survival water guide

Survival Water: The Ultimate Guide to Storing, Treating, and Finding Water in Emergencies

As someone who believes in self-reliance, you want to take steps to be prepared for disaster. There are a lot of things you can do to get prepared, like building a Bug Out Bag and stockpiling food.

However, no emergency plan would be complete without survival water.

This guide will tell you everything you need to know in order to store water, treat water, and find water in emergency situations.

The Importance of Stockpiling Water

stockpiling water for emergencies

Living in the developed world, most of us take it for granted that we will always have access to clean, safe drinking water coming from our taps. However, this is far from the truth. Every year, dozens of people are hospitalized and die because of water-related illnesses.

Just ask the residents of Corpus Christi, Texas who were recently told not to use tap water for any purpose – not even bathing – because an unknown chemical had gotten into the water supply.

An outbreak of norovirus contaminated hundreds of people in Yolo County, California.

The residents of Milwaukee surely haven’t forgotten the flooding of 1993 which caused an outbreak of the parasite Cryptosporidium parvum. It infected over 400,000 people – 25% of the city’s population at the time!

Or we can look at the aftermaths of Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, and Irene. The flooding resulted in unsafe drinking water and outbreaks of pathogens like vibrio.

While these outbreaks aren’t always well-documented or reported, natural disaster almost always results in an increase of gastrointestinal diseases from unsafe water.

What If a Larger Disaster Were to Strike?

The examples given above aren’t meant to strike fear into your hearts. Rather, I want to point out what can happen even during normal times or regional-level disasters.

In these situations, we'd have an emergency hygiene disaster.

Read More About Emergency Hygiene

Hygiene risks are almost inevitable after disasters - find out how to prep for them now

Emergency Hygiene Guide

What if a large-scale disaster were to strike, such as a bioterrorism attack on the water supply or “The Big One” quake in California?

We’d quickly see our entire water infrastructure reduced to third-world levels.

Take a look at what happens to third-world countries in the aftermath of disasters and you’ll understand why water security is such a serious issue.

In Haiti, for example, cholera spread through unsafe water killed over 9,000 and affected hundreds of thousands. Six years has passed since their devastating earthquake and approximately 37 people are still dying per month because of cholera!

We need water for drinking, cooking, sanitation, and producing food. Because of how critical water is, it must be at the center of your emergency preparedness plan.

Water-Related Threats and Illnesses

threats in dirty water

Before you can start making an emergency water plan, it is important that you understand what potential threats there may be in water. Once you know this information, you will be able to make better decisions about when and how to stockpile and treat water.

Lets take a look at each of these threats in detail;​

Bacteria

E coli bacteria

When water treatment centers stop working or are overwhelmed (such as during flooding), bacteria can easily get into the water supply. Bacteria thrive in water and even “clean” water which has been allowed to stand can quickly start to grow bacteria.

The good thing is that bacteria are fairly large (about 1 to 10 microns long and 0.2 microns wide), so they can be removed with filters.

Bacteria are also easy to destroy with boiling and chemical treatment methods. For more on this, read The Best Survival Water Filters and Purifiers.

The most common bacterial infections in water are:

  • Coli
  • Legionella
  • Shigella
  • Campylobacter

Parasites and Protozoa 

Protozoa under microscope

Parasites and protozoa aren’t talked about as much, but they are just as deadly as bacteria.

You’ll find parasites like giardia even in water which appears clean, such as water in running streams.

Parasites and protozoa usually are much larger than bacteria, starting at about 2 microns in size, so they can be removed with most backpacking filters.

Viruses

Cellular virus

At about 0.0004 to 0.1 microns in size, viruses can’t be removed by most filters and even some methods like UV sticks aren’t reliable for killing viruses.

The good news is that viruses aren’t usually a problem in backcountry water. This is because, with the exception of cholera and polio, most viruses can’t survive or reproduce in water.

They are also susceptible to UV light, so shallow water which has been hit by sunlight is usually safe from viruses.

Viruses do become a major issue in urban areas though, especially during flooding.

Sewage (which is full of viruses) spreads into the flood water and can cause infection just from contact. Because tall buildings block light, even natural sunlight probably won’t be enough to kill the viruses in the water.

Rural areas aren’t immune from viruses either. Animal waste can infect water and lead to outbreaks, especially during large-scale flooding.

Organic Chemicals

Benzenesulfinic-acid

Don’t let the term “organic” confuse you. Organic simply means that the chemicals contain carbon.

This group contains some of the most dangerous chemicals, such as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) like benzene, solvents, and refrigerants. The best way to remove these organic chemicals is activated carbon filters. However, even this method isn’t 100% effective.

During flooding, VOCs can be a huge risk. In rural areas, fertilizer and pesticide runoff can cause contamination. In urban areas, there is contamination from industrial waste, oil spills, and trash.

