Regardless of where you are in the wilderness, water is your most valuable commodity. If you have a good supply of water and you get lost or stranded, you’ve massively increased your chances of surviving long enough to be found by search teams, or to make it out alive on your own. If you don’t have water, you are going to need to find some, fast.
How long can you last without water?
It’s very difficult to say exactly how long you can survive without water. It all depends on the individual’s biological makeup and their environment and their activity.
If you are stranded in the outback in 40-degree heat, you’ll be lucky to last more than a day. Even in average temperatures you might only last three or four days. People have been known to survive without food, on the other hand, for more than three weeks!
“Planning is number one when it comes to exploring the Australian outdoors,” says outback survival expert Bob Cooper.
Learning from Indigenous Australians
“Traditionally, Indigenous Australians would know where the water holes are. They would have used bushcraft skills for collecting water, but more importantly, they know their country and share that knowledge with others using aural techniques known as song lines,” says Bob.
Indigenous Australians use song lines, to create maps of the environments in which they live; environments that would be considered far too hostile for most people to inhabit. Reciting these Song Lines, they can plan their route from one water source to another, recalling the steps taken by others in their community.
“We can learn a lot from Aboriginal techniques. We should be using our own song lines in our planning. We should, at the very least, formulate easy-to-remember plans that we can repeat to one another so we know where to go if we get split up or lost.”
But in order to share that information, Indigenous Australians first had to gather it. So how do they go about finding water sources in the first place? Indigenous Australians not only know the land they walk upon but understand the creatures that share their land.
Finding a natural water source in the wild
“You really need a water source to sustain life in the outback for an extended period of time,” says Bob.
Indigenous Australians understand that knowledge of the land is key to locating new water sources and recording their locations so they can be found again in the future.
“When searching for an unknown water source, the first step is to gain altitude. Climbing a ridge line, or even carefully climbing a tree is a great way to survey your surroundings and potentially locate a natural source of water nearby. From your raised vantage point, you also increase your chances of spotting birds and other wildlife.”
That brings us to step two: if you cannot spot water directly, wildlife is your next best indication of water.
Certain species of wildlife will never stray far from a reliable source. Learning to read their movements, whether by actually seeing the animal moving through the wilderness or by following game trails, is a vital skill for anyone hoping to find water in the wild.
Following animals to find water in the bush
“It doesn’t matter whether you are in South Australia, South America or South Africa, this technique still applies,” says Bob.
Wherever you are in the world, there will be wildlife. Depending on your surrounding environment, it may be more or less difficult to spot signs of animal movement. It can be easier to spot wildlife in the desert because it’s so flat, and gaining altitude gives you a distinct advantage if it is possible to do so.
“When you see paw prints or hoof prints of animals accompanied by fresh droppings, those animals have to be going to water or from water. Converging game trails lead you to water.”
But what about hiking in the Australian dense bush?
“In the Victorian High Country, you'll likely find it more difficult to spot evidence of wildlife, but you have the advantage of an undulating terrain. If you head downhill there is usually a good chance that you will find running water,” says Bob.
Look closely for evidence of game trails. Fresh droppings alongside paw prints or hoof prints heading downhill will almost certainly lead to water.
In saying that, anyone who has bashed through dense bush knows how exhausting it can be. Bob has a great trick for spending less time bush-bashing and conserving your energy during your hunt for a water source.
“You are much better off walking alongside the scrub (if you can) perpendicular to the game trail until it starts to work its way downhill. Then you can follow a pre-made track using less energy.”
You might not always find a great big waterhole. You might find a trickle of water running between some rocks, or a small collection of dew at the base of a tree. Learning how to spot these clues could lead you to the source itself.
How to make water safe to drink
You’ve found a reliable source of water: now what? How do you make sure it’s safe to drink?
Bob explains that there are two steps to making water completely safe: clarification and purification.
Clarification is the process of removing dirt, minerals, and any other large particles from the water: purification kills microorganisms present in the water which could make you sick.
Water clarification techniques
All clarification techniques use some type of filter, either natural or man-made.
Perhaps you used a fire to stay warm overnight or you’ve stumbled across some blackened dead wood. You can pass water through the charcoal a few times to help scrub it of large impurities.
Failing that, you can always pass water through clothing. Fold a shirt over a number of times and run the water through to collect bits of dirt that might make it unpleasant to drink.
If you don’t have the tools to purify the water post-clarification, you should still clarify the water using whatever you have on hand.
Charcoal is a great natural filter.
Water purification techniques
Boiling water is the most effective (not to mention the cheapest) way to make water safe to drink.
If you can’t boil your water, purification tablets, SteriPens, or even modern gadgets such as the Life Straw are solid back-up options that do a decent job at removing potentially harmful microorganisms.
What if I have no way of purifying the water source?
It seems to go against common sense, but even if you have no way of cleaning the water that you have found, even if it looks terrible, you should still drink it.
Bob points out that waterborne diseases will most likely take a couple of days to affect you. Drinking that water (especially if you are stranded in the heat of the Australian desert) could buy you a couple of extra days, increasing your chances of getting out alive.
“Think about it to fix that upset stomach you have to be alive," says Bob.
It’s a sombre point to make, but it’s one that really can save lives. It’s not uncommon for people to refuse to drink dangerous looking water for fear of getting sick. Unfortunately, some of those people don’t make it home.
Practice makes the survivalist
“The first time you use your compass shouldn’t be when you get lost. The first time you follow one of these game trails shouldn’t be to save your life or somebody else’s.”
So go out there and give these techniques a try!
When you’re out hiking your favourite trail, look more closely for signs of wildlife; watch where the birds are going to and coming from; practice lighting fires and clarifying water using charcoal and clothing. And above all else, make sure that you have a solid plan in place whenever you venture deep into the wilderness — create your own song lines — and tell others where you are going, when you expect to be back, and what they should do if you don’t return home on time.