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Drinking Water – Carrying, Finding & Purifying in the Bush

We all know that people can survive without food for up to three weeks but can only survive without water for three days.

There are, however, negative implications of shortage of liquids that become apparent long before this ultimate disaster. As a guide you are responsible for the all-round wellbeing of your clients, and this includes ensuring that they are assisted in keeping their intake of appropriate liquids high.

Visitors from cooler, more damp parts of the world are sometimes not aware of the effects on their systems of hotter and drier conditions than they are used to. We do not want them to be danger of dehydrating and consequent loss of energy, mood swings and poor judgement not to mention exposed to potentially life-threatening conditions such as heatstroke.

Water versus other forms of liquid

 You will not be in a position to control your client’s intake of liquids but you do need to be aware that sugary ‘sports’ drinks do not ultimately quench thirst and that alcohol and coffee and tea and caffeine-based drinks will automatically generate a greater need to urinate and increase the need to take in liquids to avoid dehydration. Having plenty of unadulterated water available to drink at all times will be good policy, in camp or out on safari, as well as offering opportunities to drink water as often as possible (so that the client can almost absent-mindedly drink a sip or two when they would not normally have bothered). In camp you might be able to make water more attractive by having it chilled and maybe, if you have the possibility, offering mint leaves or slices of lemon or cucumber to slightly flavour the water.

How much water should I calculate needing for my clients if we are walking?

The general rule is usually two cups or half a litre of water for every hour of hiking, so if you plan to hike for 3 hours you should carry 1.5 litres of water per person. The amount of water that you need, however, will depend on factors such as the weather (e.g. particularly hot) and the difficulty of the hike (e.g. a lot of uphill climbs) and personal levels of thirst (e.g. young people tend to walk in a more active way and need to drink more).

Out in the bush, on safari or hiking, you will want to be particularly careful to ensure that no one is short of liquid.  You will need to supply smaller, individual containers of water for people to sip from as they travel or walk. Most standard water bottles only hold around .4 to.7 litres of water so if you are only bringing one bottle per person you will need to make sure there is a large water container available for refilling individual bottles.

Individual water containers – plastic vs metal

Smaller, individual water containers are very often plastic and disposable. There are a couple of problems with this plastic option. Firstly, in sunlight the plastic material of drink bottles begins to denature and deposit toxic chemicals into the drinking water.

Secondly, environmentally responsible disposal of plastic bottles is one of our most grave environmental challenges. You and everyone involved in your outfit might want to consider the environmental implications of replacing admittedly convenient disposable plastic bottles with light-weight multi-use plastic bottles or better still, steel or aluminium individual water containers that do not break even when dropped.

The great thing with these bottles is that you can use them to boil water to make it safe to drink (see below for discussion of water purification).

Bladder Packs

If you and your clients are hiking for a substantial period you might consider hydration bladder packs which are usually made of rubber or plastic-like materials with a long rubber hose that one can use to drink from it. The pack is usually flat so it can be carried easily in a backpack, with its weight distributed evenly.

A bladder pack usually holds around 2 to 3 litres so it can be an ideal choice when going on long hikes and are unlikely to find a water source. (Bladder packs and their hoses are hard to clean so make sure you have a good cleaning kit and regime.)  


First consideration – keep your water needs to a minimum

We are losing water all the time. As we shiver to keep warm, as we sit or walk on a hot day, as we adjust to being at a high altitude, our bodies perspire and it is essential for us to consume water frequently to replace the water we expel. So, do not hunt frantically for water using too much energy or in the middle of the day. Conserve as much water as possible by moving around during the cooler parts of the day or night, and do not increase your water needs by consuming salty foods or beverages or alcohol. Wear long sleeves and do not expose any skin to the sun.

Here is a tip for lessening the feeling of a dry mouth when you are beginning to be dehydrated. Find a small pebble and place it under your tongue. This activates the salivary glands to produce saliva that will keep your mouth wet until you can find water.

Below are a series of suggestions for finding or “creating” water in an emergency.

 1. Look for Obvious Water Sources

In some parts of the world, like for example Canada, you are unlikely to be far from a source of water in the form of streams, rivers and lakes. In Zimbabwe the same can be true in the Eastern Highlands where clean, drinkable water is relatively widely available.

