How To Find Water In Urban And Wilderness Survival Situations

Water is one of those things that is essential to human survival and without it cannot function, think clearly or have energy. Basicaly, we’re stuffed without it. This is why finding water in any given survival situation should be a very high priority. Whether you are in a survival situation in the wilderness, or in the urban environment, knowing how to find water will assist you in your ability to survive, as well as to help others.

The importance of water in any situation is paramount. At least 60% of the human body is made of water and we need it to survive. It takes priority over food as we can go without food for about three weeks, but the average human has considerably less time to find water, with most only able to survive for three or four days without water.

Why is it so important? Water allows a number of integral parts of the body to function. It acts as a lubricant for our joints, regulates our body temperature, helps to flush waste and stops us from dehydration and a lack of blood volume.

According to Doctors, if someone is in an ideal temperature and are not moving, they would be able to survive for up to 100 hours without water. If it’s cooler, you can last a little longer and if you are in direct sunlight, then considerably less as dehydration sets in.

When is water not a priority in survival?

First, let me point out that while water is a must in every survival situation and should be a priority, there are a few scenarios where other things may require more emergency attention. I can think of two situations where water would take a backseat in priority. The first is where you, or a member of your party, is injured. In that case, first aid is a priority.

The second situation where water is not a priority is in extreme temperatures that can kill us much more quickly than a lack of water. This would be, for instance, in cold conditions, when shelter and fire may have to come before our search for water otherwise a survivalist might freeze to death. This is the same in very hot, arid conditions where shade will drastically reduce our rate of dehydration and will give us more time to find water.

When is water not a priority?

If there is an imminent possibility of rescue our situation may demand that we give attention to signaling for help or relocating to a better position immediately so we don’t miss out on a chance to be spotted by rescuers but after that water will be our priority.

If we are prepared for emergencies we may have access to a bug out bag or a store of potable water in our homes which we can rely on and which negates the challenge of finding water. This should always be your first option, removing the need to find water by prior preparation and planning. That water will eventually run out though or the very nature of the emergency might mean you do not have access to your pre-prepared stock of water, food, and equipment.

So when you desperately need water and have met your other more pressing survival needs you will need to know how to find water.

Urban Survival: How to find water

The UN suggests that as of 2014, 54% of the world’s population live in urban areas with that predicted to increase to 66% by 2050. With that statistic in mind, it is clear that in an emergency many of us would find ourselves in urban areas, this might seem at first to be an advantage but we need to think about the nature of the emergency or survival situation.

Why would water be limited in an urban area?

unfiltered water

Public water supplies are feeble things, it’s why fundamental steps as a prepper involves having a stable water supply. Have floods and storms broken or contaminated mains water supply? Has a chemical spillage or toxic algal bloom contaminated reservoir water beyond the ability of treatment works to make it safe to drink? Has a nuclear event contaminated the catchment area of local reservoirs with radiation? Has a breakdown of services left water treatment work inoperable and tap water untreated and potentially unsafe to drink?

There is any number of reasons that water in urban areas might be inaccessible or contaminated so what can you do to find water?

Rainwater catchments

how to find water when the SHTF

Without resorting to looting or scavenging you might be able to take advantage of rainwater harvesting systems that gardeners might use to capture rainwater from their gutters and roofs to use for watering their gardens or allotments, these catchment systems will continue to operate after evacuations and without maintenance and may yield quite a lot of water similar systems are easy to fabricate from material that will be easy to scavenge in an abandoned urban environment. Look out for water butts in gardens and on allotments as these are a sign that someone has been harvesting rainwater.

Do not let your scavenging bring you into conflict with other survivors though, I’d like to think that in a large scale survival event people will want to work together and co-operate but there is every chance that violent competition for limited resources will occur.

Taking advantage of existing rainwater harvesting and your own improvised harvesting efforts may well yield a lot of water, certainly enough for survival as long as the climate is kind. In very arid regions this might not be a reliable method of securing water though. Remember as well that rain falling onto roofs contaminated by nuclear or chemical contaminants will not be potable so you may need to seek water elsewhere.

Water towers

Water towers might also yield water if they have not been emptied prior to your arrival, water in water towers can be accessed through taps and outlets in the vicinity as long as the mains water pipes are intact or directly from the tower if not.

Bodies of untreated water

Filtered water vs non-filtered

Always filter water if it comes from a body of still water.

Given the historical reliance on waterways for transport many urban areas have built up around major rivers or canal systems which may give you a ready supply of water but you will have to bear in mind potential contamination and will either need to purify or avoid this water accordingly.

Filtering reliably removes suspended solid contaminants from water and boiling is a reliable method of destroying bacteria but heavy metal or chemical contamination is more difficult to remove and might be impossible to remove with your normal purification methods.

If these options are out of reach, or contaminated, you will have to look to more traditional survival methods in the wilderness to find water.

Wilderness Survival: How to find water

Perhaps you have failed to find water in urban areas or perhaps your survival situation is due to a vehicle breakdown in a remote area or any number of other hypothetical situations, however unlikely, that land you in the wilderness with nothing but your survival knife and an altoids tin survival kit.

How to get water from plants

How to find water from plants

Rainwater collection is still a good option in a temperate environment where rainfall can be guaranteed, a simple set up of tarpaulins or garbage bags can be used to funnel and collect rainwater. In well-vegetated areas, transpiration traps can work but are very labor intensive and don’t produce a lot of potable water.

