THE IMPORTANCE OF WATER TO SURVIVAL
Survival Tips from OutdoorSafe
By Peter Kummerfeldt
In priority order, after shelter and the need to defend your body temperature, the requirement to prevent dehydration is the survivor’s next most important necessity. The Institute of Medicine currently recommends a daily intake of approximately two to two and a half quarts of water to replace the water lost through normal body functions – urination, defecation, breathing and sweating. It is important to remember that all of the chemical and electrical activities that take place in the human body take place in a water environment and when water is in short supply these activities begin to malfunction – you are dehydrated!
Many survivors begin their emergency already dehydrated and continue to dehydrate further when water supplies are limited and the quality of any available water is suspect. There have been cases where people needing water, but fearful that the water source was contaminated with Giardia, Cryptosporidium or other harmful pathogens, delayed drinking or chose not to use the water at all. Whether to drink possibly impure water and prevent the immediate physiological impact of dehydration or not to drink the water, risk dehydration, but eliminate the chances of becoming ill is a dilemma that many survivors have faced! In North America, as a general rule, since dehydration can very quickly reduce the survivor’s ability to function efficiently and safely it is usually better to drink the water. If the water contains harmful pathogens the onset of symptoms will usually be days, if not weeks away and hopefully by then the individual will have access to medical care. Remember “Doctors can cure Giardiasis and Cryptosporidiosis but they can’t cure “dead!” In other parts of the world, especially the developing countries, drinking water that has not been disinfected is NOT recommended. Viruses such as hepatitis, not commonly found in North American waters, are more prevalent and can cause incapacitating illness very quickly.
It should also be noted that the incidence of gastro-intestinal problems usually attributed to drinking contaminated water are commonly a result of poor personal hygiene habits!
FINDING AND COLLECTING WATER
Throughout much of North America, water is usually available from open sources such as lakes, ponds, rivers and streams and can usually be obtained fairly easily. Fundamental to finding water is the recognition that it will always seek the lowest level possible and that if present, some form of vegetation will most likely indicate its presence. A good strategy to locate water is to first find a vantage point from which it is possible to scan the surrounding countryside. You should slowly and methodically search for any water indicators such as green vegetation, birds flocking to specific areas, trails left by both domestic and wild animals, and even large rock formations from which springs may originate or where water becomes trapped. Man–made sources of water such as windmills, tanks, dams and irrigation canals might also be observed. Look for water in low lying areas, such as depressions, sinks, or tanks, where rainfall or melting snow is likely to collect. Water can often be found in these areas long after the last precipitation, especially if they are shaded. A pair of binoculars can save you a lot of walking!
Don’t risk your life trying to climb or reach the water’s edge when safer strategies can be used. Tie a line to a water bottle or other container and throw it or lower it into the water from a safe vantage point. Since many water containers do not come with a reliable attachment point when the container is uncapped, make one by duct taping a loop of parachute cord or other line to the side of the water container. Do not use the retaining strap that connects the cap to the water bottle if the container is equipped with one. In many cases this strap will pull free from the full bottle as it is being retrieved from the water source resulting in the loss of the bottle.
The water in some lakes, particularly many found in the western United States, contain high concentrations of calcium carbonate and calcium bicarbonate in solution which makes the water non-potable. Lakes of this nature are usually easy to identify because the calcium salts leached from the soil are deposited in the form of white powder around the perimeter of the lake as the water evaporates. Water containing high concentrations of calcium carbonate and bicarbonate taste terrible and should not be consumed.
The quantity of water produced by seeps and springs varies tremendously. In some situations the amount will be only a few teaspoons per hour. In other cases, gallons of water can flow from the ground in minutes. Where the quantities are small, the flat edge of the mouth on a plastic bag can be used to scoop up the water from a shallow source, or if it is flowing, to collect the water as it runs into the bag. A short piece of vinyl aquarium hose also works well for sucking up water from shallow collections or to recover water from narrow cracks in the rocks.
Following rain, water collects in low lying areas and may be found long after the last storms have passed through the area. Check out any depressions, sinks or other low places where water could gather. Water sources like these should be checked carefully since they are frequently contaminated with debris that has been washed into the drainage. Finding the remains of animals that have died nearby or in the water and other similar contaminants will necessitate boiling the water, the use of halogens (iodine or chlorine) or the use of a mechanical pump to purify it. (Water treatment techniques will be covered in the next journal)
It may be possible to locate abandoned open wells from which water may be obtained. Commonly the rope and bucket typically used to lift water from these wells will be missing and a person will have to improvise a means to lower a container down into the well to retrieve the water. Lacking a container a clothing item can serve as a sponge when lowered into the water. Windmills that could provide a ready source of water are a common sight across North America especially where little surface water exists. Commonly the water pumped to the surface is collected in a nearby tank or pumped directly into a trough from which livestock can drink. Where an open source is not available it may be necessary to dismantle or damage the piping associated with the windmill to gain access to the water. Without tools, this may not be possible.
In arid areas, particularly in the western and south-western United States, state wildlife agencies and conservation organizations have installed rainwater collectors called “guzzlers.” These are designed to gather precipitation and feed it into a holding tank where it remains until it is either consumed by thirsty animals or it eventually evaporates.
Rain water can be easily collected using a sheet of plastic or similar material. Water collects on the upper surfaces of any material (it doesn’t have to be waterproof) and drains to the lowest point where it is collected.
