How To Find Water In The Wilderness

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how to find water in the wilderness

In a survival situation, one of your top priorities is determining how to find water in the wilderness. A key to your survival, water can mean the difference between life and death. However, finding or collecting it is just the beginning. You must also determine if it is safe to drink, or even safe enough to attempt to purify.

How to Find Water In The Wilderness

If you find yourself away from any obvious bodies of water, it is still possible to find if you know where to look. There are three major things to look for when trying to find water in the wilderness: the surrounding terrain, the behavior of any animals and changes in the local vegetation.

Get the Lay of the Land

Water seeps downward. It will seek the lowest point of any ground. Look around you. Chances are, you’ll be able to see places on the ground where rainwater has traveled. Look for bunches of leaves and clear washes from prior rainfalls. Follow the paths. These may lead to gullies or natural terraces that collect water.

Cracks or depressions in rocks can collect pockets of water, as well as hollow trees or tree stumps.

Look for unusual features in the terrain. What appears to be a man-made pile of stones may indicate a natural spring head, cleaned and marked by someone in the past.

Even a dry river or creek bed can become a source of water. Drinkable water may be below the ground and accessible by digging a seepage well.

Keep in mind that creeks and rivers tend to flow into larger bodies of water. Following a dry bed may lead to another water source.


Animals are excellent at locating water. While studying the underbrush, look for signs and game trails of animals. These can lead to water sources.

Frogs, in particular, are good indicators of water. Listen for their croaking, and then follow the loudest concentration of sound.

birds flying

Some birds, finches and pigeons in particular, drink at dusk and dawn. Watch their flight. If they are flying straight and low, this can be a good indication that they are going to an area to drink.


Lush vegetation is a good sign of water. Look for groupings of bright green leaves or clusters of vegetation that appear to be lusher than other areas. Lush greenery can lead to water above or below ground. If no water is found on the surface, try a seepage well or transpiration bags.

Also, be on the lookout for different types of trees. Certain water-loving trees tend to grow near water, such as willow, cypress, pin oaks and sycamore trees.

What to Look for Before You Drink

Before filling a canteen or drinking, make sure to examine and purify any found water. Use common sense and think before you drink. Just because its water, doesn’t mean that it’s safe.

Here are some things to watch out for:

  • Avoid any pool of water that does not have green plants growing by it.
  • If you see any animal bones beside it, your chances are better off somewhere else.
  • Look for mineral deposits on the edge of the water source. This may be an indication of alkaline water or of chemical contamination.
  • Notice the smell of the water. If it has a strong smell, it may be contaminated.
  • Watch for dead animals either in the water or nearby.
  • If it has slimy green algae on the surface, be very cautious.

You May Not Be Alone

When approaching any water source, be conscious of possible predators. Many use watering areas as hunting grounds. You don’t want to end up on their dinner table.


Also, be conscious of predators and dangerous reptiles in and around the water such as snakes, alligators and crocodiles. Watch out for floating logs with eyes (especially in southern locations).

How to Find Water In The Wilderness: Collecting Water In the Wild

But what do you do if you still can’t find water? Fortunately, there are numerous ways to collect water from natural sources, even if you are unable to locate a river, creek or stream.

Let It Rain

Collecting rainwater is one of the easiest ways to obtain a supply of fresh water. Here are a few different ways to do it.

The easiest is to take a tarp and spread it out. The goal is to make the collection area as large as possible. Angle the tarp by elevating one side while creating a bit of a pour spout with the other. Put something underneath it, such as a bottle or bowl to collect the water. As the rain hits the tarp, it will run down to the pour spout and into your container.

Another way to do it is to dig a hole in the ground and spread a tarp, bag or piece of plastic sheeting over the depression to capture water.

Or just use cloth. Place pieces of clothing or cloth in the rain to gather water. Once they are soaked, wring them out into a container.

Gathering the Dew

Collecting dew is another good source of fresh water, but you have to move quickly before the sun rises enough to dry the dew.

Tie pieces of clothing or other cloth around your legs and walk through the dew. Wring out the water into a container.  One caution, though, watch for poisonous plants or snakes.

An easier way to do it is to place tarps or plastic sheeting on the ground to collect dew overnight. Gathering dew can provide a consistent water source, but may not provide enough for your needs.

How to Find Water In The Wilderness: Collecting Water from Plants

You can collect water from plants in several ways. Some plants, such as the pitcher plant, are shaped like natural water collectors. Other plants collect water in the hollows where their leaves meet the base of the plant stalk. However, before collecting any of this water, first make sure the plants are not poisonous.

Water may also gather in tree stumps, but may be high in tannins from the wood and may need to be further purified or distilled to be drinkable.


