Nalgene

The Ultralight HDPE Nalgene bottle – the old school, slightly opaque white bottle that was par for the course several decades ago when backpackers wore fluorescent jackets and shorts with rag wool fingerless gloves, may just be the best water bottle of all time. While this bottle is not as ubiquitous as in years past, the HDPE / Ultralight Nalgene – made from food grade high density polyethylene plastic, is much lighter than its Tritan cousin (both are BPA-free, as you’d expect these days).

At 6.3 ounces the Tritan adds nearly half a pound (each) to your pack, while the Ultralight adds a much more respectable 3.9 ounces. While nearly a quarter pound is still significant for ounce counters like myself, it’s worth the weight. As opposed to reusable bottles, some backpackers may opt to take soda or bottled water bottles to save weight. Re-used plastic water bottles are a decidedly lighter weight option weighing a couple ounces, instead of a few.

However and as soda bottles, etc. are not designed to be reusable water bottles, disposable water bottles can’t take boiling hot liquids – and having a bottle that does allows you to make anything from hot coffee or tea for example, and also allows for throwing a hot water bottle inside your sleeping bag on chilly nights. Plastic bottles of this type also break, as I can attest to, and when one breaks a few days into a 10 day stretch, it’s inconvenient to say the least. Collapsible bottles will beat the Nalgene Ultralight in weight as well, but not longevity, usability, or durability.

Nalgene Ultralight Bottles

The Nalgene Ultralight HDPE has been a mainstay in the outdoor water bottle market for decades.

Nalgene Ultralight vs. Tritan Water Bottles

As we previously discussed, the HDPE is lighter than the Tritan, a big selling point and being softer than a Tritan Nalgene, the Ultralight HDPE handles drops better in my experience. The HDPE is equally suited for hot and cold beverages, and although both the Ultralight and Tritan can handle boiling water, the HDPE offers a little more peace of mind I suppose – the HDPE can handle water or hot beverages up to 248 degrees Fahrenheit (good for boiling water on below-sea-level backpacking trips I suppose). The Tritan on the other hand, tops out at 212F. And, when it comes to figuring out how much water to boil for dinner, any Nalgene bottle features graduated measurements in ounces or ml on the side of the bottle, which helps to get that meal dialed-in. To top it off, you won’t lose the tethered lid, and the bottles are especially secure in the leak department.

While the more modern Tritan Nalgene may admittedly, win in style factor and is the more popular option – found everywhere in stores, on the trail, and in coffee shops and schools, I’d argue that its more plain cousin is by far the best choice for hikers and backpackers. Most importantly – it’s lighter in weight. The Tritan Nalgene is a downright heavy water bottle approaching half a pound empty and even approaches the weight of some stainless steel bottles.

The HDPE Ultralight Nalgene is not necessarily what I’d term “ultralight” (although compared to insulated water bottles on the market, it might just be), but it strikes the perfect balance between durability and weight. Sometimes, old school just can’t be beat. Perhaps the only con to this bottle is that it might be a tight fit in your car cup holder, but I might ask, is that an issue with the bottle, or the car?

Nalgene Ultralight Narrow vs. Wide Mouth

The narrow-mouth is easier to drink from, but the wide-mouth is easier to fill.

Final Thoughts

I'll still grab my stainless steel vacuum insulated bottle for coffee on the way to the trailhead or in addition to the Nalgene Ultralight on trips in the middle of winter, and stainless steel water bottles are great when weight isn't a concern. However on 3-season trips the Nalgene Ultralight is the only water bottle I pack along on every backpacking trip, hitting the sweet spot between a disposable plastic bottle and heavier options on the market.

The Nalgene Ultralight HDPE bottle is available in a wide-mouth bottle (easier filling) and a narrow-mouth bottle (easier drinking) in the standard 1 liter size that fits in the side water bottle pocket of any backpack on the market worth its weight. The bottle can also be found in 16 ounce and jumbo 48 ounce options. You can find the normal and most popular wide-mouth option here at REI and here at Amazon.

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