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Water, the elixir of life. It makes up about 60% of our body, and we can’t go for more than three days without it before we start having problems.

Unfortunately, it is often an afterthought as we prepare ourselves to operate in a challenging situation. Fortunately, it isn’t that difficult to make sure you have adequate water in whatever situation you face; you just need to educate and prepare yourself.

To put it simply, you need to know how to find it, clean it, purify it and store it. Follow along as we look at these actions in different scenarios.


Pick any of the natural disasters that Americans have had to face during the past year and imagine that you are stuck at home, can’t get out to get supplies at the grocery store, and power and water are out in your neighborhood.

You know that three days’ worth of resources won’t be enough because it takes FEMA at least that long to even get on site.

Where are you going to find a gallon of clean water a day for four people, for 14 days, or 56 gallons of water? Well, you’d be surprised.

You can find water in your water heater, in the pipes in the house, in the water tank of each toilet, in the ice cubes in the freezer and in cans of fruit and vegetables. If water pressure is down, open the tap located in the highest point in the house a little bit, just so you get a trickle. Then open the lowest tap in the house to drain out the water that is still in your pipes. The best thing about using these sources is that the water is already drinkable so you don’t need to filter and purify it.

Fortunately, it isn’t that difficult to make sure you have adequate water in whatever situation you face; you just need to educate and prepare yourself.

There are many ways to store the water; one way is to fill up your bathtub with as much water as you have left in the system. Make sure that you use some sort of water reservoir when you do this (like the ones at because the tub will lose water over time and the bathtub might not be spotless. You can also fill up all of the water containers you have in the house, such as water pitchers, clean empty soda bottles or milk jugs, and other appropriate means. You can prepare by getting a few gallon jugs of water at the grocery store each time you go, which will enable you to build up a reserve water supply very quickly. Make sure to select durable water containers; some aren’t designed for long-term storage and may develop leaks over time.

Buggin Out/Bugging In: Water Sources
  • Lakes, ponds, streams and rivers
  • Springs, seeps, damp ground
  • Any barrel-shaped cactus
  • Water heater
  • Pipes in the house
  • Toilet tanks
  • Cans of fruits and vegetables


You should be carrying water with you, but also keep an eye out for water sources along your route and, if possible, collect some more. This is especially important if you are moving to a location or along a route that does not have good water supplies.

You can often find water in obvious places like lakes, streams and rivers, but don’t forget about the less obvious places—like springs or seeps or even damp ground—that can yield water if you dig for it.

Green vegetation in an area of brown earth is a good sign that water is present. Some trees, like aspens and poplars, are also good indicators of ground water too. In the desert, any barrel-shaped cactus can be a source of water or, at least moisture. Prickly pear is also a good source, and you can cut off the oval shaped leaves, trim the needles off and just carry them with you as a moist treat for later on.

Once you have found a water source, you need to collect the water in something, then clean it and purify so that it is drinkable. An important thing to remember is that often the water you find is not fit to drink due to contamination from industrial sources, farm field runoff, bacteria, or viruses.

You know that three days’ worth of resources won’t be enough because it takes FEMA at least that long to even get onsite.

To filter out the big stuff floating in your next beverage, you can use coffee filters or any uncoated fabric, such as material from a T-shirt. Pour the water through the filter into a “dirty water” container (meaning, it hasn’t been purified yet and could still make you sick). Once you filter it, you can purify it using one, or a combination, of the methods shown in the sidebar.

Once purified, you can store the water in reservoirs or bottles for use while traveling. You can choose from a variety of hydration reservoirs available from and Bottles can range from hard plastic to old Gatorade bottles to liter-sized water bottles, which are my favorite since they are light and cheap, but still durable.


Use chemical drops or tablets that use iodine or chlorine; these take around 30 minutes to produce clear water in mild temperatures.

Purifying filters pass the water through a ceramic, fiber, or carbon filter that removes chemical and bacterial contaminants. These filters can be gravity-fed (the water drains from one bag down through the filter into a clean water bag) or they can be pump-fed (you use a hand pump to move the water from source through the filter and into the clean water bag). This method provides drinkable water as soon as it passes through the filter rather than having to wait as with the chemical treatment.

Ultraviolet light pens can also kill the bacteria and viruses that might be found in the water. If you’re on the move, you can use devices like the SteriPEN. If you’re staying in a single location you can use the SODIS technique shown above. The UV treatment works well for clear water but not as well if the water is cloudy or opaque; in addition, it takes time to work just as the chemical treatment does.

The SODIS ( method of water purification, short for Solar Disinfecting, uses sunlight to kill the bacteria and viruses in water. You put water in a clear, colorless, glass or BPA-free food grade plastic bottle, fill it ¾ of the way up, shake it to add some oxygen to the water, then lay it flat and leave it out in direct sunlight for at least six hours from morning to evening, but preferably the whole day. If it is overcast, two days is recommended.


All of the techniques we’ve talked about can also be used at your bug-out location or any permanent camp. If you’re in a fixed location, you can use some additional methods for water filtration or purification, such as making a DIY water filter or using the SODIS method discussed in the sidebar.

DIY Water Filter

Water filtration systems can be built from soda bottles, plastic barrels or five-gallon jugs. Running your water through this filter once or twice will effectively filter out all but the bacteria and viruses and improve its taste and color.

  • Cut the bottom off a two-liter soda or water bottle to serve as a catch basin for your filtered water.
  • Bore a small hole in the bottle cap for the water to drain out.
  • Place a layer of fabric at the neck of the bottle to serve as a final filter and to keep everything else in place.
  • Add a layer of charcoal, taken from your supplies or campfire.
  • Add a layer of fine sand on top of the charcoal.
  • Next, add a layer of coarse sand.
  • Now, add a layer of medium gravel.
  • Finally, add a layer of larger gravel.


Don’t just read about this subject or buy the gear and store it away! Go out and use the stuff so you can see how it fits in your operations/activities. Answer questions like: Do you really want to carry a gallon of water—which weighs more than eight pounds—with you every day, or should you plan on treating or filtering water on the move? Do you have water along your route? Does your water availability change depending on where you are or what you are doing? Is it worth it to hike a mile down the mountain to a water source and then back up again with 10 or 20 pounds of water on your back? You’ll be able to gauge your needs—and fulfill them— accurately if you prepare beforehand.

Larry Schwartz is a seminar speaker, writer and backcountry skills teacher whose experience includes camping and tracking in the Boy Scouts, time in the military, and his current passion for bowhunting and the outdoors.

Find What You Need

Water containers and carriers:,,
Purification drops/tablets: Water purifier tablets from, potable aqua tablets from, Micropur tablets from
Gravity filters:,, (a web search on “gravity filters” will show other options for larger-capacity units)
Pump filters:,


Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the Fall 2013 print issue of American Survival Guide.