How to Find Safe Drinking Water in the Wild

When venturing into the great outdoors, it’s important to plan accordingly and be prepared for the worst-case scenario – getting lost. There are many things you should prepare before your excursion, however, water is without a doubt, the most important. While a person can live without food for potentially weeks, the average person cannot survive more than three or four days without water. So it’s vital to bring enough water for your entire trip. Two liters per person, per day, is recommended according to the National Park Service. 

However, you may find yourself in unfortunate situations where you run out of clean drinking water and your survival depends on it. Knowing how to find drinkable water is not only useful for an extremely hot day, but this knowledge could ultimately save your life if you do happen to get lost or stranded for an extended period of time. 

There are three main water sources you’ll come across in the wild – surface water like rivers and lakes, groundwater from springs, and rainwater. However, it’s important to remember that clear water doesn’t necessarily mean clean water and natural water sources can be contaminated by a variety of things. 

Many bacterias, pathogens, and other contaminants that cause severe sickness and make the water dangerous to drink aren’t necessarily going to be visible to the naked eye. According to the World Health Organization, roughly 500,000 people globally die each year from waterborne diarrheal diseases, and millions more become ill. That’s why it’s so important to know which water has the best probability of being safe, and if possible, make a fire and boil the water you find before drinking it.

Follow Signs of Wildlife or Green Vegetation

When searching for drinkable water, observe your surroundings. Signs of wildlife and green vegetation are a good sign there is likely a viable water source nearby that is safe to drink. If you do come across a water source, check for signs of life. If animals seem to be living in it or drinking it, there’s a good chance it’s safe for you as well.

Surface Water

Surface water like lakes, streams, and rivers are common water sources you may come across. You’ll likely find them in valleys or ravines. It’s important to stay away from stagnant water as it often breeds bacteria. The faster the water source is flowing, the better. The water will also be the cleanest, closest to the natural source, so try to go as far upstream as possible as the chances of contamination and runoff are less likely. 

Search for Water Underground

Groundwater is found beneath the Earth’s surface and is generally one of the cleanest sources, as it is filtered through dirt and sand, although it may be not as easy to find. When looking for groundwater, look for mud or other signs of saturation on the ground and begin digging. Once you collect enough groundwater, fill a container and let it sit so the dirt and organic matter can settle. Once settled, carefully pour the clean water into another bottle or container. 

Collect Rainwater

While rainwater is probably the least reliable source, it’s easy to collect and may be essential for survival. All you need is an open space, something to catch it with, some rain, and a little patience. However, keep in mind standing water can quickly develop bacteria so purification by boiling is usually essential. In colder climates, you can also melt snow or ice to get drinking water which also should be boiled before consuming if possible. 

Learn more in our wilderness survival courses.