Water Procurement and Purification Methods

by Erich

Here in New England, we just recently had a severe ice-storm that brought the power down for over a week in some places. Those who were dependent upon electricity for water (such as a well pump) lost the ability to get water from their faucets and were forced to find other sources. Fortunately, many stores were still open so they were able to purchase water for drinking.

But what happens in the case of a major disruption in the utilities? Katrina is a perfect example. Because the utilities were out and some of the water companies reported contaminated supplies, people made a mad rush to the stores causing a buying panic. As a result, this led to supply shortages on bottled water and food. It’s for reasons such as these that it’s absolutely essential that you have some store of water on hand. But what if your store runs out? What then?

In this article, I deal with some of the most effective ways — primitive and modern — of procuring and filtering water.

Water Procurement Methods

Natural and Man-Made Caches

This includes ponds, lakes, water holes, reservoirs, outdoor buckets and barrels (not used for fuels or chemicals), your local water fountain and so on. Even a large plastic tarp shaped in such a way to catch rain water is an excellent cache.

Your Neighborhood

With a little creative thinking and some discretion there are lots of places in the neighborhood which provide good sources of water.

Your Home

In a pinch, your home can be a good source of water. The drinking water that remains in the plumbing will still be available if the water source is turned off. Just find the main drain in the lowest portion of your home and empty it into a container. If you have a hot-water tank, this will be your largest source of water available (around 40-50 gallons).

Although it’s considered ‘grey’ water, if you were desperate, you can take the water from the dehumidifier or from a forced hot-water heating system. Other sources are the toilet tank (stay away from the bowl). Just be sure to purify it first (boiling at the least). Oh and by the way, make sure it’s not contaminated with natural gas: 🙂

Morning Dew

One of the most effective (and one of my favorite) primitive ways of collecting water is from the early morning dew. The process is simple: Take a large cotton cloth (like your t-shirt) or a handful of long grass if you happen to be naked out in the bush 🙂 and begin to wick up the dew that has condensed on grass, large stones, the fresh leaves on trees, and other areas. After you’ve soaked the shirt or grass, just wring it out into a container or your mouth.

You’d be surprised how much you can gather. I tested this one morning and was able to collect a gallon in about a half-hour’s time frame! Not only can you get quite a bit of water, but the best part is that it’s already distilled so you don’t have to purify it.

As a caution, be sure you don’t gather the dew from poisonous or contaminated surfaces (poison ivy, recently fertilized/sprayed grass etc).

Solar Still
The solar still was invented by two physicians working for the U.S. Dept of Agriculture and is a powerful way to collect water, even in some of the most arid of areas. It’s basically a primitive distillery. This technique extracts moisture from the surrounding ground through the principle of the ‘greenhouse effect’. Using solar energy, this moisture evaporates, rises and condenses on the underside of a plastic barrier above.

Materials needed:

To build a solar still, you’ll need at least two primary components: a container to catch the water (this could be a plastic cup, bowl etc) and a 6-foot by 6-foot (~ 2 meters by 2 meters) sheet of clear plastic. It helps to also have a shovel and a length of plastic tubing (similar to the kind found in fish tanks).

Building the solar still:

  1. Dig a round pit 4 feet in diameter and 3 feet deep
  2. Dig a small hole in the center of the pit to hold the container
  3. If available, run the length of the plastic tubing from the center container to the outside of the pit. This makes it easy to drink from the container without having to disassemble the pit to drink
  4. Lay the plastic sheet over the pit, and secure the sheet with four rocks.
  5. Find a small smooth rock and push gently down on the center of the sheet until the sides of the sheet slope with about a 45 degree angle. If the pit was dug in the right dimensions, this should place the center of the sheet with the rock on top just a few inches above the container.
  6. Finally, secure the sheet by covering the edges outside of the pit with rocks and dirt.

After about 2 hours, the air inside the pit will saturate with moisture and begin to condense on the plastic sheet. As the condensation builds it will begin to trickle down the sloped sides inside the pit and drip into the container. As the water collects, simply drink from the tube.

To increase the output of the pit, you can also pour brackish water, gray water, salt-water or even urine around the edges of the pit. The solar still will distill the water (or urine) making it pure and clean for drinking. As a warning, do not pour antifreeze in or around the still since the poisons will evaporate with the water.

Water Purification Methods

Unless you’ve procured your water from a clean source (your plumbing pipes, a solar still etc) you’ll need to purify it before drinking it. This next section deals with some of the most effective modern and primitive ways of doing this:

Modern Water Filters

While water filters come in all shapes and sizes, if you had to choose one I would recommend the microfilter. These are those compact, easily transported filters commonly used by hikers and outdoor-types. They are recommended just for the fact that if you had to take off quickly it would be easy to grab (better yet keep in a bug-out bag for that purpose).