The good news is that most organic chemicals don’t pose an immediate risk like bacteria, viruses, and parasites do.

By this, I don’t mean that it is ever safe to consume organic chemicals. However, if you are unable to properly remove chemicals from tainted water, you aren’t likely to immediately come down with a life-threatening illness. The damage occurs later on with increased risk of cancer and other diseases.

Inorganic Chemicals

Aresnic element

This group includes heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, fluoride, and chlorine.

The good news is that most of these toxic heavy metals are large in size and can be removed with filtering. Even your standard home water filter should do the job (though some are obviously a lot better than others).

Like with the organic chemicals, there isn’t as immediate threat with inorganic chemicals as there is with bacteria, viruses, and parasites.

If your sole source of drinking water is contaminated by industrial or agricultural waste though, then you’ll definitely want to filter these out.

Radioactive Contaminants

radioactive symbol

The earthquake in Japan which caused damage to a nuclear plant made a lot of people rethink the risk of radiation poisoning.

Ways that you can reduce levels of radium in water include:

But let’s be honest here: if your area gets hit by a nuclear disaster, you better get out!

Rely on your stored drinking water (which should be okay so long as it is sealed) until you get far away from the site of contamination.

Diarrhea Is Deadly!

Believe it or not, but diarrhea is actually one of the biggest threats when surviving in the wild.

Diarrhea outbreaks also occur after virtually every natural disaster.

The problem is caused by drinking and touching contaminated water. Diarrhea and vomiting symptoms might not seem so terrible, but consider that dehydration from diarrhea kills over 1.25 million people each year. Diarrhea is the second leading cause in death in children under 5 years old.

The last thing you want is to die because of diarrhea (not exactly a fun way to go). It is imperative that you take the risk of diarrhea seriously.

Your emergency first aid kit should be stocked to treat these symptoms.

At the very minimum, you need:

Emergency First Aid Checklist

Want to know what you need in your emergency first aid kit? With free downloadable checklist.

Emergency First Aid Kit Checklist

Anti-Diarrhea and Anti-Vomiting Medicine

Note that immediately taking anti-diarrhea or anti-vomiting medicines can backfire. (Source)

Your body experiences these symptoms as a way to get the pathogen out. By taking the meds, you are keeping the pathogen in your body longer. And, if you have dark or bloody stools, you should never take those meds.

The primary goal should be keeping the patient hydrated.

Many people like to keep antibiotics in their emergency first aid supplies. However, there are some issues with stockpiling antibiotics, such as getting a prescription for them and safely storing them.

Because of these issues, many people turn to fish antibiotics as an alternative.

Here's Everything You Need to Know about Fish Antibiotics for Emergency Preparedness.

When Water Poses a Risk

  • Power Outages: Anytime the power is out, the water treatment plant serving your home might fail. You should always treat water or use bottled water during power outages.
  • Boil Alerts: Pay attention to emergency notifications (alerts from an emergency radio can help you stay informed). If a boil alert is issued, it means that your water might be unsafe to drink.
  • Flooding: Anytime flooding occurs, you are put at risk of waterborne illness. Avoid contact with the water and only water you know is safe for drinking, cooking, and cleaning.
  • Foods which Have Contacted Tainted Water: You can’t wash away bacteria and other pathogens with clean water. Any food which has touched dirty water should be thrown away. Make sure your emergency foods are safely packaged to protect against flood water.

Creating an Emergency Water Plan

Most Americans are living with an overblown sense of security. Consider a poll which found that less than half of Americans have a 3-day supply of food and water – yet they believed that they’d be able to survive 16 days on their supplies in event of a disaster.

Even if you don’t believe that a major disaster will affect you, it is still important to at least have an emergency water plan in place.

We can only live 3 days without water and we’d succumb to delirious thirst well before those 3 days were up.

It doesn’t take much to knock the water supply out for 3 days. A small blizzard or power outage could do it.

Here is where we’ll cover the core information you need to make an emergency water plan, including:

  • How much water to stockpile
  • How and where to store water
  • Water storage myths.

How Much Water to Store per Day?

water bottles for storage

This is something that we've talked about extensively in the post on How Much Water Do You Really Need to Stockpile for Disaster Preparedness? Ready.gov, FEMA, and the Red Cross all recommend stockpiling at least one gallon of water per person, per day.

Here is how they break down emergency water needs:

  • ½ gallon for drinking
  • ½ gallon for cleaning and cooking

People who are used to living without running water – such as backpackers or people living off-grid – will likely be fine with one gallon of water per day. However, most people don’t have experience living without running water. They haven’t learned tricks for conserving water.

For example, try brushing your teeth using bottled water. You will probably find that you lose a cup of water just trying to rinse your toothbrush afterwards!

