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Ode to an Ugly Water Bottle

Water bottles are modern-day outdoorsy fashion accessories. But when fashion fades, we should aspire to have an ugly water bottle.
dented klean kanteen bottle(Photo/Adam Ruggiero)
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My friend Johnny is a curmudgeon. Whether it’s politics, the environment, or world history, he’s well-versed in the bad actors and the inevitable doomsday fallout that awaits.

He’s also a really good dude — a persistent champion of good causes despite all evidence his efforts are in vain. In other words, Johnny is smart enough to know how dire things are, yet kind enough to do the right thing anyway. As a result, Johnny has the oldest, ugliest water bottle I’ve ever seen.

“It’s durable, simple, holds a nice volume of water, and is not one of those adult sippy cups — [bleepity bleep-bleep] what is with those?!”

Johnny’s Klean Kanteen is a prime example of why we should all aspire to have our own ugly water bottle.

dented klean kanteen bottle
(Photo/Adam Ruggiero)

Water Bottles Are Hip: That’s Good and Bad

If you ever look back at an old photo from the Roaring ’20s (give or take a decade or two) you might notice most folks wore a hat. Fedoras on men, cloche hats on women — the headwear was a nearly ubiquitous accessory.

In 100 years, that may be the case with the stainless steel water bottle. Most people these days have a double-wall, vacuum-insulated vessel that’s as much function as it is fashion. The utility is clear: These bottles are durable and keep liquids at a desired temperature for hours. Plus, they ease our conscience by helping us break our addiction to single-use, disposable wares.

But, increasingly, that utility is not the primary draw. Hydro Flask built a brand on spinning the color wheel before powder coating the simple steel water bottle. Before “VSCO Girls” took Hydro Flask into the stratosphere, insulated drinkware was commonly a plain, brushed steel finish — otherwise, the occasional black, white, or navy.

lineup of colorful water bottles

Don’t believe me? Look at YETI — a brand renowned for its heft, toughness, and function-first form. Color wasn’t a consideration when the rotomolded revolution had folks slapping $400 for an all-white — or, for the flamboyant, tan — cooler, which weighed more than the pack of beer and bag of ice it was meant to hold. Its fashion was its function.

But, as more brands caught on and mimicked YETI’s design, the Austin cooler king learned that a new hue is easier than inventing a new product. And so we jumped on the color carousel that saw YETIs in King Crab orange, Alpine yellow, Canopy green, Seafoam turquoise, Peak purple … you get the idea.

And most recently, Stanley learned the value of a good color treatment when the Quencher mug became its own TikTok craze (for reasons I still don’t fully understand), and even now continues to ride the wave with an ever-swelling spectrum of calming pastel hues.

There’s nothing wrong with adding color to the gear we buy. However, as the insulated tumbler tumbles deeper into the world of fashion, it has become just as transient as any trend. Fashion fades far more quickly than steel. The result is that if people purchase a water bottle because of its fashion appeal, its utility will only last as long as it’s en vogue.

The Hero We Need

dented klean kanteen on deck
(Photo/Johnny Wagner)

Every year around the holidays, I put together a big gear giveaway for lightly tested items I cannot house. This includes a variety of packs, puffy jackets, knives, running shoes (if you’re size 13), and, of course, water bottles.

For a while now, those bottles have been among the hottest commodities — when I pull a box of bottles together, I never have leftovers to bring home. At this point, all of my friends have at least one insulated water bottle I gave them. All of them, that is, except one.

“I first bought it in 2016. I wanted a stainless [bottle] that fit with my insulated Outdoor Research insulated bottle holder because my water was freezing when I worked outside,” Johnny explained. “I did not like ice water when it was -20 degrees.”

Today, whether on his bike, at the pickleball court, out to lunch, or at work, Johnny continues to sip from that tired, unglamorous bottle. It’s the classic brushed stainless steel and black lid — no fun, flippy handle or straw. Not only is it boring, it’s been beaten to high hell.

“This bottle has been with me all over: Greece, Puerto Rico, lots of job sites, and Home Depot parking lots … it’s traveled many miles in the old [Ford] E250!” Johnny told me in an email he sent from the beaches of Marmaris, Turkey.

klean kanteen water bottle on beach
(Photo/Johnny Wagner)

It has dents on every side from countless drops and a bulging, blown-out bottom that makes it weeble-wobble on any flat surface. Because of this, Johnny has taken to just lying it on its side — and while ordinarily, its cylindrical shape might roll away, its 360 degrees of damage mean it has a flat, dented surface no matter how you set it down (except of course, the bottom).

“I have no expectation that I’ll need another one — unless it springs a leak.”

dented klean kanteen bottle
(Photo/Adam Ruggiero)

I used to think Johnny was just being politely deferent when I’d offer him a replacement. We’re Midwesterners, after all, so to accept anything from anyone — water bottles, help, compliments — is an affront to the other person.

I’ve reassured him every year that I want him to have a shiny new bottle.

Only after years of friendship have I learned he’s not declining out of pride. He knows his bottle is ugly — he likes it that way. It is, in fact, the whole point. He earned the dents, scratches, and wobbles from a decade of adventures and regular use.

That bottle has not been babied, and it has zero likes on Instagram. It’s not fashionable; it’s refillable. It’s not pretty; it’s portable. It is imperfect from every angle — and in that way, it is exceptional in a world of splashy, unsullied sameness.

“The best water bottle is the one you use all the time,” he told me matter-of-factly when I asked him what the ideal water bottle looked like.

Wise words and good news for the rest of us. Your perfect bottle can’t be bought — it’s made. And it will get better with every drop, dent, and beautiful blemish. Take it from a true curmudgeon: Ugly is so in right now.

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