Camping & Survival

What to Do When You Run Out of Water in the Wild

Man Hiking in Woods

The trail seemed to go the direction you were headed until a series of switchbacks left you pointing south when you wanted to travel northwest.

You’ve already hiked several miles out of your way and your canteen is running on empty.

Discovering that your stores are running dry when you’re miles from home is no joke.

You can dehydrate quickly when sweating from exertion, particularly in arid climates. So what do you do when you run out of water in the wild?

The following nine tips could save your life.

1. Stay Calm

When you realize you’ve lost your way in the woods, your first instinct may be to panic.

Now’s the time to put on your mindfulness hat, take some deep breaths and get your emotions controlled first and foremost.

Why? When you experience stress or anxiety, your body amps up sweat production, dehydrating you more quickly.

The effect occurs due to the rush of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.

Since a flood of these substances strains your ticker along with the lack of water, it’s doubly crucial to cool your jets.

Stop and sit down for a few moments if you have to.

2. Recognize the Signs of Dehydration

You’ll probably feel thirsty before becoming dangerously dehydrated. However, you need to recognize the other signs to know when to seek shade and wait a bit.

One sure symptom is dizziness and overheating. Feeling lightheaded can result in tumbling down a cliff, which won’t improve your circumstances.

If you start to feel woozy, find a shady spot to rest, preferably near a watering hole.

If you wait until you begin to hallucinate, you could get yourself in a worse jam.

Man standing in woods on rocks

3. Depend on Your Equipment

When you’re parched, that muddy puddle looks mighty inviting, tadpoles or no tadpoles.

However, sucking down bacteria and other organisms can result in vomiting and diarrhea, which will only further dehydrate you.

Carry a device like a LifeStraw that removes over 99% of parasites and other nasties.

You can use it with canteens, along with simply bending down to slurp directly from that little pond beneath the cliff face.

4. Grab Some Tablets

Another way to render water potable is to treat it to kill germs chemically.

Fortunately, a pack of water purification tablets won’t take up excess space in your back frame.

Carry them with you even on short jaunts — maybe not all who wander are lost, but it does happen sometimes.

5. Build a Fire

If you wear glasses, tip your hat to yourself for your wisdom. Who cares that myopia played a role in having a fire-starting device on your face?

Take them off and let the sunlight help you start a blaze.

If you have 20/20 vision, you can find inexpensive waterproof fire-starting kits that take up less room in your backpack than a pen.

To purify water, make sure you boil it for at least a minute, longer if you are at higher elevations.

While this method takes a bit when your tongue feels like a cotton ball stuck in your mouth, it’s better than going dry.

Fire on moss in woods

6. Look for Greenery

Like humans, plants need water, but they lack feet for walking to the well. Therefore, they tend to proliferate near hydration sources.

Granted, this tip won’t help you much if you find yourself deep in the California redwoods or an east-coast thicket where everything is green.

However, if you find yourself in the midwest or west, your “oasis” may resemble a grove of cottonwood trees.

7. Get Close to the Mountains

If snow-capped peaks surround you, you don’t need ropes to scale to the top.

Get yourself close to the mountains and walk parallel to the base to find streams and creeks that trickle down.

If you get lucky, you might find a spring where the water filters through the rocks.

If so, give thanks to the nature spirits, for you’re about to taste the purest beverage ever known to humankind.

8. Save the Morning Dew

Did you decide it was safer to bed down for the night? If you’re thirsty, don’t miss the opportunity to harvest morning refreshment.

Take a piece of absorbent cloth, like your T-shirt, and lay it on a bed of grass or a bush overnight.

Before the sun climbs high overhead, wring it out into your canteen — or mouth.

Water Droplet on Blade of Grass

9. Learn Your Lesson for Next Time

If you found yourself resorting to survivalism after running out of water in the wild, take note for next time.

Yes, that unmarked trail looks tempting. You can come back and explore it with a full canteen and ample provisions.

In regions like the southwest, you need about a liter an hour minimum. Don’t let your wanderlust override your common sense.

What About Food?

While you can go much longer without food than water, your muscles need fuel, especially if you travel far off the beaten path.

Consider adding a few meals ready to eat (MREs) to your back frame, as they take up minimal space.

Look for those labeled low sodium to prevent adding to your dehydration when you snack.

Conclusion: What to Do When You Run Out of Water in the Wild

Running out of water in the wild can lead to dehydration and, in severe cases, death.

Make sure you travel prepared and heed these tips if you find yourself in a pinch.

Do you have any other tips for staying hydrated in the wild? Let us know in the comments section below!

