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Bushcraft: Water, Water Everywhere

In Britain, we are lucky to have a well-watered land with lots of springs, streams, rivers, lakes and lochs, so finding water is not normally an issue. It is an issue making sure that the water we have available is of a drinkable quality and will not harm us if we do drink it. As well as being well-watered, Britain is heavily populated and quite intensely used for agriculture, and this can easily affect the quality of the water in all the water courses. Most of the water that is used for drinking in Britain is heavily treated before it gets into the domestic supply. Untreated water can contain all sorts of nasties, ranging from bacteria and viruses to heavy metals and, although looking clean and wholesome, can suffer from pollutants from farming (rotting dead animals, slurry, fertilisers, oils from machinery) to heavy industry (heavy metals, chemicals) not to mention human waste.

Unfortunately, even if your bushcraft site is in the wilds above human habitation level, water can contain pollutants from animals – the high hills can be quite crowded with farmed and wild animals, including sheep, deer and ponies – and air-born pollutants also abound, so unless you have your bushcraft sites spring tested, you cannot be certain that water is fit to drink without treatment. That all sounds ‘doom and gloom’, but in the majority of cases, water treatment is fairly straight-forward. Ideally, you want to remove everything unpleasant, leaving only H20, and this includes heavy metals, viruses, cysts, bacteria et al and the further down a stream course, the more there is to get rid of.

The solution

Luckily, there are many very good commercial water purifying systems available today that are rated for doing everything needed. Some of these water purifying systems work as pumps, some gravity fed ‘drip’ systems and some as personal water bottles to suck from. Most rely on micro filtration, many with chemical treatment as well. There are many respected names in the field, but when looking to buy a purifying system, make sure it is designed to be used in a way that suits your needs. For example, a water purifier designed for a drinking bottle is not going to be ideal for getting enough water treated for a base camp set-up!

As a general rule, the higher up a watercourse that you extract your water, the less contaminated it may be, and indicators of reasonably clean water can be healthy wildlife and plant life in and around the water, but in Britain I would be wary of drinking untreated water under nearly all circumstances. If you are not over concerned about chemical or heavy metal contaminants, but are looking purely to get rid of things like bacteria, then boiling your water should offer a safe option.

However, the more organic material you have in the water – suspended soil for instance – the more places the nasties have to hide. Raising the water temperature to 100 degrees C (boiling at sea level) should kill everything, but if your water is turbid, it may not be 100% effective. Pre-filtering your water before boiling it may be more effective by removing the particulate that may help ‘hide’ the things you are trying to kill. The British Army used to use a ‘Milbank Bag’ to do this filtering. It is simply a close woven, shaped canvas bag that is filled with ‘raw’ water. As the water passes through the fabric, the grosser particulate is trapped, leaving cleaner water that needs less boiling or other treatment. Milbank Bags are still available from some manufacturers, or you can make your own version.

Chemical purification tablets are effective – but can make water taste foul, or you can try to select other ‘clean’ sources of water. Some of the sites I use are without ‘wild’ water courses and I have to rely on carrying the water in. Large bottles of water from supermarkets are very useful and can be re-used for carrying in tap water, but beware, water is heavy, l litre weighing onekilo, and you will want at least five-litres per person per day for drinking, cooking, washing etc.

Wild water

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Sometimes, sites without watercourses can provide ‘wild water’ from rain or snow. Catching rainwater is straightforward; just position a container below where water is running off a tarp or tree. If the water is collected like this, you may find it still needs purifying to remove stuff that has fallen with the rain, and if off a tarp, it may have elements from the tarp’s proofing, storage dirt etc. in it – but it should be fine for washing if not drinking needs. Sometimes, I have deliberately rigged a rain catcher made from a clean ‘space blanket’ type survival sheet to reduce the amount of water I have to carry.

Snow can provide a good source of water, as you can pretty much see how clean it is! Snow contains an awful lot of air and very little water for its bulk and the only safe way to melt snow requires an eye being kept on it all the time. If you fill a mess tin or billy with snow, then you may find the snow melts on the bottom of the container and then evaporates into the snow above, leaving a dry gap, and a hole is burnt in the pot without getting any water to use. Carefully melt a little snow in the base of your container and once this is liquid, add snow slowly and continuously until you have a usable amount of liquid.

You can also melt snow on an angled rock set above a fire – a snow table’ – so the melt water runs into your container. Put a large snowball on a stick angled close to your fire, so that the drips fall into your pot – an ‘Eskimo marshmallow’ – or thinly sprinkle snow onto a dark piece of waterproof material (such as a spread-out bin liner) and on a sunny day allow ‘solar power’ to melt the snow for you, as the dark material heats in the sun! You can also heat water for washing by leaving a dark water bottle (MoD issue ones are great) out in the sun for several hours – some solar showers are available that use this ‘dark absorbs heat quickly’ principle to good effect!

In really cold weather, I use a stainless-steel drinking water bottle filled with hot water and wrapped in a sock as a ‘hot water bottle’ inside my bedding. Not only does this keep me warm and cosy, but ensures that I have a bottle of unfrozen water ready for a brew first thing in the morning. It is an idea to keep your water containers stored upside down if you think it might freeze, so when you come to use them in the morning, the top of the bottle and caps will not have frozen solid – the ice will have formed in the bottom of the containers.

If you want a pleasant and pure drink and you are out in the spring when the sap is rising, you can tap a Silver Birch tree by raising a bit of the outer bark and pushing in a clean stick. The sap will drip out, down the stick into your container – I have collected up to one-litre per hour when the sap has been at its peak flow. Be sure to close the wound in the bark when you are done, so as not to let in any disease that may kill the tree, or let it ‘bleed’ to death.

Still waters run deep

One method of purifying water that can be used to get drinking water from very suspect water – even sea water – is a still. In the photos, I used two mugs and the hoses from two ‘hydration system’ water bladders to rig a simple, but effective salt water still. The first mug was filled with sea water and the lid with a hose fitted. As the water boiled in the mug, the steam went into the hose where it cooled and ran into the second mug as drinkable water. A usable system of purifying water, the still is too labour intensive and time consuming for most applications – but fun to try!

If you camp alongside a watercourse, be sure to collect water above camp, make sure your latrines are placed so that they do not pollute the water – downstream of camp (and downwind!) and at least 100-metres from the water. ‘Grey water’ – washing and washingup water, should be poured onto the ground away from the watercourse to prevent pollution.


As mentioned earlier, we usually have a source of clean water nearby but it’s nice to know how to obtain drinkable water in an emergency!

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