Best Practices for Your Third Most Critical Survival Priority

by Todd Walker

Using the “B” word will automatically rain hell and brimstone on any online discussion. What’s the Best knife, sidearm, rifle, or water filter? Try it for kicks and giggles. Type that four-letter word in front of any piece of gear and watch the internet explode.

Best Practices for Your Third Most Critical Survival Priority -

Photo courtesy of Iris Canterbury

When it comes to survival priorities, the same spirited debate rages.

In the Pathfinder System, Dave Canterbury ranks water as the third wilderness survival priority. Self-Aid and Shelter take the top two spots respectively. Of course, survival priorities are always dependent on the situation and shouldn’t be written in stone.

Here’s Dave’s full list…

  1. Self-aid
  2. Shelter
  3. Water
  4. Fire/heat
  5. Signaling
  6. Food
  7. Navigation

The subject of this article is the third priority – the substance which every system in the human body is dependent. A dehydrated body can not help you do all the stuff needed to keep you alive if you’re day hike turns into a week-long survival scenario.

Water is easy to find in the eastern woodlands. But it may not be fit for consumption.

That crystal clear stream you’re about to sip from may hold a rotting carcass 100 yards upstream. Also keep in mind that, yes, bears (and other critters) do crap in the woods along rivers and streams… which eventually washes into the pristine creek and into your cupped hands.

Introducing waterborne pathogens to your gut is a sure way to decrease your survivability in the wilderness. You need to assume that every water source in the backwoods contains the following invisible nasties (and more)…

  1. Giardia – A single-celled, microscopic parasite which causes a diarrheal illness called giardiasis. The parasite is passed through the feces of infected animals and humans. Symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, bloating, gas (not your normal campfire baked-bean induced gas), weakness, and stomach cramps. Symptoms show up within 1 to 2 weeks.
  2. Cryptosporidium – Crypto, as it is commonly known, is a parasite responsible for causing the most waterborne illnesses in the U.S. according to the CDC. Symptoms of watery diarrhea, dehydration, stomach pain and cramps, fever, and vomiting begin in 2 to 10 days of infection and may last up to 30 days.
  3. Escherichia coli (E. coli) – Some E. colia bacteria are beneficial to your intestinal tract. Then there’s the pathogenic, diarrhea kind transferred through water and food contaminated from human or animal feces. Remember that bear fact? Unfortunately, s**t happens. And ignorant humans have the bears beat!
  4. Salmonella – Most folks infected by this bacteria develop diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps within 12 to 72 hours. Not good for a 72 hour survival scenario. Oh, and it can spread to other body systems causing more long-term damage.

Bottom line… Don’t drink untreated water! … unless you have no other option in an emergency survival scenario. Dying of dehydration is worse than giardiasis after you’ve been rescued. But we’re talking camping not survival, here. Consider all backwoods water sources contaminated. Period. Even when brushing your teeth at camp, use disinfected water.

We’ve established the fact that the human body needs water to function properly. So what are the best (yeah, I used the B-word) practices to make water safe to drink?

Boiling Water

We took our youth group to a Catholic church in the early 80’s as a cross-cultural field trip. The priest met us at the door and invited us in. One of our really, really country boys asked the priest how holy water was made.

In all seriousness, the priest told us that they pour water in a pot, place it on a hot stove, and…

“boil the hell out of it.”

My Basic Class partner, Dave Williams, boiling 32 ounces of water

My Basic Class partner, Dave Williams, boiling 32 ounces of water in under 5 minutes

Boiling Times

There are lots of confusing, un-scientific info floating in the preparedness pool. So how long should you boil water to make it safe to drink?

a.) 10 minutes, b.) 5 minutes, c.) 1 minute, d.) depends on altitude

Answer: None of the above.

I’m not certain how long priests boil water before it becomes holy, but all you need to do is bring water to a boil to render the parasites, viruses, and bacteria harmless. In fact, 185º F for a few minutes will deliver the damage needed to kill the nasties. We boil in the backwoods because thermometers aren’t convenient to carry. Bubbles tell us when it’s done.

