Everything You Need to Know About Finding and Purifying Water in the Wilderness
While it might not seem like the most obvious connection for many hunters, knowing how to find and purify drinking water in the wilderness is an important skill. It can be life-saving, especially if you’re out alone and something happens. On top of that, it’s a basic survival skill which pretty much anyone should pick up at some point or another.
Why Learn to Find and Purify Water?
Picture the following: on the way to your blind one fine morning in search of a big buck, you happen to step wrong. You happen to severely twist your ankle while you go down, leaving you stranded and with only a single bottle of water. You’re hunting in a secluded spot and even if you have the first aid skills to make a splint, you have less than a day’s worth of water with you.
In more extreme situations, such as desert hunting, it becomes even more imperative. Finding water in these circumstances can be challenging enough, but you also need to know how to purify it even then or you risk making yourself quite ill.
The ability to purify water, even without specialized equipment, is another important thing to know. Even running water can be suspect, and making yourself violently sick while trying to survive isn’t going to help you out at all.
Once you’ve learned these skills, however, the applications become endless anywhere you can’t reach a tap or just buy a bottle from the nearest convenience store.
How to Find Water in the Wilderness
It does you little good to have all the purifying equipment in the world if you can’t find water to purify. There’s a variety of methods that you’ll want to be able to employ as the situation demands. There is no one size fits all solution to this sort of problem.
For the most part, these ways of finding water are able to be used no matter where you’re at. This is particularly cool, since most of us aren’t always hunting in the dense woods that non-hunters tend to imagine.
Start with the basics. Slow down and listen. Running water has a distinctive sound and you can usually hear it a long ways off. Clear running water is your best bet, but it will largely depend on what filtration and purification methods you have available to you at the time.
If you’re unfamiliar with the area, look for green vegetation and go towards it. The greener the better, and you’ll quickly find the plant types change as you get closer to a creek, stream, or other body of water. If it’s sizable, you’ll be able to feel the humidity as well.
Watching animal behavior: is one of the best methods around. Where there are animals there’s bound to be water, since they need it to survive just as much as we do. Of course, following a doe to the nearest watering hole isn’t exactly going to help much, so instead you’ll have to learn some other tricks.
Insects, for instance, can often lead you to sources of water you’d never see otherwise.
- Bees, for instance, require freshwater at regular intervals and this means that they’ll need to build their nests within a couple of miles of a source of it. They’re not the best indicator, but they will definitely let you know that there’s water somewhere within reach.
- Ants, on the other hand, can lead you directly to it. Seeing a line of ants going up a tree and into a hollow may indicate a source of water which has soaked through the wood.
- Likewise, birds can be one of the best indicators. Birds will tend to guide their flocks towards water, which means that seeing a group of them there’s usually water nearby. They’ll tend to be flying close to the ground and quickly on their way to water, and they’ll often be slow and almost meandering their way through the tree tops while leaving it.
- Not all birds are good indicators, however. Carnivorous birds, for instance, have a huge range and get most of their moisture from their prey. This means that just seeing a hawk isn’t going to mean there’s water around.
- Oddly enough, water dwelling birds like geese and duck are not a particularly good indicator. These birds often fly high and for rather large distances between bodies of water.
- Mammals are an iffy bet. Looking for well-worn animal trails can be a good idea. One thing to keep in mind here, however, is that pigs and some other mammals are never too far from a source of water so following their tracks can be a good start.
Collecting rainwater is an option during the rainy season. There’re a few different ways but depending on your gear you might be limited to just having to use any containers you have on you in order to collect whatever falls.
Funnels are extremely useful for this, and you can pretty easily find foldable ones online. One or two of these won’t take up much room in your bag and they can come in handy for emergency situations.
You can also set up a tarp or cloth which is slightly permeable and stretch it between several trees with whatever is available. Paracord should always be in your bag anyways, but pretty much anything will work. Place a small rock in the center to create a pronounced “dip” in the center.
After you’ve got the intial setup finished, you can place a pot or any kind of container underneath. The water will run to the dip saturate it, after this happens it will run into the waiting container.
You can also collect dew if the vegetation and conditions in the area allows for it. The easiest way to do this is to simply drag some kind of absorbent cloth along with you while you go. Then you’ll be able to wring it out into a cup in order to gain a fairly clean source of water.
There is one thing to keep in mind when utilizing this method: avoid poisonous plants. The dew may absorb some of the toxins from the plants and this can get you sick or even be fatal depending on what the plants are and how much of the dew you drink.
