Unless you happen to get lost in the Land of 1,000 Lakes, one of the biggest problems in surviving in the wild is finding water. The other big resource that has to be found is firewood, which may or may not be a problem, depending on where you are. But water is an issue just about anywhere, because locations where we can find water aren’t always very close together and it’s too heavy to carry more than about a day’s worth in our packs.
Considering that we can only live about three days without water, finding water is a daily battle when in the wild, unless you have a good camp, close to water, where you are staying. If you’re on the move, you’re best off following water, but if you can’t, you’ve got to be on the lookout for it constantly.
Fortunately, nature provides us with some very real indicators of where water can be found. Everything alive in nature needs water, so if we learn how to read the signs, we can allow nature to show us where to look. We just need to make sure we’re not seeing a mirage or being led astray by our own imaginations. It is possible to read the signs wrong, because we want there to be water where there isn’t.
Follow the Land
The first key in looking for water is to follow the land. Water always flows downhill, so if you need to find water, you need to go downhill too. No matter where you are, there is always a downhill from where you are, even if it isn’t obvious.
If you’re in the mountains, don’t just head downhill, but rather look for a ravine between the mountains and follow that downhill. When it rains, water will flow down into that ravine and follow it down. Small pools of water may remain in that ravine, especially in shady spots, even if water isn’t flowing. Following the ravine may lead you to those hidden supplies of water.
As you get to the foot of the mountain, that ravine will flow into either another ravine or a valley. In either case, you want to find the low point and follow it. There may be a stream you can follow, providing you with a constant source of water or there might be a dry watercourse; either way, following it will give you the greatest chance of finding water.
Look for the Green
Plants need water, perhaps even more than animals do. They will always grow the lushest and the thickest in areas where they have access to lots of water. So wherever you are, look around to see where the plant life is the thickest. That’s the place where you are most likely to find water.
This is even true in the desert. There are many places where you can see a line of trees, in otherwise bare ground. That line of trees is probably following a dry creek bed. But if it rains, it will be flowing with water.
Don’t assume there is no water, just because you can’t see it on the surface. These watercourses dry on the surface, even while the ground underneath is still wet. Find a place where there was a pool, where there is still mud at the bottom, even dry cracking mud. Dig down a couple of feet and allow water to seep from the ground into that hole. It will be muddy water, but at least it will be water.
Let Animals Lead You
All animals need water and will live within walking distance of it. They typically water just at daybreak and dusk. So if you find any wild animals, you can follow them to water at those times. Just follow from far enough away and with enough patience, that you don’t spook them.
Game trails will also lead you to water, even without animals on them. Most game trails end up going to water at some point. Just make sure that you are traveling downhill on the trail, or you will be moving away from the water, rather than closer to the water.
Some creatures need water badly enough that they never move far from it. Bees are like this. If you find bees in the wild, you are within five miles of water at the outside, although you are probably much closer. Mosquitoes will travel a maximum of three miles from water. Even so, a concentration of mosquitoes indicates that you are close.
Protect and Share the Water
Never forget that you aren’t the only one who needs that water, every other living creature does too. But most of them won’t go near the water as long as you are there. So once you find water, move away from it to make camp, allowing a chance for wildlife to get the water they need. Fifty yards or so is enough. That way, you can always go back to the water to refill your canteen or water bottle.
You should also avoid using naturally found water as your personal toilet. Sadly, the water from our natural streams and rivers are no longer safe for drinking because of people doing that; not animals, people. Many forms of bacteria inhabit our intestines and are evacuated along with our feces. They are able to live in the water, reproducing. But even though those bacteria come from the human GI system, they can be deadly when ingested.
Always Purify Your Water
Always assume any water you find is unsafe for drinking, if you haven’t purified it yourself. While it is possible that you will encounter water that is safe to drink, there’s no way of knowing if it is. Therefore, for your safety, you have to assume that it isn’t.
Any survival kit or bug out bag should contain some means of water purification. This is usually some sort of filter, either a straw-type filter, like the Lifestraw or a bag-type filter, like the Sawyer. Both are useful. The straw-type allows you to drink water straight from a stream, while the bag type allows you to fill your canteen. I’d recommend carrying both with you.
You can also purify water in the wild by heat. It’s a good idea to make sure that at least one of your water bottles is metal, allowing you to put it in the fire to purify water. If you have a metal pot from a cooking kit, that’s even better, because it will hold more. But take along the metal water bottle anyway as a backup.
The WAPI (water pasteurization indicator), which was originally developed for use in third-world counties, allows you an easy to way to heat purify your water in that water bottle or camping pot. It consists of a wax pellet, inside a plastic capsule. Place it in the water being heated and when the wax melts, the water is hot enough to be purified. Once cool, the WAPI can be used again.