Winter Survival: Getting Drinkable Water


How to Get Drinkable Water in a Winter Wilderness

You’d be hard-pressed to find a tougher survival situation than the dead of winter. Freezing temperatures make finding and storing water especially difficult. Bursting bottles, scarce supplies, and the dangers of dehydration are around every corner. Below, are some of the best ways to get and store drinkable water in the winter wilderness.

Important: Don’t Eat the Snow

I want to lay down one cardinal rule before we get too far. Do not eat the snow! A bite of fresh snow may not hurt you in everyday life, but in a survival situation, it’s best to avoid. Eating snow can drastically lower your core temperature making hypothermia a real possibility in a survival situation.

In addition, snow has been shown to collect a significant amount of toxins and pollutants from the environment. I’ll get more in-depth about why you shouldn’t eat snow in a survival situation in a few minutes.

Where You Can Find Water in a Winter Wilderness

Water shortages pose a major problem in all survival situations. However, winter makes staying hydrated even tougher. In fact, it is easier to become dehydrated in the winter than it is in the summer. This is because the human thirst response is diminished by up to 40% in the winter. This means you can become severely dehydrated and not even realize it!

So you know you should be drinking water but you’re freezing, surrounded by snow, and you don’t want to eat it because it’ll just make you colder. So, what do you do?

1. Collect Condensation from Inside Your Shelter

Even though it’s cold and you’re not sweating as much, you’re still constantly losing water. Your breath is the primary way you lose water in the winter. Your body heat and breath will eventually create condensation.

A properly constructed lean-to or small tent is primed and ready to be a water collection structure by collecting condensation. Angle plastic sheeting or plastic bags on the inside of your roof. If you are in a tent with air vents at the top, cover the vents with plastic. This can help keep your body heat inside and allow you to direct condensation down and into a clean bowl or pot.

Smaller areas are faster to heat up, easier to keep warm, and will collect the most condensation.” 

– Charles Hamilton (SuperPrepper.com)

Keep in mind that the size, shape, and location of your shelter will have major effects on your success. Experiment with various angles to find the sweet spot for your specific shelter. You don’t want the plastic angle too shallow or the condensation will freeze before it reaches your bowl. If the angle is too steep, you risk condensation dripping onto you while you sleep.

Smaller areas are faster to heat up, easier to keep warm, and will collect the most condensation. If your shelter is quite large, section off your sleeping area to make the most of your collection efforts.

Using a tent to collect condensation and produce drinkable water.

2. Purify Your Urine for Drinking

It’s not the most pleasant thought, but when survival is on the line, you need to get safe drinking water from any source available. There are ways you can make urine safe to drink, and I’ve covered many of them in the article, Drinking Urine in Survival Situations already.

Distillation is your best bet in winter, however. Distillation involves heating your urine to boiling, then collecting the vapors. This is similar to the condensation collection method above, except you’ll need to burn some fuel to make this work. Since you’ll be using precious fuel to boil your urine, you should use the same fire to cook some food, dry your clothes (catch the water vapors!), and warm your shelter, too.

3. Look for Running Water in Streams and Rivers

If the water is moving, you don’t need to melt it. That’s one less step and a lot less fuel you’ll need to burn. You may need to break through a layer of ice on top, but deeper water sources usually stay free-flowing underneath.

Stay safe collecting water from rivers. Beware of thin ice.
Stay safe collecting water from rivers. Thin ice can be particularly hazardous.

Don’t just dive in and start gulping. Ice cold water will lower your core body temperature. Besides, any water that you find should be considered contaminated. Always purify your water. You can use the distillation method mentioned above, sunlight, filters, and water purification tablets.

  • Using Water Filters in the Cold: Keep in mind that water filters can freeze. Frozen filters result in broken seals and cracked housings. A simple way to prevent freezing filters is to keep them with you, as close to your body heat as possible. Clearly, this is not ideal for larger filtration systems, but smaller ones can easily fit in your pack or even your pocket.
  • Using Water Purification Chemicals with Cold Water: Chemicals for treating water are less effective in colder weather. You’ll need to warm the water a little to get the most out of your purification chemicals, but that’s a lot less fuel than boiling water.

Water from rivers, streams, and springs can seem like a godsend to thirsty survivalists, but be cautious. In addition to the dangers of drinking unpurified water, you’ll need to worry about safety during collection. Avoid walking on ice. Use a ski pole, trekking pole, or long stick to thoroughly test the ground several feet in front of you. The last thing you need is a surprise dip in icy water.

You can extend your reach (and stay much safer) by attaching a collection container to the end of your pole or stick.

4. Melt Snow or Ice

If your only option is snow and ice, go for the ice first. It’s easier to melt and provides more water with less fuel. It’s also less likely to contain the toxins that snow can absorb from its environment.

