How to Collect Water

Information on how to collect water from a natural water source

Compared to finding a water source, collecting water is usually the easy part. Water collected from swift flowing sources must be taken with care, and different techniques can be used in streams with low flow to get water efficiently.

Collecting from well-flowing water sources Strategies for collecting water from well flowing water sources

A creek, stream or river makes water collection easy. Avoid stagnant water by aiming to collect from flowing sections. Hold the water container in the flowing water and the water bottle should fill.

Sometime near campsites, where water sources risk becoming contaminated by the sheer volume of visitors toileting in the catchment area then go upstream for a few minutes, cross the river on rocks, and get water from a stream that has only dense bush above.

Choose a collection point where the water source is running and is easy to reach with a water bottle. Avoid loose rocks or cliff edges, as these can be difficult to traverse up and down. Aim for flat, stable banks, and for fast flowing water make sure to be stable enough not to fall in. Sometimes, it might be worth traveling 5-10 mins further up or downstream to find a safe collection point.

Still water sources like soak or lakes are also great collection sources, however, if at all possible, avoid using water that’s flowing very slowly or is stagnant. Stagnant water is a collection point for toxic runoff and laden with decaying plant and animal matter and associated microorganisms. Avoid water sources with excessive algal growth and foam on the surface as these are signs of contamination from agricultural or industrial runoff. That said, if the group is out of options, then stagnant water may be better than nothing. It’s important to weigh up the risks of dehydration and illness carefully. In these cases, fill water container deep underneath the surface of the water to avoid the nasties on top and treat the water. In short, there’s no easy way when water sources are scarce; it’s better to have more reliable sources.

Collecting water from swift water sources can be extremely dangerous: there’s a serious risk of falling in and getting swept away. There’s also the risk that the bank may collapse. Try to find a spot that has a gentle slope to the water; leaning over a drop is awkward, even if it’s not high. Better to find a slower flowing side creek to fill from, or a still eddy on the edge of the river. Likewise, care must be taken when collecting water in cold or snowy conditions: ice on river banks can make edges slippery, and bushwalkers are vulnerable.

Lastly, taken into account environmental considerations when collecting water: avoid creating new paths to water sources by encouraging the group to spread out as they reach the water source. Care should be taken not to damage the river bank as soil and vegetation are prone to erosion.

Awkward to reach and low flow sources Strategies for coping with low flow and awkward to reach water sources

In dry regions, or after a period of low rainfall, small water sources may run very slowly making them much harder to find and collect. These sources are hidden gems but can take some time and patience to fill water containers.

There are a few ways to manage water sources with low flows or that are awkward to reach. If the flow is strong but shallow, consider making a hollow or dam and using a mug to scoop out water. Note that some small creeks have a lot of soil and sediment build up due to the low flow. Collecting from sources with high sediment can be challenging as the sediment can get stirred around and end up in the water container. One way to reduce the amount of sediment in the collection process is to put the mug or container into the water source gently with the opening upstream, just enough to let water go in but not the sediment.

Another way to fill a container of water from a natural water source is to get a curled piece of bark and use that as a pipe. Once this is set up, let it flow until sediment stops. It helps to wedge the bark at the top with rocks or sticks to keep it in place.

Bark runner
Farm ridge water

For subsurface rivers with no clear stream of water, it’s still possible to collect water from the wet sand or earth. Place a flattened wine cask or groundsheet in the sand with slight V-shape towards the middle, and the edge of the ‘V’ poking out. Hopefully, there will be a flow of water from the V, enough for the night.

Accidental sediment collection is typical from water sources with low flow and has the unfortunate side effect of making some forms of water treatment less effective. Course filtering at collection using a piece of clothing or coffee filter paper can help.

Collection devices Useful water collection devices

There are many types of water collection devices, each with their own merits and flaws depending on the water flow, need to treat the water, and collection time.

  • Soft plastic and hard shell water bottles: these include old soft drink bottles and reusable hard plastic water bottles. Wide-mouthed containers are easier to fill from low flow water sources, but can be harder to drink from. Narrow-mouthed bottles take longer to fill up: using a spare mug to assist fill up can significantly speed things up.
  • Collapsible water bottles: these water bottles can be rolled up and stored at low volume in the backpack. They are slower and harder to fill up, are at greater risk from puncture than a hard-shell PET water bottle, and harder to drink from because they lack rigidity. However, they make good backups and enable the user to greater increase their capacity to collect and carry water without much extra weight or volume in their pack. Again, using a spare mug to assist fill up can significantly speed things up.
  • Billies: easy and quick to collect water from due to the large opening but hard to carry far without spilling water, so only used when retrieving water from a source close to camp.
  • Pack tap or old goon bag. Lightweight and effective way to collect and carry large volumes of water, particularly when not camping directly next to a water source. The nozzle is broad enough to fill quickly from reasonably flowing water sources, but for smaller flows using a mug to assist is easier. These bladders are not designed to be directly drunk from but rather to be decanted into a more drinkable water container. Carrying a bladder like this is an excellent backup to increase the carrying capacity of water in the group dramatically.
  • Yabby straw: A yabbie straw, or yabbie tube, is a piece of flexible tube used as a straw to suck water for drinking from anywhere that would be difficult to get water out by other means. Effective in places where water is ok to drink untreated and water sources are regular enough that the drinker can satisfy their water needs without having to collect water.

Back at camp, have a system in place to separate treated from untreated water. Dedicate a 10L tap pack of untreated water for the group to use to wash hands, cooking containers and so on.

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