Imagine being lost in the wild without any water. You’re dizzy, exhausted, and lightheaded—all signs of dehydration. You need water and you need it fast. Staying hydrated becomes even more important during a survival situation when you’re exerting more energy to survive. So if you were lost in the wild, would you know how to find water only using clues and hints from the landscape?
In the ideal scenario, you’ll probably have water storage or pre-packaged water you can take with you on the go. But let’s say you don’t have that luxury, you’re away from your supply, or you’ve run out of water. Here are our tips for finding water in the wild.
Signs of Fresh Water
Although many in search of fresh water in a city or town can resort to filtering and purifying water from fish ponds, finding fresh water in the wild can be trickier. The most obvious place to look for water in the wild is a stream, river, or lake. But let’s say there are no large bodies of water in sight or that you’re, unknowingly, just a few miles away from the nearest water source. You can look for signs in the landscape to help you find that water source. Here’s what you should look for:
- Low-lying Areas and Valleys: Water always flows downhill and into valley bottoms, so head in that direction. Water naturally drains into valley bottoms.
- Patches of Green Vegetation: An abundance of lush, green plants is a good sign that a water source is nearby. If you see a patch of vegetation, try digging in that spot. Water may be just below the surface.
- Animals: Most animals drink in the early morning or late afternoon. You can follow animals or animal tracks to water (just be careful of the type of animal you’re following so you don’t get attacked…). The book Outdoor Survival says, “If the tracks lead downhill and converge (they meet up at a certain point), they could lead to water.”
- Insects: A large swarm of insects is a good indicator that a water source is nearby. According to the SAS Survival Handbook, “Ants are dependent upon water. A column of ants marching up a tree is going to a small reservoir of water.” Bees are also good indicators that water is nearby.
- Bird Flight Patterns: If you see birds flying early in the morning in a tight, organized formation, they are probably heading to a water source. Watch their flight patterns and follow them to water.
- The Sound of Running Water: Ok, I know you’re thinking, “Duh! Of course the sound of water is a sign.” But did you know that if you take a moment to stop and listen intently, you can hear the sound of water from great distances? Taking a moment to listen can help you find fresh water.
- Muddy Areas: If you find a muddy patch, start digging. Muddy areas are signs of ground water. Dig a hole that’s a foot deep and a foot in diameter and wait. Water will fill the hole. Just remember to filter and purify the water before you drink it.
How to tell if Water is Safe to Drink
It’s important to understand that any time you find an “unconventional” water source in the wild it’s best to always purify and filter it. Fresh water springs (think the Swiss Alps) are usually clean and good to drink, but even if you’re at a spring always take caution when drinking from an untreated water source, because
- Water in the wild could have feces, blood, and other contaminants. Fill your water bottle or container from the main output source of the water instead of getting it from a still pool downstream. Moving water keeps the water from “marinating” and harboring microorganisms
- Water could be contaminated by chemicals and other pollutants. Check for vegetation and/or signs of animals by the water source. If there aren’t any, it may be contaminated.
Think of these tips before you decide to drink from a body of untreated water. The best option is, of course, to filter and treat every “found” water source.
Even if you get desperate and really thirsty, the US Army Survival Manual cautions to never drink . . .
Chart courtesy of US Army Survival Manual
Always Filter and Purify your Water
When you find a water source, it’s important to find the cleanest water possible. This means that the water is fairly free of turbidity (big floaties). The better your water source, the better your filtered and purified water will be. Also, besides protecting you from contracting any water-borne viruses, starting with the cleanest water possible will maximize the life of your filter.
A common way to purify water is to boil it to kill any microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, etc.). But boiling may not be ideal if you don’t have the necessary equipment to start a fire or a container to hold your water. You can filter your water using a microfilter like the Katadyn Hiker Pro or Katadyn Hiker. Microfilters block impurities and most microorganisms in your water.
If you don’t have a microfilter on hand, you can filter water by straining it through a cloth into a cup, water bottle, or large leaf … but filtering it alone will not eliminate viruses, bacteria, and protozoans in the water. You need a way to purify the water as well.
- Steripen: A Steripen, which purifies water UV light, is great to have on hand. It disrupts the DNA of microbes that could make you sick, purifying your water in seconds. It is small enough to fit in your pocket or daypack. Remember that the water must be clear in order for the Steripen to work (water cannot be full of turbidity—large floaties, branches, leafs, etc.), so pre-filter the water before purifying.
