Drinking Water Revisited

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Drinking Water Revisited

Let me begin by chatting a little about the woods in general. All sorts of animals, bugs, and birds live in the woods. When they get the urge to use the bathroom, they let it go wherever they happen to be at the time (as long as it aint inside their nests). Later, when it rains, that waste material washes down into the nearest pond, lake, stream, creek, or river. Think about that if you are tempted to drink ground water without purifying it first. The chances are pretty high that you will get sick even though there is no industrial pollution anywhere in the vicinity.

Youll recall from my original post How to Survive Really Hard Times, that the best way to purify ground water is to filter it through a coffee filter (or clean pillow case)and then boil it for 10 minutes. If boiling isnt an option, you can carry a little of the granular chlorine shock treatment (sold for treating swimming pool water) with you and drop a tiny amount of it into a gallon jug filled with ground water and wait one hour for it to kill the micro-organisms.

Moving Water or Stationary Water:

Water that is swiftly flowing over rocks is usually a lot cleaner than water in stagnant pools. If you have a choice, collect your water from a fast moving stream and then purify the water by boiling it.

When to Collect Water:

Immediately after a rain the water in most streams and creeks will be muddy for a short period of time. At the very beginning of a rain shower, you should check your water containers and fill them up if necessary before your normal water source (creek) gets really muddy.

Spring Water (doesnt refer to the time of year):

When it rains, the water does two things. Some of it travels along the surface and ends up in creeks and streams. But a lot of it soaks into the earth and some of it makes its way down to the natural water table in the area. The earth is an excellent water filter. If the water table is 100 feet or more beneath the surface, then the water there is usually fit for human consumption without any treatment. Thats why folks in the country drill deep wells - they want clean water that doesnt need treatment.

Now the question is, how does a person get to that deep water out in the middle of the woods?

First, dont waste your time trying to dig for it. It aint worth the effort.

The best way is to find where a spring heads out. Let me explain. Because of gravity, water seeks the lowest possible level. You can usually find a stream or creek at the bottom of most hills or mountains. When you find one, begin walking upstream. Every now and then you will find a tiny feeder stream flowing into the main stream. The main stream will continue along the foot of the hill. Follow the tiny feeder stream up the side of the hill. Sooner or later you will probably come to its source. It will just emerge from the ground. This is called the head of the spring. The natural water table in the area is very close to the surface of the earth at this point and this particular exit point just happened as a result of nature. The water at the head of the spring hasnt had a chance to become polluted with lots of animal waste so it is the purest water you will find out in the woods.

The head of a spring is normally a reasonable distance up the side of a hill or mountain. If there is any level ground near the spring head, this is usually an excellent place to set up camp. You avoid both the peak and bottom of the hill (high winds and flooding waters), and you are near a really clean source of good water.

Usually (not always) this spring water it so clean it doesnt need to be boiled. I only know of two ways to determine if the spring water contains harmful micro-organisms. The first way is to take a small sample of it to your local water authority (county water service) and have it tested. They will tell you if it is fit for human consumption without being treated.

The second way is a whole lot more risky. And it aint worth the risk unless you intend to stay put for a really long period of time. If you think you will be moving your campsite every few days, then it aint worth the risk. But if you are going to stay put for several weeks, then the risk might be worth it. One member of your party should drink the water without boiling it. If they dont come down with a fever or the runs after several days (drinking the water every day without boiling it), then another member of the group can become the second guinea pig. A few days later, the rest of the group can safely drink the water knowing that their risk of getting ill is minimal.

Now for a word of caution. There is nobody in your group that you should initially expose to this risk if you dont have the proper medication with you to completely cure the possible fever or diarrhea.

Why would you want to run this risk? Anyone that has drank boiled water will tell you it tastes really flat (thats a nice way to describe its taste). In a stressful situation, it is nice to have water that tastes like it should. Spring water tastes really good. In most cases, it tastes much better than the water you buy in the gallon jugs at the store. Folks that have had it will testify that spring water is probably the best water they have ever had.

Now for another word of caution. After a really good rain shower, there are usually many, many feeder springs running into the main stream at the bottom of the hill. The reason is because the water table rises to its highest level and it leaks out all the holes near the surface of the earth. After a short period of time, most of these holes run dry because the water table falls back to its normal level. Therefore, the best time to look for the head of a spring aint after a good rain. They are easy to find but undependable for the long haul. Wait until you have had a few good sunny days and then look for a spring that is still running strong.

Rain Water:

Sometimes you may have to camp where there isnt any pure water nearby. Did you know that rain water is safe to drink anywhere in the world without any treatments? I make this statement based on the way the world is today; even taking acid rain into consideration. However, if there is a nuclear, chemical, or biological war at some point in the future, then rain water may not be safe to drink for some period of time. You will have to use your own judgment in the matter in that situation.