Research from the Wilderness Medical Society states that keeping water temps above 160º F for 30 minutes kills all pathogens through pasteurization. Bet you don’t carry a cooking thermometer in your pack. Even at high altitudes, once your water reaches the boiling point of 212º F,  you’re done. Boiling past zero minutes is a waste of fuel and life-giving water via evaporation.

In a perfect world, you whip out your metal container. Fill it with water and bring it to a boil. Take it off the heat immediately and allow the water to cool. Now you have potable water.

Water boiling challenge

Water boiling

What I carry is the Pathfinder Stainless Steel Cook set. The 32 ounce bottle nests inside the 25 oz. cup for easy storage in my haversack or backpack.

If you’re ever in a situation without a metal container, ask yourself this question…

What would MacGyver do?

Creative Containers

There may be resources in your pack which you’ve never considered could hold water for boiling. These items will help channel your inner MacGyver.

Dave Williams' duct tape water bottle at the Pathfinder School

Dave Williams’ duct tape water bottle at the Pathfinder School

  • Duct tape
  • Emergency space blanket
  • Trash bag
  • Backpack cover
  • Tarp
  • Rain suit or poncho
  • Dry bag
  • Hat

These pieces of kit will melt over a fire quicker than the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz. But the important thing is that they hold water and you can make fire… and rocks litter the ground. Now you’re ready to boil water.

Stone Boil Method

Hot rocks from your campfire will boil water. Be sure to not use river rocks in the fire. The trapped moisture inside these stones are prone to explode when heated sending hot, sharp shrapnel flying. Use dry rocks.

Below are a few fellow YouTubers I respect demonstrating the stone boil method with improvised containers.

Hats off to IHatchetJack for this one…

Master Woodsman using a trash bag to boil water with stones…

Larry Roberts using a burn and scrape wooden container…

No-Boil Methods for Clean Water

You can’t boil water without a heat source. This fact places urgency on the need to carry at least 3 different methods to start a fire. We covered my favorite methods here.

However, even without fire, potable water is available in nature.

Water from Trees

Here are 4 trees found in the eastern woodlands that can be tapped in the same manner as our northern neighbors harvest sap for maple syrup. This hydration source is available when the sap is running in early spring.


A young Sycamore (Right) and River Birch (Left) growing near the roadside

Sap from the trees contains sugars and clean water that can be consumed without filtering or boiling. Collect the sap by boring a hole or notch about a 1/2 inch into the tree. Insert a 4 inch spigot made from a hollow stick or river cane as a conduit for the sap. Use a container underneath the spigot/spile to catch the runoff.

Use your Possum Mentality and collect any plastic water/soda bottles you come across. They can be used to collect sap without ever tapping the tree with a spigot. Darin from East Woodland Survival has an interesting technique I really like…

Water from Plants

Another great seasonal (spring, summer, and fall) source of clean water is found in wild grape vines. Sever the end of a large diameter vine near the ground over a container. It’ll start slowly dripping water into the container. Speed up the process by reaching as high as possible up the vine and cut a notch in the vine. The notch breaks the vacuum in the vine to increase the water output.

Don’t forget that your mouth is a container. Lay under the vine and drink directly from the plant. Be sure you can accurately identify grape vine from poison ivy and oak!

Rain Water

Rainy weather is a two-edged sword. It makes fire craft difficult but can provide needed emergency hydration.

With access to a tarp or rain gear, configure a “V” shape to collect rain and funnel it to a container.

John McCann of Survival Resources shows you how to do this in a homesteading situation easy enough. The same can be done in a survival scenario with sticks and ingenuity. His contraption collects and amazing amount of rain water!

A more primitive rain catchment technique is to harvest tree bark in half-pipe sections set up like a bicycle rim configuration with a collection device positioned at the axle. Tulip poplar, willow, and other non-resinous tree bark can be used.