Dew can be collected in a less efficient manner by simply shaking it off bushes into a wide mouthed container, but unless you’re in a ridiculously cold area it’s probably a better idea to just use your shirt.
Fruits and Vegetation
While it’s more of a last ditch effort than anything, you can also find fruits, vegetables, and even benign plants and crush them to release their water content. You won’t be able to gain much, but anything can help to starve off terminal dehydration.
This works well in both tropical and desert environments. Cacti, in particular, can be utilized quite well in this manner. Their pulp contains a ton of water, but you’ll have to carefully remove the spines from most of them before doing so.
As always, be careful not to use any poisonous plants. You don’t want to end up drinking hemlock juice or anything. If you’re unsure of a plant, avoid it.
Collecting Plant Transpiration
Plants release a lot of water into the air by pulling the water from the roots and into the undersides of the leaves in order to keep themselves hydrated. You can take advantage of this part of the plant’s metabolism in order to get water for yourself instead of allowing it to vaporize.
Tie a canvas bag, or cloth shaped to resemble a bag, around the leaves of the plant in the early morning. Weigh it down with a rock like you would when collecting rainwater. Place a container under the dip and go about your business.
Over the course of the day, you’ll end up with a substantial amount of water left in your container.
Checking Tree Crotches and Rock Crevices
Wherever there areas in the shade, there is bound to be some water. Check in the forks and crotches of trees in the area, and look around for cracks and crevices in rocks. There are quite a few areas where you may be able to find water.
Now, it won’t be much but if you can even get a half cup you’re better off than when you started.
The easiest way to do this is to stick a piece of cloth into the water in order to absorb as much as possible and wringing it out. This works especially well for rock crevices, but it’s a method you can use to gather water pretty much anywhere you find it that’s too small to scoop up.
Make a Solar Still
If you’re in a survival situation and know someone is coming for you, it’s always a good idea to stay in one area. If that’s the case, you can build a solar still in order to take advantage of a few natural processes, namely transpiration.
Dig a pit and place green foliage into it as well as a container in the center.
Then stretch a plastic sheet over the entire affair, anchor it at the sides with dirt or sand. Clear plastic works best, since the sun will be able to penetrate it better. At this point, place a small rock over the center of the plastic in order to create a dip directly above your container.
You’ll make your life a lot easier if you have a small piece of tubing with you. Surgical tubing is actually pretty handy for other things and a small five to eight foot length of it doesn’t take up much room. If you do have it, run it before you place the anchor and leave it along the side. This makes a straw of sorts, so you don’t have to disassemble the still to drink from the water.
The water generated this way will be clean. Be wary of the greenery you use, however, as poisonous plants may be able to pass their toxins along.
Getting Water From Trees
You can actually tap a few species of trees in order to get water from them. Birch and maple are among the best of these, and keep in mind not just any tree will work. This can actually be done with just a knife if you’re careful about it and have some bushcraft skills at your disposal.
First you’ll need to find a suitable tree. Having a container with you already would be ideal, but you can fashion one pretty easily from bark if you know what you’re doing. Birch bark is actually an ideal material for this.
Take a twig about four to six inches long, and strip it of bark. After doing this, you’ll want to split the twig in half and then smooth it out. Afterwards, you’ll want to kind of canoe out the center with your knife by gouging a little gorge into it.
Now that you have your tap, you’ll be scraping bark off the bottom of the tree in order to get at the wood underneath. Place things so that you can easily get your container under it. Gouge a hole into the side of the tree in whichever way you can.
Once the birch or maple water starts flowing, you can insert the tap. Position it so it drips in your container, and then you play the waiting game. Both birch and maple water will be quite sweet if you simmer it down a little bit, and that will also act to purify it.
Collecting Water From Vegetable Sources
You can also collect water from a surprising number of vegetable sources.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to separate branches or vines into three foot lengths and stand them in a trough or container. You can pull up surface roots for the best results, even in arid climates. The important part is to cut them into lengths after you’ve removed them.
There will generally be more water in plants which are in valleys than those which are on hillsides, so pull the root from the lowest area you can easily reach.
The water collected in this way is only good for about twenty four hours, otherwise it will begin to ferment which can make it dangerous to drink. Taste test it first, if it has little to no flavor it is generally safe to drink.
