Water is delicious and good. Bottled water is delicious and bad: It’s costly for the environment and people alike. After hours of research, I decided the $18 Klean Kanteen Classic is the bottle I’d use to tote my water.
But after some work, we did find a solid, reusable water bottle for every day use around the home, work and gym. And a bottle that is insulated for warmer and colder climates. And variations with sport tops that will let a thirsty person quickly get a sip.
Whatever bottle you choose, weaning yourself off store-bought bottled water will save the planet a small share of its precious fossil fuels while saving you a lot of money. A study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters estimated that bottled water production in 2007 in the U.S. alone required somewhere between 32 and 54 million barrels of oil. That’s only a third of a percent or so of total U.S. energy consumption annually, but roughly 2,000 times as much the energy cost of producing tap water. Bottled water is also up to a thousand times more expensive than tap water for consumers, so there’s that, too. Add that to the fact that, in 2009, nearly half of all bottled water sold in the United States was simply tap water with a fancy label, and the makings of a big ol’ scam start to take shape. Let’s not take part.
We set out to find a water bottle that would satisfy most people’s day-to-day drinking needs and could also be brought along on a day trip or a weekend adventure. In other words we want one that’s durable, easy to use and affordable. The Klean Kanteen Classic fills the bill on all counts.
The Classic comes in an assortment of colors and 12-, 18-, 27-, and 42-ounce sizes. We recommend the 27-ounce model as the best compromise between portability and liquid storage. It’s tall, but not so tall that it won’t fit comfortably in a backpack, and it’s slender enough to sit in a standard cup holder.
The bottles are made of stainless steel, which means they’re plenty durable for outdoors activity (and, of course, desk-bound drinking). The metal construction also means they won’t retain odors nearly as much as some plastic bottles do, and they can be trusted not to add any weird tastes to the contents inside. They’re dishwasher safe. The screw-top lids mean you can toss ‘em in your messenger bag or passenger seat without worrying about leaks. And they’re also just really nice looking objects.
Even though OutdoorGearLab.com gave Nalgene the overall edge for outdoor activity due to its slightly lighter build, they deemed the Klean Kanteen Classic “the perfect water bottle for daily use.” In a round-up of metal bottles in Wired after the BPA scare in 2008, Daniel Dumas said “for style as well as substance, the Klean Kanteen gets top marks in our gear test.” And on Amazon, after 1,600 user reviews, the Kanteen Classic holds a strong 4.5/5 star average.
But how exactly did we make our pick? After poring over dozens of bottles and their accompanying reviews, we narrowed the field to a few popular contenders and used two main criteria to determine our choices: materials and, for lack of a better term, drinkability.
We also had two heavyweight outdoor gear testers chime in on the matter. Both of them, it turns out, use Klean Kanteens for a good deal of their day-to-day use.
Berne Broudy, a lifelong adventurer who has contributed to magazines like Bike, National Geographic Adventure, Skiing and Backpacker and currently writes for OutsideMag.com, has tried most of the available water bottles out there and goes with the Klean Kanteens, saying they’re “a really good bet because they have such a wide variety of sizes, they’re very rugged, they’re gonna last forever, and they have a bunch of different tops that go with them.” More on those tops in a second.
Stephen Regenold, editor and founder of the outdoor product review site GearJunkie.com and a former contributor to the New York Times on all things outdoors, also chooses Klean Kanteens. “For casual stuff, I almost always just use the Klean Kanteens,” he told me, “which seem a little more natural for some reason in terms of metal versus plastic. It’s just sort of a personal thing. And it seems to keep the liquid colder, just because the metal stays colder.”
That metal construction is one important part of the Klean Kanteen’s appeal.
With water bottles, the materials debate basically boils down to bottles made from metal, like the Klean Kanteen, versus bottles from plastic, like the traditional and ubiquitous Nalgene. There are a few concrete advantages and disadvantages for both. Plastic bottles are better at insulating temperature, that is, keeping the outside of the bottle from getting too hot when its holding hot liquids and preventing condensation from forming when it contains cold ones.
The down side to plastic bottles is that they’re much more prone to retaining odors and tastes than metal ones. Outdoor Gear Lab gave the Nalgene a 6/10 in its “Funk Factor” rating, while the Klean Kanteen received a near-perfect 9/10. If you’ve left a partially full Nalgene untouched for a few days, even if just with water, the “Funk Factor” needs no explanation. And while I can deal with a sweaty metal bottle on a hot day, I’m much less willing to put up with a stinky one. Some drinkers say they can occasionally detect a slight metallic taste when water’s left in a metal bottle, but generally it’s agreed that plastic ones are more susceptible to introducing new tastes and odors to the liquids they carry.
