What is a Canteen?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The term “canteen” is used in two different senses. In the first sense, a canteen is a bottle which is used to carry water or other liquids, and in the second, a canteen is a facility which serves food in a cafeteria-style setting. Both uses are from the same root word, cantina, which is Italian for “wine cellar.” The word was adopted to refer generally to refreshments and an area where soldiers could obtain refreshments, and over time the usage split into two different meanings and spread to civilian society.

Some schools and offices serve canteen-style cafeteria food.
Some schools and offices serve canteen-style cafeteria food.

In the sense of a container, a canteen is designed to provide someone with a portable supply of water or liquid. The container may include a cup which nestles into the housing, or a mouthpiece which is built into the container. In order to function effectively, the canteen must be able to be tightly sealed, and some have a layer of insulation which reduces temperature changes and loss of fluids from evaporation. Soldiers on the march use canteens, as do hikers, athletes, and other people who might need water on the go.

Canteens may provide food for military officers serving overseas.
Canteens may provide food for military officers serving overseas.

Canteens in the sense of a place where food is prepared and eaten are used to serve food on an institutional level. Militaries, schools, and large offices may use canteens to meet the food needs of their workforces and students. A typical canteen is a facility in which diners walk along a food line with trays which can be filled with various food items. Diners then seat themselves, eat, and bus their dishes and trays at the end of the meal.

Food service is not a high priority at canteens. The goal is to provide food which meets nutritional recommendations and hopefully satisfies the taste of diners. The food is prepared in large batches, and the food handlers stay behind the counter to dish out food, rather than walking around the dining room to bring plates out. The canteen may also include self service drink containers, fruit bowls, and so forth.

In addition to remaining in a fixed location, a canteen can also be mobile. Mobile canteens are used to provide food quickly to disaster workers and other temporary work crews, along with members of the military who are deployed on active duty. Organizations which use mobile canteens may run the canteen out of a series of trailers, or have large trucks packed with canteen equipment, tables, and tents for shelter so that an eating facility can be quickly erected wherever it might be needed.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Izzy78 - What also needs to be kept in mind is that a canteen will usually insulate the liquid much better than a clear, plastic bottle will. I have a canteen at my house and have used it while going camping. I could have easily bought a bottle of water to do the job, however, while using it I felt like it fit better with my surroundings in the wilderness. Another thing to also keep in mind is that a plastic bottle of water can get crushed really easy, or can also get lost, hurting the environment. A canteen is sturdy and feels like it belongs with the rest of your gear.

Other uses for canteens can also be their value as collectables. Some canteens such as stainless steel canteens are also sometimes considered collectables and are sought after by surplus stores and those who simply try to collect things.


I understand the convenience or just simply buying a bottle of water, but a normal canteen will serve the same purpose. A canteen in the basic sense is something which can transport liquids, and although they do make items which are called canteens, a bottle of water can technically be described as a canteen.

If someone chooses to save money they can simply buy a bottle of water and keep re-filling it, or they can buy a canteen to use and re-fill. Canteens are usually more sturdy than plastic bottles and they also provide the user with a sense that they have something that goes along with what they are doing, whether it be camping, or "roughing it" out in the woods.


@Treeman - I totally agree with you. Not only can someone simply buy a bottle of water and re-fill it, someone could also buy and insulated bottle, which is similar to a canteen, but is very practical and cheap. Canteens, with their basic, circular shape seem a little bulky nowadays to be carrying if one is hiking or out in the wilderness.

The only advantage they really have over a bottle of water is that they usually have a strap which can be draped over the shoulder to carry. However, most backpacks have pouches, which can be used to carry the bottle of water in, or the insulated bottles have a clip, which can be attached to whatever so it can be carried with easy.


Anymore I do not believe that canteens, the ones you drink out of, are very practical to have except for maybe in the military. With bottled water being available pretty much anywhere someone just buys a bottle of water and once they are done with it, simply re-fills it when they can find a water source. I've always seen canteens costing anywhere from five dollars to thirty dollars and it simply makes more sense to buy a bottle of water for one or two dollars and keep re-using it.

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