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How To Find Water in the Wilderness

How to find water in wilderness

Survival – 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Finding Water

The average person can survive for three weeks without food but only three days without water.  It will be your number one priority to ensure survival – it is absolutely essential to life.

If you are in survival mode, don’t wait to look for water when you’re thirsty or when you’ve run out…begin looking for a source as soon as possible.  In fact, while water should be your number one priority, food should actually be your last priority.  In between water and food is finding shelter, but that’s the topic for another article.

You might be surprised to know that water is all around you…you just have to know where to look for it.  In this article, I’m going to break down everything you need to know about finding water.

The Need for Water

Three-quarters of the human body is water and water is needed to keep the body functioning properly.  The problem is that fluids in the body need to be replenished.  Each day the average person loses two to three liters of water doing normal activities.  If you did nothing else but breathe, you would lose water through respiration and perspiration.

human body mostly water
Around 3/4 of the human body is water!

Avoid Fluid Loss

In a survival situation, conserving the water you have on hand and in your body is imperative.

If possible, move slowly, rest and avoid exertion and if the weather is warm, seek shade.  If no shade can be found, use whatever you can find to make a cover.  Even the search for water should be done in the late evening to early morning if the weather is very hot.

Avoid smoking and drinking alcohol which uses water to break the alcohol down.

Eat as little as possible as fluid in your body will be used to break down and digest food.

Talking uses up a lot of body fluids as does breathing through the mouth.  Instead, focus on breathing through the nose and keep chatting to a minimum.

Do not use water to wash or cool yourself unless you are certain about the quantity of your supply.

There’s an old Native American folklore remedy that says to combat thirst, you should put a small pebble under your tongue and keep it there.  It’s supposed to bring saliva to the mouth and keep it moist.  Well, I guess if you’re desperate, it’s worth a shot!

How to Find Water

If you’re lucky enough to find a source of water quickly, your odds of survival just increased exponentially.  For those who are not so fortunate, it will help to be armed with some basic knowledge of where to look.

Water naturally drains downwards, so begin searching at the bottom of slopes, hills, and valleys.  If there is no obvious source, try digging a hole at the bottom of the slope, hill or valley, as water may be just below the surface and will fill up in the hole over time.

Look for lush growth…this will serve as an excellent sign that water is readily available just beneath the surface.

Rainwater is an excellent source but needs to be caught.  If you have something plastic or impermeable with you, use it as a catchment area and drain it into containers of any kind.

What if I Don’t Have Any Containers?

Clay holds water well – dig down a bit into the ground and see if you can find some (it’s usually gray and stiffer than play dough but flexible and mouldable).  Line a hole dug in the ground with it and it will hold water quite well if covered.

If the temperatures are hot during the day and cold at night, you’ll likely see heavy dew.  It will condense on pretty much everything and can be licked off, sponged or soaked up and sucked or wrung out.

The Birds and the Bees!

Watch the animals. Bees, birds and grazing animals will wander towards water every morning and every evening.  Look for trails which are usually well-worn – animals will have followed these trails for many years.

Insects will live within flying distance of water – observe the direction they take.

Most birds (not birds of prey) will fly to and from water.  Some will perch in trees or shrubs near watering holes, especially in the evening.

Not all “wilderness” water is perfectly clean!

Is it Safe?

Once you’ve found water, heed these words of caution…

If the water you’ve found is in a small pool and there is no green vegetation growing around it, be wary.  Pollution, chemicals in the ground or a high concentration of certain minerals have likely polluted the water.  Use a water filter in these situations or, if you don’t have one, be sure to boil the water which will make it safer to drink.  However, the better scenario is to distill the water, but if that’s not complicated enough, the only way distillation will work is if the chemical’s boiling point is higher than water’s boiling point.

If the water you have found is salty, do not drink it – it must be distilled first before consuming it.

Powers of Observation

I remember being on a wilderness canoe trip when I was eight, and watching our guide scoop up water from the river we were paddling on and drinking it…I asked her how she knew it was safe.  She said she could tell the river was healthy by looking at the vegetation on the banks, noting that animals were drinking from it, knowing that motorized watercraft were not permitted on the river and observing that the water was moving, as opposed to stagnant.  Excellent advice if you’re in dire need of hydration.

Water from a wilderness lake away from population and where motor boats are not allowed may give you decent water to survive

It is still highly advisable that this water be filtered or boiled.