This can be an extremely useful way to collect water in areas which are otherwise quite dry. Remember to cut it in lengths, however, as the capillaries of the tree will tend to be damaged during this process and will heal up soon which will block the flow of water.
Water in Cold and Snowy Areas
If you’re lucky enough to have snow on the ground you’re in luck. Keep in mind that eating snow isn’t a great idea, it can lower your core temperature which takes energy to bring back up to normal. In extreme cases, you can even get hypothermia.
Instead, try melting the snow in any way possible:
- Body heat, such as in between your hands, is a great way to do things. You can also fill your canteen or container with snow and put it in between the layers you’re wearing.
- Fire is an ideal solution. Even if you don’t have any sort of fireproof container you can simply place it near the fire. Of course, the fire will keep you warm as well.
- Keep in mind ice is actually a better source of water than snow, yielding more water for the material amount.
Once you have it melted, you’ll need to keep it from freezing back over. This can be done by placing the container inside your clothing or near your fire. By doing this you won’t have to stop as frequently to melt more snow along the way.
Remember that it’s just as important to stay hydrated in snowy climates as it is in the desert. You might not lose water quite as quickly, but you’ll still need it.
Finding Water in the Desert
Of course, looking around the desert it can be much harder to find water than more temperate climates. It’s definitely not impossible, however, but if you’ve never been in the situation you might not have any clue as to how to go about it.
Digging a well is useful once you think you’ve found a likely area. We’ll cover that in a moment, but this is the basic skill you’ll need in order to get water in most places.
You’ll want to do this in the early morning or late evening, even if you’re really thirsty at midday you’ll just be burning off more of your valuable moisture.
Dig down about a foot and check for damp soil. If the soil isn’t damp in this area, you’ll need to move on. If the area looks particularly likely you might only need to move ten feet or so away, but during the day you should have scouted other likely locations.
If the soil is damp, you’ll want to expand the hole until it’s about a foot in diameter in order to collect water. A small amount should begin to collect in the bottom of your well now, so you’ll want to collect it with a cloth and wring it out into a container.
This water isn’t necessarily safe to drink just yet, so make sure you purify it before drinking.
Searching for Wet Areas
You’ll need to find a spot to dig a well, you can’t just expect to turn up the soil anywhere in the desert and end up with water. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a desert.
One of the best ways to go about this is to look for wildlife. In the desert even insects can be a good way to find things, but animal tracks heading downhill is one of your best bets. Bees also tend to fly in a straight line between water and their hive, and songbirds will need to drink on a regular basis.
Vegetation is also a good bet. Trees, in particular, require a large amount of water to survive. Broadleaves are your best bet, as they require a more constant influx of water than conifers.
If you’re not familiar with the vegetation in the area, just look for the greenest plants in the area, preferably leaved. Aloe and other succulent plants aren’t the best in this area, since they retain water quite well, but they do still need water on occasion.
Looking up and down canyons is another great way to go about things. Try to find one that’s shaded at the hottest times of the day, as they’re much more likely to have retained water from the rainy season.
Dry stream beds may not be as dry as you think they are. If you can find an area in one with a significant amount of shade there may be water just a few inches under the surface. The outside of a river bend is probably your best bet.
The edges of cliffs and mesas are another spot that may prove promising. These areas will often collect and hold water, go along the edge which is shaded in the afternoon for the best results. If it’s rained recently, softer stones may even have retained pockets where there is still water.
All of these methods should help you to find a good spot to dig a well at the very least. If you do your scouting during the day stay in the shade as much as possible.
If you’re having a lot of trouble finding anything, you can always take the high ground in order to identify features which give you a better shot. Scouting out like this is best not done in the hottest part of the day.
Collect Condensation From Metal
This is more of a last ditch effort, but you can definitely give it a shot. When you bed down at night spread out all of your metal tools on an absorbent cloth. In the morning wipe them down and wring the cloth out, it might only get you a couple of mouthfuls but it’s worth a shot.
Other Places to Find Water
Really, you can use any of the general methods in the desert, with lessened return rates. Collecting dew is certainly possible, for instance, if you get up before dawn. The thing to look for here is surface area. Cacti, with all of their spines, actually make a very good location to collect water.
You’ll also find that you can get water in tree hollows. Attach an absorbent rag to a stick and probe around, then wring it out. Looking under and around stones is also a good spot, since moisture takes longer to evaporate there.
Prickly pears also bear a surprising amount of moisture in them, and you can even eat the younger pads. Just be careful while collecting them and you’ll be likely to come out ahead at the end of the day.
