Water for Survival

Water for Survival

Water is certainly necessary for life, and without it we can perish quite quickly. Lack of drinking water is usually the first thing people think of when considering causes of death in dry, harsh landscapes like the Australian outback. From our famous early explorers to the modern outback travellers who have perished, they have predominantly done so due to lack of water, lack of knowledge of where to find it, drinking infected water, and, in general, an extreme lack of planning.

If lost in the wilderness, for example, water can be found in arid regions in central Australia by observing the behaviour of birds! Small to medium sized birds tend to fly in a straight and direct trajectory to a water source, and, if not thirsty, tend to fly randomly. Finding and collecting water is an entire and extensive topic within itself. Suffice to say that when camping, travelling and exploring our incredibly vast natural landscapes, the precautionary principle must prevail by taking more than ample supplies.

Water for Survival

Plan and prepare for the worst-case scenario. Apart from lack of water and dehydration, there is the added danger of drinking contaminated water which can easily cause sickness including diarrhoea, vomiting and stomach pain. Even washing food, your hands and cleaning your teeth with untreated water, no matter how pristine it looks, can cause disease and ill-health. For more information, check out our article on

Camping and Survival Hygiene’.

Prevention is far better than the cure, as treating these symptoms can often be debilitating, life threatening, contagious, and sometimes impossible. Pack and take with you specific items to help extract, purify and carry water.

Arid Water

Water When Travelling

When driving long distances, particularly in remote landscapes and on off-road four-wheel driving expeditions, plan to have a minimum of four litres of water per person per day for the warmer months. Include a minimum of two litres per day for any medium to large dogs travelling with you. For further information on Camping with Dogs’, have a read of our related article. Remember that water can be consumed quickly in extremely hot environments.

Water for Survival

There are various methods for packing and storing water in a vehicle. A simple solution is to purchase boxed spring water in volumes of either five or 10 litres. These are available in BPA- (bisphenol A) and phthalate-free plastic bladders housed in a cardboard box. The water is usually fluoride and chlorine free. Disadvantages of boxed water include the inherent weakness of a cardboard box, so it will not tolerate being rained on, being stacked under loads or being stood on by a large dog.

A good option for packing and transporting water in a vehicle are the plastic Jerry can style water containers. Aim to choose non-clear, food-grade plastic Jerry cans. Clear plastic may permit sunlight to penetrate the container, allowing the growth of algae. Food grade plastic is made of HDPE (high-density polyethylene) and is safe for human consumption.

Jerry cans are reasonably durable, and heavy-duty versions are available for storing in purpose-built recreational vehicle Jerry can racks. A bonus is that they are often available with taps for ease of dispensing, which can be unscrewed when not in use and stored within the main lid.

Water for Survival

Water When Hiking

Always recognise that your consumption of water will be greater when performing a physical activity, and that water will be a considerable weight during a hiking expedition. During the warmer months, one would need to consume at least one litre of water per hour when walking in the heat of the day, which can extend from 9am to 3pm. This is why it is not advisable to leave your vehicle if broken down in a remote location.

Water for Survival

In the summer months, and in particular arid regions, hiking and bush walking are usually kept to a minimum. On long popular hiking trips, there are usually water stations (tanks) at set intervals. Usually, the first consideration when planning any hiking, bush walking expedition or emergency preparedness strategy is to implement personal water carry systems. Multiple options are available, and usually the protocol of contingency planning, or redundancy, applies.

The predominant choice of carrying water is the humble water bottle. There are innumerable options available in varying price ranges. However, cheap does usually mean inferior quality and durability. Cheap plastic bottles can contaminate the water with toxic chemicals and give it a noxious taste.

The better water bottle options are stainless steel which are completely contaminant-free and exceptionally durable. They are available with insulated double walls to keep water cool in summer and warm in winter. Single walled water bottles provide the option of being able to boil the water over a fire for purification in an emergency. Many backpacks have external pockets for holding water bottles.

Water for Survival
Water for Survival

Consider having additional and back-up options for carrying water. Water bladders or hydration reservoirs are a good option for many situations, ranging in size from one litre up to 10 litres, two to three litres being the most popular. Bladders are usually stored and carried in backpacks, with many backpacks having dedicated internal compartments specifically for storing the bladder at full capacity. These backpacks have an exit port through which a drinking tube is placed, with clips on the shoulder strap to hold the tube, enabling you to drink without having to take off the backpack.

