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Survival Series Part II - Water

Welcome back my wilderness warriors to another mind-blowing instalment of how to survive getting lost in the wilderness! My name is Huw Mackin, and I'm a survival expert, Bushcraft Leader, and International Mountain Leader. During this next instalment of life-saving information, I will be sharing with you everything you need to know about how to find water in even the harshest conditions, as well as a means to clean it by using only what nature has provided. So, grab a ticket and climb aboard as we embark on another beautiful journey together into the heart of wilderness survival!

Let's set the scene. As the morning sun breaks through the canopy of the trees above your well-established, appropriately sized, well-insulated handmade wilderness abode, you wake from your gentle slumber, and as your eyes open you're greeted not by the sight of your bedroom ceiling, but by a line of finely laid sticks covered in bits of wilderness. Then, the crashing realisation hits you, that you’re not safe at home all snuggled up in your bed, but that you’re actually in the middle of the wilderness, alone, and covered in bugs and leaves. But you're alive, and you've survived your first night alone in the wilderness!

But what now? Dry mouth? Feeling parched? You got it, you need water! You now need to focus your attention on finding a water source and a means to filter it. But how do you do that? Run off into the wilds in search of cascading waterfalls, blue lagoons and Brita water filters? Sounds good! As you step outside of your shelter, ready to go, you remember what that charismatic and relatively attractive chap wrote on that extremely informative and reasonably well-composed article on Run the Wild. He said No! Stop what you’re doing at once! Finding water can be a tricky business. You might be miles away form a mains water source and heading out in search of one might lead you into even more trouble. So where to start?

In the beginning....

Let's start right at the beginning. You’re lost in the wilderness in a survival situation, and you’re in need of water. What do you need to know? Firstly, you need to understand why we are looking for water and why it’s of the upmost importance that you find it quickly. As you’re already aware, your body needs water to survive, and within as little as 2 - 3 days without it, you’ll be in real danger. But that's not to say you have a full three days to find it, after just twenty-four hours without water your body will start to suffer the consequences of severe dehydration - which is quite far from the realms of pleasant - so it's important to first understand what happens to the body and mind when you become dehydrated, so you can better recognise the signs before it’s too late! 

Dehydration, know your enemy!

Make no qualms about it, dehydration is your number one enemy in a wilderness survival situation! The environment you find yourself in might be fine to survive without a shelter indefinitely, but your fundamental physical needs are the real focus when you’re in a survival situation, and so this is where your real attention should be focused. Therefore, for a better of survival you need to first understand it, and that means knowing what happens to your body when it's deprived of water.

Below is a list of symptom causes caused by dehydration:


  • Dry mouth - The body is no longer able to produce saliva, sweat or tears
  • Lethargy - Fluid loss causes a drop in blood volume, which makes the heart work harder
  • Weakness In Muscles - Muscles work less well when there is an imbalance in the salts in the blood which is caused by the reduction of fluid in the body
  • Headache - The brain can temporarily contract or shrink from fluid loss which causes the brain to pull away from the skull


  • Dizziness - Drop in blood pressure, resulting in a reduction of oxygen being delivered to the brain
  • Sunken eyes - The actual volume of the eye doesn't change but the eyelids thin considerably, making the eyes appear more withdrawn
  • Shrivelled and dry skin - Reduction of water in the skin causes it to lose its elasticity and becomes wrinkled, scaly and dry


  • Low Blood Pressure - Low blood volume causes a drop in pressure and a drop in the amount of oxygen to the body. High risk of heart attacks, strokes, organ failure, high fever
  • Increased Heart Rate - Due to low blood volume an insignificant amount of oxygen can be retained and your heart rate increases to compensate for this reduction
  • Delirium - Loss of oxygen to the brain due to pressure loss as a result of a reduction in fluid in the body
  • Unconsciousness - Severe loss of oxygen to the brain

Your body is constantly losing water so it’s crucial to understand the ways in which it does and what you can do to preserve as much of it as you can. Urinating, sweating, and even breathing causes you to lose valuable water from your body. Now I’m not suggesting you stop breathing altogether, but ensuring you’re functioning in a manner in which you preserve as much bodily fluid as possible is a great place to start, and like the favoured porridge temperature of our golden haired little felon, you want to be ‘just right’. Not too hot and not too cold - not working so hard that you’re out of breath or breaking a sweat! If you start to struggle, don’t power through! You don’t have the resources that will enable you to do this without consequence, so slow down and listen to your body. Go at the pace it’s telling you to go - which should be a gentle cruise - and remember to protect yourself from the elements wherever possible. If the body gets too hot or too cold you’re going to lose yet more precious fluid.