Someone with experience conserving water wouldn’t let a precious drop be wasted.

Instead, the dirty water would be collected and used for another task, such as gravity-flushing the toilet.

The only way to accurately estimate your daily water needs is to run a water drill.

A water drill is fairly simple to do, though it does require some diligence. During the drill period (ideally at least three days long), you will only use water from your emergency stockpile.

If you have to leave home, bring water with you.

At the end of the drill, calculate how much water you used. Considering that the average American uses approximately 80-100 gallons of water per day, chances are that you will use much more than one gallon of water per day.

How Many Days’ Worth of Water?

bottled water in supermarket

Ready.gov recommends at least three days’ worth of water whereas FEMA and the Red Cross recommend stockpiling water for at least 14 days.

Most preparedness experts would say that even a 14 day stockpile is not nearly enough water. We only need to look at major disasters like Hurricane Katrina to see that the water supply can be knocked out for months.

During Katrina, the government was able to step in and deliver water to trapped residents.

The question is, do you really want to be standing in line fighting for water handouts?

And that is assuming that the government would even be able to step in!

In a large-scale, nationwide disaster, it is unlikely that any help would come. You’d be left to fend for yourself.

Ideally, you should have at least a 30-day stockpile of emergency water. This emergency water would complement other parts of your water plan, such as a method for gathering and treating water you find.

Read more here about Why You Need a 30-Day Stockpile for Emergencies.

Getting 30 days’ worth of water is a big task. Don’t let it intimidate you. Just start slowly with a 3-day supply and building up as you gain the resources for storing the water properly.

Containers for Storing Water

Choosing containers for your emergency water is actually more complex than you might think. The wrong decision could end up costing you a fortune or result in your water leaking all over your floor!

Option 1: Storing Water in Plastic Bottles

The easiest solution for stockpiling water is to just buy bottled water. A cheaper alternative is to put tap water in plastic bottles. Milk jugs and soda bottles are popular choices.

You’ll have to clean the bottles out thoroughly first. Pay careful attention to the lids (especially of milk jugs) because crust is often stuck there. It will get into the water and cause bacteria to grow. To make sure your plastic bottles are really clean, you can rinse them with a bit of bleach.

However, there is one major problem in using plastic bottles and milk jugs to store water: The bottles will eventually start leaking.

Plastic Bottles Will Leak

Almost all plastic containers today are biodegradable. It will take years before these containers fully degrade but it only takes a few months or years until tiny holes start to form in biodegradable plastic bottles.

Leave your emergency water in milk jugs for a year and you’ll find it leaking all over your floor!

You can still use plastic bottles for storing water. However, you will have to get rid of all the bottles every 6-18 months.

The life span of the bottles really varies depending on the type of plastic used and also where you are storing them. Light and heat, for example, will cause the bottles to break down faster.

Another issue with storing water in plastic bottles is that eventually the chemicals in the plastic will leach into the water. Cheap plastic is also slightly permeable, so your water can actually pick up tastes from the outside world – such as end up tasting like your musty basement.

These aren’t serious concerns during a disaster (bad-tasting water is better than no water!), but is something to consider for long-term storage.

Estimated Lifespan of Plastic Bottles

Milk Jugs - 6 to12 Months
Store-Bought Water - 12 Months
Soda Bottles - 12 Months
Gatorade Bottles (or other thick plastic bottle)- 24 Months

Of course, the plastic bottles might not start leaking until long after these estimated lifespans.

However, it is better to be precautious and get rid of the bottles before they spring a leak. Not only would you be out of emergency water, but you could end up with a lot of water damage to your floors.

Option 2: Storing Water in Jugs

Rotating water can be a fairly annoying task. Instead, you might want to consider storing your emergency water in jugs.

These types of water jugs can be found in camping and RV stores.

Water jugs are an investment, but they don’t degrade like cheap plastics do.

Unfortunately, you’ll still need to rotate the water stockpiled in jugs because mold and bacteria can grow in it. The good news is that you are only rotating the water and not tossing the containers with each rotation.

It is recommended that you rotate water in jugs at least once per year. One solution to make water last longer is to buy “water preserver drops.

You just put the drops into the water and you won’t have to rotate it for five years.



Option 3: Storing Water in Jars

Another option is to store emergency water in glass jars. Jars don’t deteriorate like plastic and there are no chemicals to worry about leaching into the water. Some people put a few drops of bleach into the jars to sanitize the water so it will keep longer.

It is still advised to rotate the water every year though.

The main problem with using jars for storing water is that they are breakable. An earthquake or hurricane could destroy your whole stockpile, which defeats the point. Think carefully about the types of disasters are you preparing for and whether glass makes sense.

