The sailor slumped in his life raft, surrounded by the deep blue sea. He was slowly dying, because even though there was water as far as the eye could see, none of it was potable.

You can go about three days without water before there are serious health issues. On the other hand, going without water for even a few hours can have a tremendous impact.

In order to study the effects of different water consumption models on soldiers, the Aberdeen Proving Grounds (Maryland) performed a number of experiments with different drinking models.

  • Keep your canteen full, drink only when ordered, conserve water.
  • Drink when you wanted
  • Drink at rest times
  • Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.

They then had groups of soldiers march 20 miles with full load out and then deploy for battle. They evaluated the combat readiness of the troops at the end of the march.

The WWII method of either having a full or empty canteen with water conservation being a primary concern left the troops combat ineffective for over a full day.

The drink when the soldier wanted left the troops combat ineffective for a bit more than a full day. Less than the conserve mode but still requiring a significant recovery time.

Having the soldiers drink every time there was a rest stop worked better. They were only combat ineffective for around 8 hours.

For the “hydrate, hydrate, hydrate” method, the troops reached the end of the march, deployed, and were combat effective.

You don’t notice it but even small amounts of dehydration have a noticeable effect on performance.

Make sure you have enough water to keep going.

Nuclear, Biological, Chemical

Water that is contaminated in a nuclear event might absorb some radiation but that is not a major issue. The real issue is particulate matter that is radioactive.

One of the horrors of the nuclear bombings of Japan was that the survivors were suffering from dehydration and heat issues. When it started to rain shortly after the explosions, the survivors went outside to let the cooling rain wash over them.

Many drank the rain water.

Unfortunately for them, that rain water was carrying a huge amount of radioactive particulates. Those survivors were drinking water full of radioactive mud. They were soaking their clothing with radioactive mud.

Many died not because of their exposure to the original blast, but from exposure to that radioactive mud.

To create potable water from a water source contaminated by radioactive fallout, you need to filter out that radioactive particulate matter. In the process, you will concentrate radioactive materials in your filter.

So yes, you could use a life straw to drink water from a stream contaminated with fallout. Your water would be pure. And the filter you put back in your bag would now be radiating.

Water that is contaminated by biological contaminants can be made potable by removing the biological component via filtering, distilling, poison, or sunlight. This is actually the easiest to deal with.

Chemical contamination is more difficult.

Dosis sola facit venenum – Paracelsus

Or for a more modern time: The dose makes the poison

There are many chemical contaminants which are lethal at a high enough dose and harmless at low concentrations. Other chemicals build up over time so a single dose isn’t lethal, but many small doses are.

Chemical contamination has to either be removed or deactivated.

C11H26NO2PS is a chemical compound developed by the US military. It is lethal in very small amounts. To deactivate it, you use H2O.

Other poisons can be transformed into harmless compounds by the proper application of the right chemicals.

If you can’t deactivate the chemical poison, you need to remove it via physical means.

Crystal Clear Water?

Water is classified as potable when it is safe for humans to drink. This is not the same as “clear”. You need to know the types of contamination water can have and then deal with the different types.

Water can contain insoluble contaminants or soluble contaminants.

Insoluble Contaminants

If it doesn’t dissolve in water, it is insoluble.

Some contaminants are harmful, others an irritation.

Grab a handful of clean sand, drop it into a clean glass of water. Let it settle to the bottom and you can drink the clean water. The sand passing through did not “contaminate” the water.

Drop smaller particles into that glass of water and it might turn muddy colored. It might still be safe to drink.

You can have vegetation growing in the water, and it still can be safe to drink.

The thing that is at issue is microscopic bacteria that is living in that water. That bacteria can make you sick. And that crystal clear water might very well be filled with killer bacteria.

You won’t see it, you won’t taste it, and you won’t smell it. You’ll just get sick. And in some cases you will die from that contaminated water.

Soluble Contaminants

These are all the things that dissolve in water. We’ll use the case of simple table salt. You can stir a small amount of salt into a glass of clean drinking water. That salt will dissolve. When you drink that water, the salt enters your body. You can taste the salt. As soon as the salt content goes over a certain amount, the water is no longer potable and you can’t use it to hydrate.

There are many things that can dissolve in water that are not harmful. Consider a teaspoon of sugar dissolved in water. It might not be healthy, but it won’t kill you and you can still use it to hydrate.

You can dissolve polyphenols, peroxidase and methylxanthines from leaves and it is safe to drink. As a matter of fact a large number of people do this on a regular basis. It is called tea.

So just because there is a soluble contaminate in water it doesn’t mean that the water is harmful. Some contaminants are actually helpful.

Unfortunately there are lots of things that do make water non-potable. These include things like arsenic, acids, and toxic metals. In some cases these things are colorless, odorless, and tasteless.

Clean Water

The water that comes from the tap in your house is potable. It might not be clean. The water from the stream might not be potable. The question then becomes how to clean water.

The Still

A DIY Reflux Still

The best way to make pure water is with a still. In theory, a still is very simple. In practice, it gets a bit more complicated.

A still consists of a boiling vessel, a method of capturing the gases given off during boiling, a condenser, and a collection vessel.

The condenser needs to be kept cool, so it is normally kept immersed in a water bath. Depending on needs, that water might be replaced as it takes on more heat.