A special consideration is the disinfection of camping/hiking bladders. These bladders are notorious for growing algae and bacteria, which present a health risk. Consider choosing a bladder with an insulated drinking tube, as these will prevent sunlight entering the hose and the subsequent growth of algae and bacteria. There are different methods for disinfecting a drinking bladder. Camping stores that sell bladders will usually sell specific chlorine dioxide disinfection powders and tablets. These are not cheap, but are simple and effective.

Alternative options for bladder disinfection include diluted pure bleach or sodium bicarbonate. As a general rule, clean and disinfect your bladder after each use. Specific brushes are available for both the bladder itself and the tube. When cleaning, shake the bladder vigorously with the cleaning agent, and make sure to flush some through the drinking tube. When your bladder is not in use, ensure that it is packed away in a completely dry, dark, and preferably cool location.

Water Filtration

Depending on the situation being planned for, water filtration may be the main procedure for obtaining drinking water, or often a vital contingency. The ability to filtrate water when outdoor exploring or for emergency preparedness can be a highly effective component of survival planning. If obtaining water from natural sources, and it does look pristine, then it may not require filtration, but it will still need boiling. There are basically two strategies for filtering water, depending on the situation.

Water for Survival

Personal Portable Water Filters

Commercially available personal filtration systems are readily available from camping stores and the like. They are usually acquired specifically for filtering water when recreationally exploring the outdoors, and also for including in an emergency preparedness kit. They can be expensive, but do filter out all pathogens including most viruses.

Water for Survival

These portable filtration products essentially enable the direct consumption of most sources of water found naturally and in urban regions. They are relatively light weight and compact, and range from the popular LifeStraw to more sophisticated pieces of equipment which are all available at camping and tactical survival stores.

Effective units have a pre-filter, ceramic filter, 0.3-micron glass fibre filter and an active charcoal filter, and should come with cleaning and maintenance equipment such as brushes and spare o-rings. The pre-filter attaches to the inlet hose which is placed in the source water to remove larger particles before they enter the filter unit itself. Always read the instructions before use.

Reverse osmosis filters, which are very effective in removing bacteria and viruses, are available in portable form, but can be prohibitively expensive. Reverse osmosis can, however, filter out salt, which may be critical in certain situations where salt water may need to be used. An alternative to reverse osmosis for removing salt and purifying potentially contaminated water are water stills. These are relatively simple in design, but can be complicated to construct in many circumstances including emergency situations.

Water for Survival

Improvised Filtration

The second strategy for filtering water is more often required during emergency situations, such as when lost in the wilderness. This is generally a make-shift operation incorporating a mechanical filtration process to remove suspended solids, algae, and colouration or cloudiness in the water due to silt, clay and run-off. This method will not remove all pathogens, and, thus, boiling will usually also be necessary.

Water for Survival

If the water can be collected in a large enough container, aim to allow as much as possible of the sediments and particulates to settle to the bottom, and syphon or pour off from the top into another container. Materials for this filtration method can include a clean cloth, paper towel, coffee filters, clean sand, gravel, charcoal and even grass as filter media.

Charcoal is a very effective filter medium and a significant component of most water filtration systems. Charcoal can be easily collected from the remains of a campfire or any fire where wood has been burnt. Collect varying sizes of charcoal and crush some chunks into fine granules, which may need to be contained in a cloth wrapping or coffee filter paper. As a general rule when making a filter, the larger course media are placed at the top and the finer filter material at the bottom.

Items perfect to include with your camping and emergency preparedness kits are coffee filter papers and clean cloths, such as bandannas and cotton. They are inexpensive and readily available. If packing cloth material, aim to choose undyed pure cloth or cotton. In an emergency, any section of cloth will do, of about a foot (30cm) square or larger.

Water for Survival
Water for Survival

A container of some description is required, such as a plastic bottle, with the very top cut off to add the filter media, and with holes drilled, punched or cut in the bottom to contain the media but allow the cleaner filtered water to flow through. Obviously, the drained water is to be collected into another suitable container such as a bucket, can, ‘billy-can’, camp kettle or pot.

Generally, the slower the filtration process, the more effective the filtration. Usually an initial flush of the make-shift filter is required to remove ultra-fine particles such as silt and fine charcoal, and to allow the filtration media to settle. Usually this first flush is discarded. These make-shift filters are also ideal for cleaning water prior to using a commercially available filtration unit, to enhance the drinking water quality and extend the life of your filtration equipment.