About the Author:

Dylan Bartlett

Dylan Bartlett, aka, “The Regular Guide,” writes about the outdoors, survivalism and similar topics on his blog. He's an avid hiker and enjoys roughing it in unfamiliar territory. Check out Just a Regular Guide to read more of his work, or follow him on Twitter @theregularguide for updates.
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (8)

  1. @Larry,
    You stated “There is no consensus opinion on this because there have been no scientific studies that I know of to definitively address the issue…”
    There is a consensus of opinion stated in every reputable survival manual such as those published by several branches of the US military and the militaries of multiple other countries. These manuals were written based on observations made over many years and studying numerous survival situations, (case study data collection, if you will) of those situations, many of which had unfortunate results, as in the victim did not survive.
    You now sound like you are trying to justify an indefensible position by saying there is no scientific data when those military manuals were compiled and written based on many decades of data collection and case studies reviewing what was found to work and what was found to cause harm in those who did not survive. Last time I checked, case studies can constitute scientific data collection.
    When the majority of survival experts tell you not to do it because, in the data collected over the decades, this behavior was shown to be harmful (as in will KILL you), that is what I would call a consensus opinion and these conclusions were all based on scientific data collection. To dispute the scientific nature of that data collection would be intellectually dishonest. The summation of all these studies worldwide lead to one conclusive statement, that it will harm you. That is the consensus of the experts in the field.
    Your statement that ” I would only drink urine in a situation where I had no other option…” leads me ask, would you drink seawater if there was no other fluid and you were on a raft in the middle of the ocean? If you say no, I would ask you why not, using your rationale, of having no other option.
    One almost universal thing the case studies found was once people start drinking urine, or seawater, for that matter, in a survival situation, they all initially seemed to feel that it helped them and they took more and more. Once they crossed that line, the data shows it was nearly impossible for them to stop drinking it. Their ability to realize what they were doing quickly became impaired and they did not even know they were impaired.
    And the case studies have shown, time and again that they will continue to drink even very concentrated urine, believing it is helping. This leads to increased dehydration, then kidney failure, and eventually death. And then, it will no longer be a Search and Rescue team that finds them, but a Search and Recovery team. In case you are wondering, Search and Recovery sucks real bad. I hated Recovery missions. Over the years, I saw too many people who died just because they made one or two very simple but very poor decisions out in the wilds. They paid the price and bought a body bag.

  2. @Larry,
    You state “…you CAN drink your urine before it becomes too concentrated. As you become more dehydrated the osmotic load of your urine increases, and that’s when you can run into trouble.” Yes, you can, as in, you are able to, drink urine, and you can die from doing it, as in doing that CAN kill you when your kidneys shut down, because dialysis is hard to come by in a wilderness situation, mostly because you need appropriate fluids to flush the waste from the body.
    Speaking from experience, very few people whose bodies are stressed can recognize when the osmotic load has increased to dangerous levels without checking the specific gravity of their urine, something hard to come by in the field. I don’t know anyone who carries a refractometer to measure that specific gravity of their urine when they are out in the boonies. And that would be the only realistic way to determine if the osmotic load of the urine is increased.
    I said some people do drink their urine without harm and it is a cultural thing for some people, but they are not in survival mode.
    Now, I am quoting here, from AFM (Air Force Manual) 64-5 Search and Rescue Survival, 15 August 1969, “Don’t drink urine or sea water- the salt content is too high.”
    Again, I am quoting, this time from FM (US Army Field Manual) 21-76, March 1969:
    “c. Preventing dehydration. There is no substitute for water to prevent dehydration and keep the body operating at normal efficiency. Alcohol, salt water, gasoline, blood, or urine only increases dehydration. In an emergency, it is possible to drink brackish water (water with about half as mush salt as sea water) and obtain a net gain of moisture for the body. Any liquid containing a higher percentage of waste can only harm the body’s cooling system.”
    Now, as a retired Emergency Department RN and former Nurse Educator, (that means I taught nurses and nursing students) with a mere forty plus years in some kind of healthcare delivery system, I have not seen any credible data to support the drinking of urine in any kind of SURVIVAL SITUATION. All CREDIBLE survival manuals I have seen advise against drinking urine as drinking urine and sea water in a survival situation has been shown to precipitate complete renal failure and shutdown.
    Please provide your resources and any credentials to support your assertion, such as a publication in a peer-reviewed publication, to include author, publisher, and date of publication, even one addressing a survival situation would be interesting. Tabloids do not count as credible.
    Over the years, I have seen many people promote dangerous ideas such as drinking urine in a survival situation, based on very flawed anecdotal evidence. That is much akin to exhorting people to drink aquarium cleaner as protection against COVID-19 because it has some of the chemicals contained in hydroxychloroquine and claiming that advice came from the White House. (BTW, it did not, even though the main Stream media claimed it did.)
    One needs to consider this, giving advice such as advocating drinking urine in a survival situation, gives the giver of that advice grave culpability for any damages that may be incurred by anyone who follows that advice. I, for one, would not want to live with that, I have enough bad memories haunting me from my time in the service back those many years ago. I don’t need any more.

