How to Find Fresh Water in the Wilderness – Foundry Outdoors
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How to Find Fresh Water in the Wilderness


     Due to the marvels of modern plumbing, most people don’t give the availability of water a second thought when they are at home or at work. However, when roaming around in the wilderness, fresh water is seldom so readily available and yet, it is an absolutely essential commodity for human survival. In fact, while a person can survive for a day or even weeks without food, a person can only survive three to five days without water. However, while fresh, drinkable, surface water is readily available in some regions and locations around the world, there are many arid regions where this essential commodity is far more difficult to come by. Therefore, the ability to find fresh, drinkable, water in the wilderness is an essential wilderness survival skill.


Topographic Maps

     The first step to finding fresh water in the wilderness is to be aware that due to the force of gravity, water always flows downhill and thus, you should always look for springs, creeks, rivers, ponds, and lakes in the valleys between mountains and in depressions and the lowest lying areas in flatter terrain. In addition, you should also obtain, carry, and learn how to read, a topographic map because this handy tool will not only display the details of the terrain you are traveling in, it will also display any sources of fresh water in the area. Thus, leaning to determine your approximate position on the map using the surrounding terrain features and/or using a compass to triangulate your position is of paramount importance because doing so will enable you to decide which direction you need to travel in to reach the water sources displayed on your map.

     However, if for one reason or another you don’t happen to have a topographic map with you, then it is also important to know how to obtain fresh water in various types of terrain.


Forested Terrain

     If for some reason, you find yourself in forested terrain without a topographic map, then your line of sight is going to be limited by the density of the forest which can make it difficult to locate springs, creek, rivers, and lakes. However, not to worry because the trees themselves can actually provide you with fresh water if you know the trick to obtaining it. In fact, some trees and vines contain a considerable amount of fresh water and thus, using this method can be very productive if the right plants are chosen.


     Thus, in this situation, what you need to do is first dig up a pile of tree roots (the larger the better) or, cut branches from the trees limbs. Then, you will need to cut which ever source you choose into short sections and then stand the sections up vertically on one end in some sort of container and then, allow time for the water to seep out of the sections and collect in the container.


Arid Terrain

      However, while fresh water may be relatively easy to come by in forested or mountainous terrain, it is by definition difficult to come by in arid terrain. Therefore, if you are in need of fresh water in arid terrain, then one trick is to look for the presence of water loving plants and trees such as Birches, Alders, Cottonwoods, and Willows since these are good indications of subsurface water sources. Then, once you have located a stand of plants that indicate the presence of an underground water source, you can proceed to dig a shallow well and allow the water to seep into it which is called a “seep well” for obvious reasons.

     Also, another good place to look for subsurface water sources in arid regions is in the outside of a bend in a dry creek bed. In fact, by digging a hole or ditch in these areas, you can often find underground water which will then to seep into shallow well.

     However, if you find yourself in truly arid terrain where vegetation is minimal to nonexistent, then yet another viable method of obtaining fresh water is to build a “solar still”. In order to accomplish this, you start by digging a hole in the ground straight down until you encounter moist soil. Then, you place a container of some sort in the bottom of the hole in order to collect the water that you distill. Next, you cover the hole with a sheet of plastic and then place rocks on the edges of the plastic sheet to hold in place in addition to placing a small stone in the center of the plastic sheet so that sunlight can shine through the plastic, into the hole, and cause the water in the moist soil to evaporate. Then, once the sunlight causes the water to evaporate, it will rise and then condense on the bottom of the plastic sheet and then drip into the container in the bottom of the hole.


Solar Still Diagram


Seaside Terrain

     Furthermore, seaside terrain can present another difficult challenge when trying to find fresh water since seaside terrain is often as devoid of fresh, drinkable, surface water as arid terrain is. Therefore, it is good to be aware that in this type of terrain, sand dunes will trap rainwater which floats on top of the more dense sea water underneath the dunes.

     Therefore, a productive method for otaining fresh water in seaside terrain is to dig a shallow “sand well” (aka seep well) in the sand located behind a windblown dune and then allow the fresh water to seep into it. However, it’s very important that you only dig the well deep enough to uncover the top one or two inches of ground water because, if you dig too deep, sea water will seep into the well and contaminate the fresh water.

     Furthermore, it is also helpful to know that it’s possible to condense sea water to obtain fresh drinking water. Thus, to accomplish this task, you will first need some sort of metal container and a cloth large enough to cover it but, in the absence of a metal container, a hole dug in the ground will sometimes suffice.

     Next, you will need to fill your container with sea water and then, you will need to build a fire and then collect several small rocks. Then, you will need to place the rocks in the fire to heat them. Then, once the rocks are hot, you will need to remove them from the fire and drop them into the sea water and then immediately place your cloth over the container’s opening in order to condense and gather the resulting steam. Then, you can simply wring the cloth out over another container to collect the condensed fresh water.


Observe and Follow Animals

     Last but not least, you can sometimes use animals to locate sources of fresh drinking water. For instance, some animal species such as grazing animals and especially feral and wild pigs never stray far from a source of fresh drinking water since they require large amounts of this precious resource to digest their food. In addition, many species of birds such as Pigeons and Mourning Doves always visit fresh water sources after leaving their roosts in the morning and before returning to their roosts in the evening. Thus, by observing the behavior of any animals that you can see can and then following them in their daily migrations, you will often be lead to a source of fresh, drinkable, water.


Deer Drinking Water


Final Thoughts

      So, as you can see, there are numerous different methods for finding fresh water in the wilderness. However, it should be noted that even the clearest mountain streams often contain harmful bacteria and thus, you should always carry some means of purifying any fresh water source you may find such as a portable water filter or water purification tablets. But, in the event that such tools are not available to you, it should be noted that water can be filtered by pouring it through crushed charcoal which you can obtain from a camp fire and, it can be purified by boiling it.


Hidden Spring

     However, finding fresh water in the wilderness is the first step to survival and thus, you should pay careful attention to the various methods of finding fresh water listed above because doing so may very well save your life one day!



Written by,

Bill Bernhardt

Outdoor Professional

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Allen Kloske - Jul 11, 2020

well written and informative!

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