Natural Filtration Methods & Water Location

In case of an emergency, if the right conditions exist and a sand bank is present adjacent to a natural freshwater stream, a very basic method of filtration is to dig a hole. This is one reason, among many, to include a shovel or spade with your kit. Gold prospecting spades and specific hiking shovels can be light weight and do not take up too much space.

Water for Survival

Simply dig a hole in the sand, away from the stream as far as possible without having to dig too deep. Water will usually percolate through the sand from the water source, become filtered by the sand and fill the hole for ease of extraction. Allow the water to settle. Further filtration may be required and boiling probably necessary. Refer to the accompanying diagram for suggested locations in finding water.

Locations to Dig for Survival Water in Austrialia's Arid Regions

Water for Survival















Whenever collecting water from a natural source, aim to locate the cleanest section. Mild river rapids are one example, where the water is turbulent and flowing down a gradient over large gravel, rocks and small boulders. These sections of a river, stream or creek are located between the pools in the water course. Water velocity in the pools is much slower than the rapids, and thus water in these pools is generally more stagnant.

Boiling Water For Disinfection

Water purification is synonymous with filtration as a back-up contingency strategy. The best method for purifying water for drinking is to boil it. Boiling water is the best method for killing disease-causing germs like viruses, bacteria and parasites, including Cryptosporidium and Giardia. To ensure effective disinfection when boiling water, it is recommended to boil the water for up to 20 minutes.

Water for Survival

This is why the tried and tested ‘billy-can’, or camping kettle, is considered one of the most important items to pack on any camping expedition. ‘Bill- cans’ can be light weight and are available in either aluminium or stainless steel, with the latter being more expensive but more durable and quite possibly better for your health.

Never trust water from a creek or river for drinking purposes, no matter how pristine the water source looks. It may be impossible to know what is happening up stream. There may be dead animals that have died in or near the water source, contamination from run-off, and even other people using the water to defecate in! Always remember, though, that boiling and disinfection will not remove fuels or toxic chemicals.

Always try to boil water sourced from natural supplies before drinking and cooking with it, and for washing and cleaning your teeth. If the water looks pure, it may be suitable to boil with no preparation. However, and in particular to emergency situations, the only source of water may be cloudy with suspended solids such as clay, silt and run-off, which requires basic filtration first. Plan to pack with you at least the very basic filtration items detailed in the previous section.

Water Disinfectants

When there is no access to safe drinking water, and boiling water is not an option, water purification tablets or liquid formulas can potentially prevent disease, ill-health and even death. A good quality water purification product should not generate any harmful disinfection by-products. Chlorine dioxide and iodine tablets may be effective against Cryptosporidium and Giardia, but can cause side effects, particularly if used for more than a few weeks and for pregnant women.

water purification
water purification

They eliminate parasites and pathogens, and generally improve the taste of otherwise undrinkable water. Readily available from camping stores and online in tablet or liquid form, they are light weight and compact, have a reasonable shelf life, can be used absolutely anywhere, and are ideal as part of your camping/hiking back-pack and emergency preparedness kit.

Ultra-Violet (UV) light filters may be the ultimate in water disinfection besides boiling water. However, there is still no guarantee that this method will kill all pathogens. Portable units are available, but can be expensive, require a power source, and can only disinfect small quantities of already clear water.

UV filters can be very effective for off-grid living, provided the water is pre-treated with mechanical filtration (such as the cartridge filter) to clear the water of suspended solids. Particles in the water which increase turbidity (cloudiness) may impair the ability of the UV light to penetrate into the water and kill any pathogens present.

For information on UV filtration in aquaculture, and aquaculture and hydroponic information in general: visit www.ausaquatec.com.au

Camping UV water purification

Bleach For Water Disinfection

Alternatively, and still a popular water purification strategy, is to dose water with bleach, otherwise known as sodium hypochlorite. It must, however, be unscented household liquid chlorine bleach. Typically, household bleach will be between five and nine per cent sodium hypochlorite. Check the label description to identify the exact concentration. Adding bleach will eradicate most parasites, bacteria and viruses, but is still not as effective as boiling.

Bleach is considered one of the more vital items to take with you on extended camping expeditions and in particular for emergency preparedness. Once again, if the water is cloudy, filter it through a basic mechanical filter first. A medicine dropper is the best apparatus for adding bleach to water, so aim to obtain one as part of your camping or emergency preparedness kit. A teaspoon can also work.

