How to Find Water in the Wild... in Winter

emergency water, survival, water filtration, weather, wilderness skills -

How to Find Water in the Wild... in Winter

When in the wilderness—whether for a few hours, a few days, or a few weeks—having a plentiful supply of water is crucial to your survival.

Any survivalist will tell you how unpredictable Mother Nature can be. One minute she’s letting the sun shine, and the next she’s bringing in a