A plastic bag, preferably a clear one can be placed over some vegetation and used to condense and collect water as it evaporates from the plant. This will be potable strait away but you will need to be sure that you don’t use a poisonous plant or tree such as yew or hemlock for this.

How to get water from grass and dew collection points

how to find water from grass

You can also use plastic, metal, and other materials including what you find in the environment to collect dew overnight. As long as it gets cool enough for the water in the air to condense on it and form dew, even leaves, grass stems and rocks have dew form on them. This method of water collection is reliable even in arid places where the temperature generally drops enough at night for dew to form.

There have been several remarkable survival stories of people surviving on dew water, one notable instance in 2017  saw university student Lukas Cavar left behind after a caving expedition who survived for three days by licking dew from the cave walls and from candy bar wrappers.

A good method of collecting dew is to use a rag or towel to soak it up and then wring it out into a container. Anyone who has walked through wet grass will know just how much moisture you can collect with this method.

How to find water with the help of wild animals

Follow wildlife to find a water source

Animals in arid regions also get water from dew and even in temperate areas deer in particular almost never go to water to drink and instead rely on the dew and moisture from the plants they consume to provide them with water. For this reason, herbivores are not always a good sign of the presence of water, this might come as a surprise to many as following animals to water is often cited as a good strategy for finding water.

Birds are a much better indicator of water as they will need to drink regularly so you are better off following flocks of small birds and other bird sign such as droppings and footprints if you are hoping that Mother Nature will help you out in your search for water.

Birds will lead you to accessible water, it might be flowing or standing but it might only be in tiny quantities trapped in crevices in rocks or large leaves, enough for a birds needs but not necessarily for yours. It might be larger quantities though, maybe a stream, pool or spring or perhaps even a man-made borehole or well. Water in these quantities are easy to collect, flowing water should be preferred over standing water if you have the choice as it is less likely to be stagnant and contaminated by animal droppings, algae or other dangerous contaminants but even standing water can be filtered and purified and even clear flowing water needs to be purified so either source of water can be lifesaving and neither should be disregarded.

How to use vegetation to find water

How to find water in the desert

As well as watching birds there are other strategies for finding water in the wilderness, in drier regions looking for vegetation sometimes helps, vascular plants need water and will grow where there is a ready supply of it, even if that water is not flowing or standing there will be water somewhere nearby those plants and you might be able to access it.

Dry river beds will still often be surrounded by vegetation as dry river beds are not always dry and the outside bends of dry rivers will sometimes yield water if you dig for it or you might find pools of standing water that haven’t dried up yet if the river bed is rocky.

Vegetation will also grow around marshy and boggy areas and other places where the ground is saturated. Even if we can’t easily access it as it might not be flowing and may not even be standing in pools. But in these places we can dig a simple well, in the saturated ground you don’t even need to dig far but to get water that is as clean as possible you can line the well with shredded grass and reeds to act as a filter to keep out as much suspended soil as possible. These wells are sometimes known as sip wells as even if you don’t have a container to collect the water in you can drink the water directly from the well. Just be aware that this water will often taste muddy drunk straight from the well.

How to find water in cold environments

melt snow to drink

In very cold environments as long as you can make fire you can melt snow or ice for water even if there is no flowing water available. In taiga environments where fuel might be scarce and under other conditions which might make fire difficult or impossible you might need to use your own body heat to melt snow or ice, as long as you have a container to put the snow in you can put it inside your clothes and melt it.

Even without a plastic or metal container, you can relatively easily use a trash bag as long as you double it up and make sure it doesn’t leak and stuff it full of snow and melt it against your body.  What you mustn’t do is eat snow and ice as in very cold conditions it will lower your body’s temperature and put you at further risk of hypothermia and cold-related injuries.

Water is also a point of travel in the wilderness

girl who survive after fall from planeWhen we look at survival, we generally look to the experience of others to see if something works in a practical survival scenario or not. In two instances, there have been very lucky people who have been lost in unforgiving wilderness environments and have had nothing to find help or any survival tools, except for a great logical mindset. In one circumstance, one young boy, who became lost in the wilderness while out hiking with his father, managed to follow a number of small streams in mountain areas that eventually lead to a large body of water. He had enough familiarity with the region to know that people regularly fished in the large river, so he eventually found help after 11 days of surviving on his own. You can read more about his story here.

In a popular story of survival, a young girl had been thrown out of her passenger plane as it exploded mid-flight. She was the sole survivor of that flight. Little did she know that her ordeal was about to get worse, as she was in the thick of the Amazonian rainforest with nothing but a few broken bones. Her survival tale was miraculous, but the only reason she was able to tell it is because she followed small streams of water through the jungle that eventually led into creeks and rivers. In the Amazon, many villages are built on the water’s edge as a means of food and trade. She eventually happened upon one of those villages after 10 days. You can read more about Juliane Koepcke here.

With these key tips to find water in a survival situation, you should be able to find water in an urban or wilderness environment if it is there to be found.


  1. Jez

    April 16, 2018 at 2:48 pm

    Great post mate! I really enjoyed the urban tactics on finding water!

    • Ben Brown

      April 16, 2018 at 2:49 pm

      Thanks Jez, glad you liked it!

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