Urban Survival Guide to Water

Water (second to oxygen) is our most important nutrient during a survival situation, especially in hot areas where you’d rapidly lose water due to perspiration. Our bodies (depending on environment) can survive a maximum of roughly three days without the intake of water. This is assuming you’re at sea level with a moderate room temperature and a relative humidity. A typical person will lose about 2 to 3 liters of water per day in normal conditions but depending on the size of the person, physical exertion and temperature they could lose much more. If you were to factor in the conditions usually found in a survival or disaster situation, you could be losing as much as 4 to 6 liters! Cold and hot environments both significantly effect your survivability and you’re water intake will have to be increased.

How to Purify Water

More then 75% of your body is composed of water and so to function effectively, you’ll have to replace all the fluid your body loses. The body will lose fluid naturally as a result of stress, physical exertion, sweating, heavy breathing, the processing and elimination of food, and environment. One of the first goals in a disaster situation is to obtain an adequate source of clean water.

Clean drinkable water is often an overlooked consideration. People can survive without food for months but going without water just for one day will significantly take away your chances of survival. As the temperature increases so will your need for the consumption of water. If you are stuck in a survival situation and you’re active or exposed to the hot rays of the sun you could need upwards of 6 liters of water per day just to stay healthy and competent!

Cold environments can have the same effect as a hot environment in the sense they can be as dry as a desert. Cold air can hold much moisture and so it can serve to dehydrate your body from each breath you take. Cold dry air will also absorb moisture from any exposed skin. During cold weather you may not sweat as much but you’ll definitely be just as prone to dehydration as if you were in a hot dessert.

Water Born Diseases
By drinking unclean water you stand the risk of contracting diseases and swallowing harmful organisms. Here are the most common threats associated with drinking bad water:

  • Dysentery: Severe, prolonged diarrhea with bloody stools, fever, and weakness.
  • Cholera: The diarrhea associated with cholera is so severe that unless rehydration is started promptly the diarrhea may within hours result in severe dehydration and even death. Other symptoms include rapid dehydration, rapid pulse, dry skin, tiredness, nausea, and vomiting. You may be susceptible to this disease regardless of inoculations.
  • Typhoid: Symptoms include severe headaches, fever, diarrhea, bloody stools, fatigue, chills, confusion and hallucinations.
  • Flukes: They can be found in stagnant, polluted water. Tropical areas often have blood flukes. If you swallow a fluke, they can bore into the bloodstream, live as parasites and cause disease.
  • Leeches: If you swallow a leech, it can hook onto the throat passage or inside the nose. It will suck blood, create a wound, and move to another area. Each bleeding wound may become infected.

Keep this list in mind as it can possibly help in the diagnosis of any ailments you may unfortunately contract from drinking dirty water.

Just how long you’ll be able to go without water really depends upon age, health, physical makeup and a host of other factors so there is no real set in stone amount you should drink. The average person in good conditions can go for about 3 days without water but is entirely incompetent and unable to function effectively after the first day! Losing just 1 liter of water from your body will adversely affect your mental and physical condition. Staying hydrated is therefore an important priority at all times. The U.S. Army survival manual recommends that you drink your water when thirsty. This will help you avoid “voluntary” dehydration. Other groups recommend rationing water through “water discipline”. One rule of thumb to know if you’re properly hydrated is that you should urinate “gin clear” at least once a day… don’t confuse this with “clear gin”. This will insure you are drinking enough water and properly flushing out your system. Dark yellow urine is a sure sign that you need to be drinking more water.

The best advice I could give you is to stay fully hydrated at all times. This way, should a lack of water occur, your body won’t be starting the situation in the red. It would be wise to tank up your stomach and top off all your water containers at every opportunity you get. Clean drinking water is hard to come by and many of us in the Western world take the infrastructure for granted! When shit hits the fan, clean drinking water will be hard to come by. Staying fully hydrated at all times will allow you to function at your highest level and will give you good precious time to deal with a shortage of water.