Glass Storage Jars

Where to Store Water

The location of where to stockpile food is very important because sunlight, heat, and moisture can easily destroy the foods. With water storage, location isn’t as important – but it shouldn’t be overlooked.

Here are some points to consider:

  • Accessibility: Will you be able to get to the water during an emergency? For example, if your water is stored in the basement, flooding might make it impossible to get to without risking electrocution or touching hazardous water.
  • Freezing: Water expands when it freezes, so your containers could crack or break if the water is allowed to freeze, such as when stored in a garage.
  • Heat: Heat will cause plastic bottles to deteriorate faster. If storing plastic bottles in a hot place such as the garage or attic, you’ll need to rotate them more frequently.

Treating Water During Emergencies

This section on treating water is the probably the most important part of this guide and I encourage you to read it and read it again.

Why?

Because there are many disaster situations when you might have access to water but it will be unsafe. For example:

  • During power outages when there is still water coming from the taps but it is not safe to drink.
  • During flooding when you could literally be surrounded by water, but it is severely contaminated.
  • In the backcountry where ponds and streams are sources of water.
  • Next to the ocean where the only available water is salt water.

You could find yourself in one of these situations where there is plenty of water, but drinking that water could lead to illness and death.

As the phrase goes,

“Water, water everywhere – but not a drop to drink!”

To make sure this never happens, here is what you need to know about water purification methods and how to choose the right water treatment method.

1. Boiling for Treating

treating water during emergencies

Boiling is the simplest water purification method and doesn’t require any special equipment other than a pot and fire.

In extreme wilderness survival situations, there are even ways to make a “pot” out of birch bark and use fire-heated stones to get the water boiling.

However, this takes a high level of outdoor skill (not to mention patience!), which is why your emergency supplies should always include a pot and preferably an emergency stove.

Here you can see examples of emergency stoves.

Considering how simple it is, boiling is surprisingly effective.

Just one minute of active boiling will kill bacteria, viruses, parasites, and protozoa. At higher elevations, you’ll need to boil for 5 minutes to make it safe.

Boiling will NOT purify water of chemical contaminants. So, boiling won’t make flood water safe to drink (which is often contaminated with oil, pesticides, and other waste), nor will it make water safe to drink during situations like biochemical attacks.

It also doesn’t remove sediment or other debris from water. Unless you don’t mind drinking gunky water, you’ll probably want to filter it through a bandana or t-shirt first.


Treats

  • Bacteria
  • Parasites
  • Protozoa
  • Viruses

Doesn't Treat

  • Organic chemicals
  • Inorganic chemicals
  • Radionuclides

Suitable for: Backcountry water, tap water during power outages

2. Mechanical Water Filters

Water filters are considered a type of “mechanical” water treatment because they literally trap contaminants that go through them.

There is a lot of variability in water filters, so you need to be really careful when choosing one. The most important thing to look at is micron size rating. This refers to the size of contaminants that the filter can remove.

The smaller the number, the better the filter will be at removing contaminants.

For example, I checked out some of the most-popular filter cartridges for sale online. Most of these had micron ratings of 5 to 10 microns. This would be suitable for removing sediment and hard water.

However, bacteria are as small as 0.2 microns in size, so these cartridges would not treat bacteria in water. To safely treat bacteria, a water filter must filter at least 0.2 microns.

Using Water Filters on Viruses

Note that viruses are incredibly tiny.

The company Sawyer now makes a water filter with a 0.02 rating which is capable of removing most viruses. However, as talked about in the “Threats” section, viruses usually aren’t a problem in backcountry water because most viruses aren’t able to survive in water and sunlight can easily kill them.

Viruses do become a problem during flooding though, so a water filter would not be suitable for treating flood water.


Treats

  • Bacteria
  • Parasites
  • Protozoa
  • Inorganic chemicals

Doesn't Treat

  • All ​Viruses
  • Organic chemicals
  • Radionuclides

Suitable for: Backcountry water, tap water during power outages

Read More About Purifying Water

In the wilderness and don't have a water filter?

Make your own water filter

3. Activated Carbon Water Treatment

Activated carbon is a really interesting substance. Unlike the materials used in mechanical water filters which “catch” impurities, activated carbon absorbs impurities.

This unique property makes activated carbon the only water treatment method which will remove organic chemicals such as benzene and pesticides.

I personally think that every person should have some activated carbon their disaster supplies. However, it is especially important for anyone living near industrial plants or agricultural areas. That basically means everyone except people living in really remote areas!

While the activated carbon won’t kill bacteria, parasites, or viruses, it can be used in combination with boiling to make very-contaminated water safe for consumption.

For example, let’s say that there has been a terrible hurricane and you don’t have any bottled water left. You could boil the flood water (which would kill viruses, bacterial, and protozoa/parasites) and then use activated carbon to remove the many toxic chemicals that are likely in the water.