Finally, in truly desperate situations, there are barrel cactus. Contrary to what cartoons may have told you, however, you’re going to have to find the right species and even then it’s not always a good idea. The only species which won’t make you ill after removing the water from the inside is the fishhook barrel cactus, which can be found in the American Southwest and the northwest of Mexico.
You can tell it from other varieties of barrel cactus by the “hooks” on the end of it’s spines. You’ll simply need to chop off the top and mash the interior in order to get water. Don’t overdo it, however, as even this relatively safe variation of the cactus can still cause illness due to the water containing oxalic acid.
Finding Water on the Beach
Coastal environments can be some of the worst places to find water, since you can easily dehydrate yourself while within sight of water. If you can’t, or don’t want to, move inland then you’re going to need to resort to
Digging a Well
Get behind the first row of dunes on the beach for your best results. Unlike digging a well in most places, you’ll only need to dig down a couple of inches.
Do not dig further than a couple of inches, since you’ll be collecting the freshwater runoff and if you go deeper you’re likely to encounter ocean water which not only won’t do you any good but may actively harm you.
If the area you’re in doesn’t have dunes, then you can try the bottoms of cliffs. Follow along them until you find greenery and there will almost always be water, usually gathered, but if not you can try digging down a little bit.
Always take a small sip first if you’re digging a beach well, chugging saltwater is both unpleasant and will have extremely negative side effects on your health.
Catch Fish and Collect the Moisture
Suprisingly, saltwater fish aren’t actually too salty on the inside for human consumption. Catch yourself a fish and dice the flesh, then wring it in a cloth.
Do this over a collecting container, of course. It should be enough to sustain you for a long time, and as an added bonus you’ll have some fresh fish. You can also use this method on fish which are too small for consumption, although in a survival situation you’ll probably be able to find a way.
Condensing saltwater is actually possible without a whole lot of extra equipment. In this case, you’ll need to dig two pits and find some rocks. Keep the pits fairly close together to make things easier on yourself. A couple of feet should be sufficient.
Fill the first pit with saltwater then start a fire in the second pit. Place the stones in or near the fire and wait for them to get hot.
In this case, you’ll want something hard since limestone and sandstone will tend to crack up when exposed to heat.
Afterwards, use any method you can find to move the stones into the saltwater and place a towel or piece of cloth over the pit. The more absorbent the better in this case. As soon as it gets saturated with the vapor wring it out.
This should provide you with a whole lot of water in a hurry, although it is fairly labor intensive.
Purifying Your Water
Using most of the above methods to get your water, you’ll now have to purify it in order to use it. There are a lot of reasons to purify your water in some way, but the main reason is always going to be illness.
Water found in the wilderness from most sources will alwqys need to be purified in some way in order to avoid parasites and bacteria which are sometimes present in the water. There are a lot of different ways to do this, so let’s jump in and take an in-depth look at each method.
Most people know that boiling water will kill most microbes that will make you sick. It’s one of the most basic methods of getting things done.
Pretty much all you’ll need is a pot and a fire, however, which makes it a super simple method to use. Bring the water to a rolling boil for five to seven minutes and then let it cool off.
On the plus side, boiling is pretty much foolproof and doesn’t require much in the way of equipment.
The main problem is the fact that it’s going to take a long time compared to some of the more modern methods. It also won’t clarify muddy water or water with a lot of particulate mass, meaning that you may have to combine it with one of the other methods below.
We strongly recommend boiling before filtering, since passing the water through a filter afterwards can cause it to pick up more bacteria.
Keep in mind this is absolutely the best method to use when it comes to killing off microbes in your water. While you’ll have to clarify it in other ways, it isn’t as dependent upon the chemical properties of the water, and a strong rolling boil will make most water safe to drink provided it doesn’t contain actual toxins.
- Cleans virtually all microbes from the water
- Relatively simple and foolproof
- Doesn’t improve water clarity
- Requires fire source
In a pinch, sand filtration is probably the easiest way to clarify water. It’s not going to kill microbes, but if you do things properly you can turn even murky, disgusting water into something passable to drink.
For this method you’ll need a water bottle, gravel and sand. Cotton can also be helpful if you happen to have it, as a last stage it’s pretty easy to wrap a rag around the bottom. Skip the wrapping if you don’t have a ton of water around though.
