How To Locate Water

Signs That Point To Water
Now let's take a look at some signs that can lead to water sources for the wilderness traveler. Tuning up not only your senses, but your ability to improvise and adapt are crucial to life in the wilderness!

Use the tips below to find water:

Listen For Water
Stop and listen for water frequently. When you are still you might be able to hear a water source nearby, even a trickling spring.

Seek The Lowest Point
Gravity is going to cause water to run to the lowest point. The likeliest places to find water are under a valley or at the base of hills.

A creek bed, river bed or gully that contains no surface water still might have water just beneath the surface. If the dirt is wet, try digging a hole a foot or two deep and wait to see if water begins to seep into it.

Animal Trails
Game trails are used by animals regularly to access water. If the trails slope downhill you can almost certainly follow them to water. Otherwise, scout around and try to determine which direction the paths lead. If you know which way to go, you can follow them to water. Just make sure you don't hike away from the water!

Other Animal Signs
Meat eating birds like hawks, eagles and crows don't need water as often as grain eaters. In the morning and evening times especially, watch the direction that grain eaters fly and listen for the twittering of birds to help locate their water source.

Insects will also gather near water. If you see bees in the area, then water's near. Bees must have a steady water source. They don’t use water primarily to quench their thirst, but to dilute honey that’s too thick and to cool the hive during hot weather.

Bees or ants going into a hole in a tree may point to a water-filled hole.

Look for an increase in vegetation in arid climates. If you see bright green trees and vegetation in an area, that can signal water above ground or near the surface there, like an oasis in the desert. Look for water loving trees like cottonwoods, willows, ashes, and sycamores.

Where Would Rain And Dew Collect?
Rainwater and dew are good water sources. Dew collects on everything early in the morning, and can be sopped up with a cloth, licked off or collected on a plastic sheet or in a container. See water collection for more ways to collect water in the wilderness.

Rainwater collects in lots of places in the wilderness. Sometimes it gathers in tree crotches, holes in trees, among plants and leaves on the tree or on the ground.

Look for water in rock crevices. Bird droppings around a crack in the rocks may indicate water in or near the crack.

Look in any natural cup formation.

Snow As A Water Source
In an emergency snow can be used as a water source, but if possible melt it in a pot before consuming it. If you must use snow as a water source without melting it, roll it into small enough balls so that will fit into your mouth without touching your lips. Melt the snow on your tongue before swallowing it, allowing your mouth to warm in between balls. Inuit people don't always have access to water, and use snow as a water source. A 44 year old Swedish man survived in his car in sub zero temperatures for two months, eating nothing but snow. As long as you are careful and consume only small balls of snow at a time, snow could save your life.

Water Dowsing, Divining, Or Water Witching
"Dowsing", "Divining", or "Water Witching", refers in general to the ancient practice of locating veins of underground water, minerals, or other hidden or lost substances,and has been a subject of discussion and controversy for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

It has been practiced using a variety of means(wires, sticks, pendulums, keys, and even coconuts!) for centuries by countless people throughout the world.

In the classic method of using a forked stick, one fork is held in each hand with the palms upward . The bottom or butt end of the "Y" is pointed skyward at an angle of about 45 degrees. The dowser then walks back and forth over the area to be tested. When she/he passes over a source of water, the butt end of the stick is supposed to rotate or be attracted downward.

How did water dowsing begin?
Cave paintings in northwestern Africa that are 6,000-8,000 years old are believed to show a water dowser at work. The exact origin of the divining rod in Europe is not known, but claims to being able to detect underground water with a forked twig were first recorded in Georgius Agricola's work, De re metallica, written in 1556.

The device was introduced into England during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) to locate mineral deposits, and soon afterward it was adopted as a water finder throughout Europe. Water dowsing seems to be a mainly European cultural phenomenon; it was carried across the Atlantic to America by some of the earliest settlers from England and Germany.

Whether dowsing actually works at all is a controversial subject. I won't enter into that debate here. As we now know, there is always water beneath our feet, but stranger things than water being detected by a stick have happened, so you can decide for yourself.

One place you can learn more about the subject is

Jack Coel dowses for a living. On his site you can find local news footage of the massive underground spring he helped locate in the Nevada desert.

Learn more about dowsing in the USGS publication available in pdf format. You can get Adobe Reader to read the file with here.

Credit For Content:
Department of Geosciences,Texas A & M University
Texas Academy of Science
"10 Bushcraft Books" by Richard Graves
Desert Sense: Camping, Hiking and Biking in Hot, Dry Climates by Bruce Grubbs
USGS - U.S Geological Society
How To Locate Fresh Water
When most Americans think of drinkable water, the first things that usually come to mind are the kitchen faucet, a garden hose, or bottled water from the store. Before modern, running water though, people found fresh water in a variety of locations, and they are still available to us today. We do need to be more selective about our water sources though, and to know how to properly disinfect or distill water when necessary.

