Time: 3 Days
Risk: Dizziness, Dehydration, Death
Water is the third most important factor to consider in a survival situation, whether sheltering in place or on the move. Once the first two survival needs of clean air and shelter from harsh weather are established, the next thing to consider is an adequate supply of drinking water. Which will require making an accurate guess on who will need how much water, how to ensure it is clean enough to drink, and how to store it if possible.
Calculating Water Needs
Many variables affect the need for water. In general, we need to take in three liters (Approximately ¾ gallon) of water in a day, one liter from our food and two from drinking water. When you include other needs, it is recommended to have one gallon of water per person per day, half for drinking and half for sanitation and hygiene. In a survival situation, it is essential to think about who may need more water than others.
- For children, nursing mothers, and sick people, add half a gallon (1.8 Liters) a day.
- Set aside one gallon (3.8 Liters) per person for a medical emergency.
In a warm-weather climate or extreme temperatures, add one gallon (3.8 Liters) a day - for a total of two gallons (7.5 Liters) a day.
- Higher activity will require additional water; if extra water is not available, work the same amount but take frequent breaks.
Even sitting around most of the day sheltering in place or traveling in the car, the body still needs water to keep working. Our bodies can use up to two to three liters a day from breathing and other bodily functions. Electrolytes are minerals. We usually get what we need that we do not make from the food that we eat. Electrolytes help our body function. The body’s fluid balance can be affected, damaging performance, if the body becomes saturated with water or our water balance becomes overly salty.
Electrolytes and Water Imbalance
Sports drinks vary in the amount of electrolytes and sugars and are not needed daily. Only during prolonged physical exercise, such as hiking for a large part of the day or lifting and carrying heavy items for a few hours, will electrolytes be needed. Chewable tablets containing sodium, calcium, magnesium, and potassium are an alternative to surgery sports rinks.
Soft drinks and coffee are mild diuretics, making us need to urinate more often and are an option only if clean drinking water is not available. However, if one usually drinks a lot of coffee or soft drinks, the body can become tolerant of these effects over time.
The body moves everything around using water, from the oxygen in the blood to cells’ energy. When we do not get enough water, our blood also becomes thicker, making our heart pump harder, raising our blood pressure. If we drink a lot of water without replacing the salts that we sweat out, we can start to cramp and get bloated, which can cause swelling in our feet and hands.
After hours of hiking, one may notice any rings or watches feel tight; this may be because they are drinking water and not replacing the salt lost by sweating by eating lightly salted almonds or salted pretzels mentioned above chewable tablets.
However, too much salt is not healthy, and knowing how much salt and water one needs takes some practice to get right, but on average, a small salty snack every two to three hours will do the trick. The more we sweat, the more salt we need to replace.
Drinking Unpurified Water
Drinking unpurified water should only be considered as the last option in any survival situation. If treating, filtering, or boiling water that does not come from a tap is not an option, there is a high contamination risk of bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. No matter how clean the water looks in a stream or river, it can lead to diarrhea, vomiting, and cramps. Most of the time, experiencing these symptoms after taking a few sips of unfiltered water from a stream is all it takes to convince most hikers not to make the same mistake twice.
As bad as those symptoms are, dehydration symptoms due to not drinking any water for a few days are more server. When stranded in a remote location with rescue uncertain, without any equipment to start a fire or boil water, drinking unfiltered water will keep someone alive. It can sometimes take days for the effects of drinking contaminated water to be noticed. Those few days may be what is needed to find safety or to get rescued. To be clear, drinking unpurified water is only an alternative to dying of dehydration. Therefore it is not an option for long-term survival. For long-term survival, water must be cleaned and stored safely.
Water Purification and Storage
The gold standard for water purification is to boil at a roiling boil for a minute unless at high altitudes greater than 6,562 feet, which requires three minutes. Boiling water kills everything, and then using a bandana, or something similar to pour the water through, can remove the larger things in river water that may be safe but still not pleasant to drink. If possible, adding a pinch of salt per liter of water will help improve the taste.
IMPORTANT: Water contaminated with fuel or toxic chemicals will not be made safe by boiling or disinfection. Use bottled water or a different water source if known or suspected that the water might contain fuel or toxic chemicals.
If boiling water is not an option, then filtration will be the next fastest and safe option. There are many water filters on the market, and it is essential to follow the manufacturer’s directions. When looking for water filters, look for terms like “reverse osmosis” and a filter size of 1 micron or less. Any water filter is better than not having one.
A third option is to treat water with bleach or iodine tablets. This method is best when combined with water filtration as a substitute for boiling water. Treatment is a safe option but can take up to an hour to work and takes some practice. Other variables to consider in water treatment are water temperature, disinfectant concentration, how cloudy the water is, water pH, which will affect how effective the treatment is and shows why it is essential to follow manufacturer instructions.
The bottled water bought at the local grocery store will be the safest and most reliable water source in an emergency. Bottled water can last for years if stored correctly, like in the pantry, out of direct sunlight, in a cool, dry place. Every household should store at least 1 gallon of water per person per day for three days, up to two weeks if possible, and remember to add more for hot climates, pregnant women, and sick persons. Most stores will carry five-gallon water containers with easy pour spouts that are great for camping or in a survival situation and create less waste.
When storing water other than store-bought bottled water, it is essential to use FDA-approved food-grade water storage containers.
Being stuck with unpurified water can happen at home as well as in the wilderness. Knowing what to look for and how to purify your water is key to helping you survive.