The fluid in the boiling vessel is raised to boiling temperature. The fluid turns to gas and travels up and is captured. As it enters the condenser the gas is cooled and it changes state back to a liquid. Gravity causes that liquid to flow downhill within the condenser until it drips or flows out the bottom.

Simple. All you need is a few plumbing connections and you can make your own still.

And then you can use it to kill yourself.

Notice that I said “fluid” above. Let’s say that the fluid isn’t pure water. We already said our goal is to create pure water. As that fluid starts to boil, different compounds will change state to gas (boil) at different temperatures.

At around 169F certain contaminants will start to boil off of a mash. These are the “heads”, they are bitter and can be dangerous. The temperature will stabilize there as the heads boil off. Then the temperature will rise, and when it gets to 174F you get ethanol. When the temperature goes above around 180F you are into “tails” and again you are collecting things you don’t want in your body. Finally at 212F you will be getting water.

All of these are for sea level pressures.

You need to know the temperature of your boiling fluid to know what is coming out.

You also have to let enough water come out of the condenser in order to clean it, or you have to vent your gas away from the condenser until such time as you actual reach 212F.

What this all means is that if you are using a still to make pure water, make sure you know how to run a still.

(As a side note, you can also use a still to make ethanol from a mash.)

One of the downsides of using a still is that it requires you have a heat source. When fuel is at a premium, you might be in the interesting situation of having to get double use out of the fuel. Boiling the water and heating your shelter.

Plan ahead.


Filters are much easier to use, much more portable, come in many sizes and do a great job. However, they are normally not capable of removing soluble contaminants.

Take your salt water and run it through a filter and you get clean salty water. It just doesn’t work.

Over the last few years, we’ve learned many things about filters. Today we hear about how N95 masks are better than x,y, and z at filtering viruses. That’s because an N95 has a finer filter.

Filters work by trapping particulates in the filter and only allowing the fluid to flow through. If the particulate is larger than the mesh size of the filter, the filter stops it. If it is smaller, it might pass through.

The other day I was attempting to extract some lanolin from sheep’s wool. I was at the step in the process where I was suppose to pour the fluid through a filter of cheesecloth. I did and at about the 90% point the filter stopped letting fluid flow through.

I had to gently tilt the filtering so that the fluid would go through a different part of the filter.

Having seen how well the filter worked, the next day I was surprised to find a huge amount of particulate matter that had precipitated out to the bottom of the pot.

This is the downside of filters. They don’t stop everything they are intended to stop and they clog, making them useless or at the very least, difficult to use.

That clean filter might be able to move a quart of water in 5 minutes with little effort. After filtering 100 gallons it might take 10 minutes and a lot of effort.

A good filter is not a single filter but a filter system. The idea being to use different mesh sizes to filter out different size particulates so that things don’t clog up. In addition, some filter systems offer activated charcoal filtering.

Activated charcoal works as a bonding agent for certain things. So it can be used to remove, not filter, some trace elements from water. It will take some heavy metals out of the water.

Once a filter has filled with particulates it must be cleaned (back flushed) or replaced.

A classic example of a filter filling and failing is a septic field. Many septic fields are failing today as the fields were mostly sand. Sand acts as a great filter and it removed most of the particulates that got to the field.

Over time the sand captured so much particulate matter that it turned to clay. Clay is not as permiable as sand, this causes the field to back up into the septic tank and you then find that your indoor plumbing doesn’t work any more OR you suddenly find a sewage spring in your back yard.

Cut away DIY water filter

Reverse Osmosis

If you’re looking for a water filter that will provide great-tasting, fresh drinking water for your home or business, Reverse Osmosis (RO) water filtration is one of the most popular and cost-effective water filtration methods available. In simple terms, a reverse osmosis water filter works as water is forced across a semi-permeable membrane, leaving contaminants behind that are flushed down the drain. The clean drinking water collects in a holding tank. Understanding Reverse Osmosis

Reverse Osmosis is used to create clean potable water from just about any type of contaminated water. It is used aboard ship to turn salt water into drinking water. It is used to create clean drinking water in areas where there is only salt water sources.

The upside is that it works well. It is fairly efficient. The downside is that it requires more water as input than you get as output and it requires energy to work. There needs to be enough pressure to cause water to move through the membrane.

When the sellers talk about “no electricity” they mean that the RO filter doesn’t directly consume electricity. Instead you need a certain amount of pressure. That pressure normally comes from your water supply.

If your water supply is from the government/city/public utility, then that entity is using power to pressurize the water mains. If you are getting your water from a well system, then your well pump is providing that pressure. If your water is from a cistern, no matter how it is fed, you need a pump to pressurize your pipes.

Most RO filters do not work well, if at all, when there is low pressure.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t use them in a no power situation. It just means that you have to be prepared to provide the pressure some other way, such as moving a pump handle up and down yourself.

The manual RO filter I looked at on Amazon reports a maximum filter rate of 0.5L per minute requiring 34 strokes of the pump handle and requiring 0.5L min of waste water.

In order to get a gallon of potable water it will take around 1.5 gallons of water in and 10 minutes of solid pumping. So figure a minimum of an hour to fill a 5 gallon jerry can.

