As I am writing this article, I am sipping on an ice-cold, clean glass of water. Since I installed my own water filter, getting a great tasting glass of water has never been easier or cheaper. But this is only because I have the good fortune to live in a developed country. Access to clean water has been a given for a long time and I didn’t have to learn how purify water as a means of survival.
Finding and purifying water in the wild can differ depending on the environment that you are located in. There are methods of locating and collecting water that can be used across different environments. Some are more dependent on location though. Here are some location-specific ways to find, collect and purify water.
Why You Need Water
Find Drinking Water In The Wild
Water In The Desert
Only search the desert for water in the cooler times of the day. Pay attention to your surrounds. If you see wildlife gathering in certain areas or see animal tracks heading in a particular direction, there’s a good chance you’ll find water nearby. Check canyons, creek beds and other low-lying areas for water. In the northern hemisphere, north-facing canyons will store water the longest. In the southern hemisphere south facing canyons will store water longest. This is because they remain protected from the sun for most of the day. If the creek beds are dry, be sure to dig into the edges for any remaining water.
Green vegetation is a good sign that there is water around. You may be able to see it, or you may need to dig down toward the roots of the plant to find it. In Australia, the roots of the red or blue Mallee Eucalypt store water, should you need some on your bushwalks. The roots will be close to the surface about 2-3m away from the trunk. Pull up the root and cut into smaller sections. Stand the root upright in a container and allow the water to drain out.
Drinking from barrel cacti should be your last resort. Most of these cacti are poisonous and can cause temporary paralysis or serious illness. The only safe species is the fishhook barrel cactus located in the south Arizona, the far west of Texas and the southwest of Mexico. Take the top of the plant, scoop out the white flesh inside and squeeze out the moisture. Cactus fruit can supply some of your water needs, but not all. Prickly Pear is a particularly well-known cactus fruit. Pick the fruit carefully to avoid the spines and roast briefly in the coals of a fire to remove the hairs and spines. This makes the juicy fruit edible.
You can also check under rocks for dew, or use the transpiration method to collect moisture from plants. Secure a plastic bag over the leaves of a tree and weight the bag with a small rock so that water can collect in the base. Leave the bag on the branch for the day and allow the water to collect
Dowsing is often mentioned as a method for finding water. A divining or dowsing rod is a ‘Y’ or ‘L’ shaped stick. Dowsers use the rod to locate underground water sources. This method is ineffective, and many studies have proved it so. Do not bother with dowsing.
Find Water In The Mountains
Finding water in the mountains should be a much easier task than in the desert. Water collects in the mountains in various ways, sometimes as ice or snow, and other times as rivers or streams. A water source may be visible, if so, refill your drinking containers from running water often. Running water is preferable to stagnant ponds or lakes.
If a water source is not evident, pay attention to your surroundings as water will try and find a way to the bottom of the mountain. It will often collect in small crevices, gullies or even tree hollows. As mentioned above, look for animal activity that can show the presence of nearby water. Try digging down into the edge of dry creek beds to discover water, as often there will still be water remaining in the earth. Dig down about a foot and see if water seeps into the hole. Try locations near green vegetation, as there is likely water nearby. You could also use the transpiration method as described above to collect water.
An Ocean Of Water
There are two ways to get drinking water if you’re lost in the ocean – capture rainwater using any materials at hand, or desalinate the seawater. Desalination is the removal of salt from the water, making it drinkable. You can buy inflatable desalination kits, or you can make one with a few simple items. Place your salt water in a large bowl or container. Place a smaller cup or container in the center, keeping the lip above the sea water. Cover these bowls with plastic wrap or similar material and weigh it down in the center toward the smaller cup. Allow the sun to heat the water. The saltwater will evaporate, and it will condensate on the plastic material. The weight (rock) will direct the moisture to drip down in the smaller cup or container, providing fresh water suitable for drinking.
Locate Water In The Tundra & Frozen Land
Water is more abundant in the arctic and alpine regions. It may be present in rivers, streams, ponds, or ice and snow. Water from running streams is likely to be fresh and drinkable. Water from stagnant ponds will need to be filtered and purified. Be aware that you may not feel as thirsty in a colder climate which may put you at risk of dehydration.
Ice and snow need to be melted before you drink it. This is to conserve energy that the body would use to melt the ice and avoid internal cold injuries. You can melt the snow or ice by placing in a bag close to your body between clothing layers or heat it using fire. Choose ice over snow if possible, as it yields more water.
Older sea ice loses its salinity over time and can be melted for drinking water. Aged sea ice is identified by rounded edges and bluish color.
Water In The Jungle
The jungle provides ample opportunities for collecting water. In this environment, animals can again lead you to a water source. Follow animal tracks or observe the wildlife around you. Bees are never far from a water source, and ants can form a line toward a water reservoir within a tree.
Large leaves located on the floor of the jungle provide a good surface for collecting the rain or dew overnight. Angle them into a container and allow the water to collect overnight.
