In a survival situation, fresh water should be one of your biggest priorities.
It’s often cited that people can live for three days without water, but it could be anything between two days and a week, depending on your environment.
Realistically, you’re looking at the low end. Practicing survival requires lots of work, which means perspiration, which means water loss.
This goes double in a hot environment.
Your survival gear should always include water purification supplies, such as iodine tablets. But those can run out.
What do you do if you need to find clean water in the wild?
A Note on Safety
Consuming water from any wild source without purification is inherently dangerous.
Bacteria and parasites love to hang out in water, especially giardia. If you get diarrhea when in the woods alone and can’t make it to civilization, then you’ll dehydrate and likely perish.
Still, in a life-or-death situation, hydrating now might be more important than risking infection.
While purifying natural water is always preferred, there are measures you can take to ameliorate the risk of drinking unpurified water.
First is to avoid stagnant water. Stay away from any water that smells or is discolored.
Second, filter the water if possible. Use a bandana or shirt at minimum. It’s better to layer charcoal (if you can make a fire), sand, gravel or small rocks, sand, then another layer of gravel or small rocks. Pour the water over the top layer and collect it once it’s gone through the bandana.
Also, if you can, boil water for several minutes to kill anything that made it through your filter.
Now, let’s look at how you can find potentially pure water in the wild.
1. Absorb Morning Dew
Dew is the term for condensation on plants, especially in the morning.
I’m sure you’ve walked through a lawn in the morning and gotten your socks wet. That’s morning dew at work, and it’s a great source of clear water.
Now, I’m sure you don’t want to drink water from your socks, so the best way to collect dew is with an absorbent cloth. You can wipe down the plant manually, but it’s easier to tie bandanas or towels to your ankles and walk through long grass and bushes with wide leaves.
That cloth will soak up the dew, which you can wring out into a container.
Dew is technically distilled, potable water, but who knows what’s on those leaves. I’d still filter the water first.
Make sure to avoid collecting water from poisonous plants. You also want to avoid pollutants, so avoid sprayed areas, roadsides, and plants near animal scat.
Water can similarly condense on metal objects such as cars and railings. If there’s no contamination on them, you can use that water, too.
2. Alpine Mountain Streams and Springs
You typically don’t want to drink water directly from the ground. There’s too much of a chance the water is contaminated with giardia, bacteria, and other nasty bugs.
There are ways you can minimize this risk, though.
Fast-flowing, clear water close to its source, without any animals or human habitation upstream, can be safe to drink.
Melted snow and underground spring water tend to be safe to drink. Contaminants have a hard time going upstream.
If you need to drink straight from a stream, I’d only do it up a mountain and close to the stream’s source.
3. Capture Plant Transpiration
Plants don’t respirate like you and me, but they do “transpire.”
This is the process in which they intake groundwater, use some of it, and expel the rest through tiny holes called “stomata.”
Transpired water from nonpoisonous plants is safe to consume, but how do you collect it?
Simple. You take a trash bag or other impermeable plastic bag (you have one in your bug-out bag, right?), and cover a large part of the plant. Cover as many leaves as possible, but don’t puncture the bag.
Stick a small rock in the bottom of the bag or create a small reservoir by loosely tying around the bottom corner a partway up the bag.
Do this in the morning; plants don’t transpire overnight, and we want to catch as much water as possible.
The plant will transpire water, which will condense inside the plastic and fall toward that rock or reservoir.
You won’t get a large amount of water, but you’ll be able to get enough to survive.
4. Collect Rainwater
Rain is, naturally, a great source of water.
If you know it’s about to rain, you can set up as many open containers as possible to collect the water.
You can use a tarp or plastic bag to increase your rainwater collection surface area. Tie the sheet so it’s parallel to the ground, then place a weight in the center so water will be collected rather than roll off the sheet.
If you’re going to be around for a long time, then you can put a hole in the tarp under the weight. Place a bucket underneath to collect the rainwater automatically.
Or, you can tie the tarp at an angle so it’ll pour the water into your bucket.
5. Construct a Still
Dry areas with little rainfall can benefit from a similar arrangement, except underground.
