How to Find and Purify Water Sources You Never Considered
This is Part II of a pair of articles on finding and obtaining water in the field. The last one we covered some methods of chemical purification, and stressed (as we stress here): boiling is the safest method to purify your water. Keep in mind something I didn’t mention in the previous article: water that is contaminated by pollutants such as toxic chemicals and industrial wastes is not able to be purified by chemicals or boiling to make it safe for drinking. We will address that in a minute.
How to Distill Water
We covered some basics, and along with that is how to find surface water that is relatively uncontaminated. This is where the boiling came in, to remove the pathogens (as many as possible) safely. Now, what do you do when you come across a water source that has a chemical sheen and an odor about it? You can remove the water by condensation. If you can’t filter it through a Brita or other system that removes chemical contaminants, take a small pot, and (preferably) a glass lid that is larger than the opening of the pot. You’ll need a third vessel. This is for “pour off,” of your condensed water.
Straining off as much as you can (with a piece of cloth, and perhaps an empty plastic bottle, pour some water into the smaller pot. Then bring it to a boil, and set the glass lid over it, and tilt it at an angle to one side (45 degrees is fine). The bottom tilted edge of the lid needs to be able to “empty” into a clean vessel. When you boil the water, the steam that condenses on the bottom of the lid is water: you can collect this and use this to drink, effectively removing enough contaminants to make the condensed water potable.
You’ll have to improvise to either hang the lid at an angle with some weight on one edge to make the tilt possible, or build a stand. Just make sure the lid doesn’t touch the top edge of the pot with the water to be condensed. Don’t boil it all the way down! Leave about an inch of water or so to enable you to get rid of the newly-concentrated chemical “slurry” now remaining in the pot.
Next, a solar still. There are plenty of diagrams available for this one. Dig a hole, conically-shaped about 2-3’ in depth, and line around that hole, covering it with clear plastic, a 9’ square sheet is best. You then place a collecting receptacle underneath the center of the plastic. Line the edges of the sheet with stones, and place a small stone in the center of the plastic sheet. It is best to cut green, non-poisonous vegetation and line your hole with it before you cover it with the plastic sheet. The collecting vessel should be at least a quart, because in this method, you will obtain 1 quart of water per day on a sunny day. Simple math tells you if you need at least a gallon a day, then you need a minimum of 4 stills to make it work. You can also run a siphon tube to your collecting vessel in order to siphon or drink your water without removing/dismantling the still.
That plastic sheeting can also be immediately pulled up and turned into a funnel for other vessels to fill with drinking water should it rain. This stuff is all pretty easy to cram into a backpack, and it doesn’t have much weight. You can pick up “drop cloths” of plastic in the dollar store…4 of them…and place them in a protective bag or canister to keep them from being torn. Stock up on a bunch, as they’re micro-thin; other plastic can be obtained, however, this is lighter and easier to tote.
Hidden Water Sources
Let’s go into real grid-down situations. You have (may God forbid) had to flee your home, and it’s a “Road Warrior” environment. Along the way you may come across abandoned houses or buildings. Water, think water. Where man has dwelt, water is near. This is a rule of thumb for you. Time to spec out the following to see if you can locate water:
- Washing Machines: sometimes they have a reservoir that will enable you to drain out some water if you tilt the machine to the rear. Check the outflow portion. You’ll have to filter it, condense it, and then (to be on the safe side…it washed out the socks that stepped in Fido’s doggie-do) boil it again.
- Refrigerators: especially those with the ice-machine and the cold water dispenser in the door. You can find the copper inflow pipe, and the fridge usually has a drain for ice melt down below. Tap into these and tilt if necessary. Filter and condense, then boil.
- Hot Water Heater: a “gold mine,” as most of them hold at least 45 to 50 gallons. Same thing…tap into it…there’s an outflow…and then filter and boil, to be on the safe side.
- Chest-type freezer: this you’ll have to be more careful, as if any food went bad, you’ll have to take the ice melt and filter, purify (chemically), and then boil.
- Toilet: the top tank is the goal. Can you take from the bowl? Do the three-prong: condense, boil, and treat chemically, and you can in a survival situation. Same for the top tank, as you don’t want any pathogens in your water.
- Radiator (heater for house): will oftentimes have a small supply of water. Purify by condensing.
- Iron (for clothes): yes, Mom may have left a little in the reservoir for you to take; boil it or chemically purify it.
- “Green Thumb” house: yes, in that greenhouse or garden shed may be a little water you can cannibalize from water cans; condense it (there may be weed killer lingering in the pitcher), and boil it (if they compost or fertilize with manure).
- Birdbath/bird feeders/animal bowls: once again, it may be there for the taking. Remember: these must be boiled! Too much of a chance for pathogens.
- Cisterns/wells/water tanks: remember, if you can store water, so can the people who might have had to dee dee mau (exfil the AO) lickety-split. Never neglect the potential for the other guy to leave something behind.
If you’re more in the forest than an urban/suburban area, watch the wildlife if you haven’t found a surface water source, especially deer. Look for deer paths and game trails. Most of the time they will cross a running water source. Watch the skies frequently for waterfowl, such as ducks or geese. They need the water. On the advent of nightfall, open your ears for the sounds of frogs…they need to be in the water to breathe. If you hear Bobby the Bullfrog, water is definitely near.
All of these basics print out and go over them in your mind until you remember them and are familiar with them. Remember, we covered 10 items for a house. The more houses and buildings you find, the better your chances of finding a water supply. Just remember, it may be someone else’s water supply, too. Such is the chance you take on the Day after Doomsday. Be smart, be adaptive, and as the Irish saying runs, “The top o’the mornin’ to ye, and the bottom o’me glass!” Water glass, in this case. Keep fighting that good fight! JJ out.
Jeremiah Johnson is the Nom de plume of a retired Green Beret of the United States Army Special Forces (Airborne). Mr. Johnson was a Special Forces Medic, EMT and ACLS-certified, with comprehensive training in wilderness survival, rescue, and patient-extraction. He is a Certified Master Herbalist and a graduate of the Global College of Natural Medicine of Santa Ana, CA. A graduate of the U.S. Army’s survival course of SERE school (Survival Evasion Resistance Escape), Mr. Johnson also successfully completed the Montana Master Food Preserver Course for home-canning, smoking, and dehydrating foods.
Mr. Johnson dries and tinctures a wide variety of medicinal herbs taken by wild crafting and cultivation, in addition to preserving and canning his own food. An expert in land navigation, survival, mountaineering, and parachuting as trained by the United States Army, Mr. Johnson is an ardent advocate for preparedness, self-sufficiency, and long-term disaster sustainability for families. He and his wife survived Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Cross-trained as a Special Forces Engineer, he is an expert in supply, logistics, transport, and long-term storage of perishable materials, having incorporated many of these techniques plus some unique innovations in his own homestead.
Mr. Johnson brings practical, tested experience firmly rooted in formal education to his writings and to our team. He and his wife live in a cabin in the mountains of Western Montana with their three cats.
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