If you encounter an emergency when hiking, backpacking or camping—or if your goal is to simply live “off the grid” and/or survive off the land—you will definitely need to know how to find and purify water. After finding shelter from the harsh elements of the outdoors, water—or hydration—should definitely be your next big concern, with fire and food rounding out the 4-item priority list for outdoor survival.
Individuals can live for several weeks without food, yet cannot survive but a day or two without water. Water helps regulate the body’s temperature, and is essential for the proper working order of the body’s many organ systems. When outdoors, people need to drink about a gallon of water each day for proper functioning—and a gallon of water weighs approximately 8 pounds. Thus, carrying enough water to survive a multi-day trip can be near impossible due to the added weight. Because of this, it’s extremely important you learn how to locate some form of water in the wild. Moreover, you will need to become skilled at purifying that water to avoid natural water-borne illnesses that can lead to sickness and, in rare cases, even death.
In the following two-part article, we will first outline some ideas for locating water in the wild outdoors. We will then describe in detail several different solutions for filtering and purifying that found water for safe consumption.
- Part One: How to Find Water
- Part Two: How to Purify Water
Part One: How to Find Water
When looking for water that is suitable for drinking, you have many options—some certainly better than others. Here are just a few of those options:
Springs and Natural Streams
If you locate a “clear flowing” spring or stream, these sources are definitely your best bets in terms of drinking water. By “clear flowing” we are talking about a water source without manmade dams or other structures impeding it—a source that is also far away from people and/or civilization that has not been polluted with any type of waste. As you are hiking and exploring, be sure to take full advantage of any natural springs and streams by filling up any suitable water containers in your possession—such as canteens and even plastic water bottles.
Ponds, Lakes and Major Rivers
Ponds, lakes and other “stagnant” water sources can work in a pinch when looking to hydrate, as can large rivers. Stagnant water, however, typically contains a lot of debris, bacteria and some other pretty ugly stuff, while major rivers or manmade waterways are renowned for their pollution. After major flooding events, particularly, you should be very wary of this type of water, especially if it flows through major population centers or near roads and construction zones. Any human contact with the water—including your own—can introduce a whole new level of harmful bacteria and chemicals as it rolls downhill.
Ice and Snow
Most people assume that snow and ice is 100 percent pure. This is usually false. While these sources can certainly represent a source of fairly clean water, they can also be loaded with bacteria, especially in regions with a lot of human activity. Eating snow or ice directly—in its frozen form—can prove dangerous to the person ingesting it, as it can lower the overall body temperature. Brown, black or yellow snow can be especially dangerous. If you come across what you think is clean and safe snow or ice, it will still need to be filtered and purified. Collect the clean snow or ice using a clean, stainless steel or plastic container, and be sure to melt it before you begin the filtering and purification processes described in the next section. Merely putting frozen ice or snow in a pot to boil before melting it will make the resultant water taste truly horrible.
By its very nature and composition, we know that mud contains water. However, in order to extract the water from the mud you will need to do a lot of filtering and purifying. Naturally, mud is not the best option considering the time it will take to make it drinkable, but it will do in an emergency. Mud can usually be found either above or below ground in dry river beds or other areas where water was once present. If you are in a pinch, you can try building a beach or swamp well in a river bed. This is done by creating a hole and shoring that hole up away from the edges of the river bed.
Many plants contain water or drinkable liquids within their stems or roots. Moreover, water tends to collect on plants during the night in the form of dew or condensation. To take advantage of this dew or condensation, you will need to create a system for funneling the water from these plants into a container of some kind. Be careful not to try this system on any type of poisonous plant.
Sea Water and Urine
These two sources of water are the least preferable, but if you simply cannot find water anywhere, there is a way to purify these sources—albeit a very slow and methodical one. To accomplish this, you will need to boil the urine or salt water and “collect the steam with a plastic bag or sheet.” Never drink sea water or urine directly, even after it has been boiled.
If you’re lost, and you simply cannot find water anywhere within your immediate area, your best bet is to begin walking downhill, as that, naturally, is the direction in which water flows. Look for lush or green foliage or dark patches in the earth. There is usually water in the immediate area if you notice these phenomena. Of course, your best bet is to never plan a trip in which you would find yourself in areas without readily available water. This may not always be possible in the cases of emergencies or injuries, but preparation is always the best solution possible when you really need to find water.
Part Two: How to Purify Water
When it comes to creating safe, drinkable water from the samples you’ve collected, there are essentially two steps or phases you will need to conduct: filtering the water and purifying the water. You must go through both of these steps to create potable water. Keep in mind that there are two general categories of “stuff” found in natural water sources: the big stuff we can see, and the microscopic bacteria and organisms that are invisible to the naked eye. Filtering is the process you will use to rid the “big” stuff you can see in the water, like dirt and debris; while purifying is the step you will take to rid the microscopic “stuff.”
To filter water from natural sources such as streams, lakes, rivers, ponds, etc, you have many options. Below we have listed just a handful of the options you can consider.
