How to obtain and purify water in the wild.

Priorities of Survival change depending on your location and the local climate. Priorities in the Jungle will be different than those of the Tundra. One of the basics of survival, no matter where you are in the world, is finding and purifying water. Without water, within a day you will notice a significant deterioriation of your mental clarity and energy level. So it is without a doubt one of the most if not the most vital survival skills you must master. It is an often disregard topic because it doesn’t market too many products. There are few cool gadgets that aid in finding and purifying water beyond the occasional field filter.  

General Water collection methods

Solar still/ below ground still – Solar Stills are one of the most versatile and easiest forms of water purification in a survival scenario. The ease of making one and it’s utility make it a go to staple of knowledge for almost every location. It can be made with nothing more than a cup and a sheet of clear plastic. It is useful  distilling water that would otherwise be undrinkable. Digging a hole in the ground and laying fresh green leaves or an open container of water next to a catch cup located in the center.

Field expedient water filter – There are numerous ways that you can make a field expedient water filter. Shirts tied to a teepee frame or even plastic sheeting will work. Filled with various levels natural filters.

Plant transpiration – Wrap a plastic bag around the end of a leafy tree limb. It takes a long time for water to collect into the bag roughly about a full day and night. The main thing to make sure of is to keep the bag securely fastened and tight at the open end.

Rag tied to ankles or dragged behind you in the morning – Early morning dew is perhaps the easiest way to collect a source of clean water in a woodland or grassland area. Dew will collect during the night on blades of leafs. A very lazy and practical way to collect it is to tie cloth around your ankles and walk through the grasses.

These clothes will sponge up the dew as you walk through them. Be careful not to walk through poisonous plants such as poison ivy or sumac as this water will then irritate your skin and throat if drank. Wring out the cloths into a container and repeat the process as many times as you can to collect as much water as you can.

Your tent or shelter – in the early morning condensation from the air and your body will collect on the inside and/or outside of your shelter. You can use a cloth to wipe off the surfaces of your tent or survival shelter to collect this quick and easy source of hydration.

Boiling – Boiling water will kill off any bacteria in the water. It will not decontaminate chemical contamination. Once you see bubble coming up in the water it has begun to boil. Having a container of some kind will help to make the boiling process more convenient. However, there are a number of ways that you can make field expedient containers to use to boil water should you ever find yourself without one.

Boiling with stones – Just another way to boil water if you are afraid that your contain will burn. You can “cook” rocks inside of a fire and transfer them with sticks into a container. The hot stones will make the water boil.

Evaporation – If you have two clear containers such as plastic or glass bottles, you can place them on their side and use one to house the dirty water with the other used to collect the evaporated water.

Iodine – Popular among campers

Purification tablets


Rainwater – a very easy method to collect water is to use a tarp tied to trees when it is raining to funnel water into a container. This will make it much easier to collect than to simply placing the container out in the open.

Lakes, Streams and ponds – Obvious sources of water should be taken advantage of with gusto. Make a mental reminder of where you find these spots in order to find them later if you are moving away from the area. It may become necessary to return to them should you not find sufficient water elsewhere. It is advisable that you make camp in the are near water for as long as possible.

Be extremely wary of water in a pond or lake that does not have vegetation in it or on it. This could be a sign of contaminated water.

Swift moving water in rivers and streams is a good source of water. Especially where the water “bubbles” over rocks and rapids. The swifter the water the less likely that upstream contaminants like dead animals or runoff has time to accumulate in high levels.

Use your nose – you can actually smell water in the wilderness if you are familiar with the scent of it. Train yourself to become comfortable in identifying the smell of water and associated smells.

Beach well – Water can be located on the land side of sand dunes at a beach. Dig a hole into the ground at the lowest point behind one and stack wood or limbs to keep it from collapsing in. The sand acts as a natural filter to cleanse the water of salt.

Still salt water does get into it so only the top portion will be completely free from salty water. If the water tastes salty, you need to dig a new well further from the shoreline.

Signs of Water

Animal Tracks

Bird feces around the rock crevice or nooks of tree limbs – one sign of water that has collected in some small depression in a rock or inside the corner of where a tree limb meets the main trunk is that there will be bird feces trailing down on the side of it.

Birds will have collected around this area to sip at the water pooled there. This water will definitely need to be boiled or purified in some method before use as there will be a high concentration of bacteria in it.

