Finding Water In The Wilderness: Part 2

The key to staying alive

This is a continuation of the Finding Water article from our May/June 2020 issue, which outlined the primary sources of water you need to look for in a survival situation.

If you feel you have exerted your best efforts to find a primary source of water and have still come up empty, you need to turn to last-ditch water sources – those that will keep you alive for a while, but certainly not keep you thriving.

Illustration by Mike Del Rizzo.
Illustration by Mike Del Rizzo.

Collecting Rain

To harvest enough to keep yourself going, you need to use as big a catchment area as possible and contain the water into any available receptacle. If you have no suitable container on hand, a hole dug in the ground should hold water for a while, but you need to line it with clay or some other type of impermeable material and keep it covered.

Collecting Dew

Heavy dew has been known to provide water, and there are different ways to procure it. If you find yourself in an area of long grass heavy with morning dew, you can make like native Australians and tie rags or tufts of fine grass around your ankles and walk through the dew-covered grass. As the rags or grass tufts absorb the dew, wring the water into a container. Don’t underestimate this procedure. It is surprising how much you can get, especially if you have sponges around.

Vegetation Stills

Stills can be used in many parts of the world, require only a few simple components, and time – it can take as long as 24 hours to get half to one litre of water, and that’s under ideal conditions. Vegetation stills draw water from green leafy plant material, either trees, bushes and shrubs or grasses.

To make a vegetation still, you need a sunny location on which to place the still, a clear plastic bag, green leafy vegetation and a small rock.

  • Fill the bag with air by turning the open end into the breeze or by scooping air into it.
  • Fill the bag half to three-quarters full of the vegetation (or tie the bag onto the end of a branch). Do not use poisonous plants, they will produce poisonous liquid.
  • Remove all sticks or spines that might puncture the bag.
  • Place a small rock or similar item in the bag to weigh it down.
  • Tie the bag securely shut as close to the end as possible; this will maximize the amount of air space in the bag, an important element. If you have a piece of tubing, small straw, or hollow reed, insert one end into the mouth of the bag before closing (remember to tie off or plug the tubing so that air will not escape). The tubing will allow you to drink the condensed water without untying the bag.
  • Place the bag on a slope in full sunlight; the mouth of the bag should be positioned slightly higher than its low point, and the rock should be in the low point of the bag.

If you don’t have a drinking tube to get the condensed water from the still, loosen the tie around the bag’s mouth and drain. Retie the mouth securely and reposition the still to allow further condensation. Don’t forget to change the vegetation in the bag after extracting most of the water from it, to ensure a maximal supply of water.

Solar Stills

I’m always leery of survival skills that require digging a hole. Nevertheless, the solar still can be a very effective method of creating water, particularly in very dry locations such as the desert. To make a solar still, however, you need four critical components: a sunny spot, a receptacle in which to catch the water, a clear plastic sheet (approximately six square feet in area) and some type of weight to place on top of the plastic. You’ll also need to dig a hole, so it wouldn’t hurt to have a shovel or trowel on hand.

If you don’t have a shovel available, a solar still can also be built without digging a hole, if you are lucky enough to have a large container like a barrel. When surviving on a small tropical island off the coast of Belize, I was fortunate to have at my disposal one half of the large plastic container that my life raft came in. This saved me a great deal of digging and proved very effective at removing the water from plants.

Solar stills can take a couple of hours (or more) to make, and their yield is not particularly high. How much you get depends largely on the ambient temperature, the types of vegetation you include, and access to direct sun. A still like this may produce water for two to four days, depending on the location, and thus must be moved every so often. The added bonus is that it also serves as a great dew or rain catch on the outside. You’ll likely need at least three solar stills to maintain your daily water consumption needs.

Here’s how you build the still:

  • Select a sunny site where you believe the soil contains the most moisture. The lower and damper the spot, the better.
  • Dig a bowl-shaped hole, about three or four feet around and two feet deep.
  • If possible, fill the hole with non-poisonous vegetation. Pour saltwater, water contaminated with bacteria or urine into and onto the insides of the hole.
  • Place your collecting receptacle (the wider, the better) at the bottom of the hole, preferably in its own small hole. Do not let any impure water, saltwater or urine get in the receptacle (cup).
  • If you are lucky enough to have a drinking tube, or can fashion one out of available materials, settle it into the receptacle and stretch it out so that it terminates above ground. The tube allows you to step up to the still and drink from it without disturbing it at all.
  • Cover the hole with the plastic sheet; the sheet should be anchored around its perimeter with rocks or other heavy objects.
  • Place a small rock or other weighted object in the centre of the plastic sheet, ensuring that the lowest point of the sheet is now directly above the receptacle.

The idea behind a solar still is that solar energy heats the air, soil, and vegetation (if available) in the hole by passing through the plastic sheet. Moisture from the soil (all soil has moisture) evaporates and condenses on the low point in the plastic. Added vegetation (non-poisonous!) such as leaves, grasses or seaweed can help speed up the process and since solar stills also purify water, the condensed water that collects on the underside of the sheet will be fit to drink.