Water Purification

There are a number of ways to “purify” water chemically. The most common method is to add poison to the water. Again, the dose makes the poison. The most common poison added to water to make it potable is chlorine.

Chlorine at the proper levels will kill most biological contaminants and has the side effect of removing the color from most other particulates. Thus it turns water clear as well as killing those nasty little bugs that can kill you.

You can purchase water treatment powders, tablets and liquids. They are added to a known quantity of water. After enough time has passed, the water is considered safe to drink. Thus you can fill your one quart canteen in a stream, add a treatment and then drink that water a short time, 35 minutes, later.

In addition to compounds that are explicitly designated for water purification, you can also use household bleach.

According to Clorox, you can let the water you want to treat sit until all/most of the particulate matter has settled to the bottom. Then decant the clear water from the top. You can use a siphon or you can just carefully scoop it out with some other container. Then add 4 drops of “Clorox Disinfecting Bleach” for each quart of water. Wait 30 minutes. Check for a chlorine odor. If no odor, repeat the treatment.

This means that a 1/4 teaspoon will treat 1.75 gallons of water.

Water Purification: How much bleach to purify water for drinking

Unfortunately, bleach is fairly bulky and does have a shelf life.

The answer is to have granular calcium hypochlorite (HTH), sometimes known as Pool Shock. You can mix one heaping teaspoon of HTH with 2 gallons of water to create two gallons of bleach.

Make sure that your pool shock uses HTH and not other chemicals. Make sure it gives at least a 70% chlorine solution when you are done. A single one pound bag of HTH will provide you with 200 gallons of bleach. That will purify a boat load of water, a little bit more than 20,000 gallons.

You can find it on Amazon for $47 for six one pound bags. NOTE: I looked at the ingredients, I have not purchased this product nor personally tested it. This method of making bleach is described and recommended by the CDC.

Somewhere I have a little gizmo called a “MSR MIOX Pen Purifier” that takes salt crystals to which you add water and then pass an electrical current through. This produces a liquid chlorine that can then be added to water to purify it. The down side is that it uses batteries. Is a little slow to use and really doesn’t get you much more than you would get from purification tablets.

I did have fun using it. It was amazing watching it turn water from a puddle in the back yard into crystal clear potable water.

It is currently only available in the used market. But MSR has created an up sized version, the SE200, for treating community sized water sources. It runs about $300 and requires a 12volt power supply. It creates enough chlorine solution to purify 40,000L of water from salt brine and one charge of an 80 amp hour car battery. That’s about 10,500 gals of water.

Note, the community system is designed to create enough chlorine solution in one run to treat 200L of water. After 24 hours that chlorine solution is no longer any good. In other words, it produces enough chlorine mixture to treat 10 five gallon Jerry cans.

Just Because it has been “purified” doesn’t make it safe to drink

You can take 200L of salt water, purify it by adding chlorine and end up with 200L of water that is still salt water.

You can take 200L of muddy water and add chlorine to it. In thirty minutes you’ll still have muddy water and it may or may not be safe to drink. That “mud” can interact with the chlorine.


You can kill most bacteria, viruses and protozoa by boiling your water. This is a quick and easy method if you have the fuel and time.

You need to bring the water to a boil. This is enough at sea level. Above 5000ft, boil for at least three minutes.

Note that this is the same as adding a poison to the water. It will kill nasty bugs but doesn’t remove soluble contaminants nor does it remove particulates.

Cleaning Water

This has nothing to do with making water potable, it has to do with removing particulates.

You clean water by running it through filters of some sort or another, or letting the water settle.

If you have the time, just let the water sit and settle. Particulate matter is generally heavier or lighter than water. The liquid you start with will separate into layers. The bottom layer of mud is particulates that are heavier than water. The stuff floating on top is made of particulates that are lighter than water.

Skim the gunk off the top and then decant the clean water, leaving the gunk on the bottom alone.

It is better to leave some clean water behind than to suck up that gunk.

Having some container to gently lift the water is one method. I strongly suggest you get a siphon pump. Let gravity do the work. The only requirement for a siphon pump to work is that the intake be higher than the out flow.

You can use just a simple hose as a siphon pump. If you decide on the hose method realize that you are putting yourself at risk. Yes, many of us have started a siphon by sucking on the end of a hose. And sometimes we get a mouthful of yuck. That’s not acceptable in a situation where you are attempting to get potable water from a questionable source.

You can also take that hose and carefully fill it with water from your questionable source. Seal the out flow, pull that end of the hose out and then unseal it. The siphon will now start without that awful mouthful of yuck. And if you used your hands to move that hose into the questionable water and then pull the end out, your hands are now contaminated. Do you have the ability to decontaminate your hands?

You can create filters. Depending on what you are filtering these might be good enough to make potable water. Just be aware that they do lose effectiveness the more you use them.

