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Recommended Books

Survival Wisdom & Know How: Everything You Need to Know to Thrive in the Wilderness by the editors of Stackpole Books.

Hawke's Green Beret Survival Manual by Myke Hawke.

When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency by Matthew Stein

When All Hell Breaks Loose by Cody Lundin

Primitive Wilderness Living & Survival Skills: Naked into the Wilderness by John and Geri McPherson.

SAS Survival Handbook: How to Survive in the Wild, in Any Climate, on Land or at Sea by John Lofty Wiseman

US Army Survival Manual: FM 21-76 by Department of Defense


Waterborne Illness Prevention Guide
download PDF

Waterborne Diseases

TV Programs and DVDs

Discovery Channel's Man vs. Wild series with Bear Grylls. Three seasons available on DVD. (Some used copies at

See also the Dual Survival series and Man Woman Wild.

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Water: Survival Techniques and Tricks

Most experts say you can survive only three days without water. But that doesn't mean you have to find a water fountain or lake. You can get hydrated in other ways. Except in the rarest of cases, the wilderness is teeming with water. How else could all the animals and plants there survive? Here's how to find and/or make H20 to quench your thirst. You'll also learn how to avoid giardia, bacteria and other contaminants by filtering and sterilizing water before you drink it. Water gathering is typically a three step process: finding it, filtering it (if necessary) and then disinfecting it. But liquid sustenance can also be achieved in other ways, too, as you'll learn below.

Finding It

There are a few common-sense rules to keep in mind before you start your search. First, water generally flows downhill. Snowmelt and rain accumulate on the ground in channels cut into the land that form creeks, streams and basins. Even when the waterways dry up, the green growth around them lingers, indicating that water's holed up just beneath the surface.  In rock riverbeds, there's a good chance that water is a couple feet below. Aside from streams and creeks, look for water on the north side of hills and trees, and other places where there's plenty of shade. Where it's shady, water evaporates much more slowly. Check the base of a hill, the bottom of a ravine, beneath a rock outcrop or inside a narrow canyon. Big rocks with cracks and crevices may also be storing water.

The exception to the gravity/downhill rule is a phenomenon called capillary action. You can often find large amounts of water inside some trees in the spring (and cacti any time of year). Even without tree roots, water deep in the ground may climb to the surface. You can sometimes watch it collect in a hole you've just dug a few feet away from a waterway. Another example of capillary action is a spring. Look for a large, very healthy tree in otherwise dry terrain and it's possible there's a subterranean water deposit in that area. Across the planet, massive amounts of water are stored in aquifers. In this case, you'll want to look for or dig a well, as these water deposits are usually deep below the surface. And if you're traveling through an area where people have lived, there may be existing wells you can tap. (If you do a little sleuthing online, you can identify and make a list of aquifers in advance of an emergency evacuation or decision to live off-grid.

When searching a dry riverbed, incidentally, you can sometimes feel water below by walking across the bed barefoot. You should also have better luck digging on an inside bend, where water is more likely to pool when the river flows.

Another trick to finding water is locating heavily trafficked game trails downhill. Look for tracks, a visible path, an abundance of dung or droppings, or other signs of critter activity. A water hole should be waiting for you where these trails end.


Although seawater is unhealthy and can destroy your kidneys, some anecdotes suggest that ingesting a very limited quantity over time may be survivable. It's better to mix it with fresh water, if you have any. Skim the very top layer of the sea, which contains less salt (since salt is heavy and sinks). Water from icebergs should also be safe to drink. Take ice from the side of the berg that gets the most sunlight. Blue ice contains less salt.

If you have any plastic on your boat, you can use the condensation process to create water from the vapors that hang over the sea. Extract condensation water from sails (leave a little slack) and tarps. In addition, if you happen to pass an inland water source flowing into the sea, the water in that area should be diluted enough to drink safely.

Ingesting a little bit of salt is a good thing if you're floating beneath a hot sun for many days. (Thor Heyerdahl found this out during The Kon-Tiki Expedition.) In hot weather, add 1/5 to 2/5 salt water to fresh to replace salt you sweat out. Drinking salt water straight will destroy your kidneys and make you delirious in the process.

Alternative Water Collection Methods

Other ways to find and capture raw water on land:

In a situation where there's absolutely no water source available, use the moisture in plants, fruits, animals and fish to stay hydrated. For example:

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More Ways to Find Water

Convert Snow or Glaciers - Dig up the oldest snowfall you can uncover for water.  Powder has very little water content, while ice holds more water than snow.  To melt, put a little in the pot first and heat lightly so as not to burn the bottom.  Keep adding snow as it melts down in the pot.  Frozen water may still have germs, so filter and sterilize it when possible. 

Never use a surface layer of snow for drinking, especially if it's colored or dirty. If you can't light a fire, fill your canteen or water bottle with snow, then stick between layers of clothes and allow body heat to melt it. At camp, place a snowball on a stick near the fire and let it drip into a cup. Or heat up some rocks, toss them into a pile of clean snow/ice, then collect the melted water.

