It goes without saying that collecting and purifying water is at the top of the survivor’s list of necessities. It is also well known that the human body must have proper water intake to operate at a normal capacity or the body begins to shut down. The rationing of available water will only slow the eventual outcome of a blinding death. With that said, in WWII a member of a B-24 aircrew walked 120 miles in wicked desert heat, over an eleven-day period without water. The sad ending to this great feat was that he was still 300 miles short of his goal and he died. Every American soldier owes it to that American airman to learn and do everything right, so that you may return to say that you learned from another mans death. No matter what climate or terrain that an individual may find him/herself in the need for water is still the same. The methods of collection and purification are sometimes a little different.

In 1985 there were a group of Army Rangers from the 3/75th setting through a class at the Jungle Operations Training Course at Ft. Sherman, Panama. The instructor was giving a class on how to construct a solar still with an OD military poncho. A young Ranger raised his hand and asked the E-6 if he had in fact used this method in the field and did it work? The staff sergeant confidently assured the Ranger that yes; he did use it and that it did work well. The young jungle fatigue wearing soldier was still not convinced and persisted with the questioning. Every Ranger officer and NCO in the tent had been through the class and received their Jungle Expert patch and double serpent certificate years ago. They had been taught the same class just with different instructors. This young, green Ranger was not only questioning the Army Staff Sergeant giving his expert advise at the front of the tent but the knowledge that THEY carried with them all these years. The young Ranger’s squad leader, a sergeant formerly with 1st Ranger Batt, swiveled in his chair and stared hard at his subordinate. But this mouthy young Ranger just kept after it. Finally the Viking squad leader belt out a thunderous “at the f*** ease Ranger.” The tension in the room settled and the class resumed. What does all that have to do with anything you might ask?

What no one in the tent knew at the time, was that young Ranger had studied, applied and perfected (with in reason) the solar still concept in the field, many times and in many different environments. And he knew that it was bogus information that was being put out to United States military personnel. The class was designed to save their lives. But had this technique been tried by any of the thousands of soldiers that graduated that school, in a “real world”situation, they would have died of dehydration. Because the solar still works just marginally under the best conditions, but it will NOT work at all with a military poncho. The sheet material must be clear plastic!

The real jest of the whole story is to make the would-be survivor aware that there are many bad sources of information out there. Whether it is presented by official sources or through books and videos, you must not take any material at its word until you have perfected it in the field. Now just because the novice can’t make a technique work doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work. It just means that it must be perfected in the field before it goes into the survivor’s arsenal of skills. At least once every class an U.S. RSOG instructor will ask a student why he/she is carrying a certain piece of equipment in his/her kit? The soldier will state that this gadget-twisty-do-hickey can be fashioned into a makeshift boobytrap-rocket pack-rescue device. The instructor immediately asks him/her if they have ever used this in the field before? The answer is usually no, but they understand the concept well enough to have confidence that they can make it work. Just remember so did that Army instructor at JOTC. And by the way that young know-it-all Ranger went on to become a survival instructor at the Army Ranger school and is now the commander of the U.S. RSOG.

Purification Techniques

The best method to purify water is by boiling it. The length of boiling time can be debated, but the temperature can not. The water must come to a complete raging boil. When it gets to this point any active spores, bacteria and other vermin are usually dead. Using bleach or betadine will chemically treat water. The formula has always been 8 large drops per quart with either chemical. Our cadre are fond of bleach and betadine solutions because they can be used for medical purposes as well. We usually us an eyedropper (we brought the chemical might as well bring the dropper) and use as much chemical as it takes to be able to smell it in the water. The treated water is left to stand for 20 minutes, then shaken or stirred and left for another five minutes. POTABLE AQUA tablets and military iodine tablets work well under most conditions too. The carry and use of commercially produced water purifiers such as the KATADYN and MSR series pumps are recommend for all great adventurers. POLAR PURE crystals are another option for a kit. Polar pure is a great iodine based product that can be used for hundreds of gallons of water. If you are going to carry this product in your kit build a protective cover for the glass bottle. They don’t usually get broken in your kit, it’s when you’re using the product and drop it onto a hard surface. We speak from experience on this subject. We carry KATADYN Micropur tabs in most of our kits because they are individually wrapped.

Collecting Water

Skipping over the conventional method of dipping your canteen cup down into a stream, pond, lake, creek or puddle, we will explore the unconventional.

  1. Natural Catches- can be found in every environment from jungle, mountains, desert, temperate wooded etc. A natural catch is any nook or dip where rainwater may collect. In the jungle and wooded areas it is common to find water in the forks of large trees and plant stalks. As well as in the cup formed by flower pedals or leaves. Anywhere that rock formations are found there are the possibility of dished out pocks that catch water. Search high and low in and around these formations. Don’t over look cracks in the rock that may be too hard to reach a hand into. A long skinny stick with a rag tied to the end may be the only way of getting it out of there. One more natural catch is in man-made structures or machinery. From the hollows of concrete blocks to the nooks and crannies of wreckage have reaped small amounts of water for U.S. RSOG operators in the field. Collect and purify all water.

  2. Dew Ragging- is a technique where heavy drops of early morning dew are collected off of leaves, rocks, grass etc. using a sponge or rag to collect it. The moisture is then rung out into a container.

  3. Creeper Vines- are vines that hang down from the tree tops, but are based out of the ground, usually with a dark brown bark covering. By hacking into these vines a watery sap can be collected in drip containers. Many vines will drip quarts of liquid. It must be drank within 12-24 hours or it will ferment and spoil. Be aware that it can be a mild laxative.

  4. Beneath Ground Deposits- finding shaded areas under logs in dried rivers or depressions in the bends of dried creek beds is another area to search for water. Digging in these areas can produce collectable moisture. Usually in the form of mud or moist sand. Dig at the last possible place that water stood in your likely water source area (the deepest point in a dry pond or lake). The moist soil is placed in a rag and squeezed hard enough to press the moisture out. This is time consuming but it may be a survivor’s only hope. We speak from experience when we say that it will probably stink and be very dirty. Filtering and purifying is recommended.

    Don’t forget about coconut milk and banana trees. Cut a 6-8 inch dia. banana tree down leaving 6-8 inches of stump sticking out of the ground. Carve the inside of the stump out, making a bowl shape. A watery sap will collect in the bowl from the roots system. This stump can produce water for well over 24 hours under the right conditions. The liquid should be consumed before it spoils.

  5. Stills- most everyone has seen the diagram for building a solar still. They are touted as the survivor’s best chance of survival in the desert. When the truth is that the more arid a region is the less likely that a solar still will produce effectively. U.S. RSOG cadre have found that a large CLEAR trash bag that is placed on a small slope in direct sunlight, with a “booster” in it works better (better doesn’t mean great). The booster can be moist leafy vegetation or a cup of any water based liquid (the cup is placed inside of the bag not dumped in the bag. A blunted stick is used as a tent pole to keep the bag expanded. The bag is closed off and any moisture that collects runs down the slope into the end of the bag where it is collected with a straw (if you have one). Again we are still talking about marginal results in arid regions but still better then the beneath ground solar still. Beneath ground solar stills work well in the jungle environments. Why would anyone need it there you ask? Because it will produce copious amounts of fresh water free of iodine tablet residue and floating debris. All that is needed is an open spot of ground with direct sunlight. When an evader can pull three quarts of water (or more in field tests) from a still at the top of a tropical mountain region and not have to trek to the bottom of the range where the streams are, it is considered a “good thing.” The three quarts to a gallon in 8-10 hours of daylight is a real find when sitting tight waiting to make radio contact with any over flying SAR assets.

Special Equipment

Is carrying a pump filter, Polar Pure, and Potable Aqua in your ruck overkill? The answer is no not at all. We also suggest that you don’t stop there. Adding a chemical free sponge, some coffee filters and some collapsible canteens or water bladders will greatly support your efforts to beat the Reaper when he is trying to ring you out of your life juices. How about those Adventure Medical Kits space blankets that we try to get men to carry. It can be spread out to catch rain water so that you can fill your bladders.


Do NOT drink alcohol, urine, blood, or salt water as a replacement for water. Always purify water before drinking.

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