How to Find Water in the Wilderness

If you are an avid outdoors person or interested in wilderness survival, you probably are already familiar with what is called the survival “Rule of Threes.” These are the basic tenets of your survival priorities in a survival situation.

Man starting a fire at a campsite

Learning how to start a fire is the number one survival skill you need to learn.

You can live:

  • 3 minutes without air
  • 3 hours without shelter
  • 3 days without water
  • 3 weeks without food

A body can live longer. Not everyone that goes without drinking water for three days will die. Circumstances, conditions, environment and your own health—mental and physical—determines how long you will survive a wilderness emergency or survival situation. But these necessities for survival will help you devise a plan if you ever find yourself forced to survive in the wilderness.

Safe drinking water isn’t only your number three survival priority during an emergency, but recreational hikers, backpackers and primitive campers need to know ways to collect and purify water in the wilderness for their survival, as well.

We need to drink about two liters of water a day when hiking or backpacking—more in hot weather, on strenuous hikes and in higher altitudes. Water is heavy—16 fluid ounces equals about one pound. A standard-sized bottle of packaged water is about 17 ounces. For one day, you’ll need four water bottles—that’s four extra pounds in your pack just for one day. And for high altitudes, you need one liter an hour! For multi-day trips, you can’t possibly carry the water you’re going to need, plus all your other gear. It is imperative you know how and where to find water and have the necessary water purification items to make it safe to drink.

What Happens When You Drink Contaminated Water

Unfortunately, there really is no way to tell if water is safe to drink. Even the clearest, fastest moving body of water can be contaminated. Without knowing what’s upstream, don’t trust any source!

Water can be contaminated with chemicals as a result of man-made pollution like dumping or industrial run-off. Chemicals like oil, gasoline, fertilizer, pesticides and uranium cannot be purified out.

No matter how clear the water, you still need to purify it before drinking.

No matter how clear the water, you still need to purify it before drinking.

Contamination can come from biological sources such as animal and human waste, which contain dangerous pathogens—bacteria, protozoa, and viruses and natural erosion which releases unsafe minerals such as lead, copper and aluminum into the water.

Drinking bad water can cause severe diarrhea and vomiting leading to serious cases of dehydration, dysentery, typhoid, Cholera and Giardia—all of which can be life-threatening illnesses. In fact, 3.4 million people die a year from drinking bad water. Therefore, it is extremely important to carry the tools necessary to filter and purify your drinking water.

How to Find Water in the Wilderness

Before heading out for your hike or camping trip, it is important to plan. Get a topographic map of the area and plan your hiking route or campsite around available sources of water. Many established hiking trails and campgrounds have running water from a spigot—this is your best-case scenario. However, other areas are way more primitive and you will need to be strategic in obtaining safe drinking water.

Take two water bottles with you—ideally both full. If you can’t spare the weight, at least fill one. The first sign of dehydration is feeling thirsty, so take sips throughout the entire day before you feel thirsty. This is why is it so essential to know where your next source of water is coming from. Once you find it, drink at least one liter while there and then fill up both your water bottles before continuing.

Water obviously is found in lakes, streams, rivers, ponds and even mud puddles. You can gather dew, rainwater and condensation through transpiration to drink if there are no larger bodies of water. Flowing water is your best choice—the faster and clearer, the better. Stagnant water like lakes, ponds and puddles harbor more bacteria; however, you can still safely drink water from these sources if you filter and purify it.

The 12 Survivors pump water filter will filter water while you pump it from the source into your water bottle

A filter like this will make water safe to drink.

If you don’t know where water is, there are some tricks to finding some.

  1. Can you hear water moving?
  2. Look for animal tracks. Animal tracks usually lead you to a source of water.
  3. Bug swarms usually indicate water is close by.
  4. Follow low-laying land features as water flows downstream.
  5. Lush, green vegetation indicates a water source is close by.
  6. Follow the direction the birds are flying in the morning and in the evening.

Once you find a source of water, you will want to first filter it and then purify it. You will need a bandana or coffee filter and a commercial water purifier like a personal water filter straw or pump. Alternatively, you can boil water or treat it with chemicals.

Boiling Water

If you have a camp stove and metal container, bring the water to a rolling boiling and let boil 10 minutes.

Water with a lot of sediment in it needs filtering. Run it through your bandana or coffee filter until all visible sediments are gone. Then you can drink it straight through your filter straw or you can bring it to a rolling boil for 10 minutes before drinking it.

Cleaner water can be drunk straight from the source through a personal water filter straw.

Alternative Sources of Water

This is a shot in the dark, but you can tie an absorbent cloth around your ankles and walk through the grass first thing in the morning to gather dew. Squeeze the cloth into your cup or water bottle.


Tie a plastic bag with a small rock or other weight in it around a big group of leaves. Secure the open end of the bag and wait a few hours for condensation to form. After a few hours, you should have a few ounces of drinkable water.

Collecting Rainwater

Rainwater is collected easier with a poncho and a container. Tie the four corners of your poncho up around some trees. Let the hood drop down in the middle over your container. The hood will act like a funnel and collect the rain in your container.

Snow and Ice

Clean snow and ice will provide safe drinking water, but you must melt it first.

Melt snow or ice before drinking it.

Clean snow and ice are drinkable once you’ve melted them. Never suck on ice or eat snow. It can cause hypothermia or further dehydration due to the process your body must do to melt it.

Don’t drink urine or salt water and limit your alcohol and caffeine intake, which speeds up dehydration.

You should never be in the wilderness without a way to start a fire, but if somehow you find yourself in the situation, how can you purify water in the wild without fire? Instead of boiling water, you can use water filters. 12 Survivors has three water solutions for campers, hikers and survivalists.

  1. Collapsible water bottle

There are three different sizes of BPA-free collapsible water bottles—0.3, 0.5 and 1 liter. Each has an adapter which fits the pocket water purifier.

  1. Hand pump water purifier

The hand pump water purifier uses an activated carbon filter and diatomite ceramic filter to remove 99.9999% of bacteria. It will filter 22 gallons of water before you need to replace the filter. It filters 0.5 liters of water per minute.

  1. Pocket water filter

The pocket water filter will screw on to any standard water bottle or you can use it to drink straight from a water source. Using an activated carbon filter and hollow fiber UF membrane, this BPA-free water straw filter will filter 0.4 liters a minute. It weighs only 2.1 ounces and is extremely compact.

With some pre-planning and a few pieces of inexpensive gear, you shouldn’t ever find yourself without water when in the wilderness.

Click here to shop for water filters and purifiers.

What are your water plans in a survival situation or when regularly hiking? Share your tips, recommendations and stories in the comment section.
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