Clean Water... Your Greatest Survival Challenge

Survival requires a lot of things and the longer a period of time we are in survival mode, the more things we realize that we need. But ultimately, most of the things we find that we need boil down to providing the most basic survival needs of warm shelter, clean water, and nutritious food. Of these three, coming up with enough clean water to survive is often our biggest problem.

Of course, if you live beside a major river, that’s probably not going to be an issue for you. But few of us actually live beside a river that flows year-round; and there are parts of the country where it could be many days walk to get to that seemingly endless supply of water.

The fact of the matter is, few of us are actually stockpiling enough water to take us through a crisis. There are several reasons for this, chief amongst which is the difficulty in finding enough space to store enough water. We actually need much more water to survive than most people think and than most survival instructors teach. Unless we have some massive underground tanks on our property, chances are that few of us have enough water.

So, how much drinking water do we actually need?

Most survival instructors will tell you that you need a gallon of water per person, per day for drinking and cooking. I’ll agree with that in most situations; but if you live in the south, especially the southwest, that’s not going to be enough. There are places in the southwestern United States, where you could drink a gallon of water per day and still die of dehydration.

A combination of high temperature and extremely low humidity makes these places very dangerous, especially in the summertime. At the same time, they are areas where there is little rainfall and there are few rivers that one can count on. There are many more arroyos in the southwest, which only have water when it rains, than there are actual rivers.


In this high temperature, it may actually be necessary to drink a gallon of water per day, or even more. Basically, the rule of thumb is to use your urine as a gauge. The more yellow it is, the more minerals it contains. If your urine isn’t coming out relatively clear, than you aren’t drinking enough.

You can check to see if you are dehydrated by pulling up the skin on the back of your hand. If that skin doesn’t go back to being flat almost immediately when you release it, then you are probably dehydrated. In order to use this test, you need to know what your norm is. As we age, our skin loses its elasticity, so it will return slower. But as long as you know your own skin, this makes a very good comparative test.

One other test is to use the cuticles of your nails. Press down on the nail, near the cuticle, causing it to turn white. This happens because you are forcing the blood out of the area. When you release the pressure, the nail should return to pink within two seconds.

But drinking water isn’t all we need.

The average American family currently uses just over 100 gallons per person, per day. That includes water for drinking and cooking, as well as washing, bathing, watering our lawns and flushing our toilets.Actually, about half of this water usage is due to watering our lawns, something that we’ll have to curtail during a crisis situation. Another large chunk of our usage wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for our modern appliances. While they do a great job, they use a lot of water doing it.


Then there’s the water we use for personal hygiene, bathing and flushing our toilets. While we will need to do both in a survival situation, that doesn’t mean that we’ll need to use as much water as we do now. A bath uses 30 to 40 gallons of water, a shower uses 2 to 4 gallons per minute and a toilet uses 1.5 to 4 gallons per flush. Even brushing teeth can use 2 to 3 gallons of water, because most of us leave the tap running while we brush. All of those can be done with much less water.

I lived in a motorhome for several years. Since we only had a 60 gallon fresh water tank, it was necessary to learn how to do things with minimal water. This is what people in other countries have to do, because they don’t all have our nearly unlimited tap water to use.

  • Brushing teeth – one cup
  • Bathing – 1/2 gallon for men and 1-1/2 gallons for women
  • Washing dishes – 2 gallons
  • Washing clothes – 5 gallons
  • Flushing toilet – none, use grey water
  • Gardening – use grey water as much as possible

Let me guess, that doesn’t seem possible to you, right? But it is. In many countries I’ve visited, bathing was accomplished by taking a bucket of water into the shower stall with you. Water would be scooped out of that bucket with a cup, to pour over you. Very little water was used to get wet, as most was saved for rinsing. A man, with shorter hair can actually bathe with as little as 1/2 gallon with this method. Women, with their longer hair, need more.