How to make a water filter
  1. Take a two liter or larger plastic bottle and cut a hole in the bottom large enough to get your materials into
  2. Remove the cap and cover the mouth of the bottle with a coffee filter and tie it in place.
  3. Push cotton balls in from the bottom of the bottle to create about a 1 inch layer. Don’t pack it to tightly. This layer must be a layer that is absorbent. You can’t use plastic fibers here.
  4. If you have it, add a 1/2 inch of activated charcoal. This will remove some elements from the water. The soluble elements will bind with the activated charcoal.
  5. Add a 1 to 2 inch layer of clean, fine sand.
  6. Add a 1 to 2 inch layer of clean small rocks. Most of the instructions call for “gravel” but technically gravel is full of “fines” and isn’t what you want. You want 1/2-3/4 crushed stone or 1/4-1/2 pebbles.
  7. Add water slowly till the bottle is filled. It will slowly make its way through the filter giving you clean and maybe purified water.

A good DIY water filter will do a great job of filtering water. The issue becomes knowing when it stops doing a great job. Most DIY filters are only good for a limited amount of dirty water, after which they either clog up (a good thing, as it tells you it is done), or it just passes the contaminants through.

Using a DIY filter for a few days seems reasonable and you should know how to make and use it. Depending on it long term is more questionable until you get to large scale DIY filters.

Scaling Up

This method can be scaled up using 5 gallon buckets. If you want, get food grade buckets by purchasing them or go to local restaurants and ask for them. Most restaurants have to dispose of many of them per week.

Given how cheap these buckets are, plan on making a stack of them to accomplish your filtering. The top bucket should hold your stones. The bottom should have a number of holes drilled in it. No larger than 1/4 inch.

The next bucket holds your sand. Add more holes but only up to 1/8 size. This fits inside of your activated charcoal bucket. Your activated charcoal bucket has a layer of cotton balls at the bottom and the charcoal layered on top.

This bucket has 1/8 inch holes in it which drain into your collector bucket.

Don’t forget to clean your collection bucket on a regular basis. Use soap and clean water, then bleach. The idea is to keep things from getting into your collection bucket and growing.

You can also make your own larger scale water filters by purchasing commercial filters and installing them in your own buckets. A full size Berkey water filter system will set you back about $490 from Amazon.

On the other hand, you can make your own by purchasing Berkey replacement filters and installing them in food grade 5 gallon buckets. You drill holes in the bottom of the top bucket. You insert the filters and tighten the nuts to hold them in place. Install a water valve in the lower bucket, stack the two buckets, fill the top bucket and you are ready to go.

To make the filters work you will need a some water to prime the filters.

A set of two ceramic filters runs about $65 on Amazon. Actual Berkey filters, set of two, will set you back around $170 on Amazon.

While more costly than rocks, these filters are light weight and last forever when unopened. Adding them to your shelf for later time is a good choice.


Unfortunately, you don’t know what your DIY filter is really doing unless you test the results.

The short answer is that there aren’t any really good home tests. All of the good tests are simple, “Take a sample and send to our lab. We’ll tell you what’s in your water” types.

There are test strips for different elements and there are tests for certain classes of microbial contamination, and there are instruments to test for radioactive materials.

The test strips are easy to use and once you are familiar with how to use and read them, they can be very accurate. You just need to decide what elements you are going to be testing for.

Google foo produces the following document A Summary Catalog of Microbial Drinking Water Tests for Low and Medium Resource Settings which was published in May of 2012. The gist being that this is a real problem and that many NGOs and governments are looking for a solution of how to test.

With that said, our suggestion is that any water you get from a DIY filter be treated with either a water treatment chemical or by heat.

Cross Contamination

You are tired, you’re thirsty, your canteen is empty. You come across a cool, clear stream. You take your canteen and dip it into the stream, filling it. You add your water purification tablets to the canteen, close it up and continue your hike.

30 minutes later you stop and take a joyful swig of stream water, safe in the knowledge that there are no nasty nasty bugs floating around in your water.

The next day you come down with the trots and are incapacitated. Without help you might actually die.

What the hell happened?

Cross contamination happened. When you dipped your canteen into that water you got water inside the canteen but also on your hand and the outside of the canteen. Unless you decontaminate all of the canteen, it is highly likely that you are going to get cross contamination.

The instructions should call for you making sure that you get some of the treated water into and on the threads of the cap, before you screw it back on. As for your hands, a little hand sanitizer or simple soap will take care of that.

But what about water filters?

I have a very nice portable water filter. It has a little mesh bag for carrying all the parts. I added a plastic bag which I use to hold the clean side. When I go to use it, only the dirty side (intake) goes into the water. This is a pre-filter and float. The end has a quick connect to the filter/pump housing. The clean side (output) can then go into my water container. As I pump, only clean water comes in contact with different items.

When I’m done, I carefully transfer the clean side back into a plastic bag to keep things separated. This lets the dirty side dry out. The clean side is kept safe from contamination.

Another way you get cross contamination is using water that has not been purified for things other than drinking. For example, washing or rinsing your food.

This is not a big deal if you are then going to completely cook your food. But while that contaminated water is on your cutting board and cooking utensils it is getting on you. Are you not going to accidental rub your nose or lick a finger or sneak a taste?

Treat unknown water as a slow acting poison and you’ll do ok.

What if?

Ok, what if you know that your water supply is clean and safe. Go for it. But remember, what was safe and clean today, might not be safe and clean tomorrow. All it takes is that one person with a case of the runs cleaning their dirty underwear upstream to contaminate your once clean water.

There is a reason people test their well water on a regular basis. They want to know that their well is still producing clean, fresh water.

