Activity | How to find water in the wild
Clean drinking water is an essential part of your kit, but every litre adds a kilo of weight to your pack, so knowing how to replenish your water stocks on the move – or find it in an emergency – is vital. Bushcraft expert, Joe O'Leary reveals the following tricks in preparation for your Scouting adventures later this year!
Scouting out water
Before setting off on your trips, plot a route that takes in likely sources of water. If your trip is unplanned and this isn’t possible, consult your map to find the nearest options. Rivers, streams, lakes, springs, even small ponds and marshes will be marked and, with experience, you’ll be able to pinpoint less-visible areas that might contain an emergency source.
Make use of any high ground to study the landscape. Look for valleys, or the base of outcrops or cliffs where water will naturally drain to, and vegetation that may indicate its presence such as reeds, willow or alder. In arid landscapes, any vegetation at all is a giveaway.
Keep an open mind about what you expect to find but always inspect well, and filter and sterilise the water before drinking. Even a crystal-clear brook has the potential to hide a dead animal further upstream.
1) Trap Rainwater
Use a tarp, tent, plastic bag or even bark sheets and large, non-poisonous leaves to set up a system to catch valuable rainwater as it runs off. Always check the tree canopy above for toxic plants that the rain could be filtering through. Sometimes you’ll find a mature tree with a natural hollow where the large trunk separates into two or more thinner trunks; these ‘tree wells’ will frequently fill up with water. Scoop out the old sludge just before a heavy downpour and you’ll stand a chance of collecting a fair quantity of clean water.
Trapping rainwater on your tent is a great way to take advantage of overnight storms
2) Collect dew
First thing in the morning and late in the evening, grass and exposed vegetation is covered in water, albeit tiny droplets. These can be absorbed with a clean item of clothing and wrung out into a container. Sounds laborious but, in fact, walking through long grass just before the sun rises while you’re dragging an absorbent piece of material on a stick produces quite a lot. Dew also collects on cold surfaces; so try collecting and placing smooth rocks in a plastic-lined shallow pit to attract moisture. It will dribble down into the bottom of the pit, but be quick if the weather’s hot – use the moisture before the sun comes up and it starts to evaporate.
3) Take to the trees!
Silver birch in particular can provide an emergency drink during a two to three-week window in early spring (usually around late February, early March). Find a good-sized tree, preferably with a slight lean, and use your knife or a piece of flint and a wooden batten to pierce a hole through the bark on the side with the lean. If the conditions are perfect and it’s the right time of year, you’ll see a dribble of sap appearing in the hole, which quickly becomes a trickle, then a constant drip. Over time your container will fill up and provide a slightly sugary drink. It isn’t pure enough to be used as your only source of drinking water but it does taste refreshing!
Make sure you can identify birch trees to tap their sugary goodness!
4) Dig a well
There may be times when the ground is saturated underfoot but there is no visible pond or spring. It could be that there’s no sign of moisture at all on the surface, but water-loving plants growing nearby indicate a high water table underneath. The answer is to dig a well; dig down until water starts to seep into the bottom of the hole. Chances are it’ll be dirty this time (and maybe the second and third times too) so scoop it out until it’s clear. If the water continues to look murky, try lining with non-poisonous plants to act as a primary filter.
5) Defrost ice and snow
Heating snow and ice to produce water requires fuel so in the cold, always look for an alternative source; for instance, fast-running water is the last to freeze. Never be tempted to eat snow because you risk lowering your core temperature and developing mouth injuries. Melt it in a cooking pot and look for wet, slushy snow; powdery snow contains lots of air. Choose ice over snow; it provides a better return of water per potful. Alternatively, pack a T-shirt full with snow and hang it near the fire to slowly drip into a container.
Find an idyllic spot to melt some snow to keep you going on a hiking trip
Notes on filtration and sterilisation
Any water collected must be filtered to remove fine particles and debris that could harbour parasites or irritate. Filter water through a tight weave bag or improvise a filter from an old T-shirt. A plastic bottle or even a birch bark cone can also be packed with layers of moss, charcoal and sand, the bottom cut off and pin holes pricked through the narrow end or lid with a hot safety pin. Pour water into the open end of the filter and catch the drips.
Wild water should also be sterilised. The simplest method is to bring it to a ‘crazy’ rolling boil for five minutes, then let it cool or make some wild tea! If you haven’t got a metal pot to boil water in, heat solid, non-porous rocks in the fire and use like the element in a kettle. Never use glassy, flinty or flaky rocks as they can explode. Pick the hot rock up with tongs and hold in a watertight, non-metal container to boil the water.
Let us know how you get on. Post pics of your water-sourcing adventures on our Facebook page.