Water for Survival
Water for Survival

Bleach is considered one of the more vital items to take with you on extended camping expeditions and in particular for emergency preparedness. Once again, if the water is cloudy, filter it through a basic mechanical filter first. A medicine dropper is the best apparatus for adding bleach to water, so aim to obtain one as part of your camping or emergency preparedness kit. A teaspoon can also work.

If the bleach concentration is one percent (1%) sodium hypochlorite, add 10 drops to one litre / quart. If the water is cloudy, coloured, or very cold, add up to double the quantity of bleach. Allow the water to stand for a minimum of 30 minutes before drinking. Consider, though, that bleach may not kill the more resistant pathogenic organisms such as Cryptosporidium and Giardia.

Dehydration & Heat Sickness

Dehydration causes heat stress and heat shock, two different stages of not drinking enough water in warmer temperatures. Authorities in Central Australia recommend drinking two litres per hour in extreme heat. Consider packing re-hydration electrolytes. Eating appropriate food is additionally imperative as drinking large amounts of water can deplete necessary body electrolytes, so keep up energy levels by eating fruits and nuts, for example.

First Aid

Always remember that if a person is in a weakened state, they will be more susceptible to pathogens and ill-health, and being infected by water-borne parasites, bacteria and viruses. This also applies to young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with already weakened immune systems, if they are exposed to contaminated water and become infected. Pregnant women should avoid water disinfected with iodine.

As a general rule, during an emergency (being lost in the outback, for example) do not overly ration your water supplies. The basic premise is that once dehydration sets in, the human body will require more water to help recover. People in warm to hot environments can exacerbate dehydration by consuming alcohol. For information on heat-induced medical conditions, check out our ‘Heat Stress’ information section.

Survival Emergency Strategies In Arid Regions

  • If driving through remote regions, notify family and friends of your intended route, departure time and arrival times, and report to them upon arrival. If your vehicle breaks down the authorities can be informed of your approximate location. Refer to our information on ‘Camping Hazards
  • Slow down body movements in dry regions, as sweating increases dehydration.
  • Ration your sweat and not your water.
  • Find and use shade, or improvise shade.
  • If lost, conserve energy and do not travel in the heat of the day.
  • Travel at night using the stars to navigate (check out our information on ‘Navigation’).
  • Set up a ‘Solar Vegetation Water Still’ as a source of acquiring pure water. Pack a large clear and durable plastic bag and associated materials as detailed in our article.
  • In dry, sandy creek/river beds, locate the lowest point possible (on the outside of a bend, for example) and attempt to dig for water. Refer to diagram.

Checklist of Equipment & Materials for Water Survival

  • Water bottle/s – some have inbuilt filters [C]

  • Collapsible water bottles – contingency, light weight and compact [H]

  • Hydration reservoir / bladder

  • Reservoir purification tables / chemical, bi-carb soda [F]

  • Water storage container – e.g. food-grade Jerry cans

  • Personal water filters

  • Billy-can’, camp kettle/pot – preferably stainless steel

  • Spade or shovel

  • Bucket – e.g. foldable for light weight and compactness

  • Coffee filter papers

  • Clean cotton cloth/bandanna [E]

  • Household unscented liquid chlorine bleach – sodium hypochlorite

  • Medicinal dropper

  • Large clear durable plastic bag [A]

  • Length of food-grade flexible tube – water extraction [G]

  • Large syringe – water extraction [D]

  • Matches, lighters – preferably waterproof

  • Water purification tablets/liquids [B]

  • Anti-diarrhoea medication (e.g. Imodium) 

Water for Survival


This is only a brief description of some of the potential skills, techniques and equipment used for water procurement preparedness and survival. The advice provided is certainly of no guarantee of ensuring your preparedness and survival. Always remember that your brain is your greatest survival tool, common sense is needed to prevail, and remaining calm will help during an emergency.

If planning a camping, hiking or off-road adventuring expedition, we recommend undertaking as much research as possible before hand. A great option is to visit your local camping and tactical survival store and have a look at what is available. Ask a service team member questions pertinent to your plans and situation, and they should be able to guide you to the best solutions.

Consider practising some of these techniques and ensure that you know how to use any equipment you purchase before they are needed in an emergency. Preparedness equates to competence.