Along the Zambezi River, of course, you will have access to water, though it comes with various hazards. In most of Zimbabwe, however, you are very unlikely to find surface water but if you are going to have any chance you have to follow valleys or gullies down to lower ground where you might encounter the dry sandy beds of rivers, which can yield water.

Depending on the season you might find a standing pool of water in such a riverbed, but the water is likely to be in great need of purification. (See notes below on purification.)

2. Locate Underground Water

Dry riverbeds are a likely spot to dig for water. Bear in mind that river water is usually deepest at the outside edges of the bends and at the foot of cliffs and these areas will be the last to dry up and the most likely to yield water below the surface.

Dig down 30-60cm and see if the sand is wet. If it is, dig deeper and let the water pool. If it is not, move to another spot. This water will of course need filtering and purifying. (See notes below on purification.)

3. Observe Water-Dependent Wildlife to Discover Water Sources


In general insect swarms, though they can be irritating, do indicate that water is near. Often this water is trapped out of sight in a hollow in a tree or in a rock cervice. If you see a steady column of ants climbing a tree trunk and disappearing into a hole in a crotch it is highly probable that there will be a hidden reservoir of fresh water stored away there.

These natural tree reservoirs are very common in dry areas and are often kept full by the dew which, condensing on the upper branches of the tree and trickling down into the crotch and so into the reservoir inside the tree. Dip a thin stick down the hole into which the ants are going – if it is wet when you draw it out there is water in the hollow.

To get the water do not on any account chop into the tree. If the hole is only very small, enlarge it with your knife-point at the top. You can take a long hollow straw and suck the water you require from the reservoir. If you do not have anything straw-like you can extract water from crotches and cracks by sticking a piece of clothing or cloth into the space, letting it soak up any moisture and wringing it out into a container.

Repeat if you can and return after a rain for a fresh supply. If the hole is big enough make a mop by tying grass or rag to a stick.

Bees in an area are a certain sign of water. Rarely will you find a hive of wild bees more than a couple of kilometers from fresh water but you will probably have to look for further indications before you actually find the water supply they are using.

Wasps need water to make the mud nests in which they store dead prey to feed their offspring when they hatch. If you see a recent wasp’s nest you can be sure that you are within a few hundred metres of a soak of wet earth.

Search around carefully and see if you can see a wasp hovering and then suddenly dropping to the ground. If you examine the place where she landed you will find the soil is moist and that she is busy rolling a tiny pellet of mud for her building. By digging down a few centimeters (or at, most, a meter) you will probably find a place where water will seep into the hollow you have made.


Flesh-eating birds such as crows and eagles can go without water for long periods because they get their liquid requirements from blood. Pigeons and all grain eaters, especially finches, need water regular supply of water and will flock towards water in an arid area, especially in the mornings and evenings. Pay attention to the flight path of birds especially as dusk approaches because they might swiftly fly towards a water source, drink their fill and fly slowly back to their nesting places.


Nearly all mammals require water at regular intervals to keep themselves alive. (Flesh eaters must drink but can travel long distances between drinks.) Certain mammals, however, never travel far from water. Most of the grazing animals, drink regularly at dawn or dusk.  A fresh track of a wild pig is one sign that there is water in the vicinity.

Listen out for the sounds of baboons. If they hear them, head in their direction because baboons need to drink regularly. If you notice the tracks of a number of different mammals coming together (easiest to spot in sand) it most likely an indication of the direction of a water source particularly if the track is leading downhill.

If you find this water during prime drinking time for wildlife, be aware that you are competing with many of Africa’s potentially dangerous animals for their most valuable resource.  (Most elephant drink between mid-day to late afternoon when the scorching head drives their thirst and often arrive at waterholes at a jogging pace during hot dry spells.)


Most of the land-living reptiles are largely independent of water. They get what they require from dew and the flesh of their prey, and as a result are not an indicator of water in the area.

4. Collect Rainwater

This is an obvious solution but it has to be said that in Zimbabwe this will very much depend on the season and from April to October is unlikely to be very helpful advice.