- Micropur Tablets: You can also use Micropur tablets to purify your water. However, keep in mind that when using Micropur tablets it’s important to follow the instructions on the package. It takes four hours for these tablets to kill 99.9% of all microorganisms in the water. They are effective at protecting you from Cryptosporidium, Giardia, bacteria, and viruses in your water.
What if I don’t have a Filter or Purifier?
If you don’t have a way to filter or purify your water, and you’re just trying to find water to survive, the quality of the water may not matter as much to you. Always start with the “cleanest” water source you can find to avoid getting sick. At this point, you’ll have to weigh your chances of getting sick with the possibility of becoming dehydrated.
You can find the “cleanest” water from the following sources:
- Moving water. Always go to the output point of a body of moving water. This way, you’ll know the water is clean. Streams are almost always better than ponds because the water is constantly moving and changing.
- Solar disinfection. Put untreated water (free of turbidity) into clear plastic bottles. Leave the bottle in the sun for about 8hrs. The UV will disinfect the water. This water cannot be stored, but is good for emergencies.
- Rock Beds. Water moving through rock below the surface is generally very clean when you dig it out and it reaches the surface.
- Snow runoff. Runoff from snow that runs is generally very clean until it makes contact with the ground or another contaminated area.
The idea is to find a water source to help you stay hydrated until you can get somewhere with clean, safe water (like your home if you get lost while hiking, or an emergency shelter, etc.).
5 Water Collection Techniques
In addition to looking for signs of fresh water, there are ways that you can use the landscape to collect water using condensation, dew, rainwater, and ice/snow. Always try using more than one water collection technique or use a water collection technique and signs in conjunction so that you can have multiple ways of getting water and a way to increase the amount that you find. Check out these five techniques for collecting water in the wild:
1. Use Condensation from Trees and Branches-- Look for a leafy bush or tree branch that is healthy with vegetation. Tie a plastic bag around the branch using paracord or rope. The evaporation from the plant will create condensation in the bag.
2. Make a Solar Still
- Using plastic sheeting, a shovel, container, drinking tube, and a rock, you can create a solar still—a type of water collection system that uses condensation and the sun to create a water reserve.
- Look for a moist area that gets a lot of sunlight for most of the day. Dig a bowl-shaped hole that’s three feet across and two feet deep. Adding plants and vegetation to your hole helps to create moisture.
- Make sure that you create a small hole at the bottom of the bowl-shaped hole to hold your container. Put the container in that small hole and place your drinking hose into the container so that it runs out of the main hole. Lay the plastic sheet over the hole and cover the sides with rocks and soil to keep the plastic in place.
- Place a rock in the middle of the plastic and let it slide down about 18 inches, right over the top of the container. Add more soil and rocks to the edges of the plastic to keep it in place.
- The moisture from the ground will create condensation because of the heat of the sun. The condensation will run down the plastic into your water container.
3. Melt Ice and Snow
- Melting ice is quicker than melting snow and it will give you more water while using less heat or having to feed a fire or flame.
- If you do have to use snow, dig down. Outdoor Survival suggests “deeper layers are more granular and provide denser snow.”
- If you do not have fuel to melt your snow, create compact balls of snow and place them in the sun or next to your body in a waterproof container. Suck on the bottom of the ball after it’s melted a little. Place it back in your waterproof container to allow it to melt more.
- Remember: Eating ice and snow that aren’t melted into liquid increases the risk for hypothermia. Always melt ice and snow before you use it as a water source.
4. Rainwater: Rainwater is safe to drink unless it’s been in an area where there was a huge fire or a volcanic eruption. You can collect rainwater in any sort of container you have with you during a survival situation. Also, rocky areas capture a lot of water in depressions. Much of this water stays nearly in these depressions nearly year round. If you want to collect rain water for everyday use, make sure that it’s legal to do so in your city or state first.
- Cup-shaped plants and flowers can hold a collection of water
- Bamboo holds water within its hollow joints
- Some vines hold drinkable water. However, some vines have poisonous sap in them, so learn which vines are safe for drinking from. Cut a notch in the stem. Let the water drip into your mouth from the stem.
- Cacti fruit and bodies store water, but again, not all cacti store water that is safe to drink (for example, the multi-fingered cacti in Arizona is poisonous)
- Many plants hold water at their roots.
What’s your advice for finding a water source in the wild? Have you ever used any of these tricks?
Photos courtesy of WikiHow and Howstuffworks.com
SAS Survival Handbook: How to Survive in the Wild, in any Climate, on Land or at Sea by John ‘Lofty’ Wiseman
Outdoor Survival: The Essential Guide to Equipment and Techniques by Garth Hattingh
The Sense of Survival by J. Allan South