Activated Carbon Water Treatment

One important thing to note about activated carbon is that it has a saturation level. At a certain point, it won’t be able to absorb any more impurities.

If you continue to use the carbon filter after its reached saturation point, all those absorbed impurities will leach into the water. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to gauge when that saturation point has been reached.

The dirtier the water, the faster the carbon will become saturated.


Treats

  • Organic chemicals
  • Some radionuclides

Doesn't Treat

  • ​Bacteria
  • Viruses
  • Parasites
  • Protozoa
  • Inorganic chemicals

Suitable for: Removing chemicals from toxic water (such as in flood water, near industrial sites, or biochemical attacks), nuclear disasters.

4. Chemical Water Treatments

The term “chemical” water treatments is a bit confusing, but these are actually one of the most common methods for treating contaminated water.

For example, you can buy water treatment tablets or drops to put in unsafe water to kill bacteria, parasites, and viruses.

Because the tablets are so lightweight and portable, they are very popular with lightweight backpackers and good choices for reducing weight from your Bug Out Bag.

The main downside to using water treatment tablets is that they are limited in quantity. Where some water filters can be used for thousands of gallons, one tablet will usually only treat one liter of water.

Like with boiling, treatment tablets also won’t remove sediment so you might need to pre-filter the water using a bandana.


Treats

  • Bacteria
  • Parasites
  • Protozoa
  • Viruses

Doesn't Treat

  • Inorganic chemicals
  • Organic chemicals
  • Radionuclides

Suitable for: Backcountry water, tap water during power outages


Bonus Tip - Using Bleach as a Chemical Water Treatment

Do you have unscented bleach in your home (sodium hypochlorite 8.25%)? Well, then you’ve got a method for treating water.

In small quantities, bleach is safe to consume but will still kill bacteria, viruses, and parasites/protozoa in water.

Below are the EPA instructions for treating water with bleach. You can read more about it in this post about How to Treat Water Using Bleach.

EPA water treatment instructions

5. UV Water Treatment Method

Ultraviolet light causes the DNA in bacteria, viruses, and parasites/protozoa to scramble. They will still be in the water, but they will be harmless.

You can buy UV water treatment wands. To use them, you put the wand in the dirty water, push a button, and let the UV light do its work.

These methods are great because they are portable and will actually kill viruses (which filtering does not do).

Note that some sources say that the effects of UV treatment methods are only temporary because the DNA can become unscrambled. So, you should consume the treated water right away instead of waiting hours after treatment.

A serious downside that UV treatment devices require batteries. During an EMP disaster, electronic devices could be fried, rendering your UV device useless. Or, you might simply run out of batteries which would also make your device useless.

Read more about How to Prepare for EMP here.


Treats

  • Bacteria
  • Parasites
  • Protozoa
  • Viruses

Doesn't Treat

  • Inorganic chemicals
  • Organic chemicals
  • Radionuclides

Suitable for: Backcountry water, tap water during power outages


Bonus Tip - Treating Water with Sunlight

If you have no other method of treating water, you can actually use the UV rays from sunlight to treat water.

This method is even recommended by the World Health Organization in areas where water is not safe to drink and no other purification method is available.

To treat water with sunlight, just put the water in a clear glass or plastic bottle and leave it in the sunlight for 6 hours.

This only is effective if the water is clear. Otherwise, sediment in murky water will prevent the UV rays from getting into the water.

One cool hack you can use on murky water is to add a bit of salt to it. The salt will stick to particles and cause them to sink so the water becomes clear enough for the UV rays to work their magic.

6. Reverse Osmosis

Reverse osmosis systems are very complex and somewhat expensive. They work by hooking up to your water system and forcing pressurized water through a special membrane.

Reverse Osmosis System on Amazon.

When it comes to treating water, reverse osmosis is one of the most effective single methods you can use. The only impurities the system won’t remove are organic chemicals (such as fluoride, chlorine, and lead).

However, because reverse osmosis systems are so costly, it is unlikely that anyone will want to rely on this method for emergency preparedness.

It is worth mentioning though that reverse osmosis is the only method that will remove significant amounts of radioactive materials.

If you live near a nuclear facility, then it might be worth the investment to get one of these systems.


Treats

  • Bacteria
  • Parasites
  • Protozoa
  • Viruses
  • Inorganic chemicals
  • Some radionuclides

Doesn't Treat

  • Most organic chemicals

Suitable for:Backcountry water, tap water during power outages, flood water, nuclear disasters.

7. Distillation

Distillation treatment systems work by vaporizing water and then collecting the steam. The steam is then cooled so it turns back into water.

There are expensive home distillation systems you can buy. However, nature also provides us with distilled water in the form of rain and snow.

