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How to Find Water in the Wilderness

do I need to purify water

Water is one of the most important resources you will have in nearly any scenario, from a survival standpoint to every day business. With that being said, you must know how to find water in the wilderness. 

Our bodies are made of roughly 60-70 percent water, that alone lets you know just how important it is. Going without it can affect not only your physical prowess, but also your ability to think clearly. Not a good thing when dealing with a survival scenario or even what was meant to be a short hike where you find yourself on the opposite end of where you thought you were.

Survival experts agree

Survival experts the world over will agree that ensuring you and your party has enough potable water is one of the most important things you can do. This is done by preparation, packing proper gear such as water purifiers and water filters and knowing how to find water in the wild. Remember the survival rule of 3. Learn it-live it.

Survival Rule of 3

  • You can survive 3 minutes without air or in icy water
  • You can survive for 3 hours without proper shelter in harsh conditions
  • You can survive for 3 days without water
how to find water

The only issue with the water portion of the survival rule of 3 is that you will begin to feel the effects of dehydration after the first day, if not sooner. This is amplified if you live in a hot climate. You’ll begin to make rash decisions that could negatively affect yourself and your party if you don’t find water quickly.

Going without water for 24 hours is survivable, but you will feel weak and have a hard time performing even the easiest of tasks. You will have a tough time defending yourself if the need arises and could expose your family and children to a dangerous situation. Proper preparation is important, but it’s also good to know different ways to find water and how to treat water for the situations that can’t be prevented.

how to find water to survive in the wild

knowing how to find water in the wild is a skill set you must have

I once took a hike in a location I wasn’t familiar with. My hiking partners assured me we didn’t need to bring water. I always do when I hike solo, but took their advice and we began our trek with nothing but the clothes on our backs. It was the one and only time I ever set off on a trail without at least a bottle of water or a water filter slung around my neck. Bad idea. We didn’t realize how hot it was that day and how steep the climb would be. We ended up exhausted and frantically began searching for water. One member of the party took off at a running pace and, being unfamiliar with the landscape, I was forced to jog to keep up. Thus, further dehydrating ourselves.

Don’t do it, it’s not worth it when preparation is so incredibly easy. Before stepping foot on a trail, I want you to do 3 things:

  1. Always bring a container of water
  2. Attach a backpacking water filter to a lanyard and sling it over your neck or other water purification system
  3. Learn how to find water in the wilderness

This is more important than bringing food, weapons or even a map. You never know what you will encounter in the woods. Not that I’m trying to discourage you from taking an impromptu hike- just want to let you know that you could encounter a hairy situation out there!

*Read about the LifeStraw water filters we tested in the field.*

A healthy individual can survive on 2 to 3 quarts of water per day. That’s considering you’re not doing anything too strenuous. If you’re running or chopping trees with a hatchet to build a shelter, you will need much more to maintain. Bump that number up to at least 4 to 6 quarts if it’s hot outside.

chop trees to build shelter

You don’t want to find yourself in a water rationing situation!

Don't Drink Bodily Fluids

Don’t drink piss, blood or salt water! I’ve received a lot of questions over the years about whether or not you can drink your own urine. Even if you are dangerously dehydrated, your urine will be full of salts, which will only worsen your condition. You will end up losing more water than you could ever gain from drinking urine. The LifeStraw Water Filter doesn’t help you drink your own piss either, nor does any of the other water filters that I’m aware of.

Word to the Wise: Always Filter Wilderness Water

No matter the source of your newfound source of water—lakes, running streams, empty bucket left at a campsite that filled with rainwater—always filter or purify before putting to your lips. Obviously, if your life depended on it and there was no other water source for untold miles, then you’re going to have to drink without purifying. You never know what you’re ingesting with ‘found’ water.

How do you find water in the Wild?

First, go for the low hanging fruit of lake water, running streams and rivers. Anything with running water should be relatively easy to track down and utilize. You want to look for flowing water. Why? Flowing water is safer and has less contaminates such as bacteria. Start small and go big. Search for small streams first—they have fewer contaminates compared to larger rivers. You can still harvest water from a river, but you may have to take a few extra steps that we’ll discuss later.

can you drink water from a lake

Be wary of ponds and stagnant water

Ponds and stagnant water carries an increased chance of bacteria and can make you sick and hamper your survival options.

use your senses

To locate bodies of water in the wild, you have to use what you have- your natural senses. Stop, look and listen for sounds of running water.

It’s doubtful that you’ll luck up and actually hear running water, so your next step is to use mammals, birds, lizards and insects to find water. Swarms of insects, such as mosquitos can be a good sign water is within reach. Ants use a good deal of water and place their nests relatively close to a source. Look for ant piles. Birds fly near water early in the morning and late in the evening. Be mindful of their activities and you may luck up. Watch the animal trails. You’ll be able to spot them easily with a little practice.

When multiple trails merge into one, there’s a reason for it. It’s high traffic and probably leads to water. Think of it as a community sharing roads. Be like the animals and you will survive.

