Finding Water In The Wilderness

The key to staying alive – part 1

No shelter. No food. No fire.

Except in the most extreme cases, these won’t kill you – at least not quickly. But none of them compares with the lack of water, which carries a whole different level of significance. You can live for more than three weeks without food, but you likely won’t make it much past three days without water. Granted, some people have survived as long as ten days without water, but after the third day the ability to function is radically reduced.

Here’s a moment from one of my Survivorman shows:

After only 24 hours surviving in the Kalahari Desert, the lack of water in my body brought about terrible headaches. Then on my fifth day there, with temperatures on the sand pushing 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius), my water ran out altogether. Over those five days, I had urinated only once, and that was with drinking a measured gallon of water for each of the first four days. On the fifth and sixth days, the few ounces I made by chewing plants and distilling my own urine still didn’t suffice. Even the act of eating the plants used up precious energy, as well as water in my system needed for digestion. Simply chewing in extremely hot weather used up energy I didn’t have to spare.

Our bodies need two to three litres of water each day. Throw in heat, cold, stress, exertion or diarrhea and you need much more. You need to know how to find water, make water, and even prevent your body from losing water.

One thing that people get hung up on with water (assuming they’re lucky enough to find it) is whether they should drink it at all, for fear of getting sick. But learn this mantra: you will die of dehydration a lot faster than you will from the effects of drinking untreated water. In fact, in all but the rarest circumstances, drinking untreated water won’t kill you at all. Even if you do contract parasites, most of them won’t hit you for at least a week, if not longer. Should you make it out alive, you can easily treat most of them, albeit with powerful drugs.

Except in extreme circumstances, water in remote areas is usually safe to drink. Sure, if you’re downstream from a village in Africa or just outside a town that happens to use the stream as its septic system, then you’re probably going to ingest pathogens by drinking the water. Then again, if you’re that close to civilization then you’re likely not in a survival situation at all. I’ve gotten giardia, a nasty parasite that wreaks havoc on your bowels, after drinking from a pristine lake. I’ve had horrible bowel cramps after drinking from a pristine river. But I haven’t died of dehydration after three days.

After drinking questionable water, crush up some charcoal and place in a rag. Strain water through the rag and drink the black liquid. It can prevent a lot of stomach upset.

That being said, never be cavalier about water. It is very possible to drink from contaminated water sources and find yourself knocked down from pain and diarrhea within hours, making your survival ordeal even worse. Your best bet is to assume that all water is contaminated and treat it. If you can purify your water, then you should do so. But if your choice is to drink untreated water or die of dehydration, then drink.

When it comes to looking for water, try to conserve what you have and start looking for an alternate source as soon as possible.


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

Finding & Collecting Water

Your ability to survive will likely depend on your ability to find and collect water. The more proficient you are at identifying the different indicators of water, the better off you’ll be.

I’ve separated water-finding and water-making methods into what I call primary sources, which are listed below, and last-ditch efforts, which you’ll find in the next issue. I’ve done this because the amount of water the human body needs to thrive is much more than what you can get by licking dew off leaves or peeing in a hole and distilling out the condensed water. If you are going to make it out alive from a survival situation, you will need, often desperately, to find a primary water source.

Primary Water Sources

The best primary sources of water are those that flow. These include rivers, streams and creeks. From there, you begin to move to more and more stagnant bodies of water. Lakes and ponds are the next best primary sources, followed by swamps, marshes, fens, bogs, etc. Snow, slush and ice are also primary sources of water.

Look at the water source you have found. Scan the shoreline or look upstream for contaminants, such as dead animals. The higher up the water table you go (such as mountain streams), the closer you are to the purest water that hasn’t picked up a lot of pollutants and decaying matter. But even the sweetest-smelling and freshest-looking mountain streams may have an upstream contaminant that you can’t see.


To locate a primary source of water, your best bet is to study the topography of your surroundings. Indeed, to be successful in finding water, you need to understand the different indicators of water.

Walking Downhill

Although there are subtle differences between regions, walking downhill is usually a very good strategy, since water is a sucker for gravity and readily flows downhill; valley bottoms are great places to find water.

Changes In Vegetation

You should also be on the lookout for changes in vegetation, which indicate changes in the availability of water. If you see a place where vegetation is darker or denser than the surrounding area, there’s a good chance you’ll find water there, if only by digging for it.

Watching The Sky

Another small trick that I’ve often used in survival situations (but it takes a seasoned eye) is to look for subtle changes in the colour of the sky. Typically, the sky directly over a source of water will look bluer than the rest of the sky. Early in the morning, low-lying clouds and fog will tend to congregate directly over a body of water as well. Not only does the body of water reflect the sky differently than a thick forest, but there is also a moisture content difference and temperature difference that causes the fog.

Animal Trails

They may lead you to water, but be warned that they can also lead you to oblivion. If you see numerous game trails, they may even make a formation much like a series of veins (or like a river system on a topographical map). Where the sections join and make a ‘V,’ the point of the ‘V’ will point in the direction of the water.

Following Birds

Birds also tend to congregate near water, and bird flight in the early morning or late afternoon might indicate the direction of water. Grain-eating birds are never too far from water; when they fly straight and low, they are usually headed for water. Note that these types of subtle indicators may well be a long shot.

Bear in mind that most wild creatures urinate and defecate in the same place they drink. So once you’ve located a primary source of water, move at least a couple hundred yards from the spot where the game trail meets the water, preferably upstream. Giardia cysts tend to be closer to the surface, so if you can weigh a vessel down and send it to the lower depths of the lake you have a better chance of retrieving uncontaminated water. A weighted jar or can with a rope tied to it to take it down deeper in the water can work. Once you’re sure the vessel is full of lower-level water, pull it up quickly to minimize the amount of surface water getting in.

Tracking Insects

If you see insects (particularly bees or ants) going into a hole in a tree, there may be water in the hole. Plastic tubing can be used to siphon the water, or a cloth can be stuffed in the hole to absorb the water. The presence of swarming insects also indicates that water is near. Bees are never more than a few miles from a water source, although they have irregular watering times.

Ice, Slush & Snow

If you find yourself in a part of the world or a season of the year when ice, slush and snow are present, you have a good source of water at your fingertips, particularly if you have the ability to make fire.

Many survival instructors will tell you that you should avoid eating snow, largely because it will reduce your body temperature and consume precious energy during warming. This is true, but given the absolute vital role that water plays in survival, I believe the opposite. Eating snow and ice will likely cool your body down and may slightly abrade the inside of your mouth. But if it’s the morning and you’re working hard to assure other aspects of your survival, eating snow will act more toward maintaining body temperature than cooling yourself to a dangerous degree and you need that precious liquid.

You have to be careful about eating snow and ice later in the day, when you’re tired and when it’s starting to cool off outside. This applies to any time you are eating snow; spring included, not just the dead of winter. This is when your body’s defenses are down, and you can do more harm than good.

Of course, the ideal situation is to be able to melt the ice and snow and even heat it before you drink it. If you don’t have a fire available, I like to fill a water bottle (or similar vessel) with snow and put it down my clothing during the day while I work or in my sleeping bag at night while I sleep. It takes a while for the first bit to melt, but once that’s done, the rest melts much more quickly. If I can manage to do this without chilling myself too much, it’s great to wake up to find the water melted and ready to drink.