How we tested
The alley behind the test kitchen isn’t exactly a bucolic place to spend a breezy afternoon, but I, along with a photographer and videographer, had important work to do: dropping refillable water bottles onto the pavement, over and over again, to test their durability. Call it a cold, hard real-world test.
We were evaluating eight different water bottles. There are thousands for sale, so we narrowed our lineup to stick with a few key parameters.
First, we focused on basic single-walled bottles and considered only BPA-free models. (BPA stands for bisphenol A, an industrial chemical used in some plastics. It’s currently under review by the FDA, but critics claim that it can leach into food and cause health problems.) Also, we nixed straws because they’re difficult to clean thoroughly and tend to get funky fast. We avoided bottles made from glass, too, because it’s heavy and, of course, breakable. And we were strict on price; anything north of twenty bucks was out. Our final lineup of eight bottles, each costing between $10 and $20, was made up of five plastic bottles, two stainless-steel ones, and a soft plastic pouch.
We wanted a bottle that was easy to fill, open, close, carry, clean, and sip from. It also had to be spill-proof and exceptionally durable. Before each bottle plummeted toward the pavement, a succession of testers evaluated its basic functionality. We then filled them with an electric-yellow sports drink and let them sit for 24 hours to check for unwanted staining. Some were dishwasher-safe, while others weren’t; we hand-washed or ran each through the machine 10 times, depending on manufacturer instructions, to check for wear and tear.
We bought extras of each bottle and assigned them to staffers, with the stipulation that they use them every day for two weeks and take them wherever they go. The bottles went to work in the test kitchen and at local restaurants; they went on long walks around the city, hiking in the mountains, to the gym, and to yoga; they rode in cars, trains, and buses and sat on the couch through Netflix marathons; one even took a weekend trip to Cape Cod.
Meanwhile, we ventured into the alley with our eight testing copies. We shook each full bottle vigorously upside down for 10 seconds and then dropped each from shoulder height onto the hard pavement—upside down, right side up, and sideways. Only half the bottles survived.
Of the three materials the bottles were made from, the soft plastic pouch was too squishy and awkward for everyday use. The stainless-steel canisters were problematic, too; testers sometimes spilled while filling them because they couldn’t see inside, and they dented easily. Our favorite canisters were made of Tritan, a clear, hard plastic. We could see through them for easy filling, and they aced the dropping tests, bouncing off the pavement with nary a scratch.
Testers liked protected mouthpieces, which felt clean on the lips; exposed ones got dirty or dusty. And testers didn’t like complex bottles with fussy buttons or finicky, hard-to-undo latches. These complicated bottles were also less durable: More external doodads meant more to break off.
As far as being spill-proof and durable, nothing beat the classic screw-on lid. But some bottles were too wide to drink from easily, while others were so narrow that they were hard to fill and clean. Two bottles with screw-on lids tackled this catch-22 by mounting a second, smaller twist-off cap on top of the lid. One bonked us in the face while we sipped—less than ideal. But the final bottle nailed it.
Our favorite was clear. It was made of strong, clear BPA-free Tritan and had a smaller twist-on cap that opened and closed smoothly and was easy to drink from; its large opening was great for filling and made cleaning a cinch. It smacked down onto the pavement again and again without spilling a drop and looked nearly brand-new afterward. It comes in 24- and 32-ounce sizes; the former fit easily in larger cup, bike, and backpack holders. Whether you’re hiking, lounging, or squished on a bus, our winner is the best water bottle for staying hydrated on the go.