How to Procure and Purifying Water in Wilderness Safety

Most of us know the importance of consuming enough water to stay hydrated. We also are at least minimally aware of the dangers of dehydration. However, what some of us fail to realize is how important water is to our survival. It is about more than simply staying hydrated. Consuming enough water is important to our decision-making abilities, breathing, and nourishment.

Take a look at these facts about our bodies and water:

1. Our bodies are composed of 60% water

2. 82% of our blood is composed of water

3. 70% of our brains are composed of water

4. 90% of our lungs are composed of water

5. Water helps transport nutrients that fuel or bodies

6. Water is also necessary to eliminate waste from our bodies

If you are just hanging around your house and not really doing anything strenuous, you only need about two to three quarters of water per day to stay perfectly hydrated. However, you need to increase the amount of water you consume with your activities. For moderate activity, or if you are in an extremely hot or cold climate, four to six quarts a day is needed to stay hydrated.

Do not wait until you start to become dehydrated before you worry about drinking enough water. That said, you need to be able to recognize the signs of mild and serious dehydration when out in the wilderness. It may not be you who is dehydrating. It may be someone in your group.

Below are the signs of mild dehydration:

1. Excessive thirst

2. Irritability

3. Weakness

4. Nausea

If the dehydration becomes more serious, there will also be a noticeable change in coordination and mental capacity. The dehydration will make completing the simplest of tasks a difficult endeavor.

In a survival situation, you may not have access to all the water you or your group needs. However, your reaction should never be to ration water. Ration strenuous activities to conserve the water in your body instead. In addition, if you do not have access to water, you should not eat.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Basic Wilderness Safety course?

If you cannot find water, never drink urine, salt water, or blood in the hopes that will help keep you hydrated. All three will help dehydrate you quicker. They do not help to hydrate you or keep you hydrated.

Locating Water Sources


If you are in the wilderness and cannot find a source of water, such as a lake or stream, pay attention to the wildlife that surrounds you to find water.

Animals tend to migrate to water sources in the morning and evening. You can watch them travel through the wilderness to find water. In addition, you can also follow the paths they make. If you see two paths merge into one, the chances are even greater that it will lead to a water source. At night, you can listen for frogs. Frogs require water to live.

Insects are also another great indicator of a nearby water source, as our birds. Flies, mosquitos, and ants are three types of insects whose presence signals that a water source is fairly nearby. If you see birds circling overhead, it is usually a sign there is water somewhere close. That said, there are birds who eat flesh, and the circling means there is a carcass. However, it is still worthwhile to keep an eye on the birds if you need to find water.

Procuring Water from Mother Nature

Mother Nature gives you plenty of sources of water. While some are more obvious choices, such as lakes and streams, there are also other ways to procure water from nature.

Surface Water

Surface water is easy to find. It can be found in ponds, lakes, streams, creeks, and rivers. However, it is a good idea to treat it before you drink it, since it often contains viruses and bacteria. You can also create a seepage basin if the water source is too difficult to get to or does not taste good. To do this, dig a three-foot-wide hole that is about 10 feet from the water source. Dig until water starts to seep into the hole, then dig another foot. Put wood or rocks in the hole to keep mud from falling into it. The dirt and sand will settle overnight, and you will have water to drink.

Ground Water

Ground water is water that is beneath the surface. This type of water may not need to be treated, but it is always best to do so just to be safe. To locate ground water, look for places that are covered with green and plush vegetation, such as the bottom of a hill or even a bend in a dried riverbed. If you see a good amount of hemlock or cattails, that may also be a sign that there is ground water beneath. Dig for ground water following the steps used to create a seepage basin.


You can also collect precipitation as a source of water. That said, if the precipitation is snow, do not eat it. You will use up too much energy. Melt the snow over a fire or let it melt naturally - or with the help of your body heat.

Solar Stills

Solar stills are a way to create drinkable water from condensation using the sun. Solar stills can be purchased, or you can make them yourself if you have the equipment. To build your own, you will need a container for the water, as well as a 6X6 foot sheet of clear plastic. It is helpful if you have a shovel, trowel, tubing, and tape, but those things are not necessary.

To build the solar still, dig a 4x3 foot pit. It should be four feet wide and three-foot deep. You want to dig somewhere where water will collect. Dig a small hole in the center of the pit for the container. If you have tubing, run it from the container to outside the pit. You can use tape to secure the tubing to the container.

