Securing a source of clean drinking water when you are in the wilderness is a crucial survival skill, so it is vital to understand how to collect this valuable resource. Understanding how to acquire water is an important skill for both short-term and long-term survival in the wild.
There are many ways to reliably collect water in the wild, but here are 4 simple methods:
- Constructing a rain trap.
- Installing a solar still.
- Collecting and melting snow.
- Harvesting water from a tree.
Let’s take a dive into some of the specifics about how to use these reliable water collection methods.
1. Constructing a Rain Trap
Constructing a rain trap is one of the more intuitive ways to collect rainwater in the wilderness. The most basic setup for a rain trap involves a method of rainwater redirection and a container for collection. Here are the basic steps of the process.
- Redirect the Water – in order to make an effective rain trap, you need to redirect water along a large horizontal surface area to the filtration and collection point. This can be done by setting up a plastic sheet or tarp at a slant to direct water through a filter into a container or directly into the container. If you do not have a plastic sheet or tarp, you can improvise by tying together ferns or other broadleaf plants to create an inclined plane slanting toward the collection point.
- Collect the Water – if possible, select a clean container for collecting the redirected rainwater. This container can be a specially made rain barrel, a simple 5-gallon bucket, or any other large impermeable container. Try to choose containers that avoid common long-term low-level chemical contamination issues, such as cheap plastics that contain BPAs, etc. However, if you are in a survival situation, obviously use whatever is at hand.
- Filter the Water – depending on the availability of materials. It is possible to set up a filtration system as part of the initial setup process. This system can be as simple as passing the water through a suspended t-shirt or some other cloth prior to being gathered into the collection container. Avoiding simple physical debris will make your water safer to consume off the bat.
In an ideal situation, you should set up a filtration system and follow it up with boiling or otherwise purifying your water prior to consumption.
A simple rain trap is a very effective survival tool for securing your water supply in the wilderness and is an important addition to your survival skills.
For more on rainwater, you will also want to read my article called Is Rainwater Safe to Drink? (And Where to Safely Collect it).
2. Build a Solar Still
Solar stills take advantage of the natural processes of evaporation and condensation to gather and naturally purify water. Here are the basic steps to take if you need to set up a solar still in the wilderness.
- Gather Materials – one of the advantages of using a solar still in a survival situation is the relatively low number of materials required. A few rocks, a container, a plastic sheet, and an optional digging tool are all that are required to make a solar still.
- Dig a Hole – depending on your water needs, you should maximize the size of the digging out of the hole to be approximately 80% of the length and width of the plastic sheet. Dig to a depth of at least 3 feet for better efficiency.
- Place Container – select a clean container and place it as close to the center of the hole as possible. This step is important since the condensation will drip from the lowest point of the plastic sheet and needs to be accurate to collect your distilled water.
- Add Vegetation or Contaminated Water – before placing the plastic sheet over the hole. You can optionally add some fresh green vegetation or unfiltered water. The evaporation and condensation process that a solar still takes advantage of results in distilled water. This principle makes adding contaminated water into the solar still quite helpful for boosting water collection efficiency. Note that the water must not be added to the container you plan to use to collect the clean water.
- Setup Plastic Sheet – place the sheet of plastic over the hole and place heavy rocks or other weights near the edges of the plastic sheet. After the sheet has been weighted down, take a small rock or weight and place it in the center of the plastic sheet close to the container in which you want to collect water. You are looking for the sheet to sag a little bit directly overtop the container. Add additional weights if you do not have the desired low point.
- Insert a Tube (Optional) – if you have a long tube that you can use as a straw, it is possible to simply put a hole in the plastic sheet directly over the collection container and secure it to the plastic sheet with tape or adhesive. This will enable you to drink the water and avoid backwash-related bacterial contamination from your mouth and save you time relating to taking down and setting up the solar still.
Solar stills are a great way to collect water in the wild. Provided that you have some of these simple supplies, you can secure a clean source of water. It is not the fastest or most productive form of water collection, but it results in immediately drinkable distilled water.
3. Harvesting Snow for Water
Harvesting snow for water may seem like a very simple task, but there are many complexities associated with using snow for water that people do not necessarily stop to think about.
As an example, it may seem like a reasonable course of action to simply pop some snow in your mouth and get your water that way. This is actually a dangerous practice and is really just an urban survival myth since consuming snow actually causes dehydration due to the amount of energy burning that is needed to warm up the snow. This can also cause hypothermia and unnecessary strain on your body in terms of calories used to heat up the snow.
In order to safely harvest snow and process snow for drinking water with a heat source, follow the steps below.
- Select Snow – choosing the right snow to melt can save you some steps and effort down the line. Choosing fresh, clean snow from the top layer of snow on the ground will make boiling the snow unnecessary. This will allow you to simply melt the snow for consumption which will save you a lot of fuel. Finding snow clean of debris will also make filtering unnecessary.
- Add Liquid Water – To avoid a burnt taste in your water, add a little bit of clean water if you have some available. This burnt taste can occur when the pot or pan absorbs all of the heat before the snow melts sufficiently to absorb the heat, so adding a bit of liquid water will allow the heat to go to the water before overheating the pot.
