There’s a lot to worry about if you ever find yourself in a true survival situation, but a primary concern should be your water supply. Whether you’re lost in the wilderness or living through a natural disaster that caused the grid to go down, your situation will quickly deteriorate if you don’t deal with your hydration concerns with a water purification strategy.
While the world is full of fresh water that’s safe for drinking, you’ll run into trouble if you can’t source it or purify it when you most need it. The human body can go for a month or more without food, but your system will start to shut down after a few days without water. Thankfully, there are dozens of water purification strategies to know in survival situations that could save your life if you know how to put them into action.
The first step? Finding a reliable source of water that you can purify.
5 Tips for Finding Water in a Survival Situation
The world’s best water filtration tips are worthless if you don’t have a way to secure water. Depending on your situation, you might easily find water in streams, ponds, or lakes, or it might be entirely out of sight. However, for those who know where to look, a reliable water supply can be found in some unexpected places. For instance, you can:
1. Distill Ocean Water
So long as you have a portable distillation system, you can turn any supply of salty, brackish water drinkable. This filters out the salt and other contaminants, leaving you with pure water instead.
2. Tap Trees
Maple and birch trees can be tapped with a tapping kit in the late winter to release a slightly-sweet sap. While this liquid is traditionally boiled down into maple syrup, you can also drink it as an emergency water supply.
3. Make a Solar Still
It’s possible to harvest dew for drinking with a homemade solar still. What you need is a clear plastic sheet and a cup for collecting water. Dig a hole that’s approximately three feet across and one foot deep and place a container in the center. Consider adding plants inside the hole to increase the water production. Then, stretch the plastic over the opening and secure the edges with rocks or other heavy objects. Place one stone in the center of the plastic over the part where the cup is, and let the sun’s heat cause the water to condense on the plastic and drip into the container. After several hours, you should have collected enough water to drink. Best of all, the clear plastic is a versatile survival tool that can be used for shelter and rain protection as well.
4. Hack a Hot Water Tank
If you’re trapped in a non-wilderness water emergency, your hot water tank can become a reliable source of fresh water. The key is to know how to shut off any incoming water to avoid contaminated water from mixing in. This guide will teach you how.
5. Open a Fire Hydrant
It’s possible to pull fresh water from a fire hydrant, but only in an actual emergency. A fire hydrant wrench can help you access the water inside your neighborhood hydrant.
Some water sources should not be tapped unless you absolutely have no choice. For example, when it comes to your toilet, you need to worry less about fecal matter contamination than toxic cleaning agents that are both dangerous and difficult to filter out. Drinking toilet water should consequently be a last resort. Radiators, water beds, and water in chemically treated pools or hot tubs full under the same category because of the chemicals within them. It’s also smart to be cautious with well water after an emergency like an earthquake, as the shifting ground means that the supply might become contaminated.
8 Ways To Purify Water in an Emergency Situation
Once you’ve secured a water supply, your primary objective should be to treat it. Purifying water frees it of microbial contaminants and disease, which makes it safer for your digestive system to handle. There is no limit to the ways you can clean up your water supply, but eight smart strategies for treating water in emergency situations are below.
1. Use a Filter
Perhaps the easiest way to deal with dirty water is to filter out the impurities immediately after you collect it. Some of the filter options available include the following.
- Pump-action filters use a pump system to force untreated water through a filter cartridge. This draws pathogens and other contaminants out, so you get instant fresh water. It’s good to look for one with a silver-embedded ceramic cartridge like the Katadyn Pocket filter so that the silver disables dangerous viruses as well.
- Gravity water filters rely on the power of gravity to push water through a reservoir to a hose with hollow membranes that filter out contaminants so it’s safe to drink. They tend to be more durable than other filters with moving parts, but the filtration process itself can be slow. Systems like the Platypus GravityWorks make the process easy by providing separate reservoirs for dirty and purified water.
- A new option for convenient water filtration is a survival straw like LifeStraw. This is a tool that filters water straight from an impure source just as fast as you can drink it. Designed to remove as much as 99.9% of dangerous microbes, these straws can provide you with up to 1,000 liters of fresh water before you need to replace it. For an ultra-convenient option, consider a water bottle with a built-in filter. This allows you to fill it with untreated water and sip out clean immediately.