Along the Seashore - Near ocean water, wait for the low tide, then dig a hole below the high water mark.  Stop digging as soon as you see water start seeping in from below.  Fresh water rises to top of salt water, so that first seepage should be good to drink.

Swamp Water - Where possible, follow the instructions for "Along the Seashore" above. If that's not possible, skim water off the top, preferably in a sunny spot. This water should be a little less murky and teeming with microbes.

Underground Springs - These are common in the forest and around volcanoes, both active and dormant. Look for wet patches of ground, water dribbling out of cracks in rocks, unusual areas of lush growth, or seemingly stagnant marshes whose water is in fact flowing in some direction.

Wells - Beneath all land, there's a water table. (You learn all about ground water in an Earth Sciences class.) It's usually pretty deep down, but wells may have been dug into the ground for generations. If you find an old abandoned one, check it out. Unless you're close to a large-scale farm, or near a power plant or chemical factory, the ground water should be good to go after disinfecting it.

Creating Water through Condensation

The basic idea here is to use a combination of heat and glass or plastic (and occasionally metal) to convert undrinkable liquid or moisture (or water vapor in the air) into a clean liquid. You can extract water from green leaves this way, as well as seawater, since salt and certain other elements never convert to vapor. The source of heat is typically the Sun, but you can also light a little fire beneath a metal can or near your plastic to stimulate the condensation. Here are a few methods:

Solar Still - Dig a 3 by 3-foot hole in a place where it looks like water might have been pooled underground in the recent past. Line it with a sheet of 6 by 6-foot clear plastic, with a rock in the middle of the plastic to create a cone shape (as shown in the photo below).

Just beneath the plastic, where the rock is placed, you'll secure a container about the size of a large coffee cup. The container will catch the condensation rolling down the inside of the plastic from all sides, hence the cone shape. To hold the plastic sheet in place, cover it around its border with dirt and/or rocks.

At the bottom of the hole, you can also place cacti, grass or green leaves (non-poisonous) that will contribute their own condensation.

If you run an intake hose from above ground into the bottom of the hole. you can transfer urine, seawater or other undrinkable liquids into your still. This method works at night as well as in the daytime. For converting lots of seawater, however, it's better to use a solar distiller.

Solar Distiller - This is basically a box with a partition in the middle and a transparent top. (See drawing below.) One end of the box is higher than the other. You can use clear Plexiglass or plastic as the cover. Make sure it slants downward, enabling the condensed droplets that form on the inside of it to roll downward. The drops will then get captured in the clean water side, or (in the case of the drawing) drip out of the box and into a separate container.

Into the bad-water side you can pour seawater, urine or other undrinkable liquids, preferably through a hose, so you don't have to take the lid off the box and disrupt the condensing process. If you use the partitioned box method, you can run a hose from the clean water side to extract it, again without having to remove the cover.

Transpiration - Find a sunny spot and wrap a plastic bag around a big leafy branch. Make sure the plant isn't poisonous first. Willow or oak work well for this. Ornamentals are bad, as are leaves which ooze white when cut. Look for leaves that are thin and a light shade of green. Tie the open end of the bag to the branch. Depending on the temperature and humidity, you may be able to catch up to a half cup of water after a few hours. Be extra careful around thorns and other objects that can pierce holes in your bag.

Fire in metal container - Stick a lantern at the bottom of a larger container, then light it and cover the container, except for an air hole.  Set the container in the contaminated or undrinkable liquid. Condensation will transfer the good water into the can as it heats up.

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Filtering Methods

Wherever you locate water, you shouldn't drink it until you're sure it's safe. (If the situation is dire and delaying could be fatal, you should obvious drink a little water, anyway, and deal with the germs later.) Even in the most pristine backcountry, bacteria and other pathogens may be present. Some animals urinate and defecate in waterways, while the dead bodies of others can get swept up into river during a storm. Colder water is generally safer to drink without treatment, since microbes generally (but not always) thrive in a warm environment.

Microbes, however, are not your only concern. Heavy metals are occasionally present in streams and creeks flowing down out of mountains. These metals include copper, arsenic, lead and mercury. Another pitfall to watch out for: wells, springs and other underground water sources near power plants, chemical factories, mines and farmland. In addition to the metals, it's possible you may find high concentrations of nitric acid and ammonia (from fertilizer), pesticides and other toxic compounds.

Water retrieved through rainwater collection or clear melted snow, or that's retrieved from a high-altitude underground spring, may not require any filtering.

A basic, improvised water filter

Filtering removes silt, gravel, organic matter, metals, most chemical compounds and some (but not all) bacteria. To filter water, you can use a plastic container, a sock, a seashell or even a bowl shape that you've dug into the ground. You might also fashion a funnel out of organic materials, like bark and grass. The ideal filter will have several layers that your liquid passes down through, starting with the coarsest material at the top.

In the drawing above, the bottom of a plastic container has been cut out, then stacked with filtering material. The mouth of the bottle (i.e. the twist-on cap end) is where your filtered water will emerge. You can also filter water in separate steps or containers, if that's easier. Before it enters your cup, tie a scarf or other tightly woven piece of cloth around the mouth (cap end) to provide the most impenetrable filter of all.