5. Collect Heavy Morning Dew

In barren areas where there are no trees, it may be possible to collect sufficient moisture to preserve life from the grass in the form of dew. One of the easiest ways of collecting dew is to tie cloth (like a spare shirt) or tufts of fine grass round your ankles and shins and take a pre-sunrise walk through longer grass, squeezing out the moisture into a container. Apparently, some early explorers have saved their lives by this simple expedient.

Alternatively reconfiguring your awning to trap and collect dew into a container.

6. Collect Condensation from Metal Surfaces

Extreme temperature variations between night and day can cause condensation on metal surfaces such as your vehicle or any metal containers you might have in your pack. Before the sun rises and vaporises that moisture, collect it with an absorbent cloth and wring it into a container.

7. Collect Condensation in a Solar Still

A solar still is an artificial means of forcing moisture condensation from the ground and vegetation. There is almost always moisture in the ground a meter or so below the surface that will react with the sun’s heat to produce condensation. An inverted cone of plastic can force that condensation down into a container.

You can expect to gather .5 up to two liters per day, so you might need more than one still (or another source) to account for an entire day’s supply. The benefit of creating a still is that it provides a reliable, fairly substantial source of water (compared to other methods) and you know roughly how much you’ll be getting, which helps you plan and ration better.

(There are aboveground and underground varieties of sills; the underground collects more water, but the aboveground variety can be useful if you are extremely energy-depleted and unable dig a large hole.) 

A simple still for water condensation in arid areas can be made from a piece of light plastic sheeting, about 1.5m square stretched over hole is dug or scooped in the ground in a sunny position. Moisture in the soil and in the greenery placed in the hole will be drawn off by the heat of the sun and condense on the underside of the plastic.

Condensation results because the air above the plastic is considerably cooler than the air on the underside of the plastic. The condensed moisture will collect into droplets, coalesce, and trickle down the underside to the lowest point where it drops off into the container. If the underside of the plastic sheet is slightly roughened with fine sandpaper or a similar fine abrasive such as a piece of finely grained stone, the droplets will coalesce and run off more cleanly than if the underside is absolutely smooth. Body waste, such as urine, waste food, moist tea leaves, etc., can be put in the hole to augment the process. The pure moisture only is condensed.

The location of your solar still is paramount. You want an area with as much direct sunlight as possible. And consider the moisture content of the soil which will increase in lower lying parts of the landscape. The site should preferably be in moist ground, a depression in a riverbed is ideal if possible.

Steps for Creation of an Underground Still

  • Dig a hole should be about 90 cm across and 50 cm deep, or deeper if possible, with sides sloping in towards the bottom.
  • If green material such as shrubs or succulent vegetation is available, the hole should be lined with this and the material packed down. (It may be necessary to weigh the material down with a few flat stones.) The vegetation can be augmented with urine, mud or waste water (only completely clean condensed water will be harvested).
  • In the centre of the hole, in the deepest part, place a container to catch the moisture collected by condensation.
  • Consider using a long hollow rubber tube to act as a straw before placing a plastic sheeting over the hole. (If you do not have such a thing you will have to dismantle your still to access the water.)
  • Lay the sheet of plastic (garbage bag or tarp) to cover the top of the hole and weigh the edges with stones. Seal the hole by mounding the soil from the hole over the edges of the sheeting to prevent the evaporation from leaking into the air.
  • Place a stone in the centre of the upper side of the plastic sheet above the approximate centre of the water container to weigh it down to just over the container.

The heat of the day will cause the moisture to evaporate and condense off the underside of the plastic sheeting. This will run down to the centre of the sheet to the indentation under the rock and drip into your cup.

N.B. In the early morning, the topside of the plastic sheeting will act as a dew trap. So remember to get out of bed and collect it before it evaporates after sunrise.

8. Collect Water from Plants

Preliminary Warning – Plants with Milky Sap 

If you snap off the twig of a plant and it produces a fluid that is milky or coloured in any way, it should be regarded as dangerous, not only to drink but also to the skin. Many of the milky saps, except those of the ficus family, which contain latex, or a natural rubber, are extremely poisonous. The milky sap of many weeds can poison the skin and form bad sores, and if allowed to get into the eye may cause blindness and severe pain. Such plants should not be used as a water source.

