Where to find water in the bush
Bushwalkers usually collect water from natural sources like creeks, rivers, lakes, and soaks they find on the route or a short way off it. These supplies change with season and rainfall, and some are more reliable than others – often those rivers that are fed by smaller creeks.
Care must be taken to choose sources that are reliable, and backups must be in place in areas where water availability is variable. Sometimes, bushwalkers might have to carry enough water supplies to get to a backup water source or walk out. In some regions with high numbers of visitors or unreliable water supplies, tanks have been provided by management.
Natural water sources How to find reliable natural water sources
Natural water sources include creeks, rivers, lakes, and soaks that run over the ground, natural collection points such as cave drips and tree crevices, as well as water sources that run deep below the ground.
Where to look:
- Check the map to determine the lay of the land. Dotted blue lines represent seasonal (non-perennial) creeks, whereas solid blue lines are more permanent (perennial) waterways, although these can also run dry. Examine the topology and watch out for steep edges or cliffs that are impassable. Small catchments are more likely to be a clean source or water, whereas larger creeks with more sources of input are more likely to be running. But beware of relying too heavily upon a map for information: water courses can change, and constructed features such as mines and farms can dramatically affect water flow in natural areas surrounding them.
- Places where water naturally pools such as low-lying areas, valleys or gullies.
- Always go downhill. Water follows gravity downwards, so when looking for water follow the lay of the land downhill. Gullies that appear dry higher up often start to flow at lower elevations. Often, following a gully downwards can lead to water.
- Search rock crevices, tree crotches, rock pools, drips from cave overhangs, or other natural water catchments where rainwater may have collected.
- Patches of healthy green vegetation, plants typically found near water (e.g. wattles, she-oaks) and damp or muddy ground. These all indicate some source of water which may be possible to access by digging.
- The presence of animals: mammals, insect and birds tend to stick close to water sources, and these are often places where animal tracks converge. Birds often circle watering holes, and the flight direction can be used to detect water sources. The formation of seed-eating birds changes as they approach water from a random clustering to an ordered and neat formation.
Ideally, water should be collected from clean sources, that flow from pristine natural areas, but if there is doubt, then treat water. Treatments for water sources contaminated with pathogens include boiling, chemical or UV treatments.
Pathogen contamination can come from:
- Farms: Animal faeces
- Popular campsites and huts with many visitors: human faeces
Water contaminated with toxins, fertilisers and heavy metals cannot be treated in the field, and bushwalkers should avoid these water sources. Examples of this kind of contamination include:
- Mines and factories (e.g. above the Wolgan River)
- Pesticide and fertiliser run-off from farms (e.g. Cox’s River downstream from the Megalong Valley farms)
- Towns that are above walking areas, such as in the Blue Mountains
- Check with local land managers or authorities about current water conditions on the track. Find out as much information before heading out into the bush.
- Share information about water sources with other walkers on the track.
- When filling up at water sources, try to drink as much as possible (if the water can be treated and drunk immediately), before filling water containers as this maximises the time needed between water sources.
- Listen out for flowing water. Keeping an ear out for trickling water is an easy way of locating a water source. Although traveling down a gully can be an effective way of finding water, it can be challenging due to the thicker scrub and vines that tend to grow there. Sometimes it’s easier to follow a parallel ridge downhill and listen for flowing water and only duck into the gully occasionally to check for water.
- Desert: never walk in desert conditions without being confident about water availability. Water is rarely found running on the surface, but can be dug for in a dry river bed: preferably choose a section where the river is under shade for most of the day and dig into the outside of the bend. Digging can yield some water, particularly if there has been flash flooding and water has been stored beneath the surface. However, digging for water can be energy intensive and yield poor results, so apply caution. It may be better to conserve energy resources and focus on doing things that maximise the chance of rescue.
- Alpine environments tend to have high rainfall where water is often trickling close to the surface. Hence, it’s possible to find running water at high elevations. Snow can be melted and used as drinking water.