However, be careful when approaching a water source. Especially, if you are in one of the bayou states. Everywhere you look there are alligators and snakes.

can you drink pond water to survive

Keep an eye on animal activity

Keeping an eye on animal activities around you can spell life or death for you and your party. Be mindful and take note, even if you’re not in search of water—nature provides many answers to questions you didn’t know you had. Numerous animal sightings signals that there is some type of water source close by. Find yourself among the only living organisms with a large brain—probably not a good place to be!

Use your environment to your advantage

There are certain land features that can indicate a body of water isn’t far away. Look for ditches, valleys and lush green vegetation. Water searches for the lowest possible elevation.

You found water! Congratulations, now you have to collect it--very carefully!

As we stated previously, be careful approaching any body of water. You’re likely not the first animal to get the idea. Could be a thirsty pack of wolves decided to take a water break the same time you did or an alligator is patrolling the waterways looking for easy prey. Keep your eyes peeled for activity. You can collect your bounty once the coast is clear.

Surface Water

You can collect surface water from streams, ponds, lakes and rivers. Remember, look for running water first, if not available, then you will have to use a few tricks to properly collect surface water. The main problem with surface water from rivers, lakes, streams and ponds is they are prone to contamination. One scoop is full of viruses, bacteria and protozoan. You should always treat the water if you came prepared with a backpacking water filter or water purification system. If not, you can always boil it over a campfire, but that takes time and you may not want your location known.

No luck? Collect Precipitation!

Rainwater is one of the easiest and safest ways to refill your water containers and stay hydrated without risking disease or infection from collecting water from an unsafe source. You never know where your water has been, but rainwater is usually safe to drink.

There are many ways to collect rainwater and each one is more efficient than just sticking your tongue out. Use your containers to trap water. If you don’t have anything on you, use a tarp or rain gear and place a rock in the center to let the water pool and collect. Bingo—you now have drinking water!

Snow can also give you a lifeline in the quest for safe drinking water. Beware not to eat the snow—you’ll waste energy and won’t get much in return for your efforts. You have to melt it by fire or shake it up in your canteen. You can also stuff it in your bag between your clothes or sleeping bag and liquefy it. If that doesn’t work, wait for the sun to warm it up if that’s an option based on your location.

Collect Condensation

You can fill up your canteen quickly by collecting the morning dew. It may sound odd, but all you have to do is tie a t-shirt or other absorbent material around your calves and ankles and take a walk through tall grass. Once saturated, wring the water into your canteen and start over. This can get you through desperate times.

Search Vegetation for Water

If you happen to find yourself in the right location, you just may be able to find plenty of water from local vegetation. All you have to do is collect rainwater trapped in hollow portions of trees and plants. You can also break open cacti and water vines if you can find them.

If you find yourself unsuccessful using vegetation for water to survive, you can crush the plants into a milky pulp and use it. Just make sure it’s not poisonous or your problem will become much worse.

Make a Vegetation Bag

Find yourself a clear plastic bag. Place a few handfuls of vegetation inside. Place something heavy inside such as a rock and tie the other end to trap air. Place bag directly in the sun. You may have to change out the vegetation every 2-3 days, but hopefully you won’t be out there that long and can find your way back to civilization or remedy your situation.

how to find water in the desert

Make a Transpiration Bag

A transpiration bag is superior to a vegetation bag because you can use the same vegetation over and over and continue filling your bag with water without having to find new vegetation. Similar concept, but what you are going to do this time to collect plan transpiration is to place a clear plastic bag over a portion of a bush or tree. Make sure to cover the leafy vegetation and not poke holes in the bag. Make sure to place on the sunny side of the tree to get more sun exposure. Same as before, place a rock in the bag and let it go down to the lowest point. Tie the other end and close off the bag.

You will need to change the bag’s location on the tree or bush every 2 to 3 days as needed. Drain it each day.

Is it safe to drink wild water?

Unfortunately, we’ve polluted so much of our planet’s water, it’s almost never safe to drink found water without first purifying it. Pollution from careless individuals and runoff from larger bodies of water has hurt our natural waters. You should never drink or use untreated water, no matter how “pure” it seems at first glance. I can assure you, there’s almost always something lurking.

You should strive to always carry safe drinking water on your excursions. A few gallons in your vehicle and pack as much as you can safely carry when you strike out into the unknown. I call it the unknown because even if you know every square foot of the trail- you have no idea what’s out there waiting for you. True story.

Here’s a great survival book to read up on that will teach you survival tactics and wilderness survival. Bushcraft 101 was written by Dave Canterbury, a survivalist and self-reliance expert. He uses the 5C’s of survivability- cutting tools, covering, combustion devices, containers and cordages. In this book, you’ll learn collecting and cooking food, protecting yourself from the elements and choosing the right items for your pack. It’s a great book to read up on bushcraft and wilderness survival during your spare time so you can adequately prepare. This book is used as a go-to resource by many. 

You can get it here.

I hope you enjoyed this article about how to find water in the wild. There are many techniques I didn’t cover, but can always circle back in another article at a later date. Let us know in the comments which ones you’ve used in the past and anything I may have left out. I’m currently working on an article that discusses how to purify water in the wild and where you can find water in the desert.

Until then, check out our other articles!


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