How to Find Water in the Wild

By: Charles W. Bryant
Flowing river
It's best to get water from fast-moving sources like this river.
Ayazad |

Getting lost or stranded in the wild is something that could happen to just about anyone. Day hikers, tourists, Sunday drivers and experienced outdoorsmen are all subject to circumstances beyond their control. Any and all of them could end up alone and lost, with only their wits to rely on for survival. The single most important thing you need to live is water. If you're resourceful and know where to look, you can find or collect good drinking water in just about any environment on Earth.

To maintain good health, the human body needs a minimum of two quarts of water per day [source: Field Manual 21-76-1]. If you're lost in the wild, chances are you'll be exerting yourself, and you may be in a hot or cold environment. Both of these factors mean you should drink more than the min­imum amount. It's easy to think that a cold environment might pose less of a risk, but that's not the case. You may perspire less, but you lose water through your skin because of the dry air. You should also drink more water if you're in heavy winds.



Your body is about two-thirds water and uses it to help circulate blood, process food and assist other internal processes. If you use more water than you take in, you'll begin to suffer from dehydration. With severe dehydration, your cells shrink and circulation stops, causing a lack of oxygen flow to your muscles. Dehydration can start as soon as six hours of not having water, and more than a full day without water is cause for serious concern. The human body can only live about three days without it.

Now that we understand the importance of water, it should be pretty clear that your shelter should be as close to a water source as possible. If you're lucky enough to ­find a source, you need to make sure you purify it. Clear rivers and lakes may look clean, but there are millions of organisms in fresh water. If you don't purify it, you can get extremely sick from bacteria or viruses. Freshwater springs can be safe to drink from without filtering, but in a survival situation you should err on the side of caution.

In this article, we'll take a look at different ways you can find or collect safe drinking water in the wild.­



Water Basics

The first thing you should do if you're stranded in the wild is find a source of drinkable water. The most obvious sources are streams, rivers and lakes. Animals always know where the water is, so be on the lookout for wildlife or animal tracks. Lush green vegetation is also a sign that water is nearby. Swarming insects may be a hassle, but they also signal that a water source isn't far away. Bird flight paths in the morning or evening can point you in the right direction. Stay on the move until you find a water source. When you pause to rest, use your ears -- rivers can be heard in the quiet woods from great distances. Remember that water always flows downhill, so low-lying areas and valleys are a good bet.

If you find a muddy area, there may be groundwater available. Dig a hole about a foot deep and one foot in diameter and wait. You may be surprised to find that the hole is soon filled with water. This groundwater will be muddy, but straining it through some cloth will clean it up, and it will get you by in the short term. It's crucial to remember that any time you drink found water without purifying it, you're taking a risk.


Rainwater in most rural areas can usually be consumed without risk of disease or illness. If it rains, use any and all containers you can get your hands on to collect it. If you have a poncho or can find some plastic sheeting, spread it out and tie the corners to trees a few feet off the ground. Find a container and tie the poncho on a slant with a slight sag to allow the rain to collect and drain. If you can't find a container, tie it level on all four corners and give it even more of a sag -- it will serve as a makeshift water bag. If the rainwater tastes a little different, it's because it lacks certain minerals that are found in groundwater or streams.

If you're near snow and ice, melt it and drink the water. Don't ever eat it frozen -- it'll reduce your body temperature and lead to dehydration. The melted snow and ice should also be purified if you have the means.

Heavy dew can also provide potable water. Before the sun rises, tie some absorbent cloth around your shins and take a walk through some high grass. You may be able to soak up enough water for an early morning drink. Vegetation helps supply you with water as well. Fruits, coconuts, cacti, vines, palm trees and bamboo can be good sources of liquid sustenance. Bend the top of a green bamboo tree down about a foot off the ground and tie it off. Cut a few inches off the tip, put a container underneath and leave it overnight. The next day, you should have a nice amount of clear, drinkable water.

No matter how dire your circumstances, you should never drink the following:

  • Blood
  • Urine
  • Fish juices
  • Salt water
  • Alcohol
  • Fresh sea ice

Fresh sea ice is milky or grey, has sharp edges, does not break easily and is extremely salty. Older sea ice is usually salt-free, and you can spot it by its blue or black tint, rounded edges and breakability. As with snow, you should melt old sea ice and ideally purify it before you drink­ it.

In the next section, we'll look at some water collection methods.


Water Collection Techniques

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If you're stranded and there isn't a fresh water source around, then you need to get to work on collecting water. There are a few techniques to do this, and it doesn't hurt to set up more than one system. The more water you can collect, the better your chances of survival.

One pretty basic way you can collect water is to make a belowground still. To do this, you'll need some plastic sheeting, a digging tool, a container, a drinking tube and a rock.


  • Choose a moist area that gets sunlight for most of the day.
  • Dig a bowl-shaped hole about three feet across and two feet deep, with an additional sump dug in the center.
  • The sump should be flat and big enough to hold your container.
  • Place the container into the sump.
  • Put the drinking tube in the container and run it up and out of the main hole.
  • Place the plastic over the hole and cover the sides with rock and soil to keep it there.
  • Put your rock in the center of the sheet and let it hang down about 18 inches, directly over the container to form an inverted cone.
  • Add more soil on the edges for stability.

