The History of Canteens

Water. H2O. Dihydrogen Monoxide. At sea level, it freezes at 32° Fahrenheit and boils at 212°. It’s the universal solvent. Whatever you choose to call it and however you choose to use it, water is the stuff of life. Much like air, we can’t live without it. It’s essential for all life on this planet, and especially important when we push our bodies out in the elements. Canteens have changed over time, but every military person stationed in the field, hiker, or adventurer needs one of these priceless resources.

Whoever the caveman was that discovered that the cessation of his thirst was linked directly to his consumption of water was a genius. He deserves a medal. Or a plaque. More fittingly, he deserves his image emblazoned on canteens the world over. The first canteens would have been made of animal bladders or stomachs, and couldn’t have lasted all that well, but they certainly would have gotten the job done. Then somebody realized that gourds could also be engineered to hold water. Canteens of this type would have been fragile, though. 

An adequate canteen can be made out of a leather bag, but as with the case of stomachs, the taste of the water in those would be less than desirable. Historically, canteens have also been made out of pottery, wood, and glass. If you can think of a material that a water container could be made of, it’s probably been done. There is a tribe of hunter-gatherers in Africa who still use hollowed out ostrich shells to carry their water. I’m not sure really how they would affix a strap to that for carrying (one of the things that nearly every canteen has to be able to carry the bottle hands-free), but more power to them for being ingenious. 

Today’s canteens are even a step above the canteens of the more recent past. I have a canteen of my grandfather’s. It’s made of some kind of metal, and it’s got this little chain that attaches the lid to the body of the bottle so it can’t be accidentally lost. It fits inside this neat container that doubles as a cup or bowl. The leather strap that he used for wearing it is still attached, though if I actually used it, I’d replace that strap. Metal canteens like this, while still used, are prone to developing tiny leaks if they’re dropped, so most canteens these days are made from plastics. Not only are plastics more durable, they are less likely to develop that “canteen” flavor that vintage canteens have. Personally, I’ll take polycarbonate over tin any day. Check out our assortment of canteens and carrying pouches