2. Kill Pathogens with UV Light
UV light is a powerful way to kill microorganisms, making it an effective way to eliminate waterborne pathogens from your drinking supply. For the best portable option, it’s smart to look into using a water bottle with a built-in UV light filter from Mountop. If you want to treat water in a separate container, consider the SteriPen, a screwdriver-sized device designed to use UV light to kill off all contaminants in up to 15,000 liters before needing to be replaced.
3. Utilize SODIS (Solar Water Disinfection)
The sun’s rays are strong enough to kill water pathogens, so long as you know how to utilize them. Solar water disinfection (SODIS) is a broad term for filtration methods that rely on the sun. The simplest strategy is to put tainted water in clear plastic water bottles and let them sit out in the sun for at least a day. So long as the day stays sunny and hot, the sun’s UV rays will kill off the microbes within the water. While this method is cost-effective and straightforward, it’s not guaranteed to be effective, so it should only be practiced in case of emergencies if you don’t have another filtration option available. Likewise, the technique works best with smaller bottles, so stick with ones that are two liters or less.
4. Use a Bleach Treatment
Bleach earned its reputation as a potent cleaning product for a reason – it’s surprisingly effective at killing off microbes. You can add a dash of bleach to drinking water to make it safe to drink. But be careful only to use trace amounts; no more than four drops per quart for murky water and two drops for clear. Once added, shake your water container vigorously for up to a minute to ensure the compound has entirely dissipated within the water. Next, set the vessel in a dark place for at least half an hour. When you open the bottle again, it should smell vaguely of chlorine and be safe to drink.
5. Treat it with Iodine
Iodine is an effective way to disinfect water in a pinch, but be warned; this chemical can be harmful to your body at high concentrations. For this reason, it’s critically important that you only add a few drops at a time and to use only a tincture of iodine 2%. Plan to add five drops for a quart of clear water and ten for cloudy, and let the mixture sit in the shade for over thirty minutes before drinking it. As an added benefit, you can also use iodine to disinfect wounds in an emergency.
6. Try Disinfectant Tablets
Don’t want to measure out messy liquids? Water filtration can be as simple as adding disinfection tablets to your water. Using portable Aqua iodine tablets is a simple disinfectant strategy that renders water ready to drink within 35 minutes, but be warned that the pills only last a year before expiring. Some people also find that they taint the taste of the water in unpleasant ways. Another option is to use chlorine dioxide tablets, which react with water to disinfect it. After you add a tablet to a quart of water, it needs to sit for four hours to thoroughly treat it.
7. Boil the Water
Forget the high-tech equipment; one time-tested strategy for rendering water safe to drink is to boil it. While high heat conditions can’t evaporate all chemical pollutants contained within the water, five minutes of a rolling boil will kill the vast majority of dangerous pathogens, making it one of the safest ways to treat it. You can boil water over a campfire or a camp stove, and if you don’t have a heatproof container handy, you can heat rocks within a fire for half an hour before adding them to a water container to cook the bad microbes from the inside out. Just avoid using quartz, as it could explode in the heat.
8. Practice Portable Distillation
If you’re dealing with water that’s been so severely compromised by disaster conditions that it might destroy your water filter if you try to purify it, the only option might be to distill it. This removes lead, salts, heavy metals, and even radiation from the water, leaving you with a safer substance to drink. However, distillation is not 100% effective, as it won’t eliminate certain organic compounds or volatile oils. Distillation works by heating water into steam that is then captured and cooled back into cleaner water. You can keep a portable distiller on hand for emergency situations, or build one in a pinch with a pressure canner and small diameter copper tubing. Instructions for getting started are here.
When All Else Fails, Should You Drink Untreated Water?
If you’re out of options for purifying water, is it better to sip it straight from the source or go thirsty? Drinking raw water is a gamble no matter where it comes from, as even pristine-looking wilderness water can be host to dangerous bacteria. For this reason, you always need to weigh the risk before drinking it. If your health is more immediately compromised by going without, it’s a smart idea to drink up. After all, staying alive and sick to your stomach is always better than dying from dehydration.
A better option? Avoid this situation altogether by ensuring that you’re always prepared to purify your own water if the situation calls for it. The practice might just save your life.