From the Laboratory to the Trail: The History of the Nalgene Bottle

A small laboratory equipment company in upstate New York noticed a strange trend sometime in the 1970’s: People were using their polyethylene bottles, originally meant to carry and measure fluids in labs, as water bottles for backpacking. The president of the Nalge Company, the makers of the bottles, went on a Boy Scout trip with his son and decided to bring some of the bottles along to try them out. He was so impressed by their ability in this regard that he reportedly returned to work on Monday morning and declared: “Spread the word to outdoors people all over! Tell them about this new line of high quality camping equipment.”

Laboratory Pedigree
The bottles were originally designed to withstand the rigors of the laboratory — they wouldn’t melt if they were exposed to heat; they didn’t leak; and unlike glass, they were shatter-proof. These same qualities made it ideally suited for backpackers looking for storing gear and liquids.

But it wasn’t until Nalgene Outdoor, the new division of Nalge Company (which is now Nalge Nunc International, after a merger with another company in 1995), began to use polycarbonate in their bottles that the brand took off.

Nalgene Outdoor advertised the new bottles in the back pages of magazines like Climber and Backpacker. For the early adopters, the new polycarbonate Nalgenes were revolutionary. One blogger writing about metal canteens — the type of water bottle that outdoor types used before the Nalgene revolution — remarked on the downsides of those bottles:

Canteens (remember them?) were opaque, narrow mouthed, heavy and had a metallic taste with overtones of whatever drink mix one last used. Washing them out thoroughly was  hit-or miss because you couldn’t see inside. I did not like canteens.

Nalgenes improved on the formula 1) by being see-through — meaning you could actually see how much liquid remained, what type of liquid it was etc. — 2) by being wide mouthed, so you could fill them up easily in a river; 3) and for the fact that the plastic didn’t impart much taste to the contained liquid.

On top of this, Nalgenes were remarkably durable, so much so that stories were spread about their legendary ability to withstand punishment. There were stories of unbreakable Nalgenes surviving the crushing force of boulders and road graders. (Nalgenes first came to my attention while I was in highschool, when an acquaintance of mine ran over one with his car; it remained intact.)

The Outdoor Fashion Treadmill

By the 1990’s, Nalgenes were a mainstay of the backpacker’s arsenal. They were great products with many faithful adherents. (Outside put it on their list of most influential gear of all time.) It was only a matter of time until Nalgene bottles reached a tipping point of success: When they broke out of the narrow world of outdoor enthusiasts and rocketed into the mainstream.

By now, this process — whereby a brand originally marketed to the narrow outdoor market achieves mainstream success — is familiar to us. Take for instance, North Face, Patagonia, Abercrombie & Fitch etc. These brands become known for their utility, for getting the job done while doing outdoor stuff — rugged gear for rugged people. By whatever process, the unrugged people of society wanted to wear the rugged people’s clothes and use the rugged people’s products — even if they wouldn’t be using them to climb mountains or to go moose hunting.

What these people want (and what everyone wants and craves) is authenticity. All fashion is in pursuit of this one elusive quality. Some men will spend thousands of dollars on authentically traditional suits. Some women will spend even more money on shoes deemed by the fashion oracles to be authentically stylish. And all the people in the L.L. Bean, Eddie Bauer demographic are in search of a style that is — or more accurately, tries really hard to seem — authentically rugged.

That’s one of the reasons why in recent years outdoor brands like Carhartt, North Face and Patagonia have become so successful — people hate fake shit, and they’re willing to pay a lot of money for something that seems real. And it explains why a company that pioneered the use of plastic pipette holders could suddenly come to be the seller of the coolest water bottle in the world.

What could seem more authentic than a water bottle originally used by scientists — one that retains the volume measurements on its sides! — that was adopted by a small subset of the population known to use reliable and durable products? Marketers know they’ve hit a profitable nerve when people who don’t need a rugged water bottle — let alone, a wide-mouth water bottle to refill it in rivers– are nevertheless buying them up in scores.

The Onion expressed this process best when they began to sell their own personally branded Nalgene bottle (which is something Nalgene Outdoor specializes in: Put your logo on a Nalgene bottle and give them away at promotional events!) The Onion’s bottle says simply “I will never take this camping.”