Green bamboo contains a drinkable liquid inside the stem. Bend the bamboo down toward the ground a secure it in position. Place a container beneath the end of it and cut a small section off the tip. Leave this set up overnight, and by morning you will have collected some clear and odorless water.
You can get water from the flowering stalk of palm trees. Use a similar method to above, bending the stalk and cutting a thin section off the tip. Palms can renew the flow of water every 12 hours which could provide up to a liter or quart of water a day. Coconuts contain a large amount of liquid too. Be aware, consuming these in large amounts could produce a laxative effect and reverse your efforts to remain hydrated.
A solar still will work well in the jungle too. Dig a large hole in the ground, with a deeper section in the middle, place your container in this area. Put a tarp, poncho or piece of plastic over the top. Secure the tarp around the edges with materials available. Then weigh down the center with rocks.
Quite a few of the methods described above will apply in a forest setting. Scout around for obvious sources of water first, and then observe wildlife which can show the location of a nearby water source.
Collecting rainwater is the simplest method. Collect it by suspending a tarp, poncho or similar between trees and weighting one edge downward into your container. A larger surface area will allow you to collect more water, for that reason, use the largest piece of plastic, tarp or poncho that you can find.
Wrap clothing or other material around your ankles and go for a walk through grasses in the early morning dew. Once the material is nice and wet, squeeze it out into a container.
Check rock crevices and tree crotches. Tapping a tree is another option. Insert a knife blade into the trunk of a tree (above a large root is a good place) at an upward angle. Insert a piece of grass or stick into the incision, and the sap in the tree will run down this ‘spile’ into your container. The tree has already completed the purification process for you, and the result is sap that is slightly sweet and watery. Maple, birch and sycamore trees are some of the species that are good for tapping.
Solar stills and transpiration methods would work well in a forest environment too.
Find Water On An Island
An island can provide plenty of fresh water. Search for the obvious first by venturing inland to find a stream or waterfalls. You can collect rainwater or use palm trees and coconuts as described above to get fresh water.
A solar still can be set up using whatever materials you have at hand and can even desalinate sea water if necessary.
A beach well is another effective way to get drinking water on an island. Dig a 3-5 foot hole in the depression behind the first sand dune. Line it with rocks, or timber to stop the sand caving back in. After several hours you will have a few gallons of filtered water ready for drinking.
Water Purification Methods
It is important to filter and purify your water in a survival situation to kill disease- causing organisms, such as parasites, bacteria, and viruses. There are several ways to do it:
You can construct a bushcraft filter. Use larger, and less porous materials layered above smaller and more porous materials. For example, fill a container with gravel, then grass, sand, dirt, and finally material. Place the unfiltered water in the top and allow it to move through your filter into a clean container.
Lifestraw produces lightweight, portable, chemical free and convenient filters. These filters allow you to drink directly from contaminated water sources. They physically filter out 99% of waterborne bacteria and protozoa by using hollow fiber membranes. You can use Lifestraw filters for up to 1000L of contaminated water.
If your water is not clear, filter it first using a piece of material or similar. You can then boil the water for at least one minute (up to 10 minutes is better) and allow it to cool. You can boil clear water straight away. Boiling kills disease-causing organisms but does not remove chemicals, minerals, and other toxins.
You can use household bleach to disinfect water and make it potable. It’s cheap and easy, but can be toxic. Be very cautious with the amount used. The recommended amount is six drops per gallon. Adjust the amount according to how much water you’re working with. Stir and let stand for 30 minutes.
Iodine tablets are another chemical method for purifying water, and they are available in tablet form. If tablets are unavailable, add 5 drops of 2% tincture of iodine to each quart or liter of water. If the water is cloudy, you can safely add 10 drops per liter.
Transpiration and stills are methods of distilling water. Water collected using these methods is ready for drinking. You can also distill water by collecting the steam from boiling water. But, if you have access to fire boiling water is a quicker and easier method of obtaining potable water.
You can use PET bottles to disinfect water using UV rays from the sun. Solar water disinfection (SoDis) can be performed using a 2L or smaller PET bottle with little or no scratches. Fill the bottle ¾ and shake with the lid on. Fill the rest of the way and place in direct sunlight for at least 5 hours. The UV light kills disease-causing organisms in the contaminated water making it safe to drink.
Stories of Survival
In 1982, Steven Callahan set out to sea in a sailing boat he had made himself. The vessel collided with an unknown object after seven days and started to sink. Callahan boarded a life raft with a small amount of food and 8 pints of water. He survived the next 76 days using a spear to catch fish and by rigging up a way to collect rainwater with a few tarps. He also had three solar stills in an emergency pack; they were defective though and Callahan had to pull them apart and managed to get two functioning.
Robert Bugucki survived 43 days in the Australian outback. He ate ants and other insects, flowers, and plants. Early on he found water easily in billabongs and dams. Later he dug holes up to 2.7m deep and allowed the water to seep in, as well as looking under rocks for small water reservoirs. He was eventually located by a news helicopter, nearly 400kms away from where he set off.