Many early Americans settled where fresh water was abundant; near rivers, lakes or other natural water sources. Some used "divining rods" also known as "water witches" or "dowsing rods" to locate underground water. "Dowsing" is an ancient art that mankind has used for centuries to find water below ground.

Except for polar icecaps and glaciers, 97 percent of the earth’s fresh water supply is stored underground and is referred to as ground water. Only 3 percent of the earth’s fresh water supply comes from surface water such as lakes, streams, and ponds.

Emergency Water Sources
In the event of an emergency, the Red Cross recommends the emergency water sources listed below.

These sources are:
  • Rainwater
  • Streams, rivers and other moving bodies of water
  • Ponds and lakes
  • Natural springs

In earlier times there was little need for water disinfection,  because waterborne pathogens (water contaminants directly and indirectly attributed to waste from animals and humans), weren't as abundant as they are today. Water sources weren't polluted with fertilizers and pesticide run off from farming, and toxic chemicals from industry then either.

Today, the further you go into the backcountry, and generally the higher in elevation you are, the less likely you'll need to treat your drinking water or worry about toxic chemicals in your water source.

Learn About Groundwater And Surface Water
If you want to live off grid, it's a good idea to have a basic understanding of the land and it's relationship with water. Early American settlers invested effort into building hand dug wells. The wells tapped into groundwater and supplied water for them and their livestock.

Below are some water source definitions and diagrams that will help you to learn about water in and above ground. The amount of and depth of groundwater varies greatly from place to place, but as you can see, there is always water somewhere beneath our feet!

Groundwater: Water found in the spaces between soil particles and cracks in rocks underground located in the "saturated" zone. Cracks in rocks can be due to joints, faults, etc.

Surface Water: Surface water is simply water pooled at Earth's surface. Surface water comes from runoff. Runoff is water that does not soak into the ground that collects in low lying areas, streams and rivers.

Factors that affect runoff -
  • Amount of rain and length of time it falls
  • Slope – steeper areas have more runoff
  • Vegetation – areas with plants have less
  • If ground is already saturated or not

Water table:
The water table is the divide between the "unsaturated zone" (the upper layer where the earth tends to eventually dry out), and the "saturated zone" (where the earth stays soggy or damp).

The water table is not fixed. The height of the water table can be affected by water entering the saturated zone by precipitation, storage within the zone, and the rate that groundwater is pumped from the ground by wells. The water table often slopes downward toward streams and lakes, and tends to follow the shape of the land surface.
Copyright 2017-18
Featured Video -
Ground Water Tutorial

Aquifers are underground all over the world in varying depths, sizes and shapes. They are the "pockets", if you will, that contain groundwater.

One of the world's largest aquifers, The Ogallala Aquifer(or High Planes Aquifer) is a vast, shallow water table aquifer located beneath the Great Plains in the United States.  It underlies an area of approximately 174,000 miles in portions of eight states! (South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas)

See the below descriptions of different types of aquifers.

Aquifer: An underground geological formation able to store and yield water.

Unconfined aquifers: are those into which water seeps from the ground surface directly above the aquifer. The water in this type of aquifer is not under pressure because it isn't sandwiched between impermeable substances.

Artesian (or confined) aquifer: exist where the groundwater is sandwiched between layers of impermeable substances like clay or dense rock. Because the water is under pressure, when tapped by a well the water in confined aquifers is forced up, sometimes above the land surface. *The word artesian comes from the town of Artois in France, the old Roman city of Artesium, where the best known flowing artesian wells were drilled in the Middle Ages.

Artesian well: A well tapping a confined (or artesian) aquifer. Water in the well rises above the top of the aquifer under artesian pressure, but does not necessarily reach the land surface. When a well in which the water level is above the land surface, a natural flow of water out of the well occurs. When water flows above the land surface the well is defined as a flowing artesian well.
The "unsaturated" zone contains soil and rocks that do not stay soggy. They may stay wet for a while after a rain, but will dry out as the water seeps into the "saturated" zone.

The saturated zone(blue area) below the water table is the depth at which you would need to dig down to if you were digging a well.
In the image below you can see how the water table slopes downward toward a body of water, in this case, the ocean. "Brackish" water is the water in between fresh and saltwater, that is saltier than fresh water, but not as salty as sea water. Brackish water is found where the saturated zone in the ground meets up with the ground that's been saturated with salty sea water near the ocean. If you dig down to "sea level" (the level on land that's even with the surface of the ocean) approximately 50 - 100 feet onshore, you'll likely tap into the freshwater. This is a good place to dig for freshwater because the ground there tends to be softer than the dry, hard ground farther inland, plus the water table will likely be closer to the surface.
Featured Video -
Where To Find Clean Water During A Disaster
Featured Video -
Dowsing To Find Water
Click The Link To Learn About Earth's Water Systems

"The Water Cycle"

Featured Video -
Finding Water In The Winter Wilderness