How To Purify Water In A Survival Situation
In our first article we detailed the techniques for lighting a fire using a ferro rod & steel. Were we to keep with the gear theme when it comes to water purification this one would have been a how-to for those extremely nifty, light, cool handheld mini-pumps that can plug straight into the lid of your carry jugs. But the instruction manuals that come with them do just fine and, you may remember, on our List of All Things the number one essential is a knife, but the rod & steel is so close behind we could have almost called it 1B.
And if fire is essential for survival, the truth is water is even more so. Our bodies can acclimate within reason to chilly nights and sleeping with leaves for cover, but without water? The switch gets flipped so fast, from consciousness to stumbling aimless, to vacating this mortal coil. So why would we not have placed water purification at the top of the list? Because as much as we love all things gear, prep, and disaster readiness, this really isn’t about selling you stuff. A true survival situation implies you didn’t have time to collect your fifty pound backpack, or your go bag, both of which may contain either a hand-pump or one of those nifty purifier straws. The hard part may be just finding the water in the first place, and once you do, you have options. And one of those options comes from, guess what? Yep, fire.
Before You Drink Your Own Urine
Now there are many ways to think about and accomplish appropriate purification. One of our favorites shows up from time to time in literature and history, such as Mutiny on the Bounty. You better believe it’s one of the books on The List, for a host of reasons.
Captain Bligh and his remaining loyal officers were forced to leave the Bounty in a lifeboat. Master sailors, especially of that era, were master survivalists. Further, Age of sail stories are filled with the self-sufficiency of preppers' dreams. From food to ship repairs, they either brought the right supplies with them, or employed extraordinary ingenuity to solve any problem with what they had at hand. And in the case of Bligh and his castaways, this was put to the most extreme test, huddled closely together in a small, open craft, they navigated at sea over 4,000 miles to the Dutch East Indies.
They did not do what modern television survivalists and insane dieticians advocate and drink their own urine. When the rain no longer filled their containers, these gentlemen built a fire on their boat, boiled sea water underneath a makeshift dome, and collected the steam as it drained down. Between strict rationing, sharing stories, songs, and prayers, Bligh and his men accomplished one of the most extraordinary, true, recorded feats of survival in history.
Now, don’t get us wrong. The records are clear from the court martial and Bligh’s further appointments, he was rotten to the core, but he was one tough soul, too. The point is, we get a real world glimpse of how extraordinarily hard it was to suffer the brutal cold and wet, then the anvil heat and sun, in a small open craft over thousands of miles.
More Than 1 Way To Skin A Cat (and purify water)
The technique we’re discussing here is relatively simple and reasonably flexible. In fact, in some cases it doesn’t even require a fire. Survivalists will dig a pit in the soil or sand, pour in bad water or even urinate (carefully) into it, then cover with a scavenged tarp, weighted with a stone in the middle to create a drip-point, and let the heat of the sun do the work. You place your container right under the drip point, obviously, and don’t expect more than a few lifesaving sips. If you’re lucky enough to have a large pot for boiling, then you can tip your cap to Captain Bligh (before flipping him the bird).
We could go into much more detail for a method such as this, as we did for fire lighting with your rod & steel, but it would not help you as much as teaching the way to think about water in a pure survival situation.
There are so many techniques, from as simple as twisting a thick growth of pond reeds into a tight cone shape—so the water that seeps into the cavity is cleared of most visible particles, and maybe even some invisible ones—to high tech filters fit for a government research lab that can eliminate potential alien nano-viruses, we like to imagine. If you pick the right spot next to a stream, you can use the sand and clay on the shore as a filter, by digging a hole and waiting.
Certain trees and vines act like your grade school water fountain they provide so much drinkable liquid, but the only way to know how to spot them properly is to be trained in advance, within the specific region on the planet that they grow. Common sense advice abounds: try not to drink water from a stinky, stagnant pond next to piles of animal dung and dead roadkill. Duh.
Purify Your Mind, You Must
But it’s easy to forget these things when you’re starving, cold, and losing your mind from thirst. It’s easy to think you’ve found a good spot along a river, and not know about the animal latrine only a hundred yards further upstream. We cannot here list every common sense, and less obvious hazard, and you would likely not remember it all in a desperate situation if we did.
Which is why this article is different than the usual how-to. True survivalism starts with the real number one on The List. Before the one trusted knife we call #1, before the Rod & Steel we’ve slotted for now at #2, and way before a good, solid, portable hand pump filter, is mental strength. Attitude.
No, we’re not your father trying to figure out how to motivate you to look forward to homework. We’re just trying to save your life, if it ever gets right down to it.
It’s not necessary at all to be a monster like Bligh, but even that monster learned in his training as a Captain that great tales, music, and other thoughts that separate us from the purely savage, that make us lift up our heads and look around, that give us a reason to look forward to something, anything more … that is the place you need to put yourself in your mind, to survive task by task, and for example, to find or make drinkable water.
Distill Or Filter
In the murderous heat of the Australian outback, indigenous people learned long ago to not even bother traveling during the day. In the fatal cold closer to the poles, those who’ve made it did not eat snow, or at least they minimized doing so. Some people develop resistance to certain bacteria, but if you haven’t, the time to start is not when you are treating every sip and every calorie of food as life-saving. Iodine makes the water taste like crap, and who knows what it does to your healthy gut bacteria, but it’s saved so many lives over so many years that it is still one of the go-to ways to treat water to make it fit for human consumption.
But there is no way for you to predict where you may get stranded, or what methods will be available to you. The way to think about water in a survival situation is: can I distill it (make it steam or vaporize within an enclosure for collection at a drip point), or can I filter it?
The last thing to keep in mind, at least when it comes to this brief article, is travel between watering holes. Survival is about moving to a place where you can do more than just survive. Leaving a reliable source of drinkable water is a life and death decision, but moving on is often the right call. Do you have a container to carry some with you? No? Hydrate up. It’s not going to last long no matter how much you drink, so don’t over-gorge. Decide how much sweat you can spend on any activity and weigh the risks. Laying traps, building shelter, walking in the sun, all are an easier decision when water is not an issue, but when you are measuring every teaspoon of sweat in your mind the decision to lay quietly in the shade of a tree until the sun goes down could be the difference between making it, or becoming a lovely set of sun bleached bones in the desert.