Home Distillation System on Amazon

You can also use a clear plastic sheet or bag to make a “solar still.” We’ll talk about how to make a solar still in the “Finding Water” section.

The idea is that many impurities are too heavy to get into the steam, so the steam will be safe to drink. However, not all impurities get left behind when water vaporizes.

You’ve heard of acid rain, right?

That is because many organic chemicals get into water vapor in the air and then fall down on us when it rains. Thus, distillation isn’t going to help you in situations like biochemical attacks.


Treats

  • Bacteria
  • Parasites
  • Protozoa
  • Viruses
  • Inorganic chemicals
  • Some radionuclides

Doesn't Treat

  • Most organic chemicals

Suitable for: Backcountry water, tap water during power outages, salt water, flood water, nuclear disasters.

8. Ion Exchange

Ion exchange systems are another complex, expensive treatment system which isn’t suitable for most survival uses.

However, they are worth mentioning because they do a great job of removing heavy metals like lead and arsenic.

They can also remove some radionuclides – though I wouldn’t rely on them during a nuclear disaster.


Treats

  • Inorganic chemicals
  • Some radionuclides

Doesn't Treat

  • ​Bacteria
  • Viruses
  • Parasites
  • Protozoa
  • Organic chemicals

Suitable for: Situations where heavy metals might be present in the water, such as water systems fed by old lead pipes (think of the crises in Flint, MI and Corpus Christi, TX).

Which Water Purification Method to Choose?

With so many water treatment methods, figuring out which one to use can be confusing.

The truth is that you will need more than one method to make your water safe – and even that might not help you in certain crises such as biochemical attacks.

Here is an overview of what treatment methods you could use depending on the situation:

  • Backcountry Use: Because viruses and chemicals aren’t usually threats in backcountry water, you could use boiling, mechanical filters, chemical treatments, or UV water treatments to safely treat the water.
  • Power Outages: During power outages, the water treatment facility might stop working and bacteria, protozoa, and parasites become a risk. You could use boiling, mechanical filters, chemical treatments, or UV water treatments.
  • Flood Water: Because of how contaminated flood water is with chemical runoff, sewage, and even dead bodies, it should never be consumed. However, if you absolutely have to drink flood water, you should first filter it AND then boil it AND then use activated carbon.
  • Salt Water: Distillation is the only way to treat salt water. You can make a solar still to do this.
  • Chemical Spills or Chemical Attacks: In situations such as fracking disasters or terrorist attacks on the water supply, you are best relying on bottled water. If you must, use activated carbon to treat the water.
  • Nuclear Disasters: No method is going to help you completely. However, reverse osmosis is your best bet. If you don’t have this system, then you can use activated carbon and/or distillation.

Finding Water in Survival Situations

finding water in survival situations

Before you can even begin to worry about treating water, you have to find water first. This may seem like an easy task. I mean, there always seems to be a tap, river, lake, or at least some rain – right?

A good survival plan will include a “Bug Out Location” that is close to a water source. It will also include recent contour maps in with the survival supplies so you can at least scout out a stream on the map.

Read More About Choosing a Bug-Out Location

Choose your bug-out location carefully, it is a critical part of a good survival plan.

Learn more

However, we don’t always get so lucky to have an obvious source of water nearby. For these situations, you need to utilize higher-level survival skills to find water.

Here we will go over the easiest ways to find water in survival situations.

Rainwater Collection

rainwater barrel

Think that collecting rainwater is as simple as putting your water bottles outside in the rain so they can fill up?

Yes, that is one way to collect rainwater -- but it is very ineffective.

Rain is usually measured in inches, and refers to the amount of rain which fell over a period in a certain amount of time (usually during a shower or a 24-hour period).

It doesn’t matter how big the rain gauge is. You could use a 1 square foot pan, a coffee cup, or an Olympic pool. The depth of the water which hits the surface would be the same.

However, surface area matters when collecting rainwater.

The larger your surface area is, the more water you will be able to collect. One inch of rain in a plastic bottle is still a lot less than one inch of rain which would hit a rooftop.

If you wanted to fill a water bottle by leaving it out in the rain, it would have to be a huge storm that lasted all day.

The simplest way to collect rainwater is to utilize your roof. You just put a bucket under your gutters. You can then treat the water and use it.

Read More About Rainwater Harvesting

It is easier than you’d think to install a rainwater harvesting system on your roof.

Primal Survivor Tips for Choosing Rainwater Barrels

Using a Tarp to Collect Rainwater

rainwater collection system

If you are unable to collect water from your roof (such as when you are out in the wilderness), then hopefully you have a plastic tarp on hand.

There are many survival uses for a tarp, including for collecting large amounts of water, even during short rains.

In the images, you can see how people in Sudan and India use tarps to collect rainwater.