It’s a pretty easy process:
- Cut the bottom of the water bottle off and invert it.
- Stuff either some pebbles or a cotton rag in the bottom of the bottle, near the “mouth.”
- Add a couple of inches of gravel to the bottle.
- Add sand for another three or four inches.
- Pour the water through.
By doing this, you’ll be able to clarify even the muddiest water as sediments and other suspended particles end up being trapped by the multiple layers of materials. This method is extremely cost effective and might be one of the best ways to clarify stagnant water if you’re stuck in a situation without any extra gear for water purification.
One thing though: boil the water or use some other method of antimicrobial purification afterwards. This is just going to clear the water up for you by removing suspended particles, it doesn’t remove bacteria or other harmful and invisible contaminants from the water.
- Clarifies water surprisingly well
- Simple to use
- Doesn’t remove microbial matter
- Materials can be hard to find if you’re not carrying them already.
Sodium hypochlorite is some useful stuff, but if you happen to have some on hand while you need to purify some water you’re in luck. This method is also quite easy, simply filter your water and then add bleach.
Don’t use any bleach with additives in this instance. Perfumes, dyes, and others all render the chemical useless for this purpose as you’ll simply be contaminating your water.
The guidelines below are for using bleach which is in a 5%-6% solution, check the bottle if you’re not sure. Some solutions come as strong as 10%, which means that you’d need to half the amounts described.
In general, you can use the following guidelines:
- For clear water, add 3 drops per liter of water.
- For water which is very cloudy, add 5 drops.
You’ll need to wait about half an hour for the chemicals to kill off any microbes which might be inhabiting it. Double the waiting time to an hour if the water is very cloudy, just to be sure. If the water is extremely filthy, you’ll want to wait even longer.
Obviously, this method has the advantage of being super simple and not requiring an external source of heat. This means you can keep moving after you’ve added it to the water, just take the jug with you as you go. This makes for an obvious advantage in some situations, since it will allow you to maintain mobility rather than having to sit down and start a fire.
This is less of a wilderness method, however, and more of something which you might want to keep in mind during a disaster.
The main disadvantage here is that you’ll still need to filter the water somehow to remove any sediment or other suspended matter within the solution. This just kills microbes and won’t do anything about possible toxins, or clear the water up. Keep that in mind if you decide to use it.
There also much easier to use chemical solutions which can be used while you’re in the wilderness, and an investment of that sort is likely to be better for the average outdoorsman.
This method also works, at about the same ratios, with the chlorine which is used to disinfect pools. With all that in mind, it might be a good idea to carry a small dropper bottle full when you’re on a trip and run the risk of getting lost, but iodine is usually an easier solution to this problem.
- Very effective at removing microbes
- Easy and quick to perform
- Will not remove particulate matter
- Bleach isn’t always readily available in the wilderness
Disinfection Tablets or Drops
Most of these are iodine based, which actually makes it pretty easy to fudge the method. A 2% tincture of iodine will last for longer and take up less room in your pack than the tablets themselves. This makes them an ideal solution in most cases, since you’ll be able to easily handle things.
This method is similar to the bleach method. Add a couple of drops to your bottle, shake, wait for thirty minutes.
Like bleach, there’s no real way around the fact that this definitely won’t be removing any cloudiness or sediment from your water, you’ll have to rely on a filtration method in order to do that.
It can render most water drinkable, however, and it doesn’t require you to build a fire in order to keep your water clean. A small jar of 2% iodine tincture in your bag can save you from a lot of problems while allowing you to remain mobile.
- Will handle most microbial infections
- Doesn’t require fire
- Doesn’t clean particulate matter
- Iodine isn’t a usual tool in your pack
Saltwater is frusturating, especially when you’re out of water and thirsty. Most of us know better than to drink it, of course, the osmotic action of the salt can kill you much faster than being a bit thirsty, but if it’s the only source available at the time you can also rig a smaller version of the solar still we described above.
In order to do this you’ll need a bowl, a cup, and some plastic wrap. Obviously this is a little bit more equipment intensive than a normal solar still, but it can definitely result in clean water without you having to dig a huge hole.
This will work best in hotter climes, allowing you to get the salt out of the water without requiring much input.
- Place the cup in the center of the bowl.
- Place saltwater in the bowl.
- Place plastic wrap over the top.
- Place a small rock directly over the cup.
That’s about it. This is probably the least labor intensive way to clean salts and minerals from your water. That said, you may still want to filter and/or boil it depending on the location you’re in and what possible contaminants might be in the water.