It should be kept in mind that just finding more water will not solve your dehydration problems. Remember that preventing water loss is just important. Rest, avoid smoking, avoid salty foods and meat and breathe through the nose as much as possible. Work smart not hard to prevent over exertion and sweating. Here are a few things that determine how long you can live for without water and some of the ways in which your body loses water:

  • Your starting state of dehydration: If you begin with a water deficit you’re likely to get in trouble much faster. You should do your best to stay hydrated at all times and the best way of doing this is to drink whenever thirsty.
  • Environmental temperature: Generally speaking, the hotter the temperature the more water you’ll need to consume. Cold air can have the same effect but it’s usually not as severe due to less sweating.
  • High levels of humidity: Your sweat will not evaporate as rapidly if the humidity is high. This will you cause your body to sweat more in order cool itself through evaporation. It’s counter intuitive but you’ll need to drink more in moist areas.
  • Low levels of humidity: A very dry environment can absorb the moisture right out of you. Wind will accelerate this process but can be countered by wearing proper clothing (wind breakers). The clothing will create a layer of humid air around your body and prevent that moisture from escaping.
  • Level of activity: The harder you work the more you’ll sweat. You’re body sweats and draws out water to your skin in order to cool itself off through the process of evaporation. Your body will also loose water through heavy breathing.
  • Sun exposure: You’re skin contains a large amount of moisture in order to stay supple and flexible. The suns rays can damage and dry out the top surface of your skin, causing it to work less efficiently and use up more water. Always bring a hat and wear long sleeved clothing to protect yourself from the sun.
  • Wind exposure: Wind will absorb moisture directly from your body, especially if the wind is very hot (or cold) and dry. You can counter this problem by wearing proper clothing (wind breakers).
  • Food consumption: Your body needs water to process the food you eat. If you find yourself in a situation with an inadequate water supply, it will be best to keep yourself a little bit hungry. Foods like fruits and vegetable are easy to digest and usually contain large amounts of water to begin with so therefore they’re an exception and can be eaten freely. Foods that require plenty of water such as salts and meat should be avoided.
  • Consumption of diuretics: Diuretics like coffee and alcohol dehydrate the body and require large amounts of water to process and eliminate. Diuretics should be avoided when your water supply is running low.
  • Physical health: The young, old, and sick will be the first to feel the effects of dehydration. If you’re sick and vomiting or suffering from diarrhea you will be loosing water at a rapid rate. Your body will require plenty of water when you’re sick.

Recovering From Dehydration
You can lose about 10% of your body weight through dehydration without developing any long term effects. Just drinking several liters of water will restore your body in a very short amount of time. However, it should be kept in mind that a survivor who has lost this much water won’t be in a position to acquire water due to the effects of dehydration.

Staying Hydrated and Conserving Your Water
You will always want to ration your water when faced with a water shortage. Ration enough to always stay hydrated but never go so far as the dessert corpse found with water still in the canteen. Rationing can hurt you more than help, if you can manage to ration at least 2 liters of water per day though, you should be fine. Try to insure you always have more than you need, you can never be certain what lies around the bend so you’ll always want a backup.

After experiencing the discomfort of going without sufficient water, you’ll find yourself motivated to stay hydrated. When the infrastructure collapses and the taps run dry, people will quickly come to realize the value and importance water plays in maintaining life.

Finding and Collecting Water
The government uses many safeguards to insure that the water you drink is of a high sanitary quality. Naturally though, those safeguards are likely to fail during a large scale disaster. During those times of serious emergency, the water supply to your home will either be cut off or become undrinkable polluted. A device (or devices) to purify and store water is an extremely precious survival item and is highly recommended as something you should purchase or make now!

Water can be gathered and found in numerous ways but keep in mind that you’ll be competing against a city full of thirsty people! If your city isn’t located near adequate water sources… expect chaos! If you lack an adequate source of water you’ll have to keep an eye out for alternative sources.

