Many would think the primary goal in a survival situation is to find your way back to civilization or to be rescued or found. But is the author’s goal is to help you realize that the primary and only immediate goal in a survival situation is to survive. If you can survive, then you have a chance to make it back to civilization– if you can survive.
Aside from oxygen, the most important thing to obtain in a survival situation is hydration. Without some things a survival situation is difficult; without water, it is potentially deadly. Since this is a fact, this article will try to help you understand how to obtain life-sustaining water from whatever environment you might be in.
Doctors, housewives, teachers, the author, your mechanic – just about anyone in the right mental state knows that it only takes the body about 72 hours without water to become dehydrated enough to kill you. There really isn’t a lot of flexibility here; if you go 72 hours without water, you’re probably in such a bad situation you won’t make it either way.
Before our great-great grandparents were born, it’s likely that someone could stop during their travels, lean over a small stream and use their lips or their hands gather some water, but times have changed. If you do this just about anywhere in the world, it’s likely that you’ll have, at minimum, the worst case of Montezuma’s revenge that you’ve ever had, until you go to the doctor and get some antibiotics to kill the bugs in your stomach. It’s likely also that the only place you wouldn’t get sick from microorganisms in the naturally occurring water is a source that can be equally as devastating and potentially deadly to you in a survival situation—the ocean. We all know how dehydrated your body will become by drinking even a few sips of salt water, not to mention the taste of salt water is off-putting and nearly impossible to consume in any great quantity. This article seeks to teach you various methods for attaining clean, safe, non-saline drinking water for the sole purpose of keeping you healthy and hydrated, so you can make it back to where you came from.
When the human consumes water that contains microorganisms, a few things happen.
- Stomach cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea
- Additional dehydration caused by the expulsion of fluids
- Weakness and inability to perform normal tasks
As you can see, it’s probably in your best interest not to consume water you aren’t absolutely positive it is fresh and drinkable. No matter how thirsty you are, no matter how much water you have right in front of your face, please remind yourself that if you get too sick to continue functioning at a normal level, you’re likely to die anyway – not to mention the excruciating pain caused by cramping, infection, and diarrhea.
If you’ve obtained a large source of water, excellent; treat it so you can continue to use that large source of water on a regular basis until you are rescued or manage to find your way out of your survival situation.
Let’s get it out of the way: You’ve heard time and time again that you should always pack your survival kit and make sure you’re always carrying a knife with you when you are in a situation that could degrade into a survival scenario. This is a message that is always worth repeating.
If you need a reminder on what should be in your survival kit, check the previous articles on this topic. Each of these articles will have pieces of information that may help you in your search for water in a survival situation. The gear and tools listed in those articles may also be relisted in some way in this article, but because the focus on this article is obtaining water, it will only list the items in the survival kit that pertain to that.
In your survival kit (which you have now, right?), you will find a few items that can assist you in treating water.
Chlorine dioxide is a very commonly occurring chemical that is used by several brands (think: PotableAqua and AquaMira) as a water treatment method. Chlorine dioxide has been used since the 1940s on a wide scale, with many local governments using it to clean the water for their citizens.
In your survival kit, some of this chemical is included. In more extensive survival kits, you may also have a water filter, iodine, a desalination pouch, or other chemical or mechanical water treatment items.
Iodine, while not necessarily in your best interest to be used on a long-term basis as a water treatment, is pretty effective for most freshwater sources. It does sometimes have trouble cracking through the hard shells of protozoan cysts like Giardia. In an emergency though, it should work well enough to do the trick if it’s all you have. Those allergic to shellfish should not use iodine for water treatment, as well as those with thyroid concerns.
Bleach is cheap, easy to use, and extremely effective at killing microorganisms. If packaged correctly, you could carry a small amount in your survival kit that would allow you to treat a large amount of water.
The point in water treatment is that it’s so important that it necessitates redundancy. What does that mean? It means be prepared to treat water by multiple means in any given situation, because if you cannot, the risk you take is potentially deadly.
It’s not likely that you packed the Dutch oven in your survival kit, as anyone who frequents the outdoors is always on the search for light and fast replacements to tried-and-true technologies. So the most tried-and-true method of water purification may not be a viable option – at least not in a Dutch oven. Boiling water for a few minutes (some say ten minutes; however three minutes at a rolling boil ought to be enough) should kill anything contained within your water. If by chance you did include a metal cup, or even just a sturdy cup-like object (if sturdy enough, perhaps even the plastic case you carry your survival kit in), you may be able to boil water quite easily. If it’s a metal cup, or some sort of metal object you found in your surroundings, it can go directly on the fire (which you should be able to start using other items in your survival kit); if it’s an object that might melt under direct flame but can still withstand considerable amount of heat, you may consider heating up smooth rocks in your fire and then submerging them into untreated water to keep it boiling for a couple of minutes. It requires many small rocks being heated up to incredibly hot temperatures to perform this technique and ensure microorganisms are eradicated.