Unless you’ve found a spring and collected water close to its origin, you’ll be safer filtering all of your water. Without filtering, water collected from a fast-moving stream with a healthy eco-system still likely contains bacteria that might not sit well in your system.  E-coli, cryptosporidium, and giardia are all found in the healthiest of environments.  Birds, ducks, critters large and small, dead animals, human waste, chemical run-off, can all pollute the water.

Get to the High Ground and Don’t Drink too Fast!

We mentioned earlier that if you get to the low ground, you’ll likely find water because of the law of gravity.  However, there’s another side to that issue.  The higher in elevation you are, away from development, the less likely water will be contaminated.  If the situation is urgent though, you simply have to weigh the odds…will I be rescued soon (and take the chance on drinking unfiltered water) or will I be stranded for awhile?

Once you’ve found water and determined it is safe to drink, take it in sips – don’t guzzle it.  A dehydrated person will vomit if water is consumed in large gulps.

water on cliff
watch for areas of green vegetation and growth. Water has to be nearby

What if you still can’t find a source?

If all else fails and you can’t find a good source of water, this next section of tips will be imperative to your survival.

Harness Condensation

When you’re in survival mode and seeking water, look around you for evidence of life.

Trees and plants draw moisture from the ground up through their roots.  Use this natural “pump” to your advantage and tie a plastic bag around a leafy branch.  Evaporation from the leaves will end up condensing in the bag.  Keep a corner of the bag low and the mouth of the bag high in order to better collect the water down in one corner.

Make a Still

Making a solar still is another way to collect precious amounts of water in the wilderness.

You’ll need a CAMP SPADE first of all.  You can get lots of cheap ones online, but we really like this one for its versatility, indestructibility and the wide variety of accessories!  Well worth the price!

Then, you’ll need a large container (not deep, but as large a mouth as possible like a pan from a hiker's cooking set), and a clear plastic sheet or tarp along with a few rocks.  A suction tube is a bonus, but who really carries this stuff without already anticipating a problem of wilderness dehydration?  Hmmm….

Start by digging a hole in the ground about three feet across and one a half feet deep.  Place a container in the center and then cover the hole with a sheet of plastic.  Place rocks around the edges to secure the plastic.  Carefully place one smaller rock in the center, above the container.

The warmth from the sun will raise the temperature of the air inside the hole and the soil around it and condensation is produced on the underside of the plastic.  Placing the rock in the center of the plastic will ensure the water underneath will run down into the container.

The solar still should collect about 1 pint of water over a 24 hour period.  Check out the video of our solar still building experiment and see how much water we were able to collect!

solar still
A Basic Solar Still to Collect Water from the ground

Distill Water in the Wild

Distilling water in the wilderness is a similar process to the solar still.

You’ll need two containers – one large and one small, a plastic bag, a bungee cord and a rock.

Pour unfiltered/questionable water into the large container and place the small container in the middle, making sure water from the large container doesn’t spill into the small container.  Cover the top with plastic and secure it with a bungee cord.  Place the rock in the middle of the plastic so that it creates a low point over the small container underneath.

Over the next several hours, the water will begin to evaporate and condense on the underside of the plastic and run into the small container in the middle…salt and other heavy metals will be left behind in the large container.

Collect Water from Ice and Snow

If you happen to need water while you’re up higher in elevation, snow can be melted and consumed.

Start with a small amount of snow in the bottom of a pot and slowly add in more.  If you try to melt a lot of snow all at once, the bottom layer will melt but the snow up top will act as an insulator and melt more slowly, potentially causing the pot to scorch.

Sea ice is salty and unsuitable for drinking when melted unless it is distilled.

Water from Plants

Cup-shaped plants are often good little collectors of water, but did you know that the pulp of some cacti can be a source as well?  Except for the giant Saguaro, the pulp inside a cactus can be sucked to release a sweet jelly-like liquid.  Burn off the needles or spines first in a fire and peel off the outer layers.  If the cactus is a large barrel cactus, cut it open horizontally, mash and churn the pulp inside until it becomes watery.  Strain or suck the juice inside.  This is a very difficult task but can provide you with considerable moisture.

many desert plants can be used for fighting off dehydration

If you’ve found a good, reliable source of water but need to keep moving, transporting it will be your next challenge.

Obvious choices would be to use what you have on hand…a canteen, plastic bottle, a collapsible water bag.  If you have nothing to carry water in, consider soaking up as much water as possible with a piece of clothing, and taking just small sucks of water as you walk along.  If you happen to find an old animal horn, it can also be used to carry water by carving out a section into a small cup.

Hopefully, you’ll never be in a dire situation where you lack the basic necessities of life, but if you are, the above tips will give you an excellent head start in your quest for survival!


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