Snow is best melted before it is consumed and the most effective technique to convert snow into water is by using what military survival schools call “a water machine.” A bag made from any available porous fabric (even a T-shirt with the neck and armholes sewn shut has been used), is filled with snow and hung near, but not directly over a fire. The fire’s radiant heat melts the snow in the bag and the water that results runs down to the lowest point of the bag where it drains into a container. Continually refilling the bag with snow prevents it from burning.
Using body heat to melt snow is a very slow, inefficient method of procuring water. If this process is the only one available, a small quantity of snow, (several cups) is placed in any available waterproof container. (Preferably, this should be a soft plastic water bag, zip lock bag or other similar container) that is then placed between layers of clothing. Since the amount of heat needed to convert snow to water is large and the amount of body heat available is finite, only small quantities can be melted at a time.
Even though water is not visible on the surface of the ground, it may still be present in the soil in sufficient quantity to be collected. Locate low lying areas where water is most likely to have accumulated and dig down until damp layers of soil are found. Over time, water may seep into the hole where it can be collected. If no indicators of the presence of sub-surface water are present, dig a hole in the outside bend of a dry river bed. Look for a location where the centrifugal force of flowing water has eroded the outer bend of a river bank creating a depression where the last remnants of water flowing downriver will have accumulated.
Solar stills are not a reliable method of obtaining water in arid areas. The quantity of water produced by a solar still is dependent on the amount of water contained in the ground. Since desert soils tend to hold little or no water, the amount that a survivor is likely to obtain must be balanced against the amount of sweat lost while constructing the device. In the majority of cases, a person will likely loose more water than can be recovered from the still.
A person’s ability to collect water trapped by plants, or contained within plants can be a valuable aide to combating dehydration. Once again, a line must be drawn between methods that are practical and those that are more survival legend than fact! Barrel cacti for example, long featured in survival literature as a source of water in arid regions, should not be utilized. The quantity of fluid that can be extracted from a barrel cactus is very limited and the fluid that is obtained is not beneficial and may in fact be detrimental to your health.
The use of clear plastic bags to enclose living vegetation and capture the moisture transpired by the leaves can be an effective method of collecting water. A plant’s survival is dependent on its ability to gather water from the soil. This water is passed up through the plant’s roots, stems, branches and is finally released back to the atmosphere through pores in the leaves as water vapor – a process called evapo-transpiration. This water vapor can be collected by enclosing as much living, leafy vegetation as possible within a clear plastic bag and sealing the opening shut with a cord or duct tape. The vegetation should be given a vigorous shake before placing it in the plastic bag to remove any insects, bird droppings or other materials that might contaminate the water. Within a short period of time, water will begin to condense on the inner surface of the bag, collect into water droplets and drain to the lowest point of the bag. The quantity of water obtained in this manner is dependent on the amount of water in the ground, and the type of vegetation used. Other factors that will determine water production include the amount of sunlight available, (it doesn’t work at night) the clarity of the plastic bag and the length of time the process is allowed to work. It is not uncommon to find two or three cups of water, and sometimes much more, has accumulated over a six to eight hour daylight period.
The best way to remove the water without disturbing the bag is to insert a length of vinyl aquarium hose through the neck of the bag down to the lowest point where water will collect. (This should be done as the apparatus is being assembled) The water can then be sucked out or possibly siphoned into a container. When enclosing vegetation in the plastic bag it is advisable to place chicken egg sized stone in the lower corner where the water will collect. The weight of the stone creates a separation between the enclosed plant life and the water and precludes plant saps from contaminating the water.
Water can also be obtained from vines. Water producing vines varying in size from pencil thickness up to the thickness of an adult man’s forearm can be found throughout much of the south-eastern United States. When selecting a vine, select those with a larger diameter. The greater the thickness of the vine the more water it is capable of producing. A sharp knife, or better still a machete, will be needed to sever the tough, woody vine. Vines that exude a white latex sap or those that produce a colored or foul smelling sap should be avoided. If no sap is observed, or if the sap that is observed is clear and without aroma, remove a twenty four inch section severing the higher end first and then the lower end. If the lower end is cut first, the water contained within the vine is drawn up by capillary action and far less water will drain out by the time that the upper end is severed. Once removed, the section of vine is held vertically and the water contained within it will drain into a container (perhaps a cupped hand) where it should be further evaluated. Liquid that is colored should not be consumed. Liquid that has an unpleasant aroma, other that a faint “woody” smell, should also be discarded. This water could be used to satisfy any hygiene needs. Taste a small amount of the water. Water that has a disagreeable flavor, other than a slightly “earthy” or “woody” taste, should not be utilized for drinking. Hold a small amount of water in your mouth for a few moments to determine if there is any burning or other disagreeable sensation. If any irritating sensation occurs, the water should be discarded. Ultimately, liquid that looks like water, smells like water and tastes like water, is water and can be safely consumed in large quantities without further purification.
Preventing dehydration and thereby maintaining your ability to function safely and survive is dependent on your ability to locate and gather water efficiently and safely. The procedures described here have been used by survivors to obtain the water they needed to maintain life but as one old desert rat once remarked when asked how he obtained water in the desert, “It is better have the water you need with you because it can be hard to find when you really need it!”