Should you ever be caught out in the harsh wilderness without supplies or shelter, remember the survivalist’s Rule of Threes: You can survive 3 minutes without air, 3 hours without shelter in a harsh environment, 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food. Unless you’re stuck in a featureless plain, shelter may be easy enough to find — but water and food are a different matter. After securing your place of refuge, water should be your next priority, as your body’s fat reserves can keep you going without food. Do note that going without water can kill you quicker than going without food; heatstroke and dehydration can result, both of which can be fatal without proper hydration.
Finding water in the forest
One of the easiest ways of finding water in forested areas is to stop, and listen. You may pick up the sound of rushing, running water if you take a minute to filter out the ambient sounds. The rush of a stream or river can be heard from a good distance away.
If you can’t hear any sound of water from a stream or river, observe your surroundings. Pay particular attention to swarms of insects in the morning. Should you see mosquitoes, dragonflies or the like, follow the swarm; they’ll usually lead you to a body of water. If you stumble upon standing water like in a lake, old well or pond, don’t drink the water without boiling it first. Stagnant water allows bacteria and parasites to grow, while moving water generally reduces this risk.
Another effective way of finding water is to follow animal tracks; they will almost always lead to a water source. Also be on the lookout for flocks of birds. During the early morning and at sundown, their flight paths will be toward a lake or river. Observe their movements and go in the direction they’re flying.
Water in the tropics
If you’re in the jungle or in tropical climes, do as above – listen for rushing water from a stream or river, and observe the movements of insect swarms and birds.
In the absence of easily trackable animals, you can extract water from any bamboo you come across. Choose bamboo that is at least 5 inches in diameter. Remember that each section or “node” of bamboo is in itself a watertight compartment that holds, unsurprisingly – water. Cut a notch at the base of a bamboo stalk, then catch the water with your canteen or other handy container. You don’t even have to filter or boil this water, H2O from bamboo is some of the cleanest water you’ll ever find in the jungle.
Another good source of water is coconuts. Look for them on a coconut palm; these are high up on the tree and may be risky to climb, but should you gather a coconut or two you’ll be rewarded with sweet, refreshing coconut water that is rich in life-giving nutrients, hydrating electrolytes and potassium. Choose the green coconuts as they have more water in them.
Another option is to gather rainwater. As long as you are in an area where there is rainfall, you can simply wait for a downpour to gather drinking water for hydration. To do this, follow these steps:
Step 1. Get a spare poncho, tarp, plastic sheet or similar material and tie its corners to some trees. Make sure the material is a few feet off the ground.
Step 2. Place a stone in the center to create a depression. This will direct the flow of collected rainwater, forming a spout.
Step 3. Place a canteen, tin can, hollowed-out bamboo or other container under the “spout” to catch the water. Have another container ready to catch more rainwater.
Water in the desert
Arid areas can be the toughest places to get water. Scorching temperatures and lack of shade can greatly compound your need for water, as you will definitely lose moisture from sweating.
How do you get water from this most hostile environment? Construct an underground still. To do this, follow these steps:
Step 1. Find a spot that gets plenty of sunlight during the day.
Step 2. Dig a bowl-shaped pit measuring 3 feet wide, and 2 feet deep. Dig a hole in the floor of the pit to accommodate a container. If you find any small plants or lichens, line the sides of the pit with them. These will produce added moisture that will condense into water.
Step 3. Place the container in its hole in the center of the pit.
Step 4. Cover the hole with a plastic sheet, using rocks on the edges to keep it in place.
Step 5. Place a small rock on the center of the sheet, so an inverted cone hangs over and into the container. As the day progresses and temperatures drop, condensation will form on the plastic sheet, and the depression will act like a spout, dripping water into the container. You should get at least half a liter from the still. Once you’ve gathered water from that spot, re-deploy the still at another spot.
Can you drink water from a cactus?
The common myth is that you can get water from a cactus since it is a plant, after all. It’s true that cacti contain water, but they process it differently from other plants. The H2O you can conceivably derive from cacti is bitter, viscous sludge that can cause vomiting, diarrhea, stomach discomfort, and kidney trouble if consumed. Forget about trying to get water from a cactus as it’s more trouble than it’s worth, and could even be fatal.
Water in winter
You’d think that in winter, water would be the least of your troubles. That is true in a way, but you shouldn’t simply “eat” ice or snow directly. Doing so will only lower your body’s core temperature and could make you freeze to death if done repeatedly. Boil any snow or ice if you want to drink, and if possible, mix it with any water you already have.
If you’re at or by the arctic sea, you can get water from sea ice; do note that salty ice is gray and opaque, while freshwater ice is crystalline and blue. If you boil frozen seawater, the salt will settle at the bottom of your container – get rid of this and filter the water further to remove any residual salt to minimize chances of dehydration from sodium.
If the water you manage to collect is too minimal for hydration, there are a few “substitutes” to water you can consume. Your first choice ought to be to turn to fruits or vegetables, which can have high water content levels. Be advised – if you have to consume any of the following, do so only as a last resort and do your best to get real H₂O as soon as possible. Don’t subsist on them for extended periods or you’ll only get more dehydrated and undermine your survival efforts.
That said, here are some temporary substitutes, with specific warnings:
- Blood – Any blood from an animal can be risky to drink; it may contain parasites or bacteria, and its high salt content can dehydrate you.
- Urine –It’s not advisable to drink your own urine. It has toxins your body is already trying to get rid of; reintroducing them into your system may damage your kidneys and this will also dehydrate you in the long run.
- Alcohol – Drinking alcohol will only impair your judgment and dehydrate you; save it for use as a wound antiseptic.
- Carbonated drinks – While seemingly refreshing if drunk cold, soda pop will only make you thirstier and more dehydrated after consumption. You will lose more water due to its diuretic properties.
Even in the most hostile environments, it’s still possible to procure water for your survival. The key of course is not to panic should SHTF in the wilderness. Make do with whatever materials you have on hand, and combine them with the proven survival techniques to wet your whistle and keep your wits until help arrives.