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The Best Ways to Keep Your Beer Cold in the Backcountry

One more reason nature is amazing.

By: Nate Luebbe + Save to a List

I'm a man who carries two different business cards. One reads "Professional Brewer" for one of the largest craft breweries in Colorado (it'll be obvious which one). The other, "Professional Adventure Photographer." I spend a LOT of time outside, and I take pride in bringing delicious golden suds with me wherever I go. However, being a literal card carrying beer nerd creates certain standards and expectations. I'm not going to hike a liter of Dortmunder with an authentic stange in to the backcountry, but it's worth the effort to at least keep it cold. 

So until someone invents a portable, solar-powered fridge that fits in my tent, I'll keep using the elements. Here are Nate Luebbe's Tricks to Chilling Your Beers in the Backcountry.

Rivers, Lakes and Streams!

If this picture doesn't make you thirsty, I'll sell my camera.

Alright, let's get the obvious one out of the way first. Rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, tarns, puddles. Nature's drinking fountains, with a secondary (better?) use as a beer cooler.

Nothing goes together better than river sports and beer. Standing thigh-deep in a creek casting flies can work up a mighty thirst; so fill that net with a 6-pack of your favorite local brew and plop it in the water. Floating some whitewater? Tie a mesh bag to the back of your raft and fill that puppy with cans. I've even used my mosquito head net and hung it off the gunnel of my canoe to make sure I had some proper refreshment when the paddling was finished. Plan ahead for diminishing stocks, it seems that my "post paddle" refreshments always seem to disappear during the trip...some mysteries just can't be solved.

It's worth noting that beer cans are just about the same density as water so they will float away if you just toss them in a river. Be smart and protect our wilderness, wedge those suckers behind a rock or better yet use some sort of bag or tether. Also please no glass, for reasons that I hope are obvious. There's a reason that every good outdoorsy brewery packages in cans.

Get High!

I've literally never drank a warm beer at high elevation. It's a miracle to break 45°F (which for the record, is the correct serving temp for IPA's) even in the dead heat of July when you're at 13,000 feet. If all the trunk time warmed your cans on the drive to the trailhead, just store those babies near the outside of your pack and let Mother Nature work on refreshments while you work on some elevation!

This works as a wonderful odometer too. If the beer isn't cold, then you must not be done hiking yet. If you're on the summit and they still aren't cold, then maybe it's time to pick a higher summit. Use your beer as motivation to push yourself, it's like dog treats for people!

Remember, It's always good practice to plan ahead and bring a few extras. Almost everyone on the mountain mentions how good a beer sounds, but few people take the time to pack a can for the summit. A full 6 pack only weighs 4lbs, and pulling out a few spares is a sure-fire way to make new friends. You can grow your social circle AND your calves in the same afternoon. 

Or bring a full keg and you'll make friends like these. (Humboldt Peak, 14,065)

Side note; if you're passing around beers on the summit, always double check that the empties are getting packed out. If you pack it in, pack it out, even if you didn't get to do the fun drinking part.

Ice and Snow!

The mountains didn't turn blue, but I think it's cold.

If you're a true fan of delicious beer and outdoor adventures, then you don't need a sweaty summer afternoon to crave a frosty beverage.  A hard ice climb up a frozen waterfall or grueling skin to the top of a mountain can get me as hot and sweaty as any summer sport, and a cold can of beer is the perfect way to cool back down. I usually just store the cans in my backpack and then toss them in a snowbank for a couple minutes at the top while I recuperate from the climb. The best part is how quickly they cool, if you decide on one more (and you probably will), then 5 minutes in the snow is all it takes to chill a can to drinking temp.

This may seem obvious but I've seen people pack a cooler with ice to go skiing in January. Let Mother Nature do her thing and save the fossil-fuel produced ice cubes for the warm months!

Quick note: if it's cold enough out to have frozen waterfalls, then it's probably cold enough to freeze your beer as well. I recommend stuffing the cans into the snow because snow actually insulates to 32°F on the dot. Your beers will be cold and delicious but won't turn into frozen chunks of disappointment.

Evaporative Cooling!

A cold beer in a very hot place

In the warmest of summer months I often find that rivers and lakes near me are warm enough to not adequately cool a beer. Thanks to the power of thermodynamics and (I'm pretty sure) straight witchcraft, there's a beautiful workaround; evaporative cooling. You see, transitioning water from liquid to gas requires a substantial amount of energy to break the molecular bonds holding the water in it's liquid form. This transition (known as a phase change) absorbs heat from nearby molecules and as a result hot steam floats away and the surface that water evaporated from is left considerably colder. This is the entire basis of how sweating works.

So since beer cans can't sweat (thank God, am I right?), we can mimic that and cool our beers off using just a gentle breeze on a warm summer day. Sounds like the next #1 hit on the country music charts.

  • Take a piece of thin cloth and get it wet. If it's super fancy "wicking" fabric this will work even better, as it's literally designed to evaporate and cool.
  • Wrap it around your most favorite beer.
  • Put that can in the shade. Of course it will dry faster in the sun, but the direct heat of sunlight will be very counter productive.
  • Wait a little while. Continue to rehydrate the cloth as needed.
  • Drink up!

This effect won't ever get you down to ice-cold, but as discussed you should really be drinking your delicious craft beers at cellar temp (45°-55°F) anyway. Plus you get to talk about science to all your friends, and who doesn't love to sound smart?

Keep it warm?!

Not a water bottle. Insulated growler to keep the beer from freezing. We don't mess around.

Ok this one is kind of a trick. But sometimes enjoying a delicious beer in the wild means putting effort into keeping beer warm enough to remain a liquid. I've had some amazing days skiing in the backcountry with 3-4 cans of PBR stuffed into my parka. Finding a pocket that perfectly balances your body heat with the piercing cold of January at 12,000 feet takes a bit of trial and error, but you'll be deliciously rewarded once the balance is struck! 

The good news is that beer will stay a liquid below the freezing point of water, thanks to the alcohol and pressure of the can. Usually keeping the beers in the center of your backpack, or jacket pocket should be enough to prevent freezing. If a beer does freeze, it should fully homogenize and be completely delicious and drinkable once it thaws, so don't throw it out! If you're lucky enough to have a big winter beer like a chocolate stout, grab a spoon and eat that sucker like a slushy. It's totally not that weird, I promise. 

Nate Luebbe is a professional brewer and adventure photographer/writer from Boulder, Co. For more, visit www.nateluebbe.com or https://www.instagram.com/nateinthewild/

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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