No shelter. No food. No fire.
Except in the most extreme cases, these won’t kill you … at least, not quickly. But none of these compares to the lack of water, which carries a whole different level of significance. You can live for more than three weeks without food, but you likely won’t make it much past three days without water. Granted, some people have survived as long as 10 days without water, but after the third day, the ability to function is radically reduced.
When I was filming one of my Survivorman episodes in Africa’s Kalahari Desert, where temperatures pushed 140 degrees, I began experiencing terrible headaches after one day due to the lack of water in my body. Even after drinking a gallon of water each day, I had urinated only once in the first five days. By the fifth and sixth days when I ran out of water, the few ounces of moisture I got from chewing plants and distilling my urine didn’t suffice. Simply chewing in extremely hot weather used up energy I didn’t have to spare. At one point, sitting overnight in my broken-down Jeep, the lack of water — combined with the heat — caused me to nearly black out from heat stroke. It was one of the most dangerous situations I have ever been in. By the end of the shoot, I needed to drink copious amounts of water to calm the massive, unrelenting migraines caused by dehydration.
Our bodies need two to three liters of water each day. Throw in heat, cold, stress, exertion or diarrhea, and you need much more. You need to know how to find water and prevent your body from losing water.
Drink, Drink, Drink
One thing that people get hung up on with water (assuming they’re lucky enough to find it) is whether they should drink it at all, for fear of getting sick. Remember this: You will die of dehydration a lot faster than you will from the effects of drinking untreated water. In fact, in all but the rarest circumstances, drinking untreated water won’t kill you. Should you make it out alive, you can treat any disease or parasite with powerful drugs.
That being said, never be cavalier about water. It is possible to drink from contaminated water sources and find yourself knocked down from pain and diarrhea within hours, making your survival ordeal even worse. Your best bet is to assume all water is contaminated and treat it. If you can purify your water, then you should do so. But if your choice is to drink untreated water or die of dehydration, then drink.
When it comes to looking for water, try to conserve what you have and seek an alternate source as soon as possible. The best primary sources of water are those that flow. These include rivers, streams and creeks. From there, you begin to move to more stagnant bodies of water, like lakes and ponds.
When you find a water source, scan the shoreline or look upstream for contaminants, such as dead animals. The higher up the water table you go, the closer you are to the purest water that hasn’t picked up pollutants and decaying matter. Keep in mind that even the freshest-looking mountain streams might have an upstream contaminant that you can’t see — again, another reason to purify your water by boiling or filtering it when you can.
To locate a primary source of water, your best bet is to study the topography of your surroundings. Walking downhill is usually a good strategy. Since water readily flows downhill, valley bottoms are great places to find water.
You should be on the lookout for changes in vegetation, which indicate the availability of water. If you see a place where vegetation is darker or denser than the surrounding area, there’s a good chance you’ll find water if only by digging for it.
Another small trick I’ve often used in survival situations is to look for subtle changes in the sky’s color. Typically, the sky directly over a source of water will look bluer than the rest of the sky. Early in the morning, low-lying clouds and fog tend to congregate over a body of water as well. Not only does the body of water reflect the sky differently than a thick forest, but its moisture content and temperature difference cause the fog.
Help From Wildlife
Animal trails might lead you to water, but be warned that they can also lead you into oblivion. If you see numerous game trails, they might make a formation much like a series of veins. Where the sections join and make a “V,” the point of the “V” could likely point in the direction of the water.
Bear in mind that most wild creatures urinate and defecate in the same place they drink. Once you’ve located water, move at least a couple hundred yards from the spot where the game trail meets the water, preferably upstream.
Birds also tend to congregate near water, and birds in flight in the early morning or late afternoon might indicate the direction of water. Grain-eating birds are never too far from water; when they fly straight and low, they could be headed for water. The presence of swarming insects also could indicate that water is near. If you see bees or ants going into a hole in a tree, there might be water in the hole. Plastic tubing can be used to siphon the water, or a cloth can be stuffed in the hole to absorb it.
If you find yourself in a part of the world or a season when ice, slush and snow are present, you have a good source of water at your fingertips, particularly if you have the ability to make fire. Many survival instructors will tell you that you should avoid eating snow, largely because it will reduce your body temperature and consume precious energy during warming. This is true, but given the absolute vital role that water plays in survival, I believe the opposite.
If it’s the morning and you’re working hard to assure other aspects of your survival, eating snow can act more toward maintaining body temperature than cooling yourself to a dangerous degree. Plus, you need that precious liquid.
You have to be careful about eating snow and ice later in the day, when you’re tired and when it’s starting to cool off outside. This applies to any time you are eating snow — spring included, not just the dead of winter. This is when your body’s defenses are down, and you can do more harm than good.
Of course, the ideal situation is to melt the ice and snow and even heat it before you drink it. If you don’t have a fire available, fill a water bottle with snow and put it down your clothing during the day while you work or put it in your sleeping bag at night while you sleep. It takes a while for the first bit to melt, but once that’s done, the rest melts much more quickly. If I can manage to do this without chilling myself too much, it’s great to wake up to find melted water ready to drink.
Actions depicted in this article represent extreme scenarios and may not precisely follow standard procedures. When instructing youth, consult official BSA guidelines.
Les Stroud, aka Survivorman, is an adventurer and an award-winning filmmaker and author of Survive!, a best-selling manual on survival. Learn more about Survivorman by visiting lesstroud.ca, or follow him on social media @reallesstroud