Water isn’t a luxury in the wilderness – it’s a necessity. Learn how to collect drinking water in the wild and the backcountry will open its doors to you.
Water is the most important substance we have, but when out in the wilderness, it can be prohibitively heavy and can be hard to come by. Naturally occurring water can be hazardous to your health, but there are several ways to avoid parasites and make sure you always have enough survival water to drink.
If you find yourself with undrinkable water, here are the emergency solutions you can turn to in a survival situation.
Melt with Metal
The great mountaineer dilemma is that there is water everywhere, but it’s all frozen. This poses a problem to mountaineers who carry a minimum of stove fuel. If you are surrounded by snow, there are ways to melt it fast and without burning precious fuel. If you have sun, place a few pieces of metal, like carabiners or other pieces of gear, in some snow on top of a rock. When the sun hits it, the metal will reflect the light and heat and help melt the snow. You can set up a bottle to catch the melt and your melt-water collection system can fill your bottle with survival water while you are out climbing.
Unless you’re near a big, smoggy city, the rainwater is clean. It’s a terrific source of drinking water, and with the right techniques, can be simple to collect. Broad-leaved plants can hold numerous water drops after a rain. These can add up to a good drink for you if you notice which plants have big leaves, or are shaped to collect rainwater near the stalk or inside flowers. Even if it’s not raining, you might be able to collect dew on a damp morning. To do this, wrap your legs, and/or arms, depending on the vegetation, with an absorbent cloth. Now take a stroll through grasses, or brush up against moist bushes, to collect all the rainwater they hold. Wring out the fabric and you will have clean fresh water to drink. Be careful, however, that the plants aren’t covered with anything that could make you sick.
Dig a Still
Building a solar still is effective if you have sunlight, the ground is moist and you will be in the area for a half-day or so. Start by digging a hole about a foot deep and a foot in diameter. Then, place a container inside and cover the hole with plastic to allow the sun to create condensation that will drip into your container. It’s better to choose moist ground for this – if you see roots and plant shoots, you can bet it’s a good spot. If you’re short a plastic sheet, you can use a tent fly, jacket or other non-permeable or semi-permeable fabric. Place a stone or other small weight in the middle of the fabric. This will create a point from which the condensation will gather and drip into your bottle. If you want to keep the solar still set up for an extended period, you can place a drinking tube in the bottle and run it up the side of the hole. That way, you can take a drink from the still without removing the plastic on top or undoing your hard work.
Dig a Hole
This may not be the most appealing method, but if you have no other choice, you’ll be thankful it’s an option. Find an area of moist ground, like a small mud puddle. There’s bound to be some groundwater there, and to get it, you’ll have to dig a hole. Make it fairly large – a couple of feet deep and about a foot or so wide. After a while, if you’re lucky, the hole will start to fill with water. It will be muddy, but with some assiduous filtering through a cloth or a bag filled with sand and rocks, you can have drinkable water.
If you are worried about the safety of your drinking water, you should do everything you can to purify it, including bringing it to a rolling boil for 10 minutes. If you believe your survival water is free of dangerous pathogens, but want to take an extra step toward purification, you can always start a fire to boil the water. Building a fire specifically for this is important, as fuel for your stove is not something to waste. In these cases, it’s only necessary to boil water until small bubbles form around the bottom and sides of the pot and rise to the surface. You can even use heated rocks to boil the water. This method should suffice to kill what harmful bacteria or viruses might be hiding in otherwise clean water.