There are two different configurations used:

  • Above -  shows a tarp with a hole in the middle so rainwater can drip to the center.
  • Below - funnels the water down a side
rainwater collection with tarp

Both of these methods are much more effective than simply leaving buckets out in the rain.

You can also improvise tarps out of rain jackets and plastic bags for rainwater collection.

Transpiration Method of Harvesting Water

plant transpiration

Image credit: USGS Water Science Photo Gallery:https://water.usgs.gov/edu/watercycletranspiration.html

Transpiration is the process during which plants absorb water through their roots and evaporate it through their leaves into the air. The moisture can be collected and used for drinking water.

You’d actually be surprised how much moisture plants can let off. According to the USGS, an acre of corn can give off 3,000 to 4,000 gallons of water per day!

Required Tools:

  • Plastic bags: Preferably clear and sturdy. This is one situation where you’ll be happy that there is so much trash all over the planet!
  • Small stones: For weighing the bags
  • Rope: Or anything that can be used for tying the bags in place

Steps:

  1. Find trees or plants, preferably with large leaves.
  2. Put a small stone in a plastic bag.
  3. Tie the bag around the plant, getting as many leaves around it as possible.
  4. Repeat! Each bag will only give you a few spoons of water, so you’ll have to do this to lots of trees to harvest enough water for survival.
  5. Let the tied bags sit for all of daylight. Collect the water and drink it.

Notes:

  • Transpiration works best in hot, sunny weather.
  • Water transpired from plants is pure of bacteria, viruses, parasites, and many chemicals. It is still always smart to treat the water first.

Solar Still

ocean solar still

This is an example of a solar still made by the company AquaMate

Solar stills, also known as “condensation traps,” have been used in the Andes Mountains since before the Incans. However, it was only recently that many people heard of them from the movie Life of Pi.

In the movie, the protagonist who is stranded at sea is seen throwing an inflatable raft with a clear dome on top of it. Salt water inside the raft starts to evaporate and condense on the plastic. The shape of the dome then causes the condensed water droplets to drip into a collection area.

Basically, it is a very cheap and simple distillation system – and distillation is the only way that you can make salt water safe to drink.

Solar stills are also useful in desert survival situations where water is incredibly scare. You won’t find trees with leaves that can be used for transpiration. The few plants you do find – such as cacti – trap the water inside with waxy exteriors.

How to Make a Solar Still

  • Dig a 3-foot deep pit: Smaller holes will work, but not as much water will be harvested in small holes. Soil deeper in the ground will also be more moist and give off more water. One more reason to include a shovel in your survival supplies!
  • Put anything with moisture into the pit: Chopped up pieces of cacti work. I’ve even heard of people urinating into their solar still.
  • Place collection bowel at center: This is where the clean, solar-distilled water will drip.
  • Cover pit with clear tarp: A clear plastic bag or poncho might also work in a desperate situation. Secure the tarp in place.
  • Put a small rock on the middle of the tarp: The purpose of this rock is to angle the plastic downwards so the water drips towards the collection bowel.
  • Wait! It will take time for the water to evaporate from within the solar still. And don’t expect lots of water. You’ll be lucky to get a few spoons worth. In a survival situation though, that water could save your life.
solar still

The great thing about solar stills is that the water from them is clean of bacteria, parasites, viruses, and even most chemicals.

Except in situations where heavy chemical contamination has occurred, water from a solar still is safe to drink.

Dew Collection

Dew on cobweb

This water collection method is good for wet mornings in forests and on mountains.

During the night, the air cools down.

In the morning, there is lots of dew on plants – but it quickly evaporates as the sun gains strength.

An easy way to collect the dew is to tie cloth around your ankles and then walk through dew-filled growth.

The dew will absorb into the cloth, then you can wring out the cloth into your water bottle.

Fog Collection

fog collection for survival water

Backpackers know about the thick fog on mountaintops in the early mornings and overcast days.

The fog is actually comprised of many little droplets of water that haven’t condensed enough to turn into rain.Recently, innovators have figured out how to capture this fog and turn it into drinking water.

The Canadian company FogQuest and other non-profits have started projects using fog nets to bring drinking water to remote areas in the Andes Mountains, Ethiopia, Nepal, and other high-altitude, windy places.

You hang the mesh nets in a windy, foggy area. The nets collect the water and funnel it towards a collection trough.

Fog harvesting is still fairly new, so I haven’t been able to find any information about what type of net and material works best. However, it is worth keeping in mind – especially if you plan on bugging out in high altitudes.

Finding Water in the City

Flooding in New Orleans

Most survivalists imagine themselves bugging out in the wilderness after a disaster.

However, the reality is that many people will actually find themselves hunkering down in cities or other populated places. Read more about Bugging Out vs. Hunkering Down.

Without water running through the taps, water will be very hard to find.