Do your due diligence in finding a good filter. If you have the money, I would spend it on a higher-priced one (my favorite being the Katadyn Hiker Pro Filter which easily integrates with my Camelbak) since they are quality filters that can typically filter much more water before needing replacement:


Keep in mind that although good microfilters filter out most bacteria, they never filter out all of it. The best insurance is to use them in combination with a prophylaxis such as bleach, iodine, or boiling (see below).

As a general rule, you’ll want to use 8 drops (1/8th of a teaspoon) of non-scented liquid household chlorine bleach per gallon of water (2 drops per quart). Just put the bleach in your container of water, briefly stir, then let it sit for 30 minutes.

If the water is still cloudy add 8 more drops, stir and wait and repeat un
til clear.

My favorite source of iodine treatment available goes by the Polar Pure name. It’s a pretty easy method and can be taken on the road since the iodine is in such a small bottle.

What you do is fill up the small Polar Pure glass bottle containing the iodine crystals, wait 30 minutes, and then pour off only the amount of liquid solution needed into a larger source of untreated water such as a canteen. After waiting a short time (following the instructions on the bottle), potable water is then available from the treated water.

An advantage of using iodine crystals is that only a small amount of iodine is dissolved from the iodine crystals at each use. This gives you the capability of treating a very large amount of water, typically over 2,000 liters, with only a small bottle of crystals. You’ll want to be careful not to ingest the crystals using this method.

Just because boiling is the most primitive form of water purification, makes it by no means ineffective. When done correctly, it will kill all water-born viruses that will cause you issues.

To purify water by boiling, simply bring your water to a rolling boil and keep it there for a minute (add an additional minute for each 1,000 feet above sea level). That’s it!

The obvious benefit to boiling is that it only requires a heat source and a container. However the down-side is that it requires quite a bit of fuel (wood, liquid, or electric fuel) to constantly boil water. This is not so much of a problem if you are home and have access to a stove and a large pot. However, out in the bush it’s a royal pain. I discovered this pretty quick on one of my early survival trips. I spent quite a bit of time boiling water and got so sick of it that I began to carelessly drink untreated water. Lucky for me I did not get Giardia.

Solar Water Disinfection
If you live in a fairly temperate zone, a great method is to use the power of the sun to purify your water. Even if you don’t live in the most sunny of places, you can still use this method although it will take a bit longer.

What you do is take some small plastic water bottles (one liter bottles are perfect) or transparent zip-lock bags (like freezer storage bags) and place them in the full sun for six hours. If you don’t have full sun for that long, put them out for two days in partial sunlight. You’ll need full sun since a cloudy day will be ineffective.

Similar to boiling, the sun will kill the bacteria and viruses that can make you sick. The obvious benefit to this method is that the sun’s rays are free to use and require no special set up. The downside is that it is not always available.

Solar Distillation

While the solar still is primarily used for water procurement, it can also be used as an excellent purifier of contaminated water, gray water and salt water. Just pour the water in and around the still and let the sun do its work!

With all the available methods to treat water, which is best? I would recommend using what is most readily available to you. You’ll also want to use some in tandem with others. For example, modern filters will remove many of the chemicals in the water but can leave behind the smallest biological contaminants. Iodine, bleach, and boiling kill off the biological contaminants but leave the chemical behind. If you have the time and availability to use multiple methods, by all means do it. However, in an emergency, don’t be so overly cautious to the point that you suffer dehydration. If you use just one of the above methods you’ll be in pretty good shape.

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Comment by Caitlyn
2012-09-27 14:24:00

The solar still sounds really easy, actually.
Thanks for putting your time into this, I really appreciate it.

Comment by John Parkes
2013-04-16 03:57:35

If you line the solar still with black plastic it becomes more effective…

Comment by joshua
2013-05-05 08:40:49

….Still waiting for your article on home-brew water filters using sand and chacoal…

Comment by Derek Sharpie
2014-06-02 00:47:14

i will not resort to any other type of water purification since i am already settled to what im using right now. Berkey water filters is really a big help, great on water purification in an instant and it doesn’t tastes odd.

Comment by Derek Sharpie
2014-06-13 21:44:54

great post.
i love all your blogs. very interesting and it has lots of information
keep posting!

Comment by Wendy William
2014-12-13 07:29:18

Because of much amount of fluoride in my tap water, I installed a RO system to remove it. And it works great for me. Before that, I also bought a distiller. However, a home distiller cannot provide enough water for drinking and cooking.

Comment by Jasper Whiteside
2016-11-21 19:39:57

I like that the article included an altitude consideration. I usually remember this because I remember that I need to boil eggs longer because I live at a higher altitude. I am glad that there are lots of simple ways to treat your water so that it is drinkable.

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