How to Find Water in the Wilderness

Collect a cascade of clues for locating water on your next trek.

By Getty Images/epicurean
Water usually lies nearby. It hangs heavy in the air before it condenses on grass. It dwells within plants, drips down rock, and pools in crevices before it’s absorbed by roots, lapped up by animals, or evaporated into the atmosphere. But in the vast wilderness, you can’t refill your canteen until you first find fresh water, and filter it, if necessary. If you’re in a familiar area, you’ll likely know the locations where water pools, or where running water abounds. If you’re in an unfamiliar area, you’ll have to recognize universal patterns, use past experience, and engage in some trial and error to locate what you’re looking for. Finding water requires using your senses, as well as a hefty dose of common sense. The following clues and cues will serve you well.

By Getty Images/mahe haroutinian 

You can collect water first thing in the morning from the dew that forms on grass in open woodland fields. All you need to do is tie a handkerchief or spare T-shirt around your ankle and walk through a field, then wring out the cloth into a container. Water also condenses on rocks when hot air meets cold rocks to create damp surfaces. Since water only drips down, tall rock faces can have significant amounts of water at their bases. Rock crevices can also trap water; it’s in your best interest to check them too. Just be careful to look inside crevices before feeling for moisture, as insects and animals may reside there.

By Page Street Publishing

Another way to find water is by seeking water-loving vegetation, such as the willow tree in desert environments. Willow trees signal water, and they have a distinctive shape and color that stands out from the rest of the more commonly found, low-lying vegetation. From a distant vantage point, you can spot these color variations on the landscape, and reduce the amount of scouting you need to do. Cattails also love water. Next time you see them along the highway or while travelling the backwoods, note where they’re growing. Cattails can be found in swampy areas or in extremely saturated marshland, where you know water won’t be far away.

Look to the land for clues. When scouting areas with my map, I typically look for ravines as potential seasonal water sources. After all, when the map was drawn, it could’ve been a drier season when no water was present. Also, look for animal behavior. Birds tend to circle close to water sources, and you may find animal tracks leading to water as well. Insects are similar; an abundance of mosquitoes may signal a nearby water hole or pool.

In winter conditions, you may be surrounded by snow in all directions. While it’s tempting to grab a handful of snow and consume it, eating snow will lower your body temperature, a dangerous practice in frigid conditions. But you can turn it into water in a number of ways. You can place a large snowball on a stick and angle it toward a fire with a container underneath it. Or you can construct a tripod with a cloth suspended between the legs, with snow placed on the fabric. When the tripod is placed near a fire, the snow will melt and drip through the bottom of the cloth. Should you have a metal pot, you can melt snow very easily, but you should always place a small amount of water in your pan first. This will keep your pan from burning, and the snow will melt more easily.

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