Dying of Thirst

How to find water when your life depends on it.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Rob a man of matches, and he can still hunker out of the wind. Take away his dinner, and his body can feed off its own muscle. But deny him water, and he dies.

If he is an injured Coues deer hunter in the Arizona desert or a fisherman stranded on an island off the Louisiana coast, the additional fluid loss through perspiration will bring him to his maker in four days, even if he does nothing but pray for salvation. The irony is that sportsmen who get stranded without water do not need a miracle to survive: They are within reach of enough water to prolong life; many just don't know where to find it.

**Finding It **
Locating water in the wild depends on the specific environment.

High Elevation Snow and ice are the most obvious sources, but melt them first (if possible, on a black plastic trash bag, which absorbs radiant heat). Eating snow or sucking ice takes energy, reduces body temperature, and increases dehydration.

Dry creek beds often have water underground. Dig until you reach moist soil or gravel, then let water seep into the hole. Dip your handkerchief in and wring the water into a container.

Beaches Spread a tarp to catch rainwater, or dig in the sand until you reach moist soil-the hole will gradually fill with fresh water (be sure to stop digging when you hit moisture; if you go deeper, saltwater may seep into the hole). Alternately, you can boil seawater, saturate a bandanna or shirt with the steam, and wring the sweet water into a container.

Clear or bluish sea ice is another good source of drinkable water. Opaque, grayish ice will be salty.

Arid Country Dig in low spots, keying on the depressions in the outside bends of dry stream channels. Dig 100 feet back from the edges of dry or salty desert lakes. Where sand dunes abut a lakebed, dig in the depression behind the first dune.

Listen for water dripping inside caves. Investigate rocky outcrops and walk the base of cliffs to find pockets of rainwater collected in porous stones and rock crevices (a plastic tube is invaluable for tapping such sources). Hack apart barrel cacti and prickly pear, then chew the pulp for moisture. In the desert, all paths lead to water. Follow animal trails in the direction that they converge. Watch for birds and insects, which typically fly low and in a straight line to water each evening. Also, bird droppings around rock fissures may indicate hidden water. Investigate any green vegetation or man-made structures. Keep your eyes on the sky and head toward inclement weather.

Water From Nowhere
Should efforts at finding water fail, make your own by stuffing a plastic bag three-quarters full with leafy vegetation and inflating it. Place a rock in the bag and tie it off. The inside of the bag will bead with potable condensation when left in direct sunlight.

Alternately, build a solar still (see illustration)-but keep in mind that to manufacture the 2 to 4 liters of water your body needs each day, you'll have to keep several of them in operation at all times: **1. **Dig a 3-foot-wide hole in soil that's open to sunlight.

2. At the bottom center, make a deeper depression to hold a water container.

3. Place one end of a 3-foot-long plastic tube in the container and drape the other over the lip of the hole. (You can make a still without the tube but will have to dismantle it to get to the water.)

4****. Spread a 6-foot square of clear plastic over the hole, pinning down the edges with soil or rocks. Place a small stone in the center so that the plastic droops into the hole about 16 inches (it must not touch the sides).

As sunlight passes through the plastic, moisture in the soil evaporates, condenses on the bottom of the sheet, and runs down to the center, where it drips into the container to the tune of about 1 liter per 12 hours of sunlight. Drink it through the tube.

You can increase the yield by placing chopped-up cactus or leafy vegetation in the hole. Or pour urine or polluted water into a narrow, 8-inch-deep trough a few inches to the side of the still; the wastewater will be filtered by the soil as it is drawn into the still. This will desalinate seawater, too.