Thirsty, desperate people will fight for the water. Or, sources of water might be targeted directly. For example, one of the survival lessons from the Bosnian War is that snipers targeted people going for water at the city’s river.

Here are some of the places you could go to find water in a city:

  • Water heaters: A water heater will usually hold about 30 to 80 gallons of water. Once you’ve used up the water in your own heater, you could go into abandoned buildings to empty their water heaters.
  • Toilet tanks: There is usually about 1.6 to 5 gallons of water in the top tank of a toilet. Again, once you use up the water in your top tank, then you can scavenge water from abandoned buildings.
  • Fire hydrants: Just because there is no water coming out of the taps, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t water in the pipes. You just need to access it, and opening fire hydrants is one way to do so. Unfortunately, most hydrants work on a pressure system. Without pressure, water might not come out of the hydrant. Your best bet is to find a hydrant at the bottom of two hills.
  • Fire sprinkler systems: You can teach yourself to locate fire sprinkler main drains and scavenge water from abandoned businesses.
  • Manual pumps: If you have well water (or know where a well is), then you might want to consider getting a manual pump for it. In a grid-down situation, the manual pump would ensure you could still access the water in the well.

As we can see from past disasters around the world, not having enough water in the city can lead to serious consequences. People risk their lives – traveling through sniper fire, dealing with street gangs, and worse – to scavenge up just a bit of water.

For this reason, it is really important that you have at least a 30-day supply of emergency water stored in your home. You might even want to take the extra step of hiding emergency water in caches near your home.

Supplies to Have for Scavenging Water:

Urban Survival Gear Checklist

in many disaster situations, you are probably better staying put aka “bugging in” or “hunkering down.”  For these situations, you will need to have urban survival gear.

Urban Survival Gear Checklist

Testing Your Water Plan

Stockpiling water and gear is just one part of preparedness. Another huge part of preparedness is running emergency drills.

Drills like the fire drills we used to do at school help us stay calm during emergencies. They also point out any flaws in the emergency plan.

For example, if it took 20 minutes to evacuate all the kids from school during a fire drill, the school would have to seriously re-plan the location of their emergency exits!

You shouldn’t consider your emergency water plan complete until you’ve put it through tests.

Drill 1: At-Home Water Consumption

We talked about this earlier in the section on “How Much Water to Store.” The only way to get an accurate estimate of your water needs is to spend (at least) three days without running water and calculate usage.

Many people find that they go way over the 1-gallon per day, per person recommendation.

We simply aren’t used to conserving water. In an emergency situation, every drop counts. You don't want to waste even a drop of your dirty dish water.

We don't talk about it often, but preppers must work on conserving water.

It is easier to learn to use less water than to stockpile huge amounts of water

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Tips for Conserving Water during Emergencies

  • Reuse greywater: In SHTF situations, remove the drain from your sinks and put a bucket underneath to catch the water. You can reuse this water for flushing toilets and watering crops.
  • Use biodegradable soap: Biodegradable soap washes off easier, which means that you will use less water for tasks like washing the dishes and laundry.
  • Flushing toilets: If it is in your budget, consider getting a dry-flush toilet for emergencies or a composting toilet. You can also save water by only flushing once per day. Alternatively, use the 2-bucket emergency toilet system.
  • Stockpile baby wipes: Instead of wasting water to shower, use baby wipes to clean yourself during emergency situations.

Drill 2: Bugging Out

bug out vehicle

This isn’t so much a water drill as it is a drill to test your entire Bug Out plan.

You’ll want to go out to your Bug Out Location with just the gear in your pack and see how comfortably you are able to survive three days.

In terms of water, you’ll want to ask yourself these questions:

  • Were you able to get enough water from natural sources, or did you have to use bottled water you brought?
  • Did you find yourself thirsty at any point?
  • Did you have enough water for cooking and sanitation?
  • How long did it take you to boil water with your emergency stove?
  • Did your water treatment system live up to expectations?
  • Is there anything you could do to improve it?
  • If you ran out of water and no natural sources (such as streams or ponds) were available, what gear could you use to harvest water?

Get Started with Survival Water Today!

Yes, thinking about water security can be overwhelming.

Don’t get discouraged!

Just by reading this, you have already made an important step towards gaining more security for you and your loved ones.

Start small with a 3-day water supply and some simple gear like a water filter and emergency stove for boiling water.

Then work your way up to a larger stockpile of water and trying out the emergency methods of sourcing water, such as building your own solar still.

Hopefully you will never need to use these supplies and knowledge but, in case you do, you can rest assured knowing that your survival is in your own hands.

About the Author Jacob Hunter

I'm Jacob Hunter, founder and chief editor of Primal Survivor. I believe in empowering people with the knowledge to prepare and survive in the modern world.

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime

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