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Ask any survival instructor or wilderness expert about the top priorities in a survival situation, and you’ll get a few typical responses. Assuming we’re excluding intangible resources like knowledge and loophole answers like a climate-controlled motorhome full of cheeseburgers, most answers will relate to the commonly-known “Survival Rule of 3s.” This rule is a reminder that in extreme conditions, a normal person can usually survive for approximately three minutes without air, three hours without shelter, three days without water, and three weeks without food.
Air to breathe is something you either have or you don’t — you won’t be improvising any of that resource. Secondly, a basic shelter is usually relatively easy to find or improvise — even untrained individuals can find a rock outcrop to hide beneath, or pile up some branches for a simple lean-to. Unless you’re facing a hurricane or tornado, these simple solutions should at least prevent you from dying of exposure in warmer months. It’s certainly advisable to study how to build a variety of shelters, but you can usually make do for a short while with a crude roof over your head.
However, the next priority often requires more forethought, and it’s especially critical in the hot summer months. So, today we’ll be taking a quick look at 10 methods to fight dehydration in a survival setting. There’s a lot more to it than just drinking the first water you find.
A Note About Purification
We can’t talk about methods of fighting dehydration without discussing waterborne pathogens. Gulping down creek water without filtering or purifying it first can lead to severe diarrhea and vomiting that will only intensify the danger of dehydration. So, it’s always best to purify water you gather before consuming it. This might mean boiling, filtering, chemically-purifying, or even distilling it. Our tips below take this into consideration.
As I write this article, it’s 105°F outside my home in Arizona. In these conditions, severe dehydration can set in within a few hours, much less days. In other environments and seasons, finding a safe water source may be less of an urgent priority, but it’s always going to be near the top of your to-do list. As we mentioned during our introductory comments on shelter, the environmental conditions will have a major effect on your survival priorities, so always keep this in mind.
Shelter comes into play here, since seeking out a cool, shaded area will be one of your first lines of defense. Time of day is another variable — limiting your activity to the early morning or late evening is another way to reduce your exposure.
You also need to listen to your body, considering its present condition as well as projections for the coming hours and days. If you’ve been drinking water constantly before finding yourself in a survival situation, you’ll be off to a better start than if you’re already mildly dehydrated. Studies have shown that as many as 75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated. If you’re urinating regularly and it’s light-colored, that’s a good sign; if you’re not going as often and it’s dark-colored, you’re heading for trouble. Refer to our previous article on Dehydration Facts & Symptoms for some other physical warning signs to look for.
The same can be said for exertion — if you know you have to hike through several miles of steep terrain to return to safety, you’re going to sweat and dehydrate yourself faster than you would sitting in the shade and waiting for rescuers to arrive. Plan accordingly.
As the Rule of 3s reminds us, you can survive a whole lot longer without food than you can without water. That’s why food is a lower priority in a survival situation.
If you’re beginning to get dehydrated and you’re not sure where you’ll be able to get more water, stop eating. Digestion requires water. If there’s not enough, your body will shut this process down to save water for other organs, leading to stomach pain and constipation. Even watery foods can be problematic — contributor Tim MacWelch recommends squeezing these foods inside a cloth to extract the liquid from the solids.
Focus on hydrating before you worry about food. If you can’t get water, food will be the least of your worries.
When it’s hot and dry outside, our instinct is often to strip down to a T-shirt and shorts so we’ll feel cooler. However, this may actually hurt you in the long run. Sweat will quickly evaporate off bare skin to cool your body — that’s its purpose, after all. But as this process continues, it saps the moisture from your body. That’s fine if you have plenty of water on hand, but dangerous if you don’t.
When it comes to fighting dehydration, think Lawrence of Arabia. Wear loose, light-colored clothing to cover as much of your skin as possible. Cotton is especially helpful since it absorbs your sweat, keeping your skin moist and reducing the evaporative effect. Don’t forget your head — consider a wide-brim hat, or a scarf or shemagh worn over the face and neck.