- Add Snow – add snow in small amounts to the pot and stir it into the water until it melts. Repeat this step until you have the desired amount of water. If there is no debris and you selected the right snow at the beginning, you can drink it with minimal risk. If you find debris, go to steps 4 and 5.
- Filter Water – if you have any debris in your water, you can filter the water through some cloth that you have on hand, like a shirt. Clean out the container you intend to boil and put the water back into it.
- Boil Water – If you find debris or the snow you used is not fresh, you can take the filtered water and boil it for 10 minutes. This will allow you to be sure that contamination will be wiped out and it will be safe to drink. A bonus is that you have warm water to drink, which will help keep you warm, which is likely important if you are in a survival situation that involves snow.
Snow is just like any source of water. It needs to be processed appropriately to ensure that it will be safe to drink. Special consideration needs to be paid to appropriately harvest and melt the snow since simply consuming it can cause health problems.
4. Harvesting Drinking Water from a Tree
Trees are 50% water and filter out many contaminants as a part of their water intake process. This water will often contain vitamins and minerals that are not present in standard drinking water. The most commonly consumed tree waters are birch and maple, which are often marketed and sold as vitamin water.
Trees uptake the most water and create the most mineral and vitamin-rich sap and water during late winter into early spring to fuel the growth of their new growth leaves and budding flowers. This can provide valuable calories in one of the most challenging times of the year for survival.
In order to tap into trees for drinking water, follow these basic steps.
- Gather Supplies – you will need a knife, a sturdy twig, a container to collect the water, and a rope.
- Prepare Twig – the twig needs to serve as a spigot to direct the water from the tree down to your container. The twig needs to be hollowed out on the inside with the knife and sharpened at one end. It is possible to select a twig that is mostly hollow which will cut down on the preparation process.
- Scrape Outer Bark – using your knife scrape the tough outer layer of the bark to get to the softer inner layer of the tree. This will allow you to put your prepared twig into the tree to serve as a spigot.
- Insert Twig-Spigot – stab or pound the hollowed-out twig into the inner layer of the tree, angling downward to allow gravity to pull the water down the improvised spigot. At this point, a steady drip should come through the twig that can be harvested.
- Set up Container – place the container in an ideal position to capture the water near the spigot and tie it to the tree trunk. Alternatively, you can place it in a spot on the ground that can capture the water if you do not have the ability to tie your container to the perfect location.
- Remove Twig – after you are done tapping the tree, you should always remove the twig for the sake of the tree. There is no reason to interfere with its growth by removing nutrients and water from its trunk if you are not actively consuming the water.
The clean water and additional nutrients and calories you can get from tapping into a tree in late winter to early spring can be vital to your survival, so it is important to understand how to tap a tree for water.
Other Harvestable Sources of Drinking Water
There are many ways to collect water in the wild. We looked at our four main methods first since they produce water that is safer to drink without further processing. Let’s take a brief look at some of the other methods available to us that might require a little extra processing.
- Rivers, Creeks, and Streams – sources of running water are desirable from a survival-minded point of view. Fast-running water tends to be the least contaminated source of water you can easily gather if you collect it right. It is still a good idea to filter and boil the water, but you are much less likely to get ill drinking from these sources in a pinch.
- Lakes and Ponds – lakes and ponds are bountiful sources of water but have a tendency to accumulate more pollutants, both chemical and natural. Deeper lakes and ponds are ideal candidates for drinking water, but you should filter and boil water from these sources to be safe.
- Standing Water – other smaller sources of standing water are often much more questionable sources of drinking water. However, in a survival situation, you take whatever resources you can find. Thoroughly filter and boil this water since it has a tendency to be a breeding ground for mosquitos and other undesirable contaminants. If you are in the desert, you can find sometimes find standing water in north-facing canyons.
Understanding the risks and methods for how to harvest these natural sources of abundant water is an important survival skill if you ever find yourself in a survival situation.
Being able to find and properly gather water in the wilderness is a very important skill set. There are many methods to find water, and understanding the risks of contamination from each method, as well as the proper method for gathering water from each method, is critical to securing your survival in the wilderness if SHTF.
With just a little bit of knowledge and preparation, you can take care of your drinking water needs in many situations in the wilderness.
Is saving rainwater illegal? The rules for collecting rainwater differs by country and state. Typically collection of rainwater is only a problem if you are diverting a lot of water and would significantly impact the environment.
Can rainwater kill you? Rainwater can carry bacteria and other microorganisms that can cause illness and in some cases, death depending on the container the water is collected in. Pure rainwater free of airborne chemical pollutants is safe to drink.
What country has the dirtiest drinking water? Uganda has the worst access to safe drinking water of any country, with almost 40 percent of people needing to travel over half an hour to access safe drinking water.
- Is Rainwater Safe to Drink? (And Where to Safely Collect it)
- Can You Drink Pool or Hot Tub Water in an Emergency?
- Is Waterfall Water Safe to Drink? | What You Should Know
- Is It Safe to Drink Tap Water from the Bathroom?
Hey, I’m Jim, and I’m the author of this website. I have been teaching people a wide variety of survivalism topics for over five years and have a lifetime of experience fishing, camping, general survivalism, and anything in nature. In fact, while growing up, I spent more time on the water than on land! I am also a best-selling author and have a degree in History, Anthropology, and Music. I hope you find value in the articles on this website. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or input!