Water Purification Systems


Life Straws

At the personal level there are “life straw” personal filters. These work well but will not provide you with clean water for other uses. Nor do they work directly to provide water that you can carry with you.

If you are depending on a life straw, invest in the gravity feed option. This is a bag that can attach to the dirty end of the life straw via tubing. Fill the bag and hang it up. Gravity will slowly push water through the filter which you can collect in containers for use.

Without this option, all water that is collected for use has to be purified via some other means.

Water Purification Tablets Or Powders

These are great as they are low weight and require no excess time. Just use as directed. Avoid cross contamination when filling your bottles and after adding the purification powders.

Look into the powder version as each dose comes in its own individually sealed package. This means they don’t go stale over time. Once you open the bottle of tablets they start to deteriorate and over a relatively short period of time they will no longer perform as required.

There might be tablets that do work after the bottle is opened for an extended time, but check the instructions.

A nice feature of the powders and tablets is that they fit in the side pocket of a standard USGI canteen pouch.

Personal Filter Pumps

There are a number of these out there. They have an advantage over a life straw in that they can fill containers directly. I’ve used a personal filter pump to fill 5 gallon Jerry cans and it works.

The downside is that it takes work to use a pump and they are sort of fiddly. You have to pay close attention to not cross contaminating and even making sure you don’t accidentally contaminate other things from the dirty water you use as a source.


If you have a flame proof container you can boil your water. Have a container to collect your dirty source water, boil it, transfer the purified water to your clean containers.

Again I go back to USGI issued equipment. You can use your canteen cup which fits in your canteen pouch with your canteen as a boiling vessel to purify water.

Fill your cup with water from a “dirty” source and pour the boiled water into a clean container.

Filter Pumps

These are what I actually carry with me. It comes with two quick detach hoses. The source side has a weighted strainer on one end with a float slightly above that. You attach it to the suck side of the pump and toss it into your water source.

Because the end is weighted it will be submerged. The float keeps the end from resting on the bottom of the source. The strainer keeps the big stuff out of your supply to the filter.

The output side also has a hose, the end of which is designed to fit into a regular container. You can also get screw tops.

Assemble the pump. Toss the collector end in your water, fill your containers with clean water.

It does nothing for things that are dissolved in the water but would stop most biological hazards.

Follow the directions to back flush or clean the filters. Carry a spare filter and replace when needed.



A big pot of water over a camp fire can purify a larger amount of water relatively quickly. The problem is that it takes fuel to do this. It takes at least a pound of hardwood to bring 5 gallons to a boil.

Rough math: 284Kcal to bring a gallon of water from room temperature to a boil. There is around 1,300Kcal per pound of white oak.

But remember, that is if ALL the heat energy from burning that pound of wood is transferred to the water. This is never the case. Some goes up in smoke, some radiates out. Heating over an open fire is not efficient.

Filter Pumps

These are the same as described for personal use. The real issue is that you are going to need more filters as you’ll use up your filters faster. It becomes more and more important to pre-filter your source water or let the gunk settle out before you use your pump.

There are also pumps that are designed for larger groups of people that are still portable and still human powered. You need to decide if it is better to have a few smaller personal pumps with extra filters or one larger pump to use with the group.

Gravity Filters

These have been described above. If you are in a static location they are a good choice. Remember that the smaller the filter, the less water can be processed before the filter needs to be cleaned or replaced.

Also, gravity filters are not always fast. They depend on the amount of pressure provided to the source and the size of the filter element. The larger the surface area of the filter, the more water can move past. The higher the pressure, the more water can move past.

Be aware that if the pressure is too high, the filter elements can be damaged leading to failure of the filter and possible contamination.

You increase the pressure by raising the height of the source water above the filter element. If you can’t do this, make sure you keep the water supply side of your gravity filter filled. You are measuring the height from the top of the water supply so if you are using a top bucket method then as the water level in the top bucket drops so does the pressure.

Reverse Osmosis Filtering

These might be the best choice long term, but my understanding is that they take much higher pressures to operate which requires more energy as input.

Chemical Treatment

This might be the place where you will have the most success. Combining a DIY filter system to create clear water and then processing that water with chemicals (bleach) is a relatively easy and low cost solution.

Remember, you can store the chemicals to make bleach much easier than bleach itself and it is a much more compact form.

Large Groups

At this point you really really need to look into commercial solutions. Almost all of the commercial answers require power. This includes pumps to move water from deep wells or other sources to processing plants where multiple different methods are used to clean the water and the purify it.

This level of water purification is beyond the scope of these articles. Be aware that many of the commercial solutions have a supply tail. They depend on regular delivery of different chemicals, of fuel for generators or pumps, electricity for different parts of the system.

Water Movement

It is all well and good to have clean water but water is almost never where you need it. Getting water where you need it requires moving water.

The simplest way of moving water is to be able to dip something into a water source, a bucket, an open mouthed container, or a scoop and then lift the water up to put it in another container or to seal the container if you filled it directly.

This has the downside of needing a water source large enough to fill from and the issues of contamination. Everything that gets water on it is potentially contaminated. It works, but it might not work well.

It also means that you are lifting water from ground level or below upward. This take energy.