Grapevines hold a great deal of water. (Just make sure you have an actual grapevine instead of poison ivy.) Look for a grapevine and cut a notch in the vine as high up as possible. Then, cut the stem off close to the ground. Fluid will start to drain from the vine.

Always check the color of the fluid before you go any further. Avoid any sticky or milky fluids, as these may be poisonous. Only drink clear fluids from actual grapevines.

Some vines may irritate your skin, so be careful not to touch your mouth to the stem of the vine. If the fluid stops draining, simply cut another section from the bottom of the stem. You can trim the stem several times before the vine is drained.

Spile for Water aka Tapping Trees for Sap


Tapping trees is not just for maple syrup. Other trees, (such as walnuts, birches, and sycamores) can also be tapped for their sap. Use a spile to tap a tree.

Spiles are small metal or wooden pegs. To use a spile, carve a hole in a tree and insert the spile like a small faucet. The sap will run through the spile and can be drunk or collected.

If you don’t have a spile, you can cut one from a hollow piece of tubing or the housing of a ballpoint pen, or any other hollow tube. Failing that, cut a wedge into the tree, then use leaves or other material to collect and/or direct the sap to a container.

Tree sap contains sugars and should be consumed within 24 hours of collection so it doesn’t spoil.

Transpiration Bags

If you have a bag or piece of plastic, you can create a transpiration bag.

Look for a healthy tree that receives full sunlight. Simply draw a plastic bag over a leafy branch and tie the end. Pull the bag down enough to create a collection area in the bottom of the bag. A rock placed in the bottom corner can help to weigh it down.

transpiration bag

As the sun hits the bag, moisture will condense on the plastic and drain down to the bottom. If you have a piece of plastic tubing, you can run the tubing into the bag and drink the water without having to remove the bag. Put the bag on the branch in the morning and remove it in the evening once it no longer receives sunlight. Switch to a new branch the next day.

You can create a variation of this by putting cut greenery into a plastic bag. Put a stick in the center to create a tent-like area over the plants for the condensation to collect.

Tilt the bag so that one of the bottom corners is lower than the other. The condensed water will then flow down to the collection point. A rock or other weight placed in the corner can help keep the collection point stable.

Change the leaves frequently. A piece of plastic tubing can be useful here as well.

How to Find Water In The Wilderness: Seepage Well

A seepage well uses the ground itself to filter questionable water or to reach water that may be below ground.

Dry rivers or creek beds may contain water below the surface. A seepage well is a possible way to access it. Simply dig the well in the lowest part of the dry bed and wait. If water is available, it should begin to appear within 30 minutes or more.

Seepage wells are also a way to filter stagnant water. Dig a seepage well a few feet away from the water source and wait for it to fill.

To dig a seepage well: Dig a hole in the ground. Make it large enough to dip water out of it and deep enough to reach below any saturated ground, usually at least a foot or deeper. Poke holes in the sides and bottom of the hole to increase seepage. Let it sit for a while before coming back.

Scoop the muddy water from the hole until the fresh water rises. Allow the water to sit long enough for the sediment to settle. Carefully scoop the clearer water from the top.

Always treat and purify any water from a seepage well before drinking.

How to Find Water In The Wilderness: Solar Distiller or Solar Still

A solar distiller or still works well in any location that receives sunlight.

To begin, dig a hole at least two feet wide and two feet deep. Put a container in the bottom of the hole to collect the water. Anchor the container well so that it doesn’t tip over accidentally.

inside solar still

If you have it, place a piece of plastic tubing with one end in the container and run the other end outside the hole. This allows easy access without having to dismantle the still.

Fill the area in the hole and outside the container with plants, wet cloths, urine or other undrinkable water.

Cover the hole with a sheet of plastic. Weigh down the outside perimeter of the plastic tarp with stones or dirt.

solar still

Take a weight such as a small rock or stone and place it in the center of the plastic over the container to create a drip point. As the sunlight hits the plastic, the moisture in the hole will condense on the bottom of the plastic, then drip down to the drip point and into the container.

How To Find Water In The Wilderness: Snow

Never eat snow or ice. Always melt it first. The simplest method is to fill any metal containers with snow and place by the fire or heat source until the snow melts. Without a metal container, place snow or ice on a flat rock near a fire. Angle the rock so that the snowmelt will drip down to a collection container. You can also melt snow by making a large snowball, sticking it on a stick and putting it near the fire to melt. Collect the water as it drips.

Without any other heat source, snow can be packed into a container, then held close to your body to melt from your body heat. Unfortunately, this will cool you down as well. While it’s one way to melt snow for drinking, it’s generally not a good idea because in winter conditions maintaining your own body heat is a prime consideration.

Safe, drinkable water can be found or collected from a variety of sources. With a little practice and ingenuity, you’ll know how to find safe water regardless of where your journeys may take you.

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