How to find and gather water in the wild

So, you're out and about for short hike with friends and they tell you "you don't need to bring anything, we're only going for short walk"...that ends up turning into a multi hour long trek with no water along the way.  This might sound far fetched, or highly unlikely for some, but it has happened to me, and more than once. I learned the hard way through experience never to rely on someone else's idea of a "short hike" or adventure.   As a child, my father would take us on car outings during the weekend that would inevitably turn into, "we have less than a quarter tank of gas, what could possibly go wrong"?  My father, a total weekend warrior, who loved going on adventures but didn't have much of a survival mechanism when it came to "what if".  We spent more times than I could count on never ending back roads that begged for more exploration only to have the day start turning to dusk way too soon.  Fortunately we always found our way back in time, with only having some basic tools like a pocket knife, matches or a shovel.  But back in the day, if our water ran out, we didn't have any fancy water filters or purifiers like we see today.  We had a canteen, and maybe an old Thermos bottle that was filled with some morning coffee or hot chocolate.  Fast forward to today, many people wouldn't think of leaving home without having well thought out supplies or some sort of survival tool, camp gear or water filter as standard issue.  Today's attitude toward adventure almost leaves us in doubt with a "don't leave home without it or we may not survive if we don't take these items".  We've become so used to our safe conveniences that leaving home suddenly brings about a sort of Hobbit sense of being, like we're leaving the Shire on some uncertain adventure.  Have we traded our basic survival skills and know how for survival conveniences?  Yes and no.  With today's commercial onslaught of emergency preparedness and survival supplies, it has also brought about a refining process of survival awareness. If you don't have product X with you when you leave, then here's a survival hack that may save your life!  Yes, we can still  survive without relying on commercial driven products every step of the way because we have the knowledge of survival hacks!   Those fall back sort of strategies that we learned on TV survival shows, online blogs or Prepper conventions.  With just a few basic supplies, your adventures can now be freer than ever, both mentally and physically, knowing that you have what you need if you find yourself without that special gadget or tool.  Here's some water survival hacks that don't require much by way of materials, and that could save you in a pinch.

1. Start With the Obvious: Streams, Rivers, Lakes

These are your most obvious sources of water in the wild. Clear, flowing water is your best option, as the movement doesn’t allow bacteria to fester. This means that small streams should be what you look for first. Rivers are acceptable, but larger ones often have a lot of pollution from upstream. Lakes and ponds are okay, but they’re stagnant, meaning there’s an increased chance for bacteria. Hack: use a t-shirt of piece of clothing to filter out heavy sediment and debris before drinking. 

Now then, how do you go about finding these bodies of water? First, use your senses. If you stand perfectly still and listen intently, you may be able to hear running water, even if it’s a great distance away.  Next you’ll use your eyes to try and find animal tracks, which could lead to water. Insect swarms, while annoying, are another sign of water close by. And in the mornings and evenings especially, following the flight path of birds may lead you to your much-needed H2O. Watching animal behavior is especially important in the desert. Animal tracks will be easier to spot in the sand, and they’ll almost always eventually lead to water. Birds will also especially flock towards water in dry areas.

Also just scout the environment you’re in. Water runs downhill, so follow valleys, ditches, gullies, etc. Find your way to low ground, and you’ll often run into water.

2. Dig an Underground Still



  • Container (the largest you have)
  • Clear plastic sheeting
  • Digging tool
  • Rocks
  • Optional: something to act as a drinking tube/straw (CamelBak straw, bamboo/other plant)



  1. Find an area that gets sunlight most of the day.
  2. Dig a bowl-like pit 3’ wide by 2’ deep. Dig an additional small hole within that for the container.
  3. Optional: Attach the drinking tube to the bottom of the container. If you don’t have one, skip this step.
  4. Place the container in the pit, and run the tubing up out of the hole.
  5. Cover the hole with plastic, and use rocks and soil to keep it in place.
  6. Put a small rock in the center of your sheet, so that it hangs and forms an inverted cone over the container.
  7. If you have a tube, drink straight from it. Otherwise, collect the container from the bottom, and replace it when you’ve stored the water elsewhere.

3. Collect Plant Transpiration

Another easy option for water collection is taking advantage of plant transpiration. This is the process in which moisture is carried from a plant’s roots, to the underside of its leaves. From there, it vaporizes into the atmosphere; but, you’re going to catch the water before it does that.

First thing in the morning, tie a plastic bag (ideally a baggie or piece of plastic, even a plastic bottle) around a leafy green tree branch or shrub. Place a rock in the bag to weigh it down a little bit so the water has a place to collect (omit this step if using plastic bottle). Over the course of the day, the plant transpires, and produces moisture. Rather than vaporizing into the atmosphere, though, it collects at the bottom of your bag or bottle. Never do this with a poisonous plant!

4. Collect Rainwater

Collecting and drinking rainwater is one of the safest ways to get hydrated without the risk of bacterial infection. This is especially true in wild, rural areas (in urban centers, the rain first travels through pollution, emissions, etc.).

There are two primary methods of collecting rainwater. The first is to use any and all containers you might have on you. The second is to tie the corners of a poncho or tarp around trees a few feet off the ground, place a small rock in the center to create a depression, and let the water collect. You can combine these methods and make your containers more effective by tying the poncho or tarp to funnel into your bottle or pot or whatever you have (as long as it doesn’t overflow and waste water!).

5. Tree Crotches/Rock Crevices

Like with fruits/vegetation, this is another source that won’t provide all that much water, but again, it’s definitely something when the straits are dire – particularly when you’re stranded in a desert. The crotches of tree limbs, or the crevices of rocks can be small collecting places for water. In an arid area, bird droppings around a rock crevice may indicate the presence of water inside, even if it can’t be seen. To remove water from crotches and cracks, stick a piece of clothing or cloth in, let it soak up any moisture, and wring it out. Repeat if you can, and return after a rain for a fresh supply.

6. Collect Heavy Morning Dew

Looking for a way to collect up to a liter of water per hour? Tie some absorbent clothes/cloths or tufts of fine grass around your ankles, and take a pre-sunrise walk through tall grass, meadows, etc. Wring out the water when the cloths are saturated, and repeat. Just be sure you aren’t collecting dew from any poisonous plants.  Also check tree branches and metal materials for morning dew drops. Extreme temperature variations between night and day can cause condensation on metal surfaces. Before the sun rises and vaporizes that moisture, collect it with absorbent cloth. This also means you should be placing your metal items in the open rather than stored in your pack.