Water Wheel

Moving forward, use some sort of simple technology to lift the water. A water wheel that uses the power of moving water to raise water up to dump into a trough, reduced the amount of external energy needed. This technology goes back thousands of years. It just requires moving water and the ability to create a suspended wheel to do the lift.

These can be built with primitive tools or by re-purposing current tools. You don’t need to make nearly water proof lift buckets if you can just use a bunch of plastic cups.

One thing to remember when considering such items is that the goal is to reduce energy output. If it takes an hour for your gizmo to lift 20 gallons of water 30 feet and you then fill your Jerry Cans from that lifted source, you only spent a short period there, filling your cans.

It doesn’t matter if the storage container at the top overflows and water flows back down hill. Yes, it is “wasted energy” or “wasted water” but it is water you didn’t use.

Working Cycle of a Ram Pump

An example of this sort of trade off is a ram pump. These require no power outside of running water. The water flows downhill inside a pipe. When the water is moving fast enough it trips a valve which closes. This causes a “water hammer” effect which is captured in a pressure vessel which then pushes some of that water up hill.

It might only move a few gallons of water per hour, but it runs 24 hours per day with no effort on your part. This means that when you need water, it is there at the top of the hill, not at the bottom.

Ram pumps are noisy, which might be an issue.

Another possibility is an electric pump. One thing to be aware of is that pumps have two very important ratings: how high they can suck water up hill and how high they can push water uphill.

There are physical limits to how high you can suck water. As the column of water grows it gets heavier and heavier. At some point the amount of vacuum required to lift that column exceeds the boiling point of water.

Remember, the lower the pressure the lower the temperature required to boil water. If you lower the pressure enough, water will boil at room temperature. This is what happens if you try and suck water up hill.

In addition, there are lots of other parts of the pump that don’t function as well at stopping gasses from flowing as they do at stopping fluids from flowing.

At a practical level this means that you are going to want your pumps to be close to your water source in terms of distance above the surface of the water. It is also the case that your hose adds friction which reduces the suckability of your pump.

Read the ratings on any pump you get.

Next is the lift of the pump, the push. This is often expressed as “head”. The higher the head, the slower your pump moves water and the more power it takes to move a unit of water. Lifting a gallon of water 15 feet takes less power than lifting a gallon of water 150 feet.

At one point we had a large garden that was a fair distance from the house, our source of water. I installed a water tower with a 1000 gallon tank on top of a 20ft tower. I then installed a 1 inch feed line from a stream that was down an embankment a good 30ft. Total lift was 50ft.

The pump had a pressure switch so it would stop pumping if the pressure in the output line was too high. Using a float valve in the tank to cut off the water source was enough to stop the pump. If the valve opened, the pump would start back up.

About twice a week I would go to the top of the embankment with a pair of car batteries and power up the pump. The pump would then fill the tank and shut off. I could then take the batteries back to a recharging station for the next time they were needed.

Which takes us to the next important part about electric pumps. You need electricity. It is all well and good that you have a deep well pump that will move 100 gallons per hour from 200ft below the surface of the earth. But if that pump requires 220volts/AC you might be out of luck when the power is out.

If that pump runs on 110volts you might be able to power it with a portable generator. Most portable generators don’t generate 220Volts. Mine does; check yours.

Better still in a power out situation is to have equipment that runs on 12volts DC or 24volts DC. You can get solar panels that will charge batteries and then you can use those batteries to drive your pumps.

I’ve had to hand pump 55gal drums empty of water. It is real work. I spent a few dollars to get a 12volt pump to do that work for me. I could hook up the pump to the truck battery and the pump the water out of the drums to water the orchard. It took time, but it was sure easier than trying to empty those drums by hand. And remember, a 55gal drum of water weighs in at over 440lbs.

Getting a foot pump or a hand pump is another option and can go a long way to making your life easier.

If you get a pump, make sure it is rated for moving water. My first pump was rated for moving oil and flammable liquids (gasoline/diesel). It rusted within weeks of us starting to use it. I took it apart, cleaned it, coated the inside with petroleum jelly and got it up and working again. I would have been better served buying a pump rated for water instead.

Siphon pumps also work but depend on your source being above you.

If you are going to be using any sort of mechanical advantage to move water, you need a container to handle moving water. Hoses.

Your water is in the stream 200 ft from your house. You have a 12volt pump. It connects to regular garden hose. Now you can pump your water 50ft closer because all you have is 50ft of garden hose. Make sure you have enough hose to get it where you need it to go.

If you are using other types of hoses or tubing, make sure you have all the connectors to cross connect your tubes/hoses. It is all well and good to have 200 ft of black pipe (it comes in big plastic coils) but if you can’t connect your pump to it then it isn’t going to do you any good.

You might have laughed at the Professor on Gilligan’s Island making a system of open troughs to move water, but that is a heck of a lot easier than carrying water. Remember how well it worked for the Romans!

For carrying water, makeshift containers suck.

Yeah, you have a gallon plastic jar you use to have knick-knacks in. Yes it can be used to carry water. But with no handles it is going to be a pain to move it any distance. And with no handles you can only carry a couple of them.

(Of course you can make a cordage cradle to add handles. You do know how to do that, don’t you? Yokes work, too.)