And then, of course, there’s the whole BPA business. In 2007, everyone lost their shit when it was discovered that Bisphenol A, a chemical used in Nalgene and other plastic bottles, was potentially toxic to humans. Everyone scrambled to eliminate the chemical from their products, and now Nalgene’s bottles are made of hard plastic called Tritan, a new BPA-free co-polyester. So for now everything is gravy, but the plastics are still plastics at the end of the day, and some people just feel better drinking out of a metal bottle.
Despite their differences, both metal and hard plastic bottles are considered very durable. REI’s “How To Choose a Water Bottle” guide gives stainless steel bottles one more star for impact resistance (4/5 as opposed to 3/5 for the Tritan-made Nalgene), though stainless steel bottles like the Kanteen are known to pick up dings and dents as they’re dropped. Some consider those imperfections as an annoyance, others just say it gives their bottle character.
The other big distinction between the Klean Kanteen and the Nalgene is the style and size of the opening (termed the bottle’s “mouth”) which is in many ways the most important characteristic of a water bottle, since it’s where the drinking happens. The standard Nalgene has a 2.25-inch, wide-mouth design with a screw top, while the Klean Kanteen features a narrower, 1.75-inch mouth that can be fitted with different types of lids, including a plastic “sport top” or a carabiner-ready loop top. Other official Kanteen tops available for a little extra cash include a kid-friendly “sippy” top and a stainless steel and bamboo screw top that lets you go totally plastic-free.
Though you’ll find devotees in both camps, in terms of the act of drinking water, we give the Kanteen the edge here. The Nalgene’s big, unobstructed maw certainly won’t leave you wanting for liquid, but the size is such that its rim can press up against your nose in a not-entirely-comfortable way. It also means you’ll spill from time to time. The Klean Kanteen’s 1.75-inch mouth, in my opinion, is a little bit easier to get your lips around. And opting for the “sport” top, which gives you a nozzle-style tip to drink from (like the ones you’d find on those old-school, soft-plastic water bottles), pushes “ease of drink” even deeper into Kanteen’s column.
Looking at five popular bottles for TIME magazine’s travel section, Hillary Hylton stated the difference between the two mouth sizes plainly. For the frequent flier, the Nalgene’s wide mouth means “sipping can be dodgy on bumpy flights,” whereas the Klean Kanteen, her favorite of the lot, had a “mouth wide enough to allow ice cubes, but narrow enough to sip without spillage.” Put it this way: Between the sport top and the bottle’s own medium-diameter mouth, you’ll probably find a comfortable way to drink from a Klean Kanteen. Left with just a wide-mouth Nalgene, you’ll probably get used to it, but comfort isn’t a guarantee.
While the Kanteen may be tops for tap water, Broudy explained that if you’re planning on running your water through a portable purifying system, like a SteriPEN, or if you just want to have a nice big opening for dumping in some other type of liquid, the Nalgene’s wide mouth is an asset. “It really depends on what you’re putting in your water bottle,” she said. “If you’re putting something other than water, a wide mouth seems like it’s easier to deal with.” The wide-mouthed bottles are also a bit easier to clean, which is something you’ll want to do regularly if you’re dealing with non-water liquids.
All that being said, in our testing, we found some faults with the Klean Kanteen’s sport top–many of which have been identified by other users in their own reviews. For one, some weird air flow problems can result in a less-than-generous flow of liquid, which is not what you need on a hot day. That same problem also means that the top occasionally makes a weird whining sound when you drink from it–sort of like the noise an excited dolphin makes. That probably won’t make you popular with your office mates. But even more problematic than the air flow issues are the leaks. After a month or so of heavy use, Wirecutter editor Brian Lam reported that his Klean Kanteen sports top was prone to leaking water, and when you’re talking about something that could well be a next door neighbor to your laptop when it’s inside your bag, that’s no good. All in all, the sports top just doesn’t live up to the quality of the Klean Kanteen bottle itself and its original screw top. So for those looking for a few particular features–namely one-handed operation and insulation–we’ve come up with a few alternate picks.
If you’re really looking for quick, one-handed drinking–something that you might not care about in the office but will certainly come in handy on the trail–we recommend the Stanley Nineteen13 One-Handed H20 Bottle. The Stanley employs a clever mechanism for one-handed drinking; you push a beefy, spring-loaded plastic button on the bottle’s top with your thumb, and a little cover slides away from the mouthpiece, allowing your fluids to pour through. This type of top definitely has more moving parts than the standard sports top, which means it could potentially be more prone to breaking and more difficult to clean, but the top seems decidedly heavy duty, and drinking from it is supremely convenient.