Granted, that’s not the most satisfying shower I’ve ever taken, especially since it was usually cold water. But it got me clean, and that’s the purpose. In a survival situation, that’s probably what we’re going to have to do.

Based on doing things this way, you can probably get by with three to five gallons of water per person, per day. The biggest use of water will still be for gardening. But in this case, we’re talking about vegetable gardening, not watering the lawn. If you need 20 gallons of water per day to water your garden, then count on using that much for washing and bathing, capturing it once again and using it to water your garden.

Purified Water vs. Other Water

Keep in mind that the only water you need to have purified is the water you use for drinking, cooking and washing your dishes. You don’t even need purified water all the time for cooking, if you’re going to boil the water anyway. That will purify the water, making it safe to use for the food you are cooking.


When we talk about purifying water, we’re not talking about making it clear. The sediment that we find in running water, such as river water, is not likely to cause us any health problems. You can solve the problem of that sediment by allowing a bucket of water to stand. The sediment will settle to the bottom. But that won’t make the water purified.

What we’re concerned about are microscopic pathogens; bacteria and protozoa. While our body is full of useful bacteria, much of the bacteria that we ingest with water is extremely dangerous to our health. They can cause anything from stomach aches to horrible forms of death.

So any water we ingest needs to be purified. I know from painful personal experience, that water used in preparing food must be purified as well. Most of the Americans who get sick from eating in Mexico, do so from eating lettuce or tomatoes. In both cases, the vegetables hold the water used to wash them, which may contain dangerous bacteria.

But you don’t need purified water for everything we do. You can wash clothes and clean your home with water that isn’t purified, without it causing you any problem. You can also bathe in unpurified water, just as long as you don’t drink it. There’s no problem using it in a garden and there’s definitely no problem in flushing unpurified water down the toilet.

Water which has been used for washing is referred to as “grey water.” I made reference to this above, mentioning using it for flushing toilets and watering the garden. The soap and food particles in this water won’t hurt your garden, so there really no problem in using it. That reduces your overall water consumption, thereby reducing your problem in finding enough water.

Where to Find Water

Since it is virtually impossible to stockpile enough water to last through an emergency and its aftermath, we all need to have alternative sources of water that we can count on. We can’t and shouldn’t count on city water sources being available, as they are dependent on electricity. If the power is out, the water will go out before long.

Leaving out city water, there are limited places where you can find water in an urban environment. You should find as many of these as you can, within walking distance of your home, so that you will know where to get water if there is no municipal water service.

  • Lakes and ponds – Most cities have at least some lake or reservoir in or near the city.
  • Streams and rivers – It was common in olden times to build cities alongside a river, so many of our cities have rivers flowing through them.
  • Canals – In agricultural areas, there will be man-made canals running through the area, carrying water. As the canals probably pre-existed city growth, many will run through the city.
  • Fountains – Many cities have fountains and other public water displays.
  • Swimming pools – A swimming pool holds an amazing amount of water and since it is treated regularly with chlorine, it is probably safe to drink without further purification.
  • Water towers – Many water towers have a valve at the bottom for extracting samples for testing. This makes it possible to fill containers from the tower.

The biggest problem with finding water in the city is that there will be many other people who are going to be looking for water as well. That means that just about no source is going to be sure, unless it is something like a river that is constantly flowing. You will really be best off with having your own sources of water, on your property.

Finding Water in the Wild

Finding water in the wild can be more challenging, especially if you are in arid land. However, by following a few basic rules, you’re pretty much guaranteed to find water, just about anywhere.

  • Always go downhill to search for water. Gravity causes the water to flow downhill, so the lower you get, the greater your chances of finding water.
  • Look for signs of where water has been. When water flows through the bottom of a canyon or across a broad meadow, it leave signs. You can follow those signs, which will show you where the water has gone. That can be the fastest way to find it at times.
  • Another fast way to find water is to follow animal trails. All animals need water and will usually go to water early in the morning or at dusk. If you find a game trail, follow it downhill. It will eventually get to water.
  • Look at the foliage. Plants need water too. So they will grow the lushest where there is a lot of water, either on the surface, or below ground. If you find a patch of plants growing where there isn’t much else growing, changes are, you’ve found water.