This is another method which is primarily useful in a disaster situation, if you’re in a survival situation on the beach and won’t be able to get out of it for a few days you’re probably better off building a larger solar still and just using the bowl to collect the water.
- Desalinating water can be extremely useful
- Low maintenance
- You’ll have to remain in the same area.
- Can require some materials you might not have on hand.
Using a Survival Straw
One of the newest methods to comes about takes advantage of some pretty nifty filtration technology. A survival straw can be an absolute lifesaver in the wilderness, and they’re both cheap and don’t take up much room.
There’s really not much to them, they’re simply an extremely fine filter placed inside of a straw configuration. Most of them are good for about 1,000 liters of water, and many claim to reduce bacteria by up to 99.9%.
All you have to do is stick them in the water and draw water through them.
The only issue you’re likely to encounter with them is the fact that unless you go for the super expensive option, they won’t reduce heavy metals or smaller molecules like pesticides. The truth is, however, almost nothing will.
The main disadvantage is simply that you have to have one on you in order to use this method. Don’t cheap out if you do decide to put one in your pack, use a name brand one because it very well may save your life someday.
- Allows for surprisingly easy use
- Removes most particulates and microbes
- Higher end models can be expensive
- No real way to improvise, you either have one in your pack or don’t.
Solar Water Disinfection
As an absolute last resort, you can use the sun as a makeshift UV sterilizerin order to clean your water. This is a last resort method, your first response should be to boil.
You’ll need a clear plastic bottle and some water, that’s about it. The bottle should be as clear as possible, remove any labels or other nonsense on them before you attempt this.
You’ll also need to be in ideal weather conditions, if it’s even slightly overcast this method isn’t going to work very well. All you need to do is find somewhere that gets sun for the whole day, and leave the bottle there for a couple of days.
This method is imprecise at best, but if you have plenty of water and not enough pot space to boil it all at one time it can help to work to reduce microbes before you boil it. It’s also extremely low effort.
A situation where this might be useful would be in an area where you have access to running stream water in the mountains in a hot climate. This really isn’t a method you want to rely on, however.
- Simple, as long as you have a clean bottle
- Easy and low maintenance
- Requires specific weather conditions
- May not be effective against tougher microbes
Filtering With a Water Bottle
There are some pretty cool bottles on the market which will allow you to filter water as you drink from them. For the most part, these will function identically to a survival straw while allowing you to bring your water source with you.
This means the same action which removes sediments and bacteria, allowing you to drink your water without being concerned about microbes. They have roughly the same disadvantages as well, including the fact that they’re not really able to filter heavy metals all that well.
Having one of these on hand on your adventures is a great way to keep yourself in good shape will allowing you to remain mobile. If you can afford one, they’re probably one of the best additions you can make to your survival gear.
They’re not prohibitively expensive either. If you make a habit of venturing into arid climates, investing in one is almost a must.
- Simple to use and easily carried.
- Allows you to store and filter water on the move
- Can be rather expensive, depending on model
- Only reliable for a limited amount of water
Activated Carbon Filter Pumps
Activated carbon is an amazing material when it comes to keeping your water clean. There are numerous small pumps available on the market which can render most water fit for drinking, and they’re surprisingly light and small.
The best of these is going to enable you to pump a ton of water before needing to be replaced. Unlike survival straws, these can usually handle at least 10,000 liters of water before needing to be replaced, and the water can be used however you need after you’ve pumped it rather than being drank directly.
This is the best option for most people, aside from boiling, but they do take up a little bit of room in your pack. If you purchase one with a .01 micron filter, which is fairly common, it will remove pretty much everything that might be in the water and leave you with clean, drinkable water at a pretty impressive rate.
One thing to keep in mind with these is that the filters will wear out quicker if you repeatedly use them for cloudy water. In a survival situation, replacing the membrane is going to be pretty much impossible so you may want to use the sand filtration method on particularly dirty water before you pass it through your pump.
- Supreme filtration of microbes and particulates
- Easy to use as long as you have a water source
- Expensive for a high end one
- Risk of mechanical failure in cheaper ones
Ceramic Water Filters
While not the best option available, ceramic water filters have been used historically for a huge swathe of humanity’s history. What these filters do offer, however, is pretty much indefinite longevity.