One of the easiest methods to melt ice or snow is using a tripod and a piece of cloth. Make a tripod with three sticks or boards, then hang a clean sock, shirt, or other fabric from the tripod. Set a clean container below the fabric. Fill the fabric with the cleanest snow or ice you can find. Start a fire next to the hanging fabric. You can also use a camp stove or even hand warmers to slowly melt the snow into the container below.

It’s still a good idea to purify the melted snow or ice, so don’t start drinking right away.

5. Collect Rain Water

Obviously, it tends to rain much more often during the winter than other seasons. Take advantage of this and make an effort to collect the rain that falls. Rain doesn’t absorb toxins as readily as snow does so it is a much more pure source of drinking water in a winter survival situation. Just make sure you collect the rain in something that is clean and wont contaminate what you collect.

Any type of water proof material can be used to assist in collecting rain water including:

  • Plastic sheeting
  • Plastic bags
  • Rain ponchos
  • Tarps

Stretch any such material out between three or four trees and secure it at the corners. Then place a small (clean) rock in the center. Rain will collect in the middle as it falls providing you with a good supply of water depending on the amount of rain.

If you are ok poking a small hole in the material, you can poke a hole near the center where the rock is resting so water will drip out and you can collect it in a bucket, bottle, or canteen.

How to Keep Your Water From Freezing

Now that you have found a good quality source or safe drinking water, you need to make sure you keep it from freezing so that it is ready to drink. This can be difficult in a harsh winter wilderness, but here are a few things you can do to help.

Keep a Water Bottle Next to Your Skin

You can also sleep with water bottles, canteens, or plastic bags of water inside your sleeping bag. Even after you get up in the morning, a good sleeping bag can retain your body heat for a significant amount of time.

Additionally, you can insulate your water bottles by:

  • Storing them in a sock (or two).
  • Keeping them in your sleeping bag.
  • Wrap them in spare clothes, towels, blankets, plastic bags, rolls of plastic wrap, a tarp, or anything else that can hold heat.

If your water is already frozen, don’t use your body heat to warm it up. Putting a cold bottle or canteen against your skin will quickly drop your body temperature to dangerous levels. Melt it first, then put it under your clothes or in your sleeping bag.

If you absolutely must use this method to melt ice or snow, put the canteen or bag between two layers of your clothes, not directly on your skin. This isn’t ideal, but it’s better than getting dehydrated, causing frostbite, or getting hypothermia.

A Warning About Camel Packs: There are many wearable water options for backpacking and camping, but they’re not the best idea for winter survival. Camel Packs and similar hydration packs work very well in warmer weather. In the cold months, however, the tubes and nozzles tend to freeze quickly.

Store Water Bottles Upside Down

Ice forms from the top down. Keeping your water bottles upturned will make the bottom freeze first so you can still drink from the top. This works for any water containers as long as they have a good seal.

Why can’t I just eat the snow?

I know you are probably thinking that if you were in a survival situation in the dead of winter, that water wouldn’t be a problem because of all the snow. Well the truth is, you shouldn’t eat snow in this type of situation for a few reasons.

A ball of snow does not make good drinking water.
A chunk of snow is not necessarily a good water source in a survival situation.

Reason 1: Hypothermia

Your body is already working hard to protect you from the external cold. Putting frozen water down your gullet will put an inordinate amount of strain on your system, lowering your core body temperature.

In the dead of winter, you may not be able to recover from that. Imagine cold, biting winds on the outside and frozen water running down your throat. That’s the perfect recipe for hypothermia.

Reason 2: Potentially Toxic Contaminants

In addition to the temperature problem, snow is also full of toxic chemicals. Each snowflake is like a tiny net or scrubbing brush slowly falling from the sky. On its way down, it’s scooping up all the particles in the air.

Researchers at McGill University in Montreal, Canada discovered that in as little as one hour, snow can absorb massive toxins from the air. They found many pollutants in the snow they tested, including:

  1. Benzene
  2. Ethylbenzene
  3. Toluene
  4. Xylenes

Those pollutants remained in the water after the snow melted, too.

What if the snow looks clean?

Many people still believe it’s safe to eat snow if it’s white, but that’s not true either. You’ll be able to see black carbon (soot) and dirt, but you can’t see things like formaldehyde or sulfates. If you happen to be in a rural setting, your snow isn’t necessarily any safer than city snow. There may not be as much city pollution in wilderness snow, but there will always be some.

You also have the added worry of bacteria and parasites from woodland critters. According to Staci Simonich, a professor of environmental and toxic ecology at Oregon State University, pesticides can pop up in snow even decades after they were used. She found 50-year-old pesticides in higher elevations in many U.S. national parks.

Conclusion

Securing water in a winter survival situation is not a simple task. Ideally, you’d have enough water with you to make it through whatever situation you encounter. But you wouldn’t be much of a prepper if you didn’t have a few winter water tricks up your sleeve.

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I’d love to hear more of your winter wilderness survival ideas in the comments below!

John Walter

John Walter is an emergency preparedness consultant with eight years of experience and training in related fields. He is a passionate prepper living in the Sacramento area of California.

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