Water may not always be visible on the ground. If you find that patch of plants or that place where animals go for water, but you don’t find any water, pick the deepest spot and start digging. Chances are, you’ll find water within a few feet Although it may be muddy, it will keep you alive.

Personal Water Sources

Of course, if you have a stream or pond on your property, you’ve got water. While there may be a problem with protecting that water source, at least you have access to water. But if you don’t have those, you really should develop your own water source. There are two basic water sources you’ll want to consider.


A well is usually the most secure source of water. There is underground water available in pretty much the whole country. The problem is, getting to it. Fortunately, in many cases, you don’t have to go very deep to get to water.

If you hire a well drilling company to put your well in, they will tell you that you need a well that is 250 feet deep, or something similar. There are two reasons for this. First of all, the company is paid by the foot, so going deep like that means they get more money. Secondly, deeper water is better than shallow water. So, although you can get water much closer to the surface, they’re trying to get you the best water they can.

However, if you do it yourself, you can often find water in as little as 20 feet. All you have to do is find a layer of sand, and you’ll probably find water. While dirt will hold water as well, the water won’t be as clean or flow as freely as the water that is in the sand layer.

The second water source you can develop on your property is rainwater capture. Many people do this, simply by adding barrels at the bottom of their downspouts. The water that falls on their roofs is then captured by the gutters and transmitted to those barrels for storage until needed. The biggest problem is usually storage, as they get more water than they can store.

Rainwater capture can also be accomplished in any open area of your property. Simply spreading out a large tarp and angling it so that the water ends up in a barrel or other container constitutes a simple rainwater capture system.

Before trying to put in a well or using rainwater capture, check with your state’s laws. Some states require a permit for putting in a well, even if you do so yourself. Others don’t allow rainwater capture. Of course, in a time of crisis, you can probably get away with it, but you don’t want to be caught in normal times and have to pay a fine.

Purifying Your Water

Any water you harvest, regardless of whether it came from your well or the local swimming pool, should be assumed to be unclean water, what is commonly known as “non-potable water.” You will need to be ready to purify all the water that you use for drinking, cooking and washing the dishes.

There are several different means of purifying water. Since this is such a critical need, you should have multiple means of purifying the water. That way, you’ll be able to purify it, even if your primary system should go down. You don’t want to risk drinking water that hasn’t been purified, especially in a survival situation.


The most common means of purifying water is by filtration. This means passing the water through a filter which is fine enough to catch the bacteria and protozoa. This actually eliminates a lot of filters that people use, which are intended more for capturing sediment, than capturing pathogens. In order to catch pathogens, you need a filter that is rated at 0.2 microns or smaller. Most “whole house filters” are either 5 or 10 microns.


There are several brands of filters on the market, which are absolutely excellent. But these are also more expensive. Nevertheless, they are worth their price in that they do a much better job. Two of the best are the Berkey and the Sawyer.

The Berkey filter is a cartridge-type water filter, which removes more than any other filter on the market. The filter cartridge is mounted in a plastic or stainless steel container, with an upper and lower chamber. Water is added in the upper chamber, then passes through the filters to get to the lower one. While Berkey filters are quite an investment, their per gallon cost is one of the lowest on the market, due to the high amount of water that the filters can purify.


The Sawyer filter is a hollow fiber membrane filter, which is mounted inline, often using a five-gallon bucket as a water source. The fiber membranes are rated for 0.02 microns making for extremely fine filtration. Even so, they don’t filter out minerals, like the Berkey does. However, the Sawyer is rated at one million gallons, as it is back-flushable. When it is backflushed regularly, the captured sediment and organic matter is cleaned out, returning the filter to a like-new condition.


