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Making Potable Water

by Survival Dispatch Staff

Drink or Die! It’s the battle cry of any thirsty human being. But this adage goes beyond mere marketing and is actually a matter of survival for many, especially in the hot desert sands. 

You can become severely dehydrated if you don’t drink enough water, or if you fail to drink water altogether (either out of fear it’s not safe to do so – or that you had better conserve as much as possible). However, dehydration is still a risk even when drinking water regularly. 

Having the skill to make potable water is the difference between life and death. When your body doesn’t receive enough H20 – things can go sour for you pretty quickly. Here are some signs and other things to look out for to avoid dehydration:

  • Urine Test
  • Invisible Enemies
    • Viruses
    • Bacteria
    • Protozoa
    • Helminths
  • Wilderness Water Treatment Techniques
    • Boiling with Hot Rocks
    • Build a Tripod Filter (with Pros and Cons)


One of the best ways to assess hydration levels in your body is to keep track of your water intake and urine output

As a general rule of thumb, most people need about 2 quarts of liquid per day just to sit around, and you’ll need even more if you’re sweating heavily or in an arid environment. 

Be sure to take into account any additional exertions that follow this initial consumption as well, see how much water you’ve put to good use before depleting the supply and determine whether or not you’re at a healthy level for the activity that’s been taking place.

It can be hard to measure how much you’ve drank, but one way to stay honest is by keeping track of how often you visit the toilet. In fact, measuring your pee is actually a good way to make sure you don’t get too dehydrated! 

If you’re not peeing very frequently (and at a normal volume) then it’s likely that you’re getting too little water in your system. 

It’s natural that your urine will reflect the conditions around you – how much exertion and energy-consumption there has been, the weather, local environment, and also how much alcohol and caffeine you have consumed.

If you do not seem to be peeing a lot, you are heading toward dehydration.


All heroes need to stay hydrated. But sometimes, the bad guys sneak up on the best of us and we let our guard down. It is important to keep a level head at all times so that you can react quickly when danger threatens

Here’s how you know it’s time to take a break and grab some water:

  • you start feeling dizzy or very light-headed, even after drinking some coffee or tea;
  • your headache becomes worse instead of better;
  • your muscles feel weak or floppy without energy;
  • your mouth gets very dry and swallowing anything is harder than before; and lastly,
  • your heart is beating faster than usual under the circumstances.

If this is not treated immediately, shock is highly likely to follow.


Plenty of people have survived by drinking untreated lake water or even sea water in a survival scenario and shown on TV. But don’t be fooled, it’s never a good idea to consume untreated water in any survival setting. Dangerous organisms live in the surface water wherever you roam and these pathogens can lead to serious illness and sometimes even death.

The four groups in this list are the most common contaminants you need to kill or remove in any water source you find.

Viruses. The littlest of the waterborne pathogens, viruses can be found throughout the world’s surface water. The most common species include enterovirus, norovirus, rotavirus, shigella, and Hepatitis A.

Over 100 different viruses are transmitted from water to humans. These tiny organisms range from .03 to .1 microns (micrometers). To put their minute size into perspective – a virus can enter into and infect a bacterium! Hundreds of bacteriums make up one unit of bacteria.

Bacteria. Bigger than the average virus, bacteria can enter the waterways through waste or dead animals, such as rotten fish.

Bacteria sizes can range from 0.5 to 2 microns in diameter and some of the most common species include the following:

  • vibrio cholerae (causes typhoid fever)
  • salmonella spp., campylobacter spp., shigella spp. (cause gastroenteritis),
  • staphylococcus aureus (cause foodborne infections)
  • pseudomonas aeruginosa (cause pneumonia, skin infections).


Protozoa. Though nanoscale in size, Cryptosporidium parvum and Giardia lamblia are very common in raw water. These cyst forming protozoa can grow thick-walled shells which make them resistant to various types of disinfectants like chlorine and iodine.

Cryptosporidium can grow anywhere between 4-6 microns in size, while Giardia cysts are typically found between 10-15 microns.

