3 Rules for Finding Water in the Wild

Water is our second biggest survival need, beaten out only by the need to maintain our body’s core temperature. This could tend to indicate that we should always carry a lot of water along with us. But water is heavy and bulky, making it hard to carry much at one time. Whether you’re in a bug out or just hiking in the woods, carrying along more than a liter or two of water is just plain unrealistic.

That’s why it’s so important to always carry some means of water purification along with you. In a survival situation, you can’t assume any water you find is safe for drinking, even if it looks like it is. The things that make water unsafe for drinking are smaller than the human eye can see.

But first, you have to have some water to purify. If you’re lost in the woods in Minnesota, the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” that probably won’t be much of a problem, nor would it be much of an issue if you were in Alaska, which has over 3 million lakes. But that accounts for only two states, out of the 50 states in the Union.

On the other hand, if you happen to be anywhere in the Southwest, water will probably be a major issue. Any traveling you do will probably have to be like that in pioneering days, moving from water source to water source.

Then there’s the rest of the country. You won’t find yourself stepping in a puddle everywhere you go, but there will be water to be found. The trick is in knowing where to find it.

Rule 1 – Go Downhill

According to the laws of physics, water always flows downhill. So if you’re looking for water, it only makes sense to flow the same way. No matter where you are, there’s always something downhill of you, unless you’re standing at sea level. It may be hard to figure out where downhill is, when the land appears flat, but it still slopes downhill. If nothing else, it always slopes towards the ocean.

If there are any saddles, canyons or valleys, you want to follow those down. Even if there is no water flowing at the moment, there may be spots where water pooled from the last rainfall or runoff. If that’s the case, they will most likely be in shaded spots, where it won’t be easy to see the water. Don’t depend on looking down into a saddle to see if there is water there, you need to actually walk down in there.

This is especially true in arid land, where you are more likely to find arroyos (dry watercourses) than you are to find running water. Those arroyos can hide pools of water where you’d least expect it, especially in shaded areas. Any saddle or canyon you are walking down will eventually empty into a valley. Follow the valley, continuing downhill. The lower you get, the greater the chance of finding water.

Rule 2 – Look for the Green

Plants need water, so one of the surest signs of water is looking at plant growth. If you are in an arid climate, those green patches will stand out extremely well. But they will stand out as well in areas with higher rainfall. Generally speaking, you’re looking for trees, more than smaller plants, because trees require more water.

Some trees have extensive tap roots which can go deep in the ground in search of water. But in most cases, trees get their water from feeder roots, rather than tap roots. So don’t look for single trees, which could have tap roots bringing them water, but rather places where there are many trees.

A line of trees in otherwise arid land can indicate an arroyo. Even when seemingly dry, that arroyo might be able to provide you with water. Seek out low points and look for mud, even dry, cracking mud. That’s an indication of a low point where there might be subterranean water.


an arroyo

You can access subterranean water by digging a seep. This is a simple, straight-sided hole. Water captured in the soil will seep into that hole, gradually filling it. Of course, the hole needs to be deep enough for gravity to draw the water out of the soil, so you want to dig down enough to find moist soil. Shore up the sides of the hole with rocks or sticks, if necessary.

a seep

Rule 3 – Follow the Game

Animals need water as well and will always know where to find it. Typically most animals will water just around daybreak, and again about sunset. So watching the movement of any animals in the area can led you right to water, especially at those times.

You may not see any game to follow, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Even if they stay hidden, they will leave sign. Look for animal trails, especially those which show signs of recent use. Any animal trail that is going downhill is likely to be heading to a watering hole.

watering hole

a watering hole

Be considerate of the game when you find their water source. Most wild animals will avoid people, recognizing us as danger. So once you’ve filled your water bottles, move away from the water to camp. You can always go back for more water in the morning, after the animals get their drink.

A Final Option

There are a considerable number of man-made water sources around. These do not follow the rule of water flowing downhill. Rather, many of them will be at a relative high point, so that the water can flow downhill from them. Keep this in mind, anytime you find a dry watercourse. Why is it dry? Has it been dammed over by man or is it dry because there hasn’t been any rain?

Another common man-made water source, at least in some parts of the country, is water tanks for animals. Livestock need water, so ranchers and farmers make sure they have it. If you are traveling through ranchlands, always keep your eyes open for these watering tanks. They will often be fed from a windmill-powered pump.

Don’t worry about drinking water from tanks that animals are using. You’re going to be filtering your water anyway, to purify it. So any germs that might be in that water from the animals will be filtered out, making the water safe to drink.




  1. chan

    > Whether you’re in a bug out or just hiking in the woods, carrying along more than a liter or two of water is just plain realistic.

    unrealistic* is what you meant I think.

  2. growth hacker

    Seriously… how can you be so sure of this??



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