How to Find Water in the Wilderness

Collect a cascade of clues for locating water.

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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.

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.

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 traveling 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.

Running Over Rocks

Keep an open mind when seeking water in the wilderness. You may not find an abundance, but rather a trickle rolling down the side of a rock in a thin coating. You can try to place the lip of your canteen against the rock face, but you’ll find it difficult to get the water into your container. However, you can take advantage of this water with little more than a small length of string.

With only a piece of paracord and a water bottle from your emergency kit, you can set up a drip water collection system to fill your canteen. Affix one end of your cordage to the rock face, and place the other taut end in the bottom of your bottle. If the rock face you’re working with has fissures and cracks, tie a knot at the end of your paracord, and jam it in one of the cracks where the water is running over. Make sure to place your water bottle lower than the paracord’s point of attachment to the rock, and keep the angle of the cord steep. (See illustration.) With this setup, the water from the rock will follow your cordage down into your bottle while you work on other camping tasks. If you don’t have cordage, you can wipe down the rock surface with a cloth, and wring out the water into a container. Either method will help you utilize this resource, instead of abandoning it and searching for an oasis that probably doesn’t exist.

Trapping Transpiration

Trees absorb water through their roots and then release it through their leaves in a process called transpiration. In layman’s terms, transpiration is when a tree sweats. According to the United States Geological Survey, a large oak tree can transpire up to 40,000 gallons of water per year, which averages out to slightly over 100 gallons per day. This number is probably much higher on warmer days and lower on cooler days, since heat is a factor in the process. The amount of available water in the soil and the plant species also are factors, as some plants transpire more slowly in drier environments. You can take advantage of transpiration with just a large plastic bag and a small length of cord.

Be careful which kind of bag you select. Use a large bag, such as a contractor’s cleanup bag or a clear garbage can liner. Don’t select bags with an added chemical fragrance that’s meant to prevent insect infestation. Scout out an edible deciduous tree, such as maple, birch, or beech, and find a branch with an abundance of leaves. You’ll want to avoid poisonous trees or vegetation that could impart a bad flavor or toxins to your water. For example, avoid cherry trees, as they contain cyanogenic glycosides, which wreak havoc on the human body, causing headaches, vomiting, and dizziness.

After you find a suitable tree, place your bag over the branch and its bundle of leaves. Before you tie off the bag, place a small pebble in the bag’s bottom corner, and place this corner at the lowest possible point. This will help collect all the water at this point. Using cordage, tie off the bag to the branch, and walk away. As long as you selected a branch that’s exposed to the sunlight for the majority of the day, the bag will raise the temperature, further increasing the transpiration rate. Let the transpiration bag capture water while you focus on conserving your energy.

After a few minutes of sun exposure, you’ll notice beads of water forming on the inside of the bag. After being exposed to sunlight for hours, water will accumulate at the bottom of the bag. At this point, either remove the bag from the tree or cut a small spout in one corner. Just tie a knot in your bag to reuse it again. As for the branch you’re using, transpiration will eventually kill all the leaves inside the bag. For this reason, it’s wise to attach your bag to greener and healthier leaves when you notice the reused leaves turning color.

Transpired water may have a slightly green color to it, but this is harmless. You may also detect some small insects or particulates in the water. You can strain them out with your teeth as you drink. This method of water collection takes seconds to set up, and yields a respectable amount of water considering the little effort needed on the front end.

Mopping Up with Moss

You can grab a chunk of moss, squeeze it in your hand, and drink right from the source. But without a cloth, there’s no way of straining out the particulates. If you have a handkerchief, place moss inside it, and remove any bits of dirt or mud, if possible. When you have a sizable amount of moss, gather the four corners of your handkerchief and twist them in your hand until you have a bundle in the center. As you squeeze this bundle, extract the water from the moss into a container. The water that comes out of the handkerchief will likely be muddy in appearance, so you’ll still want to boil, mechanically filter, or chemically treat the water.

Seepage Basins 

If you’re near a large body of water, the best way to filter out the particles and sediment you don’t want floating in your cup — assuming you don’t have a bandana or handkerchief — is to dig a seepage basin. A seepage basin utilizes the terrain as a filter, and it’s just the first step in making water cleaner, better, and safer to drink. It won’t create water that’s ready to drink, but the water will contain almost no particulates if filtered correctly.

To dig a seepage basin, find a spot about 2 to 3 feet away from the edge of a swamp or body of water, and ideally just beyond any vegetation. If you can, dig your seepage basin in a relatively flat spot, such as a slight bank. You’ll need to dig down past the level of the body of water, since water won’t drain against the force of gravity. Your seepage basin won’t collapse in on itself as readily if you can dig in an area where there’s a healthy root system from nearby plants. Even if you end up with muddy water, let it sit for a while. The dirt and sediment will settle, and your water will be clearer when you come back to it.

This seepage basin may help you hydrate, but it won’t affect the smell of the water. That can be remedied with a charcoal filter. Another way to mitigate the stench is to make tea. If you can identify plants, search for white pine, yarrow, hawthorn, willow, or St. John’s wort to make pleasant-tasting teas. As stated before, this skill is just the first of many essential steps in making water cleaner, better, and safer to drink.

Kevin Estela became interested in bushcraft and survival as a child after hearing of his father’s survival stories during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines in World War II. Reprinted with permission from 101 Skills You Need to Survive in the Woods by Kevin Estela, Page Street Publishing Company (2019). Photos by Kevin Estela, Mike Travis, Dwayne Unger, Mike Lychock, Amanda Czaplickiand, and Price Brothers Outdoors. Illustrations by Lauren Harton.

In 101 Skills You Need to Survive in the Woods, you’ll learn what sets author Kevin Estela’s teaching apart from the rest: the “feeder” mindset. You’ll also discover skills such as how to make a fire, find shelter (or build it), gather food, and more.Order from the GRIT Store or by calling 800-234-3368.