Water divining is a practice dating back centuries where metal rods, a pendulum, forked stick, or other object held in the hand(s) is moved by underground water and points the “diviner” to its location. Divining has been considered a supernatural ability defying the rules of science. Some old-timers swear by it and cite folklore and/or pseudoscience to explain the way it works. Skeptics cite hard science and the results of controlled testing. Divining for water has even been featured in some old kids’ cartoons only to perpetuate the myth for future generations. Some water companies have recently cited using diviners in their newsletters, bringing this topic to the forefront again. Here’s what you should know in case you encounter someone trying to sell you on the idea to apply this mystical technique in a survival situation.
Water divining, sometimes also called dowsing or witching, is the belief a person can detect underground water where a well can be dug. Some diviners claim to have the ability to locate other underground objects using the same skillset, but water is easily the most valuable. Water has been essential to all of the great civilizations and having an ability to locate it where others can’t would give a person incredible authority. Before science, everything was magic. Without an understanding of involuntary muscle movements, magnetism, and how groundwater travels, it’s easy to be lured into the idea a person can detect groundwater with their “vining rod” or Merlin stick, while walking around taking readings from it. The movement of the object holds the attention of onlookers like a metronome or hypnotist’s dangling watch. Water diviners can claim their ability is something that can’t be taught, making the skill even more coveted. If their “skill” can’t be passed to you, you should evaluate if it’s worth pursuing or if other proven methods are a better course of study.
Water doesn’t move rods, especially with earth in between. Ask any reputable scientist if water has magnetism, and they should give you this very simple answer, “it doesn’t.” Divining has been tested against random chance in a famous study by German scientists in the ’80s with eye-opening results. Even the most confident and experienced diviners couldn’t locate an underground pipe any more effectively than the average person looking for the same pipe. In fact, a look at the data points in the testing results looks more like a hole-ridden target hit with birdshot than anything consolidated or clearly pointing to verifiable divining skill. Yet even in the face of testing and hard facts, divining still draws some people’s attention like a David Blaine magic trick.
Unless you want to trust your life to smoke and mirrors, you should exercise good water discipline instead. Learn to stay hydrated so you don’t have to play catch up when you have a shortage of water.
Should you need to truly look for water, the best way to find it is to study nature and increase your awareness using all of your senses. These skills are all environment-dependent, but highly reliable. Pointing a forked stick at the ground will get you nowhere. Instead, pay attention to animals and insects. They often don’t travel far from water sources. Look for animal tracks and game trails, and scout them in both directions. Look for natural catch points, remembering water runs down from higher elevations to lower elevations. Crevices on rock faces and hollows in logs can hold water on the micro level and canyons and ravines may hold water at their lowest points on the macro level.
Keep a length of paracord on your water bottle to dip it into out of reach cracks. Know what trees in your area are good indicators of water and develop the skill to tap those trees that produce edible sap like maples, birches, and beeches. Carry a bandana to hold moisture-laden moss you can squeeze water out of. That same bandana can be used to wipe dew from grass in the morning. By the way, digging into riverbeds may prove just as fruitless as divining. You don’t want to sweat out more water than you’ll get back. True survival skills include knowing how to find, collect, treat, and carry water; so leave your vining rods at home.