Distillation is a technique used for entire countries where the only source of water is saltwater. In a modified fashion, it can produce perfectly drinkable, quite tasty fresh water. Salt particles are heavier than water vapor, so when water is vaporized through heat, the condensation floats up – and can be rigged so that it reconstitutes back into water droplets in another container.
In a more complex survival kit or one well suited to the ocean, a couple of heavy-duty plastic water bottles (one spray-painted black) combined with a couple feet of food-grade plastic tubing (half inch diameter) can create an effective distillation tool. You will want to fill up the black water bottle about 1/2 to 2/3 full of water (tainted or salt water), secure the tube at the top of the black bottle (through a hole cut in the top), and position the bottle in the sun. With the second bottle, you’ll want to position the tube as close to the bottom of the inside of the bottle as possible without letting it touch, for collection of water droplets. As long as the black bottle is higher up than the other bottle, a vacuum is formed essentially forcing the water vapors up into the tube and down into the freshwater collection bottle. This method isn’t foolproof, so you’ll need to practice before you try and rely on this technology in the field – but it does work.
It’s important to note that solar stills don’t necessarily need saltwater to be effective, as microorganisms are purged through the vaporization process as well.
You’ll want to utilize as many passive techniques as possible to gather freshwater, and just because one might work well or better than another, it doesn’t mean you should eschew all others in favor of a singular method. Do what you can to gather water from multiple sources.
- If you didn’t pack a container in your survival kit, you can make one with several different methods. A hollowed-out coconut shell or pineapple could function as a container for boiling water (hot rock method). A large cactus hollowed out could also do the same thing.
- Speaking of cacti, many varieties contain freshwater inside of cavities within their body. They are also part of the succulent family and may be able to provide enough liquid to hydrate your body by eating their fruit or their flesh. Check to see if the varieties you will come in contact with are edible.
- A heavy-duty Mylar blanket, which may or may not have made it into your survival kit, could line a hole dug into the ground to serve as a boiling vessel as well. The bottom (where hot rocks would sit) must be lined with flat rocks or a series of other rocks to keep the hot rocks from burning a hole into the material, but otherwise the ground being in contact with the fabric should protect it enough to keep it from melting. Practice this technique at home as well before relying on it in the field.
- Use an oven bag with the above method to achieve the same result. You can also use your oven bag or a zip lock bag to cover some leaves which are coated in morning dew, shake the leaves: water will be extracted into the bag.
- Make a traditional survival solar still by digging a hole in the ground and putting a container in the middle of it. Surround the container with succulents or moisture-containing vegetation and cover it in a clear plastic sheet weighted just above the cup so water vapor attaching itself to the inside of the sheet can drip down into the cup. Build this makeshift still in direct and constant sunlight.
If in doubt, pack a water filter; even high-volume gravity-fed units only weigh 12 to 15 ounces and take up less space than a water bottle, and a small mechanical hand filter will be even smaller than that. Both can treat contaminated water, but not saltwater. A relatively new product exists called a desalination bag, which uses passive forward osmosis to treat saltwater; the cost is negligible when compared to the risk of not having freshwater in a saltwater environment.
An important final note: Hydration is not only about wetting your throat. Though it may feel nice to wet your throat, hydration is about reconstituting cells in your body with water – it is not necessary to consume that water via your mouth. There are other ways to become hydrated. One family whose matriarch was a nurse, while attempting to survive at sea and desperately short on water, managed to stay alive through hydrating with fetid water collected in the bottom of their life raft and administered via each of their rectums in the form of an enema. It doesn’t sound fun, but it sounds a lot better than death. Look for creative and smart ways to stay hydrated, and remember food also can contain hydrating moisture.
The goal here is to help you understand how to be creative and use proven techniques to find water in survival situations. Obviously there will be other methods not listed here, and some of these may not even work for you. Ideally, however, you will understand how water works, and how to get the most out of your tools and techniques while in a survival situation. Remember always: The primary goal in a survival situation is survival – do what you need to do to make that goal a reality. Water is essential, and nothing will change that. The only way to survive is to stay hydrated, so use these techniques to do just that.