Water In The Wilderness

Water In The Sawtooth Mountains

Finding water in the wilderness largely depends on the type of climate or microclimate you are in. 

Desert conditions aside, if you are in an area with vegetation it will often mean there is water nearby. 

Snowmelt from higher elevations flows downhill filling streams and rivers. Valleys and basins will often have ponds, lakes, creeks or rivers flowing through them.

In an area without much vegetation, such as a desert or mountain ridgeline, the conditions can be harsher, and water is often harder to find. 
Make sure to plan accordingly when you are traversing long distances in the wilderness, as conditions and water availability can change rapidly.

How To Find Water In The Desert

A ridge-line hike is similar to desert conditions in terms of dryness. Without access to water for miles at a time and completely exposed to the elements, a hike through a high alpine environment reminds a person of what thirst really is. 

With the sun beating down on you, and the wind blowing at you from all sides, your body gets dried out faster than if you were in a wetter climate.

Finding water (especially when thirsty, in dry conditions) is more than a biological imperative, it is a morale booster and energy drink all tied into one.

  • Look for signs of water by following any birds, bees, flies, or mosquitoes that you might see.
  • Game trails lead to water because animals like drinking as much as we do.
  • Most plants need a water source to survive. Look for the greenest plants you can find, and listen for a trickling stream or spring. Cottonwoods and cattails are tell-tale signs of nearby water.
  • Canyons and valleys will often have water running through them. After all, it was running water that formed those canyons in the first place.
  • Pay attention to dry river or stream beds. If you notice muddy ground but no running water, there could be some H20 lingering just under the surface. Get digging.
  • Look for large rock features, as water can linger in pools from previous rainfall.
  • Put a Ziploc bag around a plant as a method of collecting the moisture from transpiration.
  • Collect the morning dew off plants with an absorbent cloth. Squeeze the water into your mouth or container.

How To Purify Water In The Wild

  • Filter Method | Sawyer Squeeze – This is my tried and true method for filtering water. Simply attach one of these to a plastic bottle (Smart Water, Coca Cola, etc.) and squeeze away. This style of filter is easy to use on a hike and it’s lightweight.
    • Pro tip: remember to clean your filter regularly to maintain high flow rate, and also tap the filter when cleaning to knock out excess dirt.
  • Water Purification Tablets – These kill pathogens in the water, making it safe for human consumption.
  • Boil – the most straightforward way to filter water for drinking is to boil it; all pathogens are killed when the temperature reaches 212 degrees.
  • Distillation – One of the oldest, and purest, methods of water filtration is distillation. This involves boiling the water, collecting the water vapor, and allowing that vapor to condense back into liquid in a separate container. This removes minerals and contaminants and is effective, albeit somewhat time-intensive, method of purifying water.

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