Helminths. It is very hard to detect if you’re infected with helminths. Helminths are hard, segmented worms that can live in the intestinal tract of humans and animals. If you’re exposed to them by drinking dirty water it can be quite dangerous to your health. These parasites might reside in the water or they might have been deposited there by an animal whose feces were contaminated in some way.

Varying by species, helminths may linger in your GI tract or migrate to other organs (like your liver or lungs). These worms can be challenging to diagnose, and it’s possible for them to lie dormant for months up to years in a human host.


Here are a couple of tricks in treating water that you can practice on before going into the wild.

Build A Tripod Filter

A tripod filter can be useful in your survival camp. It’s made with layers of cloth, grass, charcoal and sand. Unfortunately, it doesn’t filter out enough pathogens to make water safe to drink. However, this simple filter does the first step in water treatment by clarifying muddy water and removing debris.

  1. Collect three tripod sticks about 4.5 feet or 1.5 meters in length.
  2. Use a bit of cordage to lash them together with a tripod lashing.
  3. Stand it up to reveal the tripod.
  4. Tie three pieces of triangle-shaped cloth into the tripod. Lie each flat and one above the other. It would be helpful to have the cloths in different sizes (small, medium, and large).
  5. First Layer at the top of the tripod — Pile on fresh green grass to the smallest piece of cloth. The leaves of the grass have tiny barbs which can grab tiny particles.
  1. Second Layer — Load this up with tiny chunks of crushed black charcoal from your fire. Don’t use charcoal powder, otherwise you risk getting your filter clogged.
  2. Bottom Layer — Dump in some clean dry sand.
  3. To use the filter, pour your water into the grass layer at the top. Watch the trickle down through the entire makeshift funit.

At first, the water will flush a dark gray color because of the charcoal dust from the second layer and dirt from the bottom sand layer. Once the filter starts running more clearly, the water is ready to use.

This filter may remove large organisms like worms, but you still need to boil the water in a bowl after collecting it underneath the bottom layer.

All water treatment techniques come with their pro’s and con’s. Here’s a list for the tripod filter:


  • Improves the taste and clarity of your water
  • Can be easily built with natural materials
  • Portable and reusable


  • Hard to build If you lack the cloth
  • Charcoal isn’t readily available unless you have one from a previous fir
  • Green fresh grass isn’t available at all areas all-year round
  • Doesn’t remove many water pathogens

Boil With Hot Rocks

If you’re carrying a metal pot with you in the wild and you’re able to get a fire going – you’re in luck. Boiling water for 5-10 minutes is the simplest and safest way to treat water and turn it potable. This deceptively simple technique works by killing all waterborne pathogens without the need for chemicals and filters.

But how do you boil without a metal pot? The title of the paragraph gives it away.

Cooking with hot stones has been used for thousands of years. Hot stones are great vessels to place near a fire when you’re trying to keep warm (specifically 120-140 degrees). They’re also commonly used as bed warmers or something to hold in your lap since they retain a lot of heat. And by cranking up the heat, you can actually cook meals in vessels that aren’t normally placed over an open fire like gourds, wooden bowls, mineral rocks and more!

The benefits of technique are not limited to just sanitizing water. Rock boiling can also be used to brew teas or cook soups without using modern containers.


Here’s how you can perform this bit of camp magic:

  1. Look around for at least two dozen (24)  egg-sized stones. Make sure to collect the rocks from a high dry location. When heated, waterlogged rocks can explode dangerously and send shrapnels of stone in all directions.
  2. Heat them up by tossing them into a fire for at least 30 minutes.
  3. While waiting for the stones to heat up, fashion tongs from a split stick.
  4. Make an improvised water container to act as your boiling vessel.

    Use materials available in the wild like:
    • Carving out a wooden basin or bowl from the side of a log
    • Folding up a tree bark container
    • Evening a hole in a large rock
  5. Use your makeshift tongs to grab the hot rocks (think of them like giant tweezers).
  6. Drop the stones in your container one or two at a time.
  7. Pull them out once they stop hissing, this means the hot stones have cooled.
  8. Add new hot rocks until the cooking time is done.
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