Do you have any water in your pack already? If so, don’t try to ration it until you’re extremely thirsty. This can negatively impact your health and energy levels, reducing your ability to tackle other survival tasks and leading more severe dehydration or other injuries. Don’t waste your water by splashing it all over the place, but don’t hesitate to drink when you’re thirsty, either. It’s better to stay fully hydrated while you search for other sources of water than to be found dead with water you were saving for later.
The advisory Food and Water in an Emergency created by FEMA and the American Red Cross puts it simply: “If supplies run low, never ration water. Drink the amount you need today, and try to find more for tomorrow.”
If you’re fresh out of water, then it’s time to go to plan B — we’ll get to some options for that below.
Everyone knows that when you need water in a survival setting, you look for a nearby lake, stream, creek, or waterfall. It’s so obvious it’s basically programmed into our DNA. Unfortunately, in many survival settings, you won’t be able to walk 50 feet and find a babbling brook. You’ll need to search for it — but don’t just wander aimlessly.
You’ve got a map and compass in your pack, and you’re well-versed in basic navigational skills, right? If so, great. Look for blue on the map and go there. If not, you’ll need to seek other signs.
Read the terrain, and try to spot a valley, ravine, or overhang where water might accumulate. (You might need to dig a little for it, but don’t go overboard and sweat out more moisture than you’ll find.) Look for game trails, since animals need to drink too. Check for denser areas of vegetation. Even insects can lead you in the right direction if you’re observant.
Again, don’t forget to purify this water, regardless of how clean it looks and smells. Otherwise you’ll probably pay the price later, and may end up more dehydrated as a result.
Maybe there are no large bodies of water nearby, or maybe you just can’t find them. There are still options, although most of them won’t provide more than a few sips of water at a time.
Do some outside-the-box thinking about places water may collect — small puddles on rocks, morning dew on grass, pockets where plant leaves meet the stem, hollowed-out logs, and so on. You can soak up this water with a cloth, and squeeze it into a container to purify it later. If there’s any chance of rainfall in the future, be ready to collect it in larger quantities.
You may have heard that Brawndo’s got what plants crave, but in a survival situation, plants have got what you crave. Sometimes accessing the water is as simple as squeezing clumps of moss inside a bandana; other times, you’ll need to do more work.
Many plants contain toxins that can make you sick, so it’s a good idea to study the commonly-occurring plants in your area and know which ones to avoid. Contrary to popular folklore, cacti aren’t full of drinkable water. Other plants offer nutritious sources of liquid, such as maple or birch sap or coconut water. Refer to our previous article, Rural Refreshments: Drinking Water from Non-Tropical Plants, for more details on plant-based water sources.
Beyond this, you can use a transpiration bag to capture moisture from live tree branches, or crush foliage and place it inside a solar still to collect the moisture it gives off once the greenhouse effect kicks in. Neither of these methods are going to be very efficient, so don’t expect to get buckets full of water from them.
As we said before, purifying water is always the best option, and the one you should be choosing in 99.9% of situations. But if there’s absolutely no other way to stay hydrated, drinking dirty water straight from a stream or lake is better than dying of dehydration. If you happen to ingest giardia parasites or some other waterborne pathogen in the process, you’ll at least be able to seek medical attention after you (hopefully) make it out of this situation alive.
In this case, you can minimize the risk by using a cloth to strain out larger impurities, and/or make an improvised water filter. Just remember that neither of these methods eliminates the microorganisms in the water, so you’re still rolling the dice unless you boil or purify that water afterward.
Let’s say you’re stuck in the worst-nightmare scenario of many survivalists: a tiny life raft in the middle of a desolate ocean. You know you definitely can’t drink the seawater, and you have no way to distill it to remove the harmful salt content. Fortunately, there’s one other way that water can slow your rate of dehydration — cooling.
Even in cases where you know you can’t drink from a water source safely, you can still use it to soak your clothes and keep your skin cool and damp, reducing moisture loss from perspiration. It won’t help you rehydrate, but it can certainly slow the rate at which you lose water.
Despite what you may have seen on survival TV shows, urine falls into this category. It’s a bad idea to drink it, even if it has been passed through a filter, unless you’ve distilled out the harmful dissolved salts that most other purification methods can’t remove. However, in a worst-case scenario, your pee can be used to moisten your clothes as outlined above. The smell is a small price to pay if it helps you stay alive.