Dig a pit about three feet wide and two feet deep. Put a large container in the center.
If you have a rubber tube, put one end inside that container and the other outside the hole.
Now, cover the entire hole with a plastic sheet and put a weight in the center, above the container. Weigh it down with rocks or soil all the way around.
The ground will warm up under the sun’s trapped heat and release moisture. That will condense on the sheet and drip into your container.
This will produce less than a liter every day so you’ll need other water sources, too.
6. Dig a Well
Water can hang out under the surface of dry areas. You’ll need to dig a well to get to it.
If you’re in a desert, look for patches of vegetation on the ground. Desert plants have long roots that find this hidden water.
Dig in that area until the ground becomes moist and water seeps into the hole. If it comes in fast, you have a proper well. You may need to use absorbent cloth and wring it out otherwise.
The moisture may be three feet or more underground, so don’t dig deep enough to get trapped!
7. Explore Crevices
Rocks and boulders can sometimes harbor puddles of water not connected to contaminated groundwater.
It’s effectively rainfall water which doesn’t make it to the ground but rather collects in a crevice or depression, often in a covered part of rock. You can find these by looking for bird poop, as birds’ll drink from these sources as well.
This kind of water collection can happen in tree crotches as well.
8. Melt Ice and Snow
If it’s winter or high in a mountain, snow and ice may be around, and they’re literally frozen water.
However, it’s extremely unsafe to consume frozen water directly. It’ll lower your core temperature, potentially causing hypothermia!
Also, always use ice if available. Snow is mostly air, so you get more water from the same volume of ice than snow.
You should melt the snow or ice first. Melting it in a cooking pot is ideal, but you may not be able to light a fire.
The sun’s energy can melt snow. A pot filled with snow (with the lid on) will slowly melt snow if kept in sunlight. Even better is a black plastic bag.
If you can’t do either of these, fill a container with snow or ice and keep it in inside your clothes. This way your body heat will melt the frozen water but your core body temperature won’t take as big a hit.
As with liquid water, avoid any frozen water that looks or smells off in any way.
9. Smash Fruits and Vegetables
Many people think of cactus water as a reliable source of emergency liquid refreshment in the desert. Most cacti are poisonous, though, so unless you know for sure which cactus species you’re dealing with, you should avoid drinking cactus water.
But cacti are not the only plants which can store water within.
Fruits, vegetables, and rhizomes can all store water.
However, digestion requires water, so if you’re low on water, you don’t necessarily want to eat these plants. Open them and squeeze them so the juice drips out. Drink that.
Just like with the cactus, be sure to positively identify the wild fruit you’re harvesting. If you’re at all uncertain, don’t consume wild plants!
10. Squeeze Sphagnum Moss
Moss is like a cross between a plant and a sponge. Even a small amount of moss can hold a surprisingly large amount of water.
Better still, moss is acidic and contains trace amounts of iodine, so most bacteria can’t survive in mossy water!
Squeeze the moss to extract the water.
You can also use moss to filter other water sources.
However, drinking moss water isn’t perfectly risk free. Moss can, rarely, be infected with halophilic bacteria.
Still, the risk is much less than your chances of contracting giardia from river water.
As another bonus, dried moss makes good bedding, insulation, and tinder.
11. What About Seawater and Urine?
Thanks to osmosis, your body can only absorb water that’s less than 2% salt. Seawater and urine are between 3% and 4% salt, so consuming them will require extra water to process them, further dehydrating you.
However, you can desalinate these salty liquids!
Remember the underground still recommended above? You can do something similar by collecting evaporated saltwater instead of groundwater.
You’ll need to put the salty liquid into a hard-bottomed container. The wider, the better, as more surface area will cause the water to evaporate faster.
The water evaporates, leaves the salt behind, condenses on the plastic, and drips into the bucket!
There may be a lot of water on the earth, but only 3% of it is fresh water. And even then, between a half and two-thirds of that water is hidden far underground or frozen in glaciers and ice caps.
So, finding sources of clean water in the wilderness can seem difficult.
Not all of the methods described above can be used everywhere—good luck collecting dew in a desert—but you should now know how to find fresh water almost anywhere on Earth!