Taste test the water you obtain from plants. With all vegetable sources of fluid even though the water itself is clear, taste it first and, if quite, or almost, flavourless, it is safe to drink.

Collect water from Plant Transpiration

An option for water collection is harnessing plant transpiration. This is the process in which moisture is carried from a plant’s roots to the underside of its leaves. From there, it would normally vaporise into the atmosphere but you can catch the water before it does that. This efficient water procurement method uses little energy and produces clean water ready to drink.

To achieve the best results, find a young, green, leafy tree that receives direct sunlight for most of the day (preferably in a valley or low point where the trees have more access to ground water).


  1. Pull a plastic bag (or something that can make a bag shape – the bigger the better) over a branch end with a collection of green leaves and tie the bag to the branch. (Hopefully you have suitable food-grade plastic bags, ideally 100 micron-thick to resist tearing)
  2. As the sun hits the branch, the leaves will produce condensation and water will stick to the inside of the bag. The condensation will then flow to the lowest point of the bag. (You can include a small stone to make this lowest point more pronounced.)
  3.  If you can place a container under the plastic bag you can make a tiny hole in the plastic bag at the lowest point and allow the water to drip into the container. Otherwise you can just empty the plastic bag periodically.

Drain Water from Woody Roots and Branches

The roots and branches of many trees contain sufficient free-flowing fluid to relieve thirst. In general, water is more plentiful from plants in gullies than on ridges. In arid areas the best volume is generally obtained by scratching up the surface roots. If cut close to the tree the roots may be lifted and pulled, each root yielding a length of several meters. These must be cut into shorter lengths (about a metre) for draining. The metre lengths are placed standing upright in a container into which their fluid will drain.

Many people who have tried to obtain drinking water from vegetable sources failed to get the liquid to flow because they did not break or cut the branch or root into lengths – and cutting is preferable to breaking which bruises and seals the capillary channels which might impede water flow. Cutting tends to bruise and seal the capillary channels.

N.B. These vegetable “drinking waters” cannot be kept for more than twenty-four hours. The fluid starts to ferment or go bad if stored and might become toxic.

Collect Water from Fruits

There is water to be found in fruits, vegetables, cacti, fleshy or pulpy plants, even roots. With any of these, you can simply collect the plants, place them in a container and mash them into a pulp to collect their liquid. This will not yield much but in desperate situations, every little bit helps.

If you have found water …..

When you do find a freshwater source, fill up any container you might have with the water. If you do not have a container, it would be wise to stay where your water source is, drinking small amounts of water every hour. Keep your eyes out for predators that can be found in lakes and rivers, including hippos and crocodiles.


Once you find water, your worries are far from over. More often than not, you are faced with a pool of slimy green stagnating water with suspicious lumps floating in it.

 Any survival expert will tell you that no matter where you find water in the wild (streams, lakes, condensation on plants, etc.) it should always be filtered and/or purified before drinking because it is often be contaminated with parasites and other micro-organisms. Dead animals and animal (or human) faeces can contaminate a water source with E. coli, Salmonella, Hepatitis (A and E) and Giardia, to name a few.

If you make the wrong decision about drinking water, you could soon be dealing with a bad case of diarrhoea and vomiting with associated fluid loss. In many cases, however, if you are experiencing an emergency water shortage in the bush it is not possible to purify water because you do not have the right supplies.

You then have to make the decision to either survive at that moment and risk the potential for diseases later (which, for the most part, can be treated once you are out of the emergency), or risk the consequences of increasing dehydration.

  1. Filtering out unwanted solid materials

Purification straws

You might be extremely organized and happen to be carrying portable purification straws. These are pocket-sized water purifiers that filter out impurities rather than chemically treating the water. Manufactured water filters pass water through a microscopic filter that is rated for a certain-size organism. Filter systems such as the Lifestraw range remove 99.9 per cent of bacteria, protozoan parasites and viruses without the need for power, plumbing or chemicals. From personal straws to family-sized desktop units, they are designed for use in under-developed countries in the most contaminated areas.

If, however, you don’t have a manufactured filter, improvise.