Follow ants – Ants can be a good indicator of water they can also lead you nowhere. Following the train of ants moving through a location could mean that there is a source of water at the end of it. Just don’t get your hopes up. I have been failed by ants on numerous occasions.

Listen for frogs – Frogs are a sure indicator that there is water nearby. Listen for their song in the woods and head towards them. Eventually you will come into direct contact with some sort of water that will be fairly safe of contaminants except for bacterias.

Look for leafy vegetation – Leafy plants and plants that are greener than the surrounding flora will indicate the presence of water near them. If there is no water visible it may mean that you need to dig for it. Digging a seep in this area at the lowest point will be one of the best bets in finding water. It may be that there is a natural spring nearby if the plants are growing from a rocky outcrop or wall. Look up hill for the area that is wet to find the spring water. Usually this will be at the point that the plants stop growing or where they are the most dense.

Parallel to the mountain – Following the edge of the mountain at the bottom. Towards the point where the mountain meets the ground water could collect in the earth at the lowest point.

Look for bees –  Bees wont’ travel to far from a source of water. If you find a bee and manage to follow it to it’s hive sit and watch where the majority of bees leaving the hive head to. Chances are that they are going to their water source. A bee traveling in a straight path will be heading straight to the water source.

Finding water in forest

Water in the winter

Snow and ice -Always be sure to boil water, not only to remove bacteria but also because snow and ice will lower your bodies core temperature. This could lead to increased risk of hypothermia.

Not grass but seeds – Grasses contain a lot of cellulose which is hard for the body to digest, even chewing grass for moisture will tax the body’s ability to process the water that you get from it. Instead, if possible, chew on the seeds as they will have more nutritional value and moisture content.

Avoid plants with milky saps or colored sap ­– plants that have this are usually mildly to extremely toxic and could lead diarrhea or other problems that become impossible to deal with in a survival scenario.

Pig face and ice plant – knowing how to identify these two plants in winter allows you to collect an abundance of moisture and water. Simply wring out with a shirt(clothe) into a container.

Ferns and mosses on sea cliff walls. Small springs come from cracks in the rocks -ferns and mosses on cliff walls are good indications that there is water source nearby. If you see vegetation covering an area of cliff wall begin looking at the highest point that you can for water seepage coming from the rock.

How to find water in the desert

Top of a salt lake immediately after a rain – You may be in an area that has an extremely salty lake or ponds. There is still hope to get water from these bodies of water immediately after a rain. When it rains it takes a little time for the salt and fresh rain water to mix. The first few inches of water on top of the lake may still be freshwater and readily available to drink.

You can also use several desalination techniques to purify salt water. These methods will give you water as well as salt both of which will be valuable in a survival situation.

Underneath rocks in the morning in the desert – At Dawn the ground of the desert is still cool from the night. As the sky begins to heat up water begins to condense on and underneath the rocks. You can pick one up and lick it or collect water with a rag. Be extremely careful to watch out for snakes and scorpions, as this is a prime hiding spot for them.

Cut a v in trees – Taping into a tree by cutting a v notch through the bark will allow water to flow out. Having a tube of tree tap will help to collect it. This is much like tapping a tree for maple syrup.

Stalagmites in caves dripping into pools – You can drink it but like any other water purify it as best as possible first. You don’t know if a bat has pooped in it or if there are extremophile bacteria (there probably are) in it. So better safe than sorry. Try to think about what is above the cave. Is it just a cave in the woods with nothing around it or is there a Chemical plant located nearby? Take that into consideration.

How to find water on an Island

A towel, shirt or other cloth above seawater placed in a container with a hot stone or other method to boil the water. 

Coconuts – These wonderful seeds can be an decent source of water in a pinch. The best to use for water are the young green ones as the older brown ones can be full of diarectics which will further dehydrate you.

Bamboo – If you shake a large bamboo plant and you hear water in it simply make a hole at one of the joints below what you think is the water line. This is trapped rainwater and is usually good to drink.

Natural springs – Some Islands will have natural springs that can be found by looking for lush vegetation growing from rock wall or cliffs.

Sea Water – You can distill sea water using various evaporation methods. While not potable in raw form it is water than can be processed to make it drinkable.