Water From Plants  

The Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert live in a place where heat extremes are a natural part of life. As part of their adaptation to this harsh climate, they have mastered the art of extracting water from plants. They are able to travel long distances, seeking out roots along the way, which they cut into chunks and mash. The water they squeeze out helps to replenish them.

The Bushmen know that where there is vegetation, there are plants, trees and roots from which water can be procured. But in most cases, the process is painfully slow and only produces enough liquid to wet your mouth. What’s more, to be able to locate and correctly identify a water-bearing root or plant requires on-the-ground instruction from a local survival expert. Even then, the chance of finding one of these plants is slim, making it not worth the effort for most people.

Despite my hesitance to rely on plant innards to provide water, there are a few notable exceptions to the rule. Reaching into a rotted birch tree, pulling out the wet, spongy and punky wood and squeezing it in your hands can produce a good amount of water.

Vines can also be a good source of water if you can properly identify them; poison ivy and moonseed are both poisonous vines, and they’re found in more than just tropical jungles. The most water I’ve ever found in a plant came from a water vine I found when I was surviving for a week in the swamps of Georgia. To extract water from a vine, cut a notch as high as you can reach. Make sure this is the first cut; if you cut the bottom first, the water will recede with capillary action. Then cut the vine off close to the ground. Catch the liquid dropping from the cut vine in a container or in your mouth. When in the Georgian swamps, I simply cut one end of the vine and let it drip for hours down into a can for some fresh clear water (and a few swimming ants).

Some plants, such as the pitcher plant, act as natural receptacles, catching water in their cup-shaped cavities. But again, you will need on-site instruction into plant identification if you are going to collect water from non-poisonous plants. In many cases, if you find the plants you may find a primary source of water nearby.

The following trees (most of which are found in warm, tropical locations) can also provide water:

  • Palms, such as the buri, coconut, sugar, rattan and nips, contain a sugary, drinkable liquid. If you bruise a lower frond and pull it down, the tree will excrete liquid at the site of the injury. Cut another slice every 12 hours to renew the flow.
  • The Baobab tree, which is found in the sandy plains of northern Australia and Africa, collects water during the wet season in its bottle-like trunk. Water can occasionally be found in these trees even after weeks of dry weather.
  • Some of the trees in the banana family can hold up to two litres of water between the bases of the chevron of their leaf stalks.

Digging For Water: Wells

Remember when you were a kid at the beach and you dug a hole so deep that water eventually started seeping through the walls of your creation? Well, you can also use this method to procure some fresh water. If you’re going to the effort of digging a hole and have the necessary hardware on hand, you’d be much better off with a solar still.

Though I have dug for water in many places, often to no avail, the easiest time I ever had was surviving in the plains and forested regions of northern South Africa. There, I found a small, mudhole entirely contaminated by wild pig feces and urine. I moved a short distance downstream of the mudhole and dug a small hole into the soft sand. Within a very short time I had a hole full of water (albeit muddy) free of the animal feces and bacterial pollutants.

For each of the sources listed below, you will need to dig a hole deep enough to allow the water to seep in. How quickly it enters the hole will largely depend on how deep you go and the concentration of water in the soil. Once seepage begins, use a rag to absorb the precious fluid, then wring it into your mouth or into a container.

  • Wherever green vegetation is found
  • Wherever damp surface sand is found
  • In valleys and other low-lying areas
  • At the foot of the concave banks of dry riverbeds
  • At the foot of cliffs or rocky outcroppings
  • At the first depression behind the first sand dune of dry desert lakes

Rocks As Water Sources

No, this is not a misprint. Believe it or not, rocks can also be good (though inconsistent) sources of water, even in extraordinarily dry regions such as the desert. Depressions, holes or fissures in rocks may collect water during rainfall. Any kind of flexible tubing can be used to suck the water from these difficult-to-reach spaces. Some types of porous rocks may even soak up water during a rainfall, like a sponge. You can wring the water out, but inserting flexible tubing into a crack or hole may yield pay dirt. But bear in mind that every rodent in the area will also drink from – and likely urinate or defecate in or near – this same water. So if you can collect it and boil it, you’re much better off. Wiping the dew off rocks in the morning with grass or cloth is another method of obtaining water from rocks.

Water From Animals

Fish usually contain a drinkable fluid, although you have to be careful. Large fish in particular will have a reservoir of water along the spine, but you don’t want to drink the juice from the flesh as it is very rich in protein and uses your body’s water stores during digestion.

Gross though it may be, animal eyes contain water. Extract it by cutting a small slice in them and sucking them.

Using Urine

Very few survival issues cause as much controversy as this one.

My feelings on drinking urine? Don’t do it. The primary dangers of drinking urine come from its salt and toxin content (the same dangers apply to drinking salty ocean water). The salt content (approximately two percent) tends to cause further dehydration, so it’s a case of one step forward and two steps back. Urine also contains metabolic waste by-products, such as formaldehyde, ammonia and dissolved heavy metals. The less diluted it is, the greater the concentration of these by-products you’ll be ingesting. There are numerous documented cases of people dying from drinking their own urine.

If you wait until you’re dehydrated, drinking pee will do you little, if any, good, for the obvious reason that you’ll have little urine to produce anyway. Another safer and more palatable option is to use a solar still to purify your urine.