If the air is full of smog, pollen, or other unpleasant stuff, then the rain will usually clean this stuff out of the air during the first 15 to 20 minutes of a good rain shower. Therefore, let this initial rain water run off, and then start collecting the clean rain water in a container.

Why do I bring rain water to your attention? Because you can capture rain water at your campsite without too much trouble. If you are sleeping under a tarp or other waterproof overhead device, then you can frequently set it up so the rain water runs off it into a big pot or other container. This requires a little ingenuity on your part depending on what you have available, but I had to mention it because some of you will figure out a way to make this idea work for you.

Water Caught in Rocks:

Not all rain water flows into a stream or soaks into the earth. Some of it will be caught in large natural depressions in boulders and other large rocks. Depending on the size of the depression (and other factors such as how long the water is in the shade each day, and how much of the rock is above ground to absorb the suns rays, etc.) the rain water may not evaporate for many days after a rain. If you are trying to become familiar with a particular area of the woods, then you should mentally note these large depressions in a rock when you see them (even if they arent filled with rain water at the time).

Dry Spring Bed Water:

After a long dry spell, many springs and steams will run dry. If you are really desperate for water, then try digging in the lowest part of a dry spring or stream bed. Sometimes you will hit the water table two or three feet below the surface.

Hidden Water Sources:

All of Gods critters need water to live. If you follow a heavily worn animal path downhill in the woods, it will probably lead to water. If you hear frogs in the distance, they are probably real close to some water. If you hear geese or ducks in the distance, they are probably real close to some water too. Follow the animals and you will have a pretty good chance of finding where they get their water to drink.

Snow or Ice:

In my original post I mentioned you should take snow or ice inside your house and melt it down into water. You will be surprised at how little water you get from a big bucket of snow. If you are out in the woods, put the pot of snow near the campfire and wait for it to melt. Remember, dont melt the snow or ice in your mouth. I read in a book somewhere that it consumes more water than you get back in return. (When I was a young lad, I would get thirsty while playing in the snow and I would put some clean snow in my mouth and melt it. I kept doing it and doing it and doing it. It didnt help my thirst at all. I always ended up having to go back in the house to get some water to drink.)

Solar Still:

This last idea is one Ive read about but which I have never experimented with personally. However, I am passing it on to you so you will know everything I know about water.

You will need a large plastic sheet or tarp to make a solar still. Dig a conical hole about three feet wide at the top and coming to a point about two feet deep. The bottom of the hole should be in the very center (equal distance from all sides). The slope of the sides aint critical. Put a small pot at the very bottom of the hole. Then lay your plastic sheet over the top of the hole and put a medium size rock (about 1 pound) in the center of the sheet just above the pot which will be directly underneath the sheet. Put heavy rocks on top of your plastic sheet all around the outside of the hole to keep the sheet from touching the inner sloping sides of the hole. The center of the sheet should be about 18 feet below the surface of the ground but about 6 inches above the pot. Wait 24 hours. Water vapor will form on the underside of your tarp and drain down to its lowest point (beneath your 1 pound rock) and then drip into your pot in the bottom of the hole. On hot days and cold nights you can collect about 1 pint of water per 24 hour period. I read somewhere that you can put moist green non-poisonous vegetation (leaves) near the bottom of the hole (but not in the pot) and this will increase the water yield from your still.

Still water is naturally distilled and therefore it is safe to drink without any treatments (such as boiling or chlorine).

If you have about four feet of surgical tubing (or clean, thin, flexible plastic tubing) with you, then you can put one end of the tube in the pot and run the other end up the side of the hole and out from under the top of the tarp. Then you can drink the water from the pot without disturbing your still.

You will have to move the still every two or three days because you will have pulled all the available water from that hole until the next time it rains.

If you want to buy a plastic sheet to take with you when you go camping, you can find them in the house paint section of most stores, including K-Mart and Wal-Mart. They are used by painters as drop cloths to keep paint off the floor. They come in a variety of sizes and thicknesses. For durability, I recommend the 2 mil thickness. I aint never built a solar water still, but I have used these plastic sheets before. The 3 mil stuff will last longer but it is heavier and therefore you will burn more calories carrying it around in your back pack. The 1 mil stuff is lighter but it is very easily damaged (torn).


Our bodies are mostly water. Most of the earths surface is covered with water. Unfortunately, most of it aint fit to drink. But without water all of us will be dead in three days. Therefore, any information you can acquire about how and where to get drinking water takes you one step closer to being an independent, resourceful human being in Gods natural order of things.

May God Bless.


-- Grandpappy (Grandpappy@old-timers.hom), July 06, 1999


Most excellent points, Grandpappy.

Another one headed for the printer.

-- Greybear (greybear@home.com), July 06, 1999.

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