Rainwater collected in clean, sanitary containers is usually safe for drinking.  Although depending on the disaster this can be far from truth. If the air around your location is polluted you can naturally expect those contaminates to end up in your water. A large earthquake, nuclear explosion, tsunami, chemical warfare attack and most other disasters will affect the rain water so keep this in mind. A nuclear explosion will throw up radioactive contaminates into the clouds and the rain will turn deadly.

An urban environment naturally contains large amounts of water. Water can be found in the plumbing, toilets and hot water tanks. Water can also be contained in small seepages between walls and other structures. Most cities were originally built around sources of water, unfortunately when shit hits the fan and you’ve run out of fuel for your vehicle, transporting that water back to your shelter will be next to impossible. Always suspect the water you find to be dirty and in need of purification. It’s always better to be safe then sorry. No water can be presumed safe.

Almost every environment will have water present to some degree. If you’re living in a city with an inadequate source or water, I’d recommend building a water cistern. Build a rain water catchment system and figure out ways in which your environment can help you. You should also consider a solar still to clean and purify the water you find. Watch for where plant life seems to be growing more luxuriantly than elsewhere. Most cities will have a few lakes, ponds, swamps, springs, or streams and the water collected from these sources should always be purified.

Some people during a disaster have gone so far to as drink animal blood! Animal blood is not suitable for drinking as it may be diseased. Blood also requires plenty of energy to digest due its high nutrient content. Blood-borne pathogens can be found in mammal blood so it must also be cooked. Some survivors have lived off their own urine for several weeks but keep in mind, drinking urine should be a last resort. Urine contains salt and other toxins which can be harmful when taken in large amounts. Fortunately a solar still can separate the toxins leaving you with clean drinkable water.

Water Wells
One of the best solutions for obtaining a long-term water supply is to drill a well. Just remember that there is a ton of pollution from the city seeping into ground water and it will require good filtration to make it drinkable. Regardless of the risks, water is better then no water and a well is still a good choice. A high quality hand pump and a good cylinder will last a lifetime (if installed properly) and a proper setup will supply you with a near-unlimited amount of water.

Before you get excited, I’ll point out that many cities don’t allow the drilling of wells. If you happen to be in an area that allows for the drilling, you’ll be looking at a price range of about $4000 to $6000. If you have the money, it’s definitely worth it.

Rain Water Catchment System
A rainwater catchment system is quite simple to make, especially in an urban environment. Rainwater will run off the roof into the rain gutters. The gutters then channel the rain water into a pipe that can be lead into a large container that will hold the water. It’s that easy! The same principle can essentially be applied to any slanted surface area like:

  • Streets
  • Hills
  • Large piles of dirt
  • Stair cases

Water will naturally flow down these surfaces but the water may still flow into a drain pipe, crevice or even just seep into the ground. What I suggest doing is just getting a few plastic tarps and lay them down on the slanted area. By lifting up or lowering the ends of the tarp… you’ll be able to funnel the water into a pipe which then leads to a container.

The advantages of rainwater collection:

  • Inexpensive
  • Easy to reconfigure, expand, and relocate
  • Can be expanded to collect more water
  • Reliable
  • Clean and easy to sanitize
  • Easy to build with little help
  • Excellent back up system
  • The Water tanks can be hidden and kept securely
  • Large water tanks rarely freeze due to their thermal mass
  • Repairs are easy
  • Few expensive components

The disadvantages of rainwater collection:

  • Requires a good sized roof
  • Roof materials and airborne pollutants can pollute the rainwater
  • Gutters require constant maintenance and cleaning

Solar Still
You can use a solar still almost anywhere in the world. The sunnier and hotter the better though. You’ll need a few materials to build a still, and you’ll need time to let it collect the water. The still works by evaporating water which then condenses on a plastic sheet and drains into a container. Solar stills are extremely useful when your only source of water is salt water. You’ll need at least three stills to meet your own daily individual water needs. To make a solar still, you’ll need:

  • Digging tool
  • water container
  • Clear plastic sheet
  • Small rock

To construct the still, follow these steps:

  1. Select an area of ground that’s contains moisture. The area you choose has to be easy to dig out and it has to have sunlight for most of the day.
  2. Dig a bowl shaped area about a meter across and half a meter deep.
  3. Dig a smaller hole in the center of the larger hole. This smaller hole has to be large enough for the container to fit in and stand upright.
  4. Place the container in the hole.
  5. Cover the hole with the plastic sheet.
  6. Use soil to cover the edges to hold the sheet in place and make it airtight.
  7. Place a small rock in the center of the plastic sheet. The sheet should now be concave with its apex laying in the very center right about the container.
  8. Make sure the plastic sheet doesn’t touch anything or the earth will absorb the condensing water.

Use more soil on the edges of the sheet to prevent the loss of moisture. You can place containers of dirty water in the still next to the clean container as a water source. The still will filter out and purify the water.

Methods of Water Purification and Filtration
In a survival situation all sources of water must be assumed contaminated with pollutants or pathogens. Getting sick during a disaster can easily lead to death so don’t take any risks and play it safe. If water is scarce you’ll be tempted to drink just about anything but think straight and hold your self back for it could make the difference between life and death. When purifying water it should be kept in mind that little can be done to remove molecular contaminants. Particles and microorganisms on the other hand can be removed and/or killed. If the water you find is murky and dirty, run that water through a filter such as a clean cloth, bucket full of sand and charcoal with a small hole in the bottom. Filtering will remove the large particles and purification will kill off any harmful organisms. Here are some methods of purification:

  • Boiling
  • Chlorine
  • Bleach
  • Iodine
  • Distillation

SODIS is short for Solar Water Disinfection and is basically a method of water treatment using sunlight and a PET plastic bottle full of water. The SODIS method doesn’t filter water but instead purifies the water of any water borne diseases simply by exposing the water to sunlight. Depending on where you live this method may not be all that valuable but use it when you can and save up on your resources. Extensive field tests and laboratory studies conducted by EAWAG (The Swiss Federal Institute for Environmental Science and Technology) to test the efficacy of the SODIS method has proven it to be an effective method for making water safe to drink. The efficiency of this method largely depends on the physical condition of the plastic bottles so be sure they’re nice and clear.

Discarded plastic bottles can fortunately be found anywhere in the world. Despite the efforts of bottle collectors, urban environments are littered with bottles. During a disaster situation it would be wise to collect as many plastic PET bottles as you can. Although there’ll be an abundance of bottles, they’ll still provide for a good bartering item. Be sure to refill bottles as soon as they are emptied, you want a constant reliable source of clean water and due to the length of time required for the SODIS method to work… you can’t run out and wait a day to rehydrate yourself. Remember which bottles have been treated for the longest time and which bottles have just recently been filled. To use the SODIS water treatment method, follow these steps:

  1. Acquire a clean, transparent PET plastic bottle. No bigger then three liters in volume.
  2. Fill the bottle up about three quarters full with clear filtered water.
  3. Shake the bottle vigorously for about 30 seconds. This will aerate the water and dissolve oxygen into the water.
  4. Fill up the last quarter of the bottle with water and cap it tightly.
  5. Place the bottle in direct sunlight up to six to eight hours. It’s most effective to rest the bottle on a highly reflective surface like metal, tin foil or a mirror.
  6. Leave the bottles out for a couple days if it’s either cloudy outside, it’s the fall season and the days are short, or you have dirty water.

If you’ve followed all the steps the water should now be 99% disinfected and drinkable. This is achieved through 2 mechanisms that take place when the sun light hits the water.