Charcoal from your campfire is one of the most effective ways to filter out toxic chemicals, which is why most home water filters are charcoal-based. Charcoal has numerous crooks and crannies in it, capturing unwanted microbes. Backpackers generally carry filters that contain activated carbon. These are made from a carbonaceous material enhanced to make it more porous (like that shown below left). However, it's easy to produce your own charcoal with a wood fire, or by burning nutshells, coal or peat.

At left, activated carbon made from coconut shells. At right, a drawing of a birch bark filter.

Just remember not to use the same charcoal again and again and again, since the holes will eventually fill up, allowing pathogens and other contaminants to pass through. Charcoal filters must be changed periodically.

Red sphagnum moss in bogs and marshes is also an excellent filter, since it contains natural iodine to disinfect the water at the same time.  (It won't, however, remove heavy metals.) If you're in a hurry, you can squeeze water out of the moss and directly into your mouth, but it's better to collect the moss, pour your water through it and filter the liquid through a cloth.

Here are a few other filtering suggestions:

Remember that filtering will limit the number of microbes, but not necessarily get all the bad stuff out. And toxic substances like arsenic may still get through, as described earlier. A lack of green growth or dead animals lying nearby is a reliable indication that the water isn't safe, or at least needs to be disinfected through boiling or distilling. If you're near an urban area, agricultural or livestock tracts, a power plant or factory, the same cautions hold true

However, if you're in the wilderness, especially the high country, the danger from contaminants is generally much, much less. The higher the altitude, the more pristine the land gets. (This is in part why doomsday experts recommend a high-altitude evacuation.) Cold water rushing down a river generated by snowmelt in the mountain has a good chance of being safe to drink. Try to collect it after it splashes hard across some rocks, since this roiling action kills bacteria as well.

Disinfecting Water

As mentioned above, water retrieved through rainwater collection, condensation, evaporation, clear melted snow, or that's retrieved from an underground spring shouldn't require disinfecting. However, if there's any doubt about microbes or other contaminants, take the time to disinfect it.

There are several ways to do this:

Boiling – If you have access to fire, this is the quickest way to kill the microbes. Warm water bacteria takes longer to disinfect, so if your source is a hot spring, plan on boiling it for ten minutes. Cold water requires a couple minutes, although if you're at a high altitude, the experts suggest doubling the time.

Iodine Method – 1 tsp disinfects 1 quart of water.  Or use 1 iodide tablet and wait for 3 minutes, then shake container and let water leak out to disinfect screw thread and drinking surface.  Wait 20 minutes, or 30 minutes if water is cold.  Use 2 tablets for murkier water. If you're using an iodide crystal solution, make sure the crystals themselves don't get into your water, since they're toxic. If you're using a dropper, the conversion is 10 drops per gallon and 2 drops per liter.

Bleach – Use liquid bleach only, not a powder, and not a scented bleach. Add roughly a teaspoon or two per gallon. Slosh the water around and wait 20 minutes.

Solar/UV Ray Method – When other methods aren't available, submit your water to the light and heat of the Sun. On a sunny day, one hour may be all you need. On a cloudy day, leave it for several hours, and in overcast weather, leave it out for two days. Experts say UV rays only penetrate up to four inches through clear water. If the color is murky, this method won't work. Window glass also blocks UV rays, so use only bottle glass or plastic to hold your water. (On the other hand, too much heat makes plastic break down and contaminate water.)

Distillation - Using a solar still should keep the bad elements at the bottom of the box described ealier when condensation turns water into vapor. But some heavy metals and other chemical contaminants might still make the transition. Be sure to use the filter method first.

After disinfecting water, slosh it around to oxygenate the H20. That should dispel any flat taste. If you used the UV disinfectant method, you must drink the water fairly soon, since bacteria will start reproducing soon after being removed from the UV rays.


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Vibrio cholerae

Waterborne Illnesses

Here are four good reasons to be careful about the water you consume in a survival situation:

Giardia lamblia One-celled microbe that enters the environment from the feces of infected animals or other people. The organism lives in the intestine, but because it has a protective shell, it can survive for long periods of time outside the body. Symptoms may take one to two weeks to appear after infection and may persist for two to six weeks. They include diarrhea, gas or flatulence, greasy stools that float, stomach cramps, pain or nausea.

Cryptopsoridium Once entering the body, it lives in the intestines, and has a resilient shell that fends off chemical water treatment. Symptoms include watery diarrhea, dehydration, stomach cramps or pain, fever, nausea, vomiting and weight loss.

Cholera This disease is generated by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae and more likely to show up in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania than the United States or Europe. It typically takes up residence in brackish rivers, coastal waters, and municipal water supplies and sewage systems that aren't maintained properly or chemically treated. Symptoms include profuse watery diarrhea, vomiting, leg cramps, and rapid loss of body fluids. Without treatment death can occur within hours.

Typhoid Fairly common disease affecting about 17 million people annually. The symptoms appear 10 to 14 days after infection, They include high fever, rose-colored spots on the abdomen and chest, diarrhoea or constipation, and enlargement of the spleen and liver. Complications arising from the symptoms result in a mortality rate of about ten percent.

Additional Water Tips