Finding Clean Water in the Wilderness

November 19th, 2013

Finding Clean Water in the Wilderness

fresh spring water

Image via Oakley Originals (Flickr)

I hope that you never become stranded in the wilderness, but in the event that you do, it’s so important that you know how to find safe drinking water – note: “naturally filtered” is a fine claim on bottled water, but in the real world, it’s a bit more involved that that. I want to give you some tips on how to find clean water needed for survival. We hear miraculous survival stories in the news all the time about hikers getting lost or some other unexpected incident where people had to hunker down and survive in the wild until rescued. The one survival tactic all of these people had in common is that they managed to find water. We can live without food much longer than we can live without water, so let’s learn how to find clean drinking water in the wilderness.

Finding Your Water

It might seem as if these initial steps are obvious, but when you’re panicking a bit, it can be hard to keep your wits about you. Survival experts agree there are two key things that anyone must accomplish in a survival situation:

1)     You need to find shelter

2)     You must find clean drinking water

Fans of Lost might remember how Jack came across a fresh water source complete with shelter to boot! Just like that! Depending on where you are, it’s not going to be as easy as a scripted survival story to meet your needs while you are stranded in the wilderness.

Once you set up your shelter, it’s time to enlist some key senses to help you find some water. Use your sense of hearing to listen for any streams, rivers, or even simple droplets dripping somewhere. Use your sense of smell to determine if the area where you are stranded is moist. Does it smell as if it just rained? If so, you might have access to water, if you cannot find a more viable source. Sight will also tell you if everything is moist around you, as will your sense of touch. If your clothing is getting wet at the ankles as you trudge through the land, you’re walking on a potential water source. Being aware of your surroundings will tell you where the water is, so keep an eye open for indications of moisture, and an ear open for running or dripping water.

The ideal place to find water would be a river or stream, a source of running water. If you cannot find such a water source, however, you’re going to have to get a little creative. If the area where you are stranded is heavy with precipitation, be sure to collect any rainwater that falls. Rainwater is generally clean water and safe to drink; it is one of the best sources of water when you are stranded. If you don’t have rain or a running source of water, look for clues as to where water might be hiding, such as groups of animal tracks, bird droppings, or insects. All of these things just might point you in the direction where the wildlife gets its water in your area.

Keep an open mind and don’t be surprised if you find that the wildlife gets its water from the ground or puddles found in tree stumps and rock crevices. Remember, the animals need to drink too, and they will adapt and find water sources much easier than you will, so they might just be drinking out of a space between some rocks where rainwater and dew collects. Follow their lead, and think back to your basic etymology in science class. Remember, certain insects, such as mosquitoes, lay their larvae in water, so if you see a bunch of mosquitoes swarming around, you probably have a water source close by. On a side note, insects are potential disease carriers, be careful.

If you know your plant life, you know that you can find water in plants as well. The key is knowing which plants allow for safe water consumption, and which ones might actually cause additional issues. For example, if you cut into the pulp of a plant and extract a liquid that is sticky, looks milky, or tastes bitter, you might just poison yourself if you drink that particular plant’s water. Other concerns are how your body will react to the plant’s juice. Certain plant water sources contain oil, such as ripe coconuts, and you’ll end up with diarrhea if you consume their liquid. This is very dangerous when stranded in the wilderness, as you will dehydrate very quickly if you end up with an intestinal infection.

Cleaning Your Water

This point segues nicely into some preparation that you should take prior to your excursion in the first place to ensure you can collect and disinfect water should you become stranded. Whether you are taking a day hike or camping for a few weeks, you need to ensure that you have a few items with you – no matter what – when you venture into your wilderness trek. These tools will not only help you extract water from various sources should this become a necessity, they will also help purify the water you do harvest, so you don’t get sick or, worse, die. So, don’t leave home without:

  • A canteen or other safe water-collecting receptacle. Even if you take along bottled water, save the empty plastic bottles for recycling when you get home. Do not dispose of them in any campground bin. If you are stranded, you might need those empty bottles for collecting water.
  • A cooking pot that can be used on a campfire.
  • Matches or a lighter.
  • A piece of cotton cloth through which you can filter muddy water.
  • A pocketknife.
  • Water purification tablets – do not leave home without these! It doesn’t matter if you are just taking an afternoon hike. You need these tablets to ensure you can disinfect whatever water you find.

If you pack the bulleted items, you’ll be able to collect water. Now, let’s talk about how to clean water you collect to ensure it doesn’t make you sick.

Whether you collect your water from a natural flowing source, the rain, wringing out your dew-moistened clothing, cutting into plants, or sopping up puddles from tree stumps and rocks, you need purify your water as best you can.

  • Don’t assume that the beautiful stream that you just discovered has clean water; it might not.
  • Don’t assume that you’re home free once you’ve collected a ton of water either; you might not be.
  • Make certain you know how to clean water and how to keep it clean for safe drinking.

First, add your water purification tablets per their instructions to the water you’ve collected. Then, run your water through a homemade filter. Take one of your plastic water bottles and cut the bottom off it. Turn it upside down and fill it with about two or three inches of pebbles. Take your cotton cloth, fold it to fit, and place it inside the plastic bottle on top of your pebbles. Add another layer of pebble or gravel – if you can find it – on top of your cotton cloth. Fill your bottle the rest of the way with sand or dirt. You’ve just made your filter.

Take your water filter and set the drinking tip inside your canteen’s mouth or into another collection container. Run your water through your homemade filter and into your collection container. Depending on the effectiveness of the materials you can find where you’re stranded, you might need to run the water through several times until it appears clean. Store the water in a covered container so insects cannot get to it and infect it.

If you’ve left the water purification tablets at home, you can take two additional steps to, hopefully, kill any residual bacteria, parasites, and viruses that might be lurking in your collected water. One thing you can do is to take some charcoal from your campfire, crush it up a bit, and add it to your homemade water filter; put it in between your second layer of gravel and your sand. The other thing should do no matter what – unless your water purification tablets direct otherwise – is to boil your collected water for one minute at a rolling boil to ensure any harmful microorganisms are killed.

I do genuinely hope that you never end up stranded in the wilderness with the need to employ survival techniques. If you do, however, stay calm and keep in mind these tips for finding and cleansing water. You need water before food, so ensure you have access to that first. Then, you can figure out what to eat until you are rescued.


Written By: Lynn Taylor

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