    1. Let me clarify what I said. And I can only tell you what I would do under the circumstances. Yes, drinking concentrated urine can lead to renal failure, and in general it’s not a good idea to drink your urine. It would be better to make a solar still with urine and use the condensate. But if you lack the equipment, are in a desperate situation, have no alternative, and start out well hydrated, then drinking urine the first time or two you have to pee is very unlikely to put you in renal failure. If your pee is pale yellow (because you have been well hydrated), then it is not likely to be salty enough to do any damage. There is no consensus opinion on this because there have been no scientific studies that I know of to definitively address the issue. There are of course many non-scientific anecdotes about people who have survived some horrendous situations by drinking their own urine. That said, the general opinion is “don’t do it” because if people find a way to screw something up, they generally will. And I’m not some moron just spouting off. I am a physician in practice for over 30 years and have managed many dehydrated patients, both in the office and in the hospital. I would only drink urine in a situation where I had no other option, presuming I started off well hydrated. Here is a non-scientific take: https://disaster.news/2019-10-21-is-it-safe-to-drink-your-urine-shtf.html

  3. Very good article and rather timely as hunting seasons are in the near future and many people will be venturing forth in pursuit of game. I would like to add some very pertinent recommendations.
    Back many long (pushing 50) years ago, in a place far, far away, I had the opportunity to play with a team that did Search and Rescue, as well as Recon. Because of what we did and where we were, we had different training than many others who wore the same uniform. We also had the opportunity to see what happened to those who were not prepared as well as some others. I say this because in reviewing SAR literature from lo those many years ago, dehydration was a common problem for those who became, shall we say disoriented and unsure of their precise location. And many of those people resorted to taking in fluids that they hoped and prayed were safe, only to find themselves to be in grave error.
    The first major mistake I have seen is people drinking contaminated and untreated water because it LOOKED fine. It wasn’t and that ended up being disastrous for all involved. There is always a potential for three vectors of waterborne disease: viruses, protozoan, or bacteria, none of which can be seen by the naked eye. Unfortunately, the effects of consuming water containing these contaminants can be seen, and it is not a pretty picture. Many of these contaminants can lead to terrible diarrhea which can cause, not just dehydration, but severe electrolyte imbalance and even death secondary to that fluid and electrolyte imbalance. Now, those many years ago, the LifeStraw was not available but for those who go out in the wilderness, I don’t think anything can be more highly recommended as a component of your survival kit. Also, as the author mentioned, there are still water purification tablets available, and as he said, they don’t take up much space in your pack.
    Another thing that frequently comes up in discussions such as this. And that is drinking urine. A number of years ago, there was one of the outdoor magazines that actually published a ‘survival- type outdoor skills’ book where the author stated something to the effect that the kid in the movie “127 Hours” drank his urine and he survived so how bad can it be? He went on to give what he admitted was not a professional opinion on how best to drink your urine.
    Actually, drinking your urine in a survival situation can be very bad, and for a multitude of reasons, and most of those reasons are not what people routinely think as being problematic. First, it is true that urine in a healthy person is sterile. And it is true that there are some cultures that promote the idea of drinking your urine and it does not damage them. But that is because they are also consuming other fluids.
    Consuming your urine in a survival situation can precipitate further dehydration because you are consuming waste products that your kidneys were trying to remove from your body and your kidneys will work harder to remove that waste the second time. Much as drinking sea water will cause your body to pull intra and extracellular fluid to facilitate the removal of the concentrated salt introduced with the sea water, your body will now have to pull intra and extracellular fluid to remove the waste you have just reintroduced back into your system. This will not be as dramatic as if you drank sea water, but, it still can expedite dehydration. This is a very simplified explanation, but there is a reason that every military survival course back when I was in stated unequivocally ‘DO NOT DRINK YOUR URINE! It will only worsen your dehydration.’ Another way they put it back then, THIS MAY KILL YOU if you do this!
    Considering that this kind of problem is mostly preventable with a little forethought and planning, PLEASE do not become a statistic.

    1. Actually, early in the course of being lost you CAN drink your urine before it becomes too concentrated. As you become more dehydrated the osmotic load of your urine increases, and that’s when you can run into trouble.

  4. Good article. But I have a question Agree with water purification tabs, fire starter kits. But would love to stock my bug out bag with a good personal water purification kit/straw that will be used only in an emergency. For myself and a few other people
    Price isn’t a major consideration And would stock more than one. What are a few of your recommendations Keeping Individual units somewhat small

    Thank you
    Regards
    Dennis

  5. Have a sheet of clear plastic and a cup. You can build a solar still with leaves or grass in a hole surrounding the cup, and place plastic over the hole with a pebble placed in the plastic’s middle (centered over the cup). Works best in direct sunlight.
    Also, if you’re uphill, water sources tend to be found toward the bottom of the hill. Even mud can be dug out to find water a few feet down.

  6. In more arid areas carry a large piece of plastic wrap folded (weights nothing) to make a solar still. Find a spot where plants are growing dig a hole about a foot deep. Place your cup in the bottom of the hole spread the plastic wrap over the hole seal the edges with dirt then place a stone in the center of the plastic over the cup. The sun will heat the hole and produce condensation that will drip into the cup. It’s a slow process but beats the alternative.

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