There are more sip-friendly Nalgene bottles, like the Everyday OTG bottle with a plastic-flip top, though some users said that the top’s seal was imperfect and many reported leaks. The CamelBak Better Bottle combines the insulating benefits of a plastic-made bottle with a novel drinking mechanism: a built-in, leak-proof straw dubbed the “Bite-Valve” that only offers up liquid when it’s bitten down on. The Better Bottle is perfect for kids whose default grip on a water bottle might necessarily be right-side-up, or for those who get tired of having to unscrew their tops every time they want to take a sip. Regenold told us that these CamelBaks were his favorite bottle for passing to kids in the backseat, and they’ve earned high praise on Amazon, but you might feel a little weird chewing on your plastic nipple every time you want to have a sip of water in the workplace.
The other sub-category we looked at in our testing was insulated bottles. There’s nothing worse than a luke-warm sip on a hot day, so we checked out some double-walled bottles that promise to keep your liquids at their best temperatures for hours at a time. Our favorite was Hydro Flask’s 21 oz Standard Mouth Stainless Steel Water Bottle, for $26. In his testing, Lam found that the HydroFlask not only beat competitors but exceeded some of its own insulation ratings. After filling it with ice cubes and leaving it in a car on a hot day, he came back 8 hours later to find the water cold and some of the ice cubes still solid. The company promises 12 hours of heat retention for hot liquids–twice that of the insulted version of the Klean Kanteen. And on Amazon, it’s got a strong 4.5/5 rating after about 50 reviews.
Still, there are some problems with the Hydro Flask. The vacuum seal makes it a bit heavier than single-walled bottles, obviously (it’s nearly twice as heavy as the 27oz Klean Kanteen Classic) and the line jumps in size from 21 oz to 40 oz, which sort of misses that mid-to-upper 20′s sweet spot in terms of liquid capacity. You can get by with 21 oz, but it doesn’t seem like quite enough for a longer trip out where you won’t be able to get back to a tap for a while. And the sports top, like the Klean Kanteens, is also prone to leaks. HydroFlask just says it straight up on their website: “Not leak proof.”
If you want insulation and convenient one-handed sipping, we like the vacuum-sealed version of the Stanley push-button sipper we mentioned above. In our week long test, it turned out to not do quite as good a job of insulating as the Hydro Flask–ice cubes were significantly meltier in the same in-car, hot-day testing–but the top feels heavy duty and less susceptible to the dreaded leakage. Even though it’s only 16 oz, it’s what my editor, Brian, carries in Hawaii on a daily basis.
As Regenold was quick to remind me, there’s no “universal truth” when it comes to water bottles. While he uses the Kanteen for day-to-day drinking, he prefers the Nalgene for short outdoor trips when he wants to pack light. (But, for serious adventuring, he relies solely on soft, collapsible hydration packs, like those made by Platypus, that weigh up to 80 percent less than standard bottles and fold to take up minimal space but are obviously still plastic.)
Broudy was also keen on Liberty Bottleworks’ metal bottles — the company claims theirs are the only American-made metal bottles on the market (Klean’s are made in China) and that they unscrew in a quarter turn. They’re about the same price as Klean Kanteen Classics, but as a relatively new brand their bottles have yet to be put through the paces by reviewers, adventurers, desk jockeys, careless kids and everyone else who has tried out a Klean Kanteen and come away satisfied. I liked the idea of Liberty’s quarter-turn screw top, but in my testing I found the top itself to be tougher to turn in general than many competitors.
Then there are those bottles that focus on one function in particular, like the insulated Polar bottle that’s designed to keep liquids cold for as long as possible. And, of course, in addition to the bottles mentioned, there are plenty of variations out there. Nalgenes with small mouths (good for drinking, less good for ice cube filling). Klean Kanteens with wide ones (good for ice cube filling, less good for drinking). And so on.
Klean Kanteen offers a few other lines of bottles as well, like the eco-conscious Reflect, though at $32 it’s a bit pricier than other options. And there are the aforementioned wide-mouth and insulated versions. You get the picture: Lots of room for subjectivity.
But for most of us who just want to ditch Dasani, Fiji, Evian (“naive” spelled backwards) and Co. on a day-to-day basis and on short, light adventures, the Klean Kanteen Classic is a water bottle that’s solid, simple, and easy to drink from. And that’s what counts.