Next, cover the pit with plastic. The plastic should not touch the bottom of the pit. Use rocks to hold the plastic in place. Place a small rock in the center of the plastic sheet, above the container. Push down until the plastic slopes at a 45-degree angle. Tie the end of the tubing. Within two hours, condensation will start to form beneath the plastic.

Vegetation Bags and Transpiration Bags

Solar stills can be created to procure water from condensation. There are two different ways that you can create solar stills on land as a means to collect water.

1. Vegetation Bags. To create a vegetation bag, fill one-half to three-quarters of a clear, plastic bag with green vegetation. Put a small rock into the bag. Next, slide a piece or surgical tubing (if you have it) inside the bag so one end of the tubing is near the bottom of the bag. Tie the other end using an overhand knot. Tie the bag closed. You should tie it as close to the top of the bag as you can. The bag should be placed on a slope that receives sunlight. The rock and tubing should be toward the bottom of the bag. The opening of the bag should be higher (or above) than the bottom of the bag. Drain off all liquid before sunset each day. If you used tubing, you can until the knot, then simply drink the water. Replace the vegetation every two to three days.

2. Transpiration Bags. Transpiration bags tend to be better than vegetation bags because the vegetation can be reused. To create a transpiration bag, you will need a clear bag, as well as a non-poisonous brush or tree. As with the vegetation bag, tubing is helpful if you have it. You will need four to six feet of it. Open the bag and fill it with air, then place it over the tree or brush. Use the side of the tree or brush that gets the most sun. As with the vegetation bag, put a rock toward the bottom of the bag, then place the tubing with one end near the bottom of the bag and tying an overhand knot in the other end. Tie the bag closed. Change the location of the bag every few days. You can reuse the same location once the tree or brush has had time to rejuvenate. Drain off liquid each day before sunset.

Banana Trees

Banana trees can be found in tropical rain forests. To get liquid from them, cut them in half with a knife. You should start the cut about three inches up from the ground. Carve a bowl into the top surface of the trunk. Scoop out the water that fills the bowl three times before you drink the liquid. Otherwise, it will upset your stomach.


If you are in the desert, you can get some liquid of cacti. To do this, cut off the top of the cactus. Take out the inner pulp, then place it in a cotton t-shirt or other porous material. You can wring out the moisture into a container. Do not eat the pulp.


Unripe green coconuts are also a good source of liquid. Once they are ripe, the liquid contains oil, which can upset your stomach.

Methods to Purify Water Before Drinking

It is a good idea to purify any water obtained from nature. Water can contain protozoan, bacteria, and viruses that can make you extremely ill if you do not purify it first. Of course, you can always take a chance if you believe the water is safe to drink. That said, it is often better to be safe than to be sorry later.

The best method of purifying water is to boil it. The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Office of Water advises that you bring water to a rapid boil for one minute to purify it. Again, however, it is better to be safe than sorry. You can boil the water a few minutes longer as an extra measure of precaution.

Listed below are other effective water purification methods:

1. Chlorine. You can use chlorine to purify water. However, the EPA questions chlorine's ability to protect you against Cryptosporidium. In fact, the EPA recommends against purifying surface water using chemicals such as chlorine or iodine, but it is up to you to decide. Chlorine, however, does seem to be more effective than iodine, since it better protects against Giardia. That said, both chlorine and iodine are less effective when used to treat cold water. The amount of chlorine you will need to use to purify water will depend on the amount of available chlorine in the solution. You can find this information on the label. Below is a table to help you.


Double the amount of drops for cloudy or colored water. Wait three minutes after you add chlorine, then shake the water with a cap loosely on the container. You want some seepage. Secure the cap. Wait a half hour, then shake again. The water should then be safe to drink.

2. Iodine. There are two types of iodine used to treat water. They are tincture and tablet. If you are using the tincture, add five drops to each quart of water. Double the amount if the water is cloudy or colored. Mix it into the water, then let the water stand for a half hour. If you are using a tablet, place one tablet in a quart of water if the water is warm. Use two tablets if the water is cold. There should be instructions on how to mix it, as well as how long to wait, on the package. If there aren't instructions, follow the steps for mixing and preparing water treated with chlorine.

You can also use a pump or bottle purifier to clean water before drinking it. Choose the one that best fits your needs. The weight, ease-of-use, and the amount of water it can purify should be determining factors.