- Coastal: Care must be taken to select fresh water sources as drinking salt water leads to dehydration and higher concentrations of salt than the human body can handle. Potable water can be found above the high tide mark, where fresh water and salt water sources cannot mix. A small cascade above the high tide mark is a good place to start looking for water. Large bodies of water near oceans can have salt water for some distance upstream, so the chances of finding potable water increase dramatically when looking for a smaller source, perhaps one that feeds that larger body of water. According to “The 10 Bushcraft Books” by Richard Graves:
“Fresh water can always be found along the sea coast by digging behind the wind-blown sandhills which back most ocean beaches. These sandhills trap rain water, and it floats on top of the heavier salt water which filters in from the ocean. Sandhill wells must be only deep enough to uncover the top inch or two (2.5 or 5 cm) of water. If dug deeper, salt water will be encountered and the water from the well may be brackish and undrinkable. It will be noticed, too, that the water in these wells rises and falls slightly with the tides. These sand wells are a completely reliable source of water all over the world. When digging it is necessary to revet the sides with brushwood, otherwise the sand will fall into the well.”
“On coastal areas where cliffs fall into a sea a careful search along the lower edges of the cliff will generally disclose soaks or small springs. These in general follow a fault in the rock formation and frequently are evident by a lush growth of ferns and mosses.”
- Avoid stagnant or coloured water sources, as these are more likely to be contaminated.
- Avoid drinking urine until it is a life or death scenario. First, extinguish all other sources of clean or dirty water.
Taps and tanks How to find reliable taps and tanks on a bushwalk
Hunts and formal campsites usually have taps and rainwater tanks, however, it’s not always easy to get information on the current condition of the tank or how full it is. Tanks are susceptible to damage from wild weather, corrosion and contamination from animals (faeces or dead animals falling in), and water can become stagnant is not refilled and emptied regularly. Also, how full a tank is depends on precipitation and the number of users. Low rainfall, a high number of users or both can lead to a low tank.
The best way to get information on tank conditions is to ask someone else that has visited the site recently (preferably within the last fortnight). Alternatively, national parks websites may give current information on water availability at population sites, but a short phone call to the appropriate land manager or ranger is likely to be more reliable. Beware of relying on maps that show constructed water sources: in general, printed maps are made using data that is several years old, and infrastructure out in natural places can quickly change.
Since the water in tanks comes from the runoff over rooftops and guttering, it’s a good idea to treat it because these structures are likely to collect animal dropping and other natural waste. Likewise, tap water in campgrounds is usually pumped from a nearby water source that is likely to be contaminated from the toileting facilities nearby.
Tank water is a precious resource and bushwalkers must take care not to waste it. Use tank water for drinking and cooking, but avoid using it for excessive dishwashing or showering. For example, when washing billies use a small amount of water, and perhaps use that water to wash other items. There’s also the problem of poor hygiene, with people washing their hands and touching the spout of the water tank. Certainly, it should be kept clean, but if the only available water is from a tank, then wash with as little water as possible, and never directly from or near the tank; use a personal water container, at a distance.
Lastly, if relying on a constructed water source (e.g. tank, reservoir), take into account that parts break. Apart from just wearing out, alpine environments are not kind to tanks, pipes and taps, which can burst when water freezes. In summer, there’s not a lot that can be done in the field if a water tank with a solid lid has a seized tap. Best to find another water source and report any damage to the park manager as soon as possible.
Other water sources How to source other types of water supplies on a bushwalk
With some skill and effort, water can also be obtained by engineering constructed tools to collect rain water or transpiration from plants, and also by breaking open tree roots or eating certain plants (e.g. succulent plants).
Rainwater run-off is an easy way to obtain water: just leave a few billies out overnight and after a moderate rainfall, they’ll be full in the morning. If collection containers are limited, it’s possible to rig up the outer fly of the tent so that water drains more quickly and directly into a billy or pot. Likewise, collected rain run-off from huts is an effective way of collecting water, although most huts have a rainwater tank that is more efficient.
With some patience, snow can be melted to produce drinking water providing the group has sufficient gas and time to do so. In most cases, snow should be melted and the water boiled to treat for contamination by pathogens.
Sufficient dew may collect overnight in areas where there are few or no trees so that it can be possible to collect enough of this water to survive. Run a rag or tufts of grass over the dew on the ground and squeeze out the moisture to drink. While this technique doesn’t produce much water, it may assist in emergency scenarios.
Pig Weed, Pig Face (Carpobrotus) and Ice Plant (Parakylia) contain enough moisture to drink from. It’s also possible to obtain water from tree roots, although the process is undoubtedly damaging to the tree, and only to be used in emergency situations.
Plants transpire water throughout the day as they absorb sunlight and convert it to energy via photosynthesis. It’s possible to collect this water by tying a bag over the leaves of a plant.
A solar still can be used to collect water by using the heat of the sun to evaporate, cool and collect it. Using the sun to collect water is an emergency technique that takes substantial setup but can yield between 0.5-2.5 litres depending on conditions.