Collection Pools – Inland from the sea you may be able to find stone depressions that have turned into water cisterns by collecting rain water into pools. If there is volcanic rock present on the island this can also catch and hold small amounts of water which has not evaporated.

How to find water at Sea

Neck of fish – just behind the “bony” head of the fish and it’s dorsal fin, there is an area that is roughly an inch wide depending on the size of the fish. If you cut a triangle into this section you can suck water out directly from the fish in almost every species. It doesn’t taste great but is clean and will keep you alive.

Fish flesh wring out the flesh of fish – another method is to take the flesh of a fish breaking it into smaller pieces. Place this flesh in a cloth and wringing out the liquid into a container. It can be drinken straight or run through a straining process and field purification.

Solar still – if possible make a solar still from plastic and a container.

Use you shirt as a filter for salt water. – there is some debate as to whether there is enough filtration by using a shirt to make sea water viable to drink. Although it may be a  little anecdotal, the link below describes a young boy who was able to survive on a raft in Indonesia by filtering sea water through his shirt.

Methods of purifying water

Boiling  – Bringing water to a boil by any method available will purify water of most biological contaminants.

Filtration – creating a field expedient filter will remove a good portion of contaminants from water. I would not recommend this by itself but as the situation prescribes it this is better than nothing.

Chemical Treatment

Chorine – Readily available, inexpensive but extremely toxic in high concentration. It doesn’t decrease physical or chemical contamination. It is carcinogenic and causes heart disease.

Bromine – Used in pools and spas, doesn’t have a smell or taste like chlorine and doesn’t kill off bacteria nearly as well either.

Iodine – Somewhat impractical, takes a long time to cure. Kills most but not all of the most common bacterial pathogens that exist in fresh water sources.

Hydrogen Peroxide – Can be used in an emergency, it is very toxic but kills bacteria by over oxygenating the water.

Silver – an effective bactericide but a poisonous as it accumulates into a concentrate because it doesn’t evaporate.

Nontoxic organic Acids

Lime and Mild Alkaline Agents

Neutralizing chemicals


Ion Exchange

Sodis (Solar Water Disinfection)



It is advisable to always purify water regardless of whether or not the water looks clean. Why because of this big but not all inclusive list of bacteria and viruses that live in water.

Bacteria and Viruses

Campylobacteriosis Gastrointestinal infection

Cholera  Intestinal Infection caused by the bacteria Vibrio Cholerae, has a 50% kill rate of untreated infected.

Cyanobacterial Toxins – blue-green algea that release toxins into the water

Hepatitis – Hepatits A & E can be transmitted through water

Letospirosis  bacterial infection caused by leptospira

Trachoma  – Eye infection caused by Clamydia Trahomatis

Typhoid fever – Solmonella Typhi


Ascariasis – Infection caused by Ascaris Lumbicoides, a large roundworm.

Dengue  – Mosquito-borne infection, potentially fatal

Malaria  – Mostuito-borne infection, Infectious disease

 Onchocerciasis  – Causes blindness and can live up to 14 years in the human body. Disease transmitted by parasitic worm.

Ringworm (Tinea)  – Contagious skin disease caused by fungus

Scabies ­ – contagious skin disease caused by microscopic mites.

Schistosomiasis  – Parasitic infectious disease caused by several species of flatworm.

Chemical Agents

Arsenicosis  ­Arsenic poisoning

Methaemoglobinemia  – Decreases the ability of blood to carry oxygen. It is caused by drinking water with high levels of Nitrate.

What are the signs of waterborne illness.

There are a wide variety of symptoms that can be witnessed with waterborne illness. The most common are vomiting and diarrhea but can also include hearing, respiratory, skin and eye problems as well.

Other Tips

Don’t ration water, ration sweat. – If you have water drink it, it does no good to prevent hydration if it is inside of your canteen/bottle. There are numerous examples of bodies being found dehydrated with plenty of water found inside containers. Instead ration your sweat. Save strenuous activities for early morning and just after sundown when the temperature cools. This will help to keep your body from losing moisture through sweating.

Don’t drink this kind of water – Oily surface or water with a foul smell.

Green and brown water can be purified – Green water usually just means that it has a lot of algae in it. You are fine if you strain this out and use some method of purification. Brown water can be cleaned using different methods. It is typically just sedimentary dirt that is suspended in the water. Let it sit for some period of time to let the dirt to settle, strain it, filter it or use the method described here.

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