Finding Water in the Wilderness

Just how does someone go about finding water when lost in the wilderness? What about when in the desert? What do you do if you’re surrounded by water (the ocean) but can’t find any to drink? Do you just drink your urine? What do you do?

I’m here to help!

As you know, parasites, bacteria, and viruses live in water sources. In order to prevent you from getting sick (which can lead to further dehydration), it is essential to filter and purify your water. However, this is not always possible. If you are in a survival situation, you may not be prepared, so you need to be aware of your options.

First, if you need to find water and need help locating it, here are some tips:

  • See where vegetation (plants, trees) is alive and growing well
  • Follow animals or see where birds are flying
  • Swarming insects likely means water is nearby
  • Look in valleys and lower elevations, as water flows downhill
  • Look for streams near snow-capped mountains where glacier and/or snow melt will gather

I’ve basically broken up water sources into three tiers – best, good, and last resort.

Best sources of water in the wilderness

The best sources of water are the obvious ones – ones you can use because you were prepared. Use water you can find, like from a river or lake, but first purify and filter it with the necessary supplies that you packed. These are techniques that are almost always used by backpackers. Remember, gather running water, as it is cleaner than stagnant water.

  • BOILING – Gather your water and bring it to a boil. Continue boiling for 1-3 minutes to kill viruses and bacteria. If you are above 5,280 feet, boil for three minutes. If you don’t have a stove, place the water above a campfire if you have a metal or glass container. Otherwise, you can purify by placing super hot, clean stones (heat them in your fire) in the container.finding water in wilderness
  • FILTRATION/PURIFICATION – Whatever method you use – manual pump, gravity filter, UV filter, Lifestraw, or iodine/chlorine tablets – it’s always better to start with cleaner water, so skim water from the top of the lake or river to filter. If the water is dirty, pour water through a (preferably) clean cloth before filtration to get rid of the larger impurities and sediment. I always carry a Lifestraw with me whenever I go hiking, just to be prepared
finding water in wilderness
  • MELTING SNOW – Never eat frozen snow. It’s always better to melt the snow (if you have a container to melt it in), as eating snow will decrease your internal body temperature. Eating frozen snow will also further dehydrate you because your body needs to work to heat and melt the snow. This rule applies only to clean, fresh, white snow that’s away from the ground. Ideally, you’d want to filter the melted snow, if possible.finding water in wilderness

Good sources of water in the wilderness

Okay, so you must be in a situation where you have no stove, no filter, or snow. These water sources are good options, as they’ll provide you with much needed water.

  • COLLECT RAINWATER OR MORNING DEW – Ideally you would have a large tarp or piece of plastic with you to collect rainwater in a single container. If you are without a tarp, look for curved leaves that may be holding rainwater. Also, if you find yourself in a rainstorm and you’re soaking wet from rain, you can wring out your clothes to collect fresh water (hopefully your clothes won’t be too dirty!). You could also walk through a field with plenty of morning dew. Wet pants or socks can be wrung out as well, if necessary. Rainwater is safe to drink, as long as it hasn’t been sitting for too long. finding water in wilderness
  • MAKE A SOLAR STILL – Making an underground solar still is only possible if you have a container, clear plastic sheeting, and is better when you have something to soak up or suck up the water with (like a straw – bamboo, Camelbak tube). Dig a large bowl-like pit that’s in an area with sun for most of the day. Dig another small hole within the pit for the container and place the straw or tube (if you have one) in the container (running the tube out of the hole). Cover the hole with the plastic sheeting and hold it down with rocks and/or dirt. Place a small rock on the center of the plastic to create a depression. Water from within the ground will then form on the inside of the plastic sheeting via condensation and will fall into your container with the straw.finding water in wilderness
  • GET MOISTURE VIA LEAF TRANSPIRATION – This will allow you to collect any moisture that the leaves emit during the day. If you have a sheet of plastic or a bag, tie it around a tree branch or shrub with lots of leaves. You may need to place a small stone in the bag to weigh it down. This method will need time to create water so be patient. At the end of the day, you will be able to drink the water that would have evaporated off the leaves. Be sure you use a non-poisonous plant for transpiration.finding water in wilderness
  • DIG FOR WATER – If you’re in a wet area, you can find water if you dig deep enough. You may have to leave the hole for a bit to give the water time to gather. The water will be muddy, so it’s best if you can filter it. If you don’t have any container to collect the water, simply soak up the water with a cloth. You can also do this if you are on a beach. Walk 100 feet away from the water’s edge and dig a large hole. If you can, line the hole with wood or rocks to stabilize the sides. The hole will fill up with fresh water that’s run off sand dunes and is filtered by sand. If the water is salty, move further away from the shore. If you have fire, heat some rocks and place them in the pit to purify your water.
finding water in wilderness
Running water is always better than stagnant water.


Your last options for water

Remember if your life is at stake and you have no way to purify/filter your water, it’s better to take the risk of getting sick from a waterborne illness, than dying from a lack of water. And you will die if you don’t ingest water for three days. Besides, symptoms of Giardia or other waterborne illnesses may not show up for 9-15 days and by then you could be rescued. Ideally, try to find clean, running water, but if you can’t, here are a few last options.

  • TRY FILTERING THE WATER YOU HAVE – So perhaps you couldn’t get rainwater or water from digging a hole, but there’s a small river nearby.  Try to simply filter the river water with a cloth or shirt.  The more you can filter it, the better it will be. finding water in wilderness
  • USE THE SUN – If you have water in a clear container, but have no method to make fire to boil it or heat rocks, try simply placing the container of water in the sun. This may help kill any bacteria.finding water in wilderness
  • LOOK FOR CREVICES AND NATURAL PLACES WATER COLLECTS – Collect or soak up water in places like rock indentations, hollow logs, or natural depressions and return after it’s rained. You should be okay if the water is fresh, but since you will likely not know, it’s a risk you may have to take.


  • URINE– If you’re dehydrated, it’s likely your urine is too. Although urine is mostly water, it does contain things your body doesn’t want, like impurities, waste, and salt. If you are absolutely desperate, you can drink your urine once, MAYBE twice. However, after that, you’re just taking in more wastes and toxins, doing yourself more harm than good.finding water in wilderness
  • SEAWATER– Stay away from salty water! It takes much more water for your body to get rid of the waste from seawater, as opposed to what you gain from it. Salt water WILL DEPLETE your body’s water supply so stay away from it at all costs.finding water in wilderness

Also, if you don’t have water, it’s better that you don’t eat. Eating requires water for digestion. If you eat, you’ll use up your internal supply of water, and you’ll only need water sooner.

Stay out of the sun, don’t sweat or overexert yourself physically, and stay calm! 

Hopefully, you’ll never find yourself in a situation where your life is dependent on finding water. Be safe and smart when out in the wild and always be prepared.

Happy Travels!



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