Chemical Purification

Most city water providers use a combination of filtration and chemical purification. They run the fresh water through a treatment plant, where sediment and most microscopic pathogens are removed. Then, before the water leaves the plant, chlorine is added to the water, ensuring that any pathogens which remain are killed. This is most often done with chlorine, which is uniformly fatal to all pathogens.


You can use chlorine to purify water in your home as well. Typical laundry bleach is just chlorine, mixed with water. You want to make sure you buy the pure bleach, not the “color safe” or scented bleaches. All you need to do to purify water with bleach is to add eight drops per gallon, mix and allow to sit for about 20 minutes.

If you have a larger container, then you can measure the water in milliliters, rather than in drops. The scientific community accepts that one ml is equal to 20 drops. So, a 55 gallon drum of water could be purified with 22 ml of bleach, rather than 440 drops.

Chlorine for a swimming pools can also be used for purifying water. The problemin using it is that it is more highly concentrated. You are better off using it only for large tanks, or for purifying water in a swimming pool, if you are using a swimming pool for water storage. In that case, follow the directions on the package, as purifying it for swimming also purifies it for drinking.

Tincture of iodine can also be used for purifying water, although it is more expensive than bleach. You’ll need about ten drops of the iodine per gallon of water, rather than the eight drops used with chlorine.

You can also use chlorine or iodine to keep water that you are storing from going bad. Adding a few drops of bleach every six months is a cheap price to pay, in order to ensure that your emergency water storage doesn’t have a chance to grow algae or otherwise go bad.

Heat Purification

Water can also be purified by heating it to the point where the heat kills the pathogens. Pretty much everyone knows that you can purify water by boiling it. But not everyone knows that you don’t have to heat it all the way to boiling to purify it. Bacteria and protozoa die at 158oF, so if you heat water to this point, you have purified it. This is called “pasteurization” after Louis Pasteur, the French scientist who discovered this method of purifying water in the mid 1800s.

If you have a meat or candy thermometer in your kitchen, you can monitor the temperature of the water, as you are heating it; stopping when the water is hot enough to pasteurize it. If you don’t have a thermometer, consider investing in a WAPI. The WAPI or Water Pasteurization Indicator is a device developed for use in third-world countries. It consists of a plastic capsule with a wax pellet in it. The pellet melts at 160oF, when the water is hot enough for pasteurization. Once cooled, it can be reused.

Water can also be heat purified using the power of the sun. Simply clean out empty soda bottles and remove the labels. Then fill them with water to be purified and set them on a tin roof or a dark colored surface, in the sun. Leave them there for several hours. The sun will heat the water in the bottles enough to pasteurize them.

Storing Water


You can store water in just about anything, but large containers are generally better for using your space efficiently. Many people use used 55 gallon drums or Intermediate Bulk Containers (IBCs). If you use either of these, make sure that they are thoroughly cleansed of their previous contents, before using them. You don’t need your water tainted with some sort of poisonous chemical.

Water should be stored in a cool, dark place, away from sunlight. Water stored in the sunlight will probably grow algae inside the container. While this isn’t dangerous, it will change the flavor of the water. Some people find the flavor of water that has had algae growing in it unpleasant.

Check your water supplies regularly to ensure that they haven’t leaked and that they are still good. As I mentioned earlier, adding a small amount of chlorine bleach every six months or so will go a long way towards ensuring that your water stays pure. Don’t add too much bleach, as drinking too much of it isn’t exactly healthy. But adding eight drops per gallon isn’t a problem.

Dave Steen

About The Author: Dave is a 58 year old survivalist; father of three; with over 40 years of survival experience. He started young, learning survival the hard way, in the school of hard knocks. Now, after years of study, he's gray-haired and slightly overweight. That hasn't dimmed his interest in survival though. If anything, Dave has a greater commitment to survival than ever, so that he can protect his family. Click Here To Read More About Dave

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