Now I know what you’re all thinking: should I drink my own urine? Well as I always say, better yours than somebody else's! But all jokes aside, this is a valid question. A well-hydrated body will produce urine that contains 95% clean consumable water. Urine is sterile, it contains very little bacteria - but it is toxic. These toxins are difficult to filtrate the traditional way, but charcoal would be your best bet at reducing at least some of the toxicity. It's highly recommended that you DO NOT drink your own urine more than three times in a row as this could cause you more harm than good. The Rule of Threes, you gotta love ‘em!

Have I ever consumed my own urine I hear you ask? Well my answer would be, Yes. Was I in a survival situation at the time? No. Did I regret it after? Possibly. But curiosity is a powerful thing and my stint in the dialysis unit is nothing more than a badge of dedication to my survival readers. It's a distressing thought to think that you could be confronted with such decisions, but you have to understand that when your life hangs in the balance, you do what you have to do to remain alive. Dehydration is a killer, and within as little as twenty-four hours without water you will be in real trouble. Taking such measures right from the start could double the time you have to find a healthy water source, and that could be the difference between making it out of your situation in one piece or not at all. Take everything you have, and all you can get - it's life and death after all.


Finding a water source is one thing but finding one that is clean to drink is entirely another, so we need to explore how to clean the water once it’s been found. Natural water sources can produce some of the cleanest water going. As the water passes through the earth it is goes through a natural filtration process that’s getting rid of any nasties that might be lingering within and filling it with a rich balance of minerals that will do nothing but good for the human body - but it can also do the opposite. At the right temperature and when water is unable to pass adequately through the earth it can become stagnant and a breeding ground for bacteria and parasites - some of which can be deadly if consumed.

What do you do once you have found a water source? Well, in any situation you should always be careful and ensure the water that you're about to drink is safe for you to consume, but in a survival situation it's even more important to err on the side of caution. The last thing you want to do is guzzle down a couple of litres of dirty water. Getting ill at this point your chances of survival will nose dive, so even if the water looks clean and clear, don't take any chances. You need to recreate part of the natural filtering process that takes place when water runs through the earth. To do this you’re going to need to find a few things form your very own personal wilderness survival supermarket, so while you’re on the hunt for water keep your eyes peeled for some of the items listed below: and with a bit of luck by the time you have found a source of water you'll have everything you need to filter it so it's safe to drink. 

Making A Natural Filter

  • Fine Sand
  • Charcoal
  • Course Sand
  • Gravel
  • Rocks
  • Moss

If you have a bottle cut it cleanly in two about a third from the top, then turn it upside down and push it into the remaining two thirds as shown in the photo to the left. But before that's done, tear off a piece of finely woven material from your clothing and attach it to where the bottle lid attaches. Attach the material by tying it with a hairband if you have one handy or a thin cut of material from your clothing to be used like a thin piece of string. If you don't have a bottle don't worry, you can cut a large supple piece of tree bark with a sharp stone and use that instead. Tightly twisted the bark into a cone to make a container, and then cover the bottom with a piece of finely woven material with your hand which should do the job nicely.

Once you've collected as many of the above items as you can find, put them into the container in the order listed above. Each layer should be about 1-2cm in depth. When you've made your water filter pour the water you have into the top and wait for it to filter through to the bottom. If none of these items are available to you, you can at the very least place a piece of cloth or item of clothing over your mouth and drink directly from the water source you've found. This will prevent at least some of the nasties and parasites from getting into your system. As long as it looks clean and clear and is flowing either from the ground or a stream then it’s more likely to be okay to drink, but always remember: if in doubt leave it out! If you’re ever unsure or if it looks particularly poor then just don't take the chance - it will only cause you more harm than good and could dramatically reduce your chances of survival! 

Finding Water

You may well be some distance away from a decent water source, but the chances are that what you’re looking for might not be as far as you think, so before setting off focus on finding a water source close to your shelter. It may not be obvious that one's there but sometimes it's just a case of stopping and looking. Sit in your environment for a while and take in your surroundings. Pay close attention to the wildlife around you. What can you see, what can you hear? Let's start from the ground up. What's the earth like? Is it dry or moist? Does it have any muddy patches or areas of lush low-growing greens? Are there any birds, bees, ants, animal dens or tracks close by? What's the vegetation like? Any trees or bushes kicking about? If there are then these are all indications that water is close by. What now? Go and investigate, but don't stray too far without leaving a decent trail behind you. The last thing you need to do at this point is get lost again or end up getting nailed by a crazy witch that lives in a house made of ginger bread! Let’s look at a few water sourcing survival gems that might lead you to a tall cold glass of the good stuff!


Bees will only ever fly a couple of miles away from their water source, so rest assured it's close by. If you spot a line of ants climbing up a tree then the chances are that they're not popping up on mass to check out the view, it's most likely they've found a clean water source in a hollow between two branches: take off an item of clothing to use to absorb the water and then ring it out into your mouth.