  • When UV-A reacts with the oxygen in water it produces free radicals and hydrogen peroxides. These highly reactive forms of oxygen are highly effective at killing any microorganisms.
  • UV-A will also mutate the organisms which in turn will interfere with their reproduction cycles by damaging the DNA.

The following considerations should be looked at when using the SODIS method:

  • The SODIS method uses UV radiation and temperature to kill organisms but it does not remove chemical contamination!
  • The best area is naturally between 35 degrees north latitude and 35 degrees south latitude. If you live outside those degrees, double the time you leave the bottles out in the sun.
  • The water needs be exposed to full sun light for roughly six hours when the sky is bright to kill the organisms.
  • Expose the contaminated water for two full days if there is over 50% cloud cover.
  • The time required for this process can be as little as one hour if the temperature of the water reaches over 50 degrees Celsius and the conditions are right.
  • Particles in the water will shield the microorganisms from UV radiation so it’s important to filter out the water as much as possible.
  • Glass bottles or jars can also be used.
  • The depth of water in the container is vitally important. Thinner the bottle, the better.
  • If you’re traveling, tie a few water bottles to the outside of your pack or to the roof of your vehicle. The metallic roof of a car will provide excellent reflective material to bounce the UV back into the bottle.

Liquid Clorox Bleach
One gallon of Clorox Bleach can purify about 3,800 gallons of drinking water. When the infrastructure collapses and the water stops flowing, bleach is going to be a valuable bartering item and a true lifesaver. As history has shown, the biggest demand in a long term disaster is for drinkable water. During most big natural disasters you’ll find relief crews hand out free Clorox Bleach packets with simple instructions. Although bleach will kill the bacteria in water it will not filter out the particles. To use bleach follow these steps and be sure to store these directions with your emergency bottle of bleach:

  1. Filter water to remove large particles
  2. Pour the clear water into a clean, uncontaminated container
  3. Add Regular bleach containing 4% to 6% sodium hypochlorite (8 drops per gallon of water)
  4. Mix and shake well
  5. Wait 30 min
  6. Water should have a slight bleach odor and if it doesn’t, repeat dose

Keep an eyedropper handy in your survival kit or attached by a string to your bottle of Clorox Bleach. Never pour purified water into a contaminated container. Sanitize water jugs, containers and dishes with a little Clorox Bleach. Keep in mind that you should only use regular Clorox Bleach and not Fresh Scent or Lemon Fresh, bleach is bad enough as it is so try not to make it worse. Bleach will eventually lose its strength and the expiry date should be followed so try to replace your bleach bottle about every three months. To clean dishes, utensils and containers follow these steps:

  1. Mix 1 tablespoon of bleach with about one gallon of water.
  2. Wash and rinse items.
  3. Let each item soak in the bleach/water solution for about 2 minutes.
  4. Drain and air dry.

You can either get iodine in a liquid form or a solid tablet form and both can be used to purify water. Despite what some people may have told you, iodine is completely safe, even in large doses. To use liquid iodine:

  1. Add 2-3 drops of iodine to each liter of clear water (8-10 for cloudy water).
  2. Mix and shake well.
  3. Let the water stand for 30 minutes.

Iodine in tablet form is usually easier to find and can be found at most drug stores and sporting goods stores. The names will vary but they’re most commonly known as Halazone tablets. Each manufacture will make them differently so follow the directions on the package. Generally the recommended dose is one tablet per liter of water and two tablets if the water is cloudy.

Generally all water can be purified by boiling it for 10 minutes. The heat will destroy the bacteria but won’t filter out large particles. Boiling water will make it taste flat so in order to improve the taste it will be necessary to aerate the water after boiling. This can easily be done by pouring the water from one container to another several times, just be sure to allow the water to cool down before aerating. The rule behind purification through boiling is to add one minute to the mandatory 10 minutes for every 1,000 feet above sea level. Most cities lie below 1000 feet so if you just stick with 10 minutes of boiling you should be fine. Covering the pot will shorten the boiling time which in turn will conserve your fuel.