Finding water: How to filter, purify and distill water in the wild

Finding Water

Hiking, building, and settling in can be exhausting, and you’re sure to be craving some hydration by the time you’re through. That’s why it’s important to be prepared with the right techniques on locating water sources, using animals and plants as guides, setting up a proper filtration system, and – if all else fails – how to create drinking water from the moisture in the air. This chapter will leave you ready to drink and bathe in wilderness style.

1. Finding Water

The safest sources of water in the wilderness

Find, filter, purify and distill water in the wildernessPhoto by Peter MulliganRainwater collected on a clean tarp is your best source of fresh water, but you cannot always depend on rainfall. Plants are another source – tie a large plastic bag around a leafy branch of a nonpoisonous plant and weight it with a small rock. Throughout the day, the plant will transpire water to collect in your bag. Look for clues in nature to direct you to a stream. Animals know where there is water, so look for and follow any tracks you find. Walk upstream to the source to collect water and be sure to boil it before drinking to kill any water-borne parasites.

2. Dig for Water

How to dig a gypsy well

How to dig a gypsy well and find waterPhoto by Elizabeth GommWhen the only source of water available is a stagnant pool or muddy ground, it is still possible to filter, harvest, and purify water. A gypsy well also called a ‘seep’, is a method of clarifying stagnant water and wringing water from the soil. Dig a hole large enough for a few gallons of water beside the muddy area or stagnant water. Water will begin to seep through the ground, leaving large particles behind, and eventually filling the hole. Line the bottom and sides of your well with stone to prevent sediment from fouling the water. As with all collected water, it must also be purified before use.

3. Bring it to a Boil

Make water safe to drink

How to make water safe to drinkPhoto by Quinn DombrowskiThe crystal clear water from a creek may appear to be clean, but chances are it contains, at least, some invisible bacteria, virus, or parasites. Keep your family healthy by making the effort to purify any water you collect from the wild. Boiling is an efficient and preferred method; just bring a pot of water to a rolling boil for ten minutes. Other methods include water purification tablets, lightweight backpacking water filters, and hydrogen peroxide at a rate of two tablespoons per gallon of water.

4. Filtering Water

Build a simple water filtration system

How to filter water with charcoalPhoto by HurricanemaineWater collected in the wild should be filtered to remove impurities and then purified to remove bacteria and parasites before you use it. The easiest method of filtering water runs it through a course layer (grass or gravel) to remove debris, a layer of sand to remove dirt and particulates, and finally, a layer of charcoal to remove some bacteria and chemicals. A plastic jug or bottle works well – just cut off the bottom, turn it upside down covering to top with a cloth, fill the bottle with the appropriate layers and slowly pour water through, allowing it to collect in a container underneath.

5. Let the Sun Purify your Water

Simple methods to try

Purify water with UV rays from sunPhoto by gr33n3ggThe sun purifies water through exposure to UV rays, which kill over 90% of pathogens found in water. Solar water disinfection, SODIS, is a simple and quick method of purifying water with materials you are likely to have on hand. Fill a clear plastic bottle with water that you have filtered and place it in the sun for six hours or more; uncap and enjoy. Using a battery-powered, handheld UV water purifier is an even quicker method – almost instantaneous – with the capacity to purify a larger quantity of water.

6. Water Distillation

Turn saltwater into freshwater

Make salt water safe to drinkPhoto by MarcelIn a national maritime forest, it is unlikely that you will find fresh water. With a large container, a smaller container, plastic bag, bungee cord, and rock – you can make a solar water distiller. Pour salt water into the large container, making sure it will not overflow into the smaller container, and place the small container in the middle. Cover the top with plastic and secure it with the bungee cord. Put the rock in the middle, making the low point of the plastic over the small container. Salt is left behind as water evaporates, condenses on the underside of the plastic, and runs into the middle container.

7. Water is in the Air

How to pull water out of thin air

Collect drinking water from fog or morning dewPhoto by Doug LettermanEven in the driest of climates, there is moisture in the air, most notably in the form of dew or fog. In the early morning, use a clean cloth to collect dew from grassy areas or foliage. Periodically squeeze out the water from the cloth over a bucket. Harvesting water from the fog requires setting up a simple collection system consisting of upright poles supporting a metal mesh screen – window screen or hardware cloth, a collection trough, and receptacle. The metal mesh deflects the fog droplets, condensing the water and causing it to drain into the collection channel.

8. Take a Hot Shower

Harness the warmth of the sun

Take a hot shower when campingPhoto by Jim KellyA Hot shower in the backcountry sounds like a luxury but is quite simple really. Take a bucket or a large water jug – dark colors are best, drill a hole in the bottom for a short section of PVC pipe to which you have added an elbow, valve, and plastic watering can head, sealing all of the connections. Hang in an area that receives as much sun as possible and enjoy! If DIY is not your style, black solar shower bags, complete with handheld showerhead and handle are a popular item at sporting good stores.

9. By the River’s Edge

Incredibly useful water plants

Edible plants found near waterPhoto by Robert and Pat RogersParts of the cattail can be eaten year round – tender shoots and immature flower heads in spring, corms or roots and pollen heads in the summer. In the fall and winter, mature pollen heads can be processed into flour or used as fire tender or insulation. The seeds, flowers, and rhizomes of the water lily are edible; tea made from the root soothes a sore throat, and a patch of water lilies is a good indicator that fish are present. Toss the tender leaves of the marsh mallow into a spring salad or boil the roots and sauté them with onions and butter.


Water is one of the most crucial resources that we need to stay healthy, but preparing it in the wilderness can seem overwhelming. Luckily, our tips can help you utilize everything from fire and the sun to plastic jugs and water lilies for food, hygiene, and hydration. Follow our tips for finding, boiling, distilling, and purifying water and you’ll be ready to learn how to use natural ingredients to create a five-star meal in the next chapter.

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