If you find a muddy patch or lush mossy ground, get yourself a good stick and start digging in the wettest area. Natural springs don't always make it to the surface of the earth and during the dry season it's common for them to retreat under the ground so you'll have to dig down to gain access to it. As you dig keep heading for the wet stuff. When it's super wet start clearing away the area and let the land settle. If it starts to fill you know you’re onto a winner!


Large mammals need just as much water as we do, so if you see tracks start following them downhill and chances are they will lead you to what you’re looking for… well that or a gruesome end with a well-hydrated mountain lion!


Trees have something similar to a human vascular system which enables them to draw moisture and liquid from the earth. Most trees will quickly turn this into a thick tar like substance called sap. Most is edible, but this is not something to quench your thirst with. Some trees, on the other hand, produce water sap and that's something we are most definitely looking for. So how do we access it? What do we need? Nothing! That's right, you don't need anything, not even your well-crafted filter. The water should be safe to drink (unless you’re allergic to bananas!) since it has already gone through its very own filtration process. Just rip off a low growing branch (don't do this unless your life depends on it!) and wait for the good stuff. It's also sweet tasting and loaded with goodies. Now, I’m not saying water will start flowing like you've just turned on the kitchen tap, but there's going to be enough to help you see another day.

If you’re not already familiar with this tree then get acquainted: the sliver birch, your new wilderness bestie! It's an incredible ally to anyone in a survival situation. You can eat it, drink it and use it to start a fire, and the bark is supple enough to be used as your filtration container. Amazing I know! Once you're done plug the damaged areas with a hand full of soil and apply pressure for a minute or so. This will stem the flow of water and will act like a bandage over an open wound as trees are just as susceptible to infection as humans are.


Like it says on the tin! When that morning dew covers the surrounding vegetation with droplets of water, go and collect it. Whip off the most absorbent item of clothing you have and wipe it over the wet areas. Once your item of clothing is good and wet, simply ring out the collected moisture into your mouth. You may not get a huge amount but it's certainly better than nothing

Once you've found a water source and filtered it drink it in small amounts. Give your body a chance to acclimatise to having something in its system again. A few sips at a time, or a litre over a few minutes. Too much water too quickly will result in you vomiting it back up again, and the last thing you want to do is lose the precious water you've only just found. Again, if you have an understanding of the environment you’re in and know how to read the signs you will find it. Just remember that everything around you has already found a way to access the water that's available to them, and there's no reason why you can't either, it's just a case of knowing how to!

Final thoughts

Surviving being lost in the wilderness comes down to a few basic things; knowing what you need to survive, knowing what to look for, and knowing how to use it once you've found it. Simple Right? Wrong! By far the most important thing you need to understand is something that's not that easy to learn or to teach for that matter, and that's how to deal with being lost and alone. Taking care of your body is one thing, but just as much energy should be focused on keeping your mind in the fight as well. Trust yourself, your gut instincts and believe in your abilities to survive whatever is thrown your way. Remain calm and stay strong, don't crumble or fall in on yourself, and trust the environment you’re in! Despite what it may feel like at times the wilderness is not a huge foreboding angry beast that's trying to kill you at every turn, in fact it's quite the opposite. It's an environment that can and does offer everything we need to not only survive but to live full and healthy lives, after all everything that surrounds us in our well-established lives has come directly from wild places. Remember the danger you face isn't the wilderness its self, regardless of how wild it is, the real danger is our own inability to correctly and safely use the resources provided by wild places. You only have one truly ally when you’re lost in the wilderness, and that's the wilderness itself.

Until next time my wilderness warriors: stay warm, stay dry, and never give up!

Written by Huw Mackin, IML

Next Time on Run the Wild Wilderness Survival…

Hydrated, warm, comfortable and all tuckered out from your big day in the wilderness, you lay back into your shelter for the night with a huge sense of relief and reflect on your successes of the day. With a feeling of pride in your accomplishments you slowly start to drift off into a well-deserved gentle slumber. But then, out of the darkness, you hear something big and angry growling close-by, sending a shiver down your spine and making every hair on your body stand on end! You sit bolt upright frantically looking into the darkness from left to right in search of the terrifying beast that you're surely soon to be consumed by. Another growl rips through the silence of the night. It's closer this time, much closer, so close that it actually sounds like it's in the shelter with you! Then you lock eyes with the beast for the first time and the realisation of what it is paralyses you with fear! Is it a bear? A mountain lion? A gruffalo? Oh, if only! It was your stomach!

DISCLAIMER - Don't try this at home without a qualified professional by your side!

Survival Series Part II - Water
Survival Series Part II - Water
Survival Series Part II - Water
Survival Series Part II - Water