The moisture from the ground reacts with the heat from the sun to produce condensation on the plastic. The still forces the condensation to run down the plastic and into your container. You can also add vegetation inside the hole to increase the amount of moisture -- just make sure the plants aren't poisonous. Use the tube to drink directly from the container. If you don't have one, you can remove the container and reassemble it after. A good still can produce up to one quart of drinking water per day.

For better-tasting water, let it sit for 12 hours if you can afford to. You can also make a filter to remove any visible particles:

  • Find a large can, hollow log or plastic bag. Hollow bamboo will also work.
  • Punch 5-10 small holes around the base of your container and suspend it from the ground.
  • Fill it with alternating layers of rock, sand and cloth.
  • Use both fine and coarse layers, the more the better.
  • Pour your collected water into the filter and catch it in another container below.
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The water should come through fairly clear, if not you can pour it through again. Add charcoal from your fire to remove odor -- just make sure you filter the charcoal out with some cloth. This method merely removes large sediment and improves the taste. You should always purify the water by boiling it.

In the next section, we'll look at some other techniques for collecting water.


More Water Collection Techniques

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If your energy is low, you'll want to avoid the digging involved in a belowground still. All you really need is a clear plastic bag, and you can use the transpiration technique to collect potable water:

  • In the morning, take a bag and tie it around a leafy green tree branch or shrub.
  • Weight the inside with a rock to create a low point for the water to collect.

Over the course of the day the plant will transpire and produce moisture that will collect at the low point. Poke a hole to drink the water or pour it into a container for later. The water will taste like whatever plant you choose, but it's better than nothing. It's also important to use non-poisonous vegetation. Once you're done, tie the hole shut and reuse the bag.


If you're near the coastline, a beach well is an excellent way to get drinkable water. Dig a 3-5 foot hole in the depression behind the first sand dune. This is typically about 100 feet from the waterline. Put rocks in the bottom of the well to keep sand from getting too active and line the sides with wood if you can -- this will prevent the walls from caving in. In a few hours, you could have up to five gallons of filtered water. If it tastes too salty, you should move further back behind the second sand dune.

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This well technique works near any body of water. Dig swamp and lake wells closer to the water than the beach version. The same method also works in the desert during the wet season -- just dig at the low point between dunes, near vegetation. Look for moist soil in dry river beds and chances are you can find groundwater underneath.

Now that we've collected water, it's time to purify it.


Purifying Water

Woman camp cooking
Boil your water for at least ten minutes to kill all bacteria.
Photographer: Photawa | Agency:

If you're lost in the wild near a river or lake, half the battle is over. In order to safely drink this water, you need to purify it. Boiling is the best and easiest way to make fresh water safe -- 10 minutes at a steady boil is a good rule of thumb. Of course, boiling water means you need fire and a container of some kind. If you don't have a container, you can probably find one or more of these items:

  • Aluminum can
  • Tin can
  • Large shell
  • Plastic bottle
  • Glass jar

Use your shirt or other cloth to filter out large bits of sediment before boiling. Believe it or not, plastic bottles do work for boiling. One method is to completely fill the bottle with water, cap it and drop it into some hot coals. The lack of air in the bottle should keep it from melting. If you don't have enough water to fill the bottle, suspend it above the fire with rope or vine so the flames just touch the bottom. The risk of boiling in a plastic bottle is that your bottle and main collection device may be gone. If you can't start a fire, leave the water in the sun in a clear container to help kill bacteria.


Another way to purify water is to use purification tablets. Many companies manufacture them, and they're mandatory in any survival kit. The tablets use either iodine or chlorine to treat the water. Many people are allergic to iodine, so make sure you know if you are before you use them. Murky water often needs more than one tablet to make it safe, and any tablet needs at least 30 minutes to be fully effective. Like with boiling, it's best to give the water an initial straining with some kind of cloth. It's also safer to drink warmer water, so if it's from a cold mountain stream, allow it to heat up a little in the sun first.

When you drop the tablet in the bottle, swish some of the water onto the cap and the mouth's threads. After boiling it or treating it with tablets, pour the water back and forth between two containers. It will add oxygen and improve the taste.

If you want to learn more about survival and nature, follow the links on the next page.


How To Find Water FAQs

Can you find water with a stick?
You can find water using a stick via a process known as dowsing. You will need a divining rod or forked wooden stick and then you simply start walking. When you walk over a source of water, the stick will cross or jerk downward, indicating that there is or was water there.
How do animals find water in the desert?
In the desert, animals find succulent plants, their seeds, or blood and body tissues of prey to quench their thirst. Succulent plants usually store rain or underground water in them. Animals eating succulents get food and water from the same source.
How do geologists find underground water?
Geologists use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to find underground water. MRIs send electric currents into the ground, detecting hydrogen atoms and their quantity. Water no more than 150 meters deep can easily be found with this method.
Can you find water in the Sahara Desert?
The Sahara Desert is extremely dry but it does include two rivers — the Nile and the Niger — as well as seasonal lakes, aquifers and desert oases.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • "How to Choose a Water Filter or Purifier." REI, 2007.
  • "How to Make a Solar Still,", 2007.
  • "How to melt ice or snow to drink,", 2007.
  • "Rainwater harvesting methods,", 2007.
  • ­"Survival, Evasion, and Recovery." U.S. Military Field Manual 21-76-1, June 1999.
  • Curtis, Rick. "The Backpacker's Field Manual", 1998.
  • Jolin, K. " Wilderness Survival: How to Obtain Safe Drinking Water.", August 29, 2007.
  • Tawrell, Paul. "Camping & Wilderness Survival", 2001.