Basically, as long as you can figure out how to backwash things, you can keep using them. That said, modern filters tend to clean things out much better, and they’re not exactly what you want to rely on for an extended period. Ceramic, by its nature, tends to be a bit heavy anyways, and most of them will take up a considerable amount of space.
What they are extremely good at, however, is a pre-filtration or boiling method. They’ll clarify most water amazingly well, but they simply aren’t as efficient at removing toxins or microbes as most modern methods.
- Cheap and easy to find
- Works well as a pre-filter
- Not as effective as most modern methods
- Heavy due to materials
In the event that you find yourself without a pot or a modern method of cleaning your water, you may want to think about using a stone in order to get things done properly. If you don’t have a fireproof container around, then there is a way you can still boil the water without damaging your bottle if you’re careful.
For this method you’ll need some rocks and a container.
It’s pretty simple overall:
- Place a pile of small stones in your container and fill with water
- Test a few other rocks to make sure they won’t come in contact with the sides or bottom of your container.
- Place the stones in a fire until they’re hot. Using a couple of non-heated stones is probably the easiest way to move them if you don’t have tongs.
- Place the stone in the container carefully, replace the stone with another one once it’s cooled.
- Try to get a rolling boil going for at least a full minute before you drink the water
While it sounds simple, in practice this is going to be a complete pain. This is why something like a metal canteen is absolutely essential to your gear kit, many of them are made to be able to boil water in and even include a handle.
As a last ditch method, however, this has the obvious attraction of being able to be used in most containers. The main problem is that thin plastic of any sort is going to warp when exposed to even the heat of boiling water, and you run the risk of ruining your container if you misplace one of the hot stones.
Other than that it has all of the advantages of boiling the water, it’s just a different method to do so.
- Can allow you to boil water without a pot
- Removes microbes due to boiling action
- Labor intensive
- Has the potential to ruin a container
It’s not always possible to have an extra container on hand to cut up for something like sand filtration. In this case, you can improvise a filter with your shirt, which should help to cut down on sediment and other floating contaminants like algae.
All you need in this case is a t-shirt or similar article of clothing. Stretch it over the top of your container and pour water through it.
This method works best if you have multiple containers, since you can filter it through the cloth a couple of times, but in many cases you’ll be better off with sand filtration as a method if you do have access to multiple containers.
Keep in mind that this only clarifies the water, it’s not going to remove bacteria in most cases. You’ll still need to chemically disinfect or boil the water afterwards in order to make sure that it’s safe to drink.
- Quick and easy filtration method
- Can be done by almost anyone
- Does nothing against microbial life
- Gets your shirt wet, which can be a serious matter depending on terrain.
Sometimes you’ll have access to a lot of water, but it’ll be extremely murky. Thankfully, most particles are merely suspended in the water, and if you have the time you can allow these particles to sink to the bottom of your container and then pour off the top of the water.
All you need for this is a bottle or other item which can hold water. You simply need to allow things to settle, but this can take a day or more in many cases. This makes it a less expedient method, but it’s a great way to clear up a large amount of water.
After you allow the dirt and mud to settle out of the water, you can slowly pour it into another container and use that container with a chemical method of cleaning or just boil it.
The main problem with this method is that it’s slow. It can, however, be used to clear up a huge amount of water in a situation and allow you to access it at your leisure for further disinfecting. This means it works best when you have access to other methods as well.
You may still need to use a sand filter afterwards, but it will allow you to get inorganic particulate matter out of the filter, which makes everything else a lot easier.
- Removes much particulate matter
- No equipment required
- Won’t remove microbes or all cloudiness
- Can take too long to be effective in desperate situations
UV Water Filtration
Ultraviolet light kills bacteria and viruses with a surprising efficiency. This can be taken advantage of by using some of the specialized devices available on the market. While most UV filters are only available as part of a setup for a full home filtration, there are a number of smaller devices on the market.
These smaller devices are mainly useful because in addition to killing pathogens, they also work extremely quickly compared to any other method. They won’t however, remove sediments or any other contaminants that may be in the water.
In that instance, they can be compared to boiling water.
The main problem, aside from not doing anything about contaminants other than viruses or bacteria, is the fact that they’re expensive, easier to break than most survival gear, and require batteries. Many models are pretty heavy as well, compared to most gear which you might be hiking with.
It’s definitely something to consider, however, and if you’re traveling in areas with known water pathogens they can be a great way to make sure you don’t get sick. For the average survivalist, however, a carbon filter or survival straw is a much better option to be stuck in the pack.