Filtration through sand/soil

The most basic filtration is to simply dig a hole alongside a waterhole.  Depending on how porous the soil is you will choose the distance to dig your hole.  The compromise here is flow rate versus filtration.  The further the water has to filter through the soil, the slower the process.  The more soil the water passes through, the better the overall quality of the water.  When your hole is dug it is a good idea to retreat to a safe area and wait for the filtration to take place.

Improvised multi-layer filter


  • Take a closely woven trouser leg or shirt sleeve (or a hat, but that might not be deep enough).  For a trouser leg or sleeve tie something like a shoelace around one end tightly.
  • Fill the sleeve/leg with 15cm of charcoal from a fire you have made or a burnt-out tree.
  • Add a layer of clean sand.  
  • Add a layer of dry grass.
  • Slowly pour your contaminated water into the centre of your filter and let it trickle through. The dry grass will remove the macro particulates (the lumpy bits), the sand will remove the suspended clay particulates and the charcoal will remove bacteria and some suspended salts.

This will both clarify and to a large extent purify the water, but it is always safer to boil it before drinking.

  • Chlorination – Purification tablets (If you were organized enough to bring some)

You can use purification tablets which are very portable. These tablets can chemically treat the water and kill bacteria and viruses. Remember for most tablets, you need to wait at least half an hour before the water is ready for consumption.

It is also possible to chlorinate the water with a pinch of chloride of lime.

  • Boiling

Access to fire is another vital survival skills tool. If you can make fire and you have almost any type of container, you can boil water.  This is where the huge advantages of metal drink bottles are obvious because the container can be used as a container for water boiling.

Most people do not know this but you can in fact boil water in a plastic bottle on a fire.  When boiling water inside the bottle, the water moderates the heat of the fire.  Your bottle may shrink a little but it will never melt as long as it is full.  Of course there could not be a more carcinogenic drink on Earth but the object of the exercise is survival.

Military survival specialists suggest a rolling boil for five minutes if the water source is unknown, while the US Centre for Disease Control considers one minute to be adequate. Either way, most bacteria will not survive beyond 76°C. The point is: let the water boil thoroughly. Do not pull it off the fire at the first sign of tiny bubbles.

Boiled water will taste better if you put oxygen back into it by pouring the water back and forth between two clean containers. This also will improve the taste of stored water. The flat taste of boiled water can be improved by adding a pinch of salt for each quart or liter of boiled water.

  • Distillation (boiling water and collecting the steam so it turns back into water)

You can also make water safe by distilling it. Distillation involves boiling water and then collection of only the vapor or steam that condenses. This is a more challenging process than the others we discuss but is the only method which renders water completely clean. While boiling and chlorination will kill most microbes in water, distillation will remove microbes (germs) that resist these methods, as well as heavy metals, salts and most other chemicals.

To distill, fill a pot halfway with water. Tie a cup to the handle on the pot’s lid so that the cup will hang right-side-up when the lid is upside-down (make sure the cup is not dangling into the water) and boil the water for 20 minutes. The water that drips from the lid into the cup is distilled.

In the open, distilling contaminated water can be achieved with plastic soda bottles and the sun.  If you are interested in researching this, you will find it under “solar water distilling” where you use condensation build up in a plastic container.


N.B. When water is scarce avoid water substitutes.

In any desperate survival scenario, you may be tempted to try non-water liquids as a substitute for the real thing. In all but the most dire of situations, these should be avoided. In general, non-water substitutes only worsen your heath and vigour. These substitutes, and their harmful characteristics are listed below:

Alcohol. Dehydrates and clouds judgment.

Urine. 95% water, but that other 5% is waste products that will ultimately lead to kidney failure if subsisted on for more than a very short period of time. (But can be used in a solar still – see above.)

Blood. May transmit disease. Also has high salt content.


A plentiful supply of clean drinking water is arguably the single most important element of client well-being and should be on top a guide’s list of priorities. Just in case, however, a combination of appalling mishaps should leave you and your clients deep in the bush without adequate water it is important that you study the above suggestions so as to be able to save the situation and bring everyone home safely.


Paddy Pacey

Zimbabwean field guide and trainer of aspiring guides

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