One of the best options for filtering water is to carry a stack of standard coffee filters in your “bug out bag.” Coffee filters are lightweight and take up virtually no room in your bag. To use a coffee filter, simply place one of the paper-based contraptions over a metal or plastic pot or container. Slowly pour the water you’ve collected into the coffee filter. The filter will trap any dirt or debris that is in the sample, and the remaining water in the pot or container is now ready for purification. Make sure to change the filter often for best results.
Ceramic or Carbon Filters
Hunting, sporting goods and “survival” type stores sell a number of different products for filtering water. Most of these products fall into one of two categories: carbon filters or ceramic filters. Both promise to remove the “icky” stuff from the water (even bacteria), but these can be very expensive and, worst of all, extremely bulky—not suitable for hiking or backpacking. Although some people swear by these filter devices, coffee filters, which do the same basic job, are much cheaper and much more portable.
T-Shirt or Tube Sock
If you don’t have a coffee filter, there are other options you can turn to that offer similar results, albeit not as effective or convenient. A clean tee-shirt or tube sock, for example, can be used to filter the collected water. With this option, you don’t need to worry about any soaps or bacteria your laundry might pass on to the water, as the purification step will rid the water of those substances and organisms.
DIY Natural Filter
It’s fairly easy to build your own filter using the natural materials that are all around you. To build one of these “Bush Craft Filters,” as they are sometimes known, you can use any type of container. You will first begin filling it with smaller, more porous materials, followed by larger and less porous materials. According to one expert survivalist, a Bush Craft Filter can be made the following way: “fill a large or small container with gravel, then grass, sand, dirt, and other fine material. Place the unfiltered water in the top and allow it to move through your filter into a clean container.” Once this process is complete, the water that is left in the container is ready to be purified.
Purifying the water you’ve collected is the second—and last—step you will need to take before drinking it—and the most important step. Like with filtering the water, there are many ways to purify water and thus kill off any harmful bacteria and organisms that are virtually invisible to the naked eye. These methods include:
Boiling water is the oldest and perhaps best method for purifying water that you find in the wild. Bacteria and other organisms cannot survive the high temperatures boiling produces, and once these organisms are dead they no longer pose a threat to you when you ultimately drink it. After creating a fire or other heat source, and using a large metal container (plastic will also do in a pinch), pour the pre-filtered water in and wait until it comes to a roaring boil. Allow the water to boil for 5 to 10 minutes, just to make sure the heat has done its job, and then remove the container from the heat source. Allow the water to cool for several minutes and it is ready to drink.
Distillation is another process for purifying water, but not a very convenient or expedient one. Water can be distilled using store bought or manmade stills and through transpiration. Water can also be distilled by collecting the steam from boiling water and allowing it to condensate. However, if you have access to fire, and the water you are collecting is from a natural, non-saltwater source, you are much better off just boiling the water instead.
Chlorine is a great way to purify water. In fact, it is has been used for decades in swimming pools around the globe for that very purpose. A cheap form of chlorine is regular household bleach, without any dyes or scents added, which is available in nearly all supermarkets and DIY stores. If you elect to use bleach to purify your water, remember that it can be very toxic in large amounts. Experts suggest you use a mere six drops of bleach per gallon of found water when purifying it. After adding the bleach, make sure to shake the bottle of water vigorously to ensure the chlorine has been properly absorbed. You should be able to notice a faint smell of chlorine in the water when you drink it. If you don’t smell chlorine, simply add another drop or two to your mixture. Although it may sound odd to add bleach to your drinking water, the odd taste you may experience is better than a bacterial infection or dehydration.
If you have a lot of time on your hands, you can use the ultraviolet light of the sun to purify the water you’ve gathered. Using a clear plastic water bottle, with no label (this is important), completely fill the plastic bottle with the contaminated water you have collected. Place the bottle on a flat surface in an area that receives direct sunlight. On a sunny day, the ultraviolet radiation from the sun will kill off any harmful bacteria and organisms in about 5 to 6 hours, making it completely safe to drink. On cloudy days with less sunlight, the process may take double the time.
Iodine—the same iodine that is added to salt—is another rather inexpensive and convenient method for purifying water. Iodine is essentially available in two forms: liquid and tablets. The tablets are very convenient, as they are designed specifically for the purpose of water purification, with dosage instructions included right on the bottle. However, iodine tablets are much more expensive than iodine in its liquid form, known as “2 percent iodine tincture.” Experts advise that you add a minimum of 5 and no more than 10 drops of the 2 percent iodine tincture to each quart or liter of unpurified water. As with the chlorine, be sure to shake the bottle well to ensure all the iodine has been dissolved.
Filtering and purifying the water you collect is an essential step for avoiding the illnesses and discomfort that may result from ingesting water-borne bacteria. However, if there are simply no methods available for purifying the water you find: no way to make fire, no container to put the water in, no chemicals handy, etc., your best bet is to drink the water anyway. Dehydration is much more serious—and will kill you much faster—than any illness you may pick up from drinking contaminated water. It may not be a pleasant experience, but at least you’ll be alive at the end of the ordeal to tell your story.