- Quick and easy to use
- Can help to remove nearly all microbes
- Devices are expensive
- Devices are also quite bulky and heavy
This video is a great breakdown of the process of tapping a birch or maple tree. It also shows an alternate method of making a tap, by utilizing the birch trees bark without having to go through the process of creating an external tap using a stick.
She also shows us a way to help the tree heal easier after the water has been collected. By heating and utilizing pine pitch, the wound in the tree can be effectively sealed which helps to keep the tree healthy.
While you won’t always have time to do this in a survival situation, it’s important to make sure that you respect nature. In doing so, you can kind of give the tree a “thank you” for keeping you alive and avoid doing any more damage than necessary while on the trail.
This is a great, short clip which talks about the importance of keeping your water clean. It also shows a couple of novel methods for boiling which you can utilize if you don’t have an appropriate container on hand.
They go a little bit more in-depth about the sickness which can be caused if you don’t clean your water properly, which we haven’t covered fully. Long story short: if you get sick from water, it usually won’t happen immediately but it can seriously ruin your day.
In this video, the host goes over a few of the processes we described earlier in a good amount of detail.
The covered subjects include digging wells, solar stills, and transpiration. All of these are great methods to make sure that you can stay hydrated while you’re out in the wilderness, and having a good visual overview of them is just a bonus.
This video goes over four of the methods we’ve already discussed, as well as showing a novel way to make a branch into a makeshift filter.
While it might not be your “go to” this branch filter could actually come in handy when you’re unable to get a second container for sand filtration. Anything that adds to your knowledge is a good thing after all.
In this video, the host discusses how important it can be to get near the top of a source of water in order to find cleaner water. This is exceptional advice, the closer you get to the source of a creek or stream, the better off you’ll be.
In fact it might be safe to drink without boiling at this point, but making a habit out of it isn’t a good idea. There’s always the risk of infection if you decide to drink water which isn’t purified.
Finding and Purifying Water FAQ
Q: I’m trying to filter water with charcoal and it keeps turning black. Is there any way to avoid that?
A: When using charcoal you have to walk a fine line. This is because if it’s ground too finely, it’ll seep through your filter with the water. While it does work fine as a filtration method, this is the reason that it wasn’t included above.
Instead of grinding it finely, you’ll find that it’s best to place it in chunks. In most places sand filtration is a better method, and if you invest in a pump or survival straw this simply won’t be something you have to worry about at all.
Q: How can I boil water without a pot handy?
A: You absolutely should have a metal container with you when you’re planning on being out for more than a day. That’s common sense, but we don’t always get things the way we want them.
In addition to the stone boiling method we mentioned above, you might be able to use a soda can or other metal object in a pinch. You may also be able to make a makeshift “pot” by taking a larger chunk of wood and repeatedly placing heated rocks on it in order to burn an indentation into the side.
If all else fails and you’re not an expert with bushcraft, you’re pretty much going to have to hope that you figured out another way to get things done. This can mean a wide variety of things, but your best bet is almost always going to be to make sure you’re prepared when you go out.
Q: What is the best way to purify water in the wilderness without a fire?
A: Your best bet in this instance is pretty much always going to be to go with a method of chemical purification. Other options include survival straws and carbon filter pumps, both of which are readily available and at least one of which should grace your pack any time you decide to go out for more than a single night.
At worst, you’ll have to seek out an exceptionally clean source of water and hope for the best. This can be attained by following a stream or creek as far as you can, the higher up the more likely the water is to be clean.
Q: How can I store water in the wilderness?
A: Storing water can be rather problematic, beyond your initial container. Historically, gourds have been used by many natives, and if you’re in the same area you can just keep everything as full as possible in order to make sure that you have a lasting source of water.
In many survival situations, however, you’ll simply have to work with what you have. If you’re very good at bushcraft you may be able to make watertight vessels from available materials, but in most instances you’ll have to rely on what you have with you. Just keep everything topped off at every given opportunity and you should be able to pull through.
By now, you should have a pretty comprehensive knowledge of how to find and purify drinking water in the wilderness. This is an essential skill, and if you’re planning on spending more than a night in the woods you’re going to have to learn how to do it, even if it isn’t a desperate situation. It’s simply not feasible to carry multiple days’ worth of water with you at all times.
We hope that we’ve helped answer any questions you may have, however, and if you have any more let us know below and we’ll get back to you.
Resource & Further Reading