Water Filters

Modern water filters are convenient and effective for removing parasites and bacteria but not viruses or chemical contaminants. I personally carried the Sawyer Mini on our recent backpacking trip on Eagle Rock Loop. It’s lightweight, easy to use, and effectively removes 99.9% of pathogens and is rated to clean 100,000 gallons of water.

sawyer squeeze water filter

DRG’s new squeeze! This is the larger Sawyer filter pictured.

Filters can be constructed from natural materials in the backcountry. My friend, Joshua Shuttlesworth, has a tutorial on building a Tripod Water Filter you should check out.

Remember to always assume wilderness water sources are contaminated. Drink without disinfecting water in the woods and you could pay a hefty price. Don’t trust what you read here or watch on YouTube videos. Get out and develop the skills needed to quench your thirst!

Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,


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Categories: Bushcraft, Camping, Doing the Stuff, Potable Water, Preparedness, Self-reliance, Survival, Survival Skills, Water | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

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24 thoughts on “Best Practices for Your Third Most Critical Survival Priority

  1. So many ideas! Very interesting these creative containers! I must see the duct tape water bottle!


  2. What a great article, Todd! I love the fact that you covered the stone boil method… I SO want to try that sometime!


  3. Sideliner 1950

    Excellent article, thanks. I understand your reasoning when you suggest it’s not necessary to do so, but I’m in the camp that says “boil the hell out of it”…I suppose if you have a critical fire-fuel situation (camp stove), you may want to minimize the time you keep the water on the flame to conserve that fuel. But if not, why not let ‘er boil for a few minutes? Sure can’t hurt… and why take chances?

    Your article states, “Even at high altitudes, once your water reaches the boiling point of 212º F, you’re done.” As shown a table in this article, water will boil at decreasing temperatures as elevation increases…we live at roughly 5000′, and according to the table, at standard pressure, our water will boil at approximately 203F, and would never reach the 212F you suggest (unless pressurized, which would be unlikely in a camping or survival situation.) Small point, I know, but there it is.

    As always, thanks for all you do.


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  5. JW M

    You said that water boils at 212*, well that just ain’t so.
    The boiling point is dependent on atmospheric pressue (read altitude)

    Here in my part of Colorado it ranges from 211*(4,658′) to 186* (at 14,000′).
    Still hot enough to fix the water, but raises hell with cooking.


  6. taxn2poverty

    I thot water needed to be boiled much longer than just bringing it to a boil. thanks, that will save a lot of trouble, time, and resources.


  7. Dr. L

    You can also boil water in a paper cup directly on a fire source.


  8. Dr. L

    Beautiful 9 minute video about water boiling at Mount Everest by the University of Nottingham (complete with Nepalese Sherpa porters),


    • That is the most interesting video I’ve ever watched on the boring topic of water boiling! Thanks for sharing this with us, Dr. L!


    • Sideliner 1950

      Really beautiful video! Thanks. This demonstration supports what I said earlier and in a clearer, more understandable, more entertaining, and more compelling way than any printed table. Great stuff.


  9. Alfred E. Neuman

    Reblogged this on The Lynler Report.


  10. Is there any types of sap you shouldn’t consume?


    • Adam, you obviously want to be able to distinguish between poisonous vines that grow near wild grape vine like poison oak. But there are other trees that in fact deadly. The most poisonous tree known to man, Manchineel (Hippomane Mancinella), grows in the FL and Central/South America.

      Simple answer is to drink sap from trees proven to not be toxic. I’ll do more research and hopefully come up with a more detailed list for you, Adam. Thanks for reading and commenting!


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  15. I’d add the Survival Filter to this article. It filters down to .05 microns and will remove 99.9% of all bacteria and protozoa–so no worries about E Coli, Salmonella, Giardia or Cryptosporidium. They work like a LifeStraw but better. Here’s a link and no I’m not associated with them in any way other than that of satisfied customer.


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