You have a half dozen Homer Buckets (Go to local resturants and ask for their empty food grade buckets. You’ll have to clean them well but often you can get them for free and in 5, 4 and 2 gallon sizes.) with nice handles. Have you tried to lug 40lbs of water in one of those? Have you tried to carry 80 lbs of water in two of them, one in each hand.

Figure out how you are going to carry your water before you need to carry your water.

Water Storage

First, look around your home at what you can store water in. These are the makeshift water storage items. They will work and are much better than nothing.

Now categorize them. Are they fragile? Are they made of glass which will break if dropped, or ceramic or another fragile material? Is it a plastic container that isn’t designed to handle being dropped off the counter when it is full of water?

Does it have a lid? Is that lid water tight? Will it allow out gassing? Is it reusable? In the old days, baby food jars were glass. The lids had a built in seal. When you unscrewed them the lids popped. You could then put the lids back on and they would hold fluids. But over time that built in seal would deteriorate and fail.

How many of your lids are single use but work for more?

Does it have a handle? Does that handle support the container fully when it is filled with water? Remember that water is around 8lbs per gallon. Homer buckets come with a nice handle but if they are filled with heavy stuff they start to fail. A milk jug will hold a gallon of milk but the handle isn’t big enough for you to get a hand hold. Just a couple of fingers worth.

Can you carry more than one at a time? More than one container per hand? Is it possible for two people to carry one container? Is the container so big you can’t carry it when it is filled with water? Will water slosh out when you move it?

Can you transport the container at all?

An example of a large water container that doesn’t move is a bathtub. If you can make it so that the water doesn’t leak down the drain, it is a good place to store 20 plus gallons of water. But I don’t think you are going to be picking up your bathtub to move it to the lake to fill and bring home.

On the other hand, you could use some heavy duty construction garbage bags. Put them in your tub, fill them with water and tie them off. You’ve now got a bunch of water in your tub that you aren’t likely to have leak away.

My mother tells the story of one of her best friends getting ready for a hurricane. She had just finished scrubbing the tub making sure that water wouldn’t be leaking down the drain. She realized that the window over the tub was open. So she stepped into the tub to close the window. And as she put her feet down she realized she had just contaminated the tub she had just finished cleaning.

Now that you have looked at your makeshift containers we can move on to purpose built containers

Personal Water Storage

While I strongly recommend that people get USGI canteens, canteen pouches, and canteen cups, this is more because of the system than because it is good water storage. A USGI canteen holds one quart but the fact that it fits in its cup which in turn fits in the pouch which also holds water purification tablets or powders makes the USGI canteen a powerful starting point.

As soon as you start to focus on actual water storage I recommend a water bladder system. A Camelbak style water bladder works well. They come in different sizes and shapes. I had one that was shaped like a fanny pack. It held a few extra things and worked well even if it only held a quart of water.

The bladder is really only as good as the pouch/pack that holds it. Most USGI issued packs now have an internal pocket for a water bladder along with holes for routing the drinking tube. Many commercial packs also have internal pockets for water bladders, again with the holes to route the drinking tube.

You can get carriers that are purpose built to carry water bladders. I happen to like the style with MOLLIE ladders on the outside, but I’ve had carriers that had a small amount of internal storage as well. I’ve even seen carriers that are designed to be mounted on the outside of other packs.

Regardless of which carrier option you choose, it is a good idea to have a water bladder system for everybody in your group.

One final note on personal water storage/carriers quoting Robert A. Heinlein’s L. Long: Too much water is a self correcting problem.

If you think you have too much water, drink some of it. Don’t ever waste it.

Group Sized Containers

A 5 gallon water cooler is a great idea. These are the coolers that you see on the sidelines of sporting events. They are portable and hold 5 plus gallons of liquid. They have pour spouts at the bottom.

Get yourself a couple of these and place them where the group can easily use them. They can then be refilled as necessary from other containers.

You don’t need coolers. You can buy taps that are designed to go into the side of a 5 gallon plastic bucket. These work just as well for dispensing water as the water coolers do.

But what about leaching chemicals from plastic buckets!?!?!

Having your water in BPA free containers is a big deal today. It didn’t use to be. BPA Free is a marketing scam, in my opinion.

What I read was that a company came out with a new water bottle and they didn’t know how to sell it. They hired a marketing group to help. The marketing group latched onto this chemical, BPA, that leached out of plastics.

It turns out that if you put enough BPA into an animal it does do harm. But the amount of BPA that actual would leach from a water bottle during its time of use was so low as to be nearly indictable and nowhere near enough to cause issues.

If you are concerned about having BPA free containers, please feel free to only use them. Just remember that you will die without water in a few days. You can live for years and years with BPA poisoning.

Consider getting 5 gallon Jerry cans. These are pretty amazing containers. Just make sure you are getting a quality version of them. You get what you pay for.

A Jerry can filled with water will still float. There is an air pocket at the back of the handles which traps enough air to cause the metal cans to float, even if filled with water.

The pour opening has an air vent tube that is designed to let air in faster than the water leaving. This means you can empty a Jerry can much faster than a modern 5 gallon gas can. No glug glug glugging.

The three handles are designed so that one person can grab the center handle and easily carry a full can, one in each hand. A single person can carry four by holding the outside handle of two cans. Two in each hand. Two people can carry one can by each holding onto of the outside handles. They can be passed man to man using the outside handles so that you don’t have hand overlap.

Five gallons is a good limit on the weight of a container. Not so heavy that it is hard to carry but not so small that the container becomes a huge part of the weight.

The shape is such that they can be placed side by side without wasting any significant space. And they stack. And they are easy to palletize.

Most of the plastic water holders have limits of some sort or another. Many do not stack. Others are round or small. They often have poor pouring tendencies. But they work and they are better than makeshift solutions.

They do make water bricks and other things of the sort. Each brick is designed to hold 5 gallons and they are designed to stack. We don’t use them so I can’t speak to how good they are. Do your own research.

Collapsible water containers are not a good choice for long term storage. They idea behind them is that you don’t want to carry the water any real distance. You expect to fill them when you are on site and then empty them when you are ready to leave.

They might make a good addition to your equipment if you are thinking of them in a short term situation. You have lost water for the next few days or you hear that there is sever weather coming and you want to have some water ready.

Again, the expectation is that you will be emptying those containers in a short period of time.

At the group size you can consider larger containers. You can buy water tanks from a few hundred gallons to a few thousand gallons. They can be above ground or below ground storage. They can be vertical or horizontal. Take your pick.

Our choice is 55 gallon drums and 250 gallon caged water containers on pallets.

55 gallon drums come in at 440 lbs. But because they are round you can roll them on their rim with just one person, so you can move them, but you can also get them into a pickup truck with some simple lift equipment. You can get dollies that are specifically designed for moving 55 gal drums.

Thus you could use simple block and tackle to lift a 55gal drum into or out of a truck bed then use your dolly to move it where it needs to go.

The 250 gallon tanks don’t move once they are filled. But they do stack and that does give you good gravity feed.

Large Group Storage

Your choices are 55gal drums or larger tanks. The benefits of 55gal drums for mobility is pretty strong. Remember your pumps, to move water out of those drums to someplace worthwhile.

Water Sources

Your water has to come from somewhere. Start with your taps while they are still providing clean, pure water. Use them. But be prepared for your taps to stop. This could be because of contamination (see Flint, Michigan for a modern example), or because of pump/power failures. Or it could be because the source for your tap went dry.

Consider drilling a well. You can get water from your own well(s) with either hand pumps, DC powered pumps, or a pump you can power in other ways. Wells are good choice if you have them because it takes a lot of poison to contaminate ground water.

Your own springs, or a community spring are also good. There are a couple of taps sitting along side roads in my area. They are attached to spring fed water supplies. People stop and fill containers all the time.

If you have your own springs, make sure you protect them from contamination and make sure you have a way of transporting and/or collecting water at your spring head.

A spring that trickles only a few gallons of water is more than enough if you can capture all of that water. If that water immediately runs away in a very shallow stream you are going to have a difficult time using it. So make sure you have a collection point for your spring head and keep it clean.

Collect your rain water, if it is legal where you are. We collect rain water for use in our garden. The city charges twice for water that comes into our house. Once as “water” and once as “sewage”. They assume there is a one for one relationship between the two. So when we use house water to water the garden we are paying as if all those gallons went out as sewage.

Using collected rainwater means that we don’t have to pay even once to water our garden.

Private ponds and streams are ok sources. Just remember that bears do shit in the woods as do rabbits, squirrels, deer and humans. All of that shit runs downhill into your water source.

Treat Your Stored Water

The fact that you have purified your water doesn’t mean that it will say pure once you store it. A slight contamination of water you are using right now might be ok. But let that contamination grow for a month in a cool, dark, damp place and it might become lethal.

Treat your stored water chemically if you can, and make sure that you get that chemical treatment over all of the interior surfaces of your storage container.

For an example of how you can get contaminated water from pure and treated water, just look at the slime that is growing in the toilet tank. The water that goes into that tank comes from the same sources that you drink. But you might think twice about drinking from the toilet tank.

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By awa

4 thoughts on “Water, Water, Everywhere and Not A Drop to Drink?”
  1. And make sure you dont drink too much also. I was drinking around a gallon a day last year thinking I needed it- 6’ 4” 245 pounds. After a week and a half I HURT everywhere. Too much water will flush minerals you need. I do a little more than half gallon a day now. Even going 1 day out of routine I definitely can tell. Amazing the number of people who dont know this..

    1. A good reminder. That “eight glasses a day” thing includes the water in your food as well. And, there is plenty of water in food.
      Half gallon is eight 8 oz. glasses of water, and you are probably taking in about the right amount for your size.

  2. As I have taught, if you feel thirsty, you are behind in hydration.

    Also, dehydration affects mental status as well as physical status. I have observed the reduced ability for rational thought in such subjects.

    Oh, good column.

  3. Test your clean water regularly.

    I have a well system and had to disinfect the well system and my plumbing two years ago.

    Hire a pro, or watch youtube and do it yourself. Just don’t let the well pump and plumbing clog as the chlorine strips all kinds of stuff off the well pump casing and the pipe walls. Keep the pump running for a long time to flush the bacteria and particulates from the well and all the piping. Then make sure you have enough residual chlorine, and let it sit 8-24 hours in ALL the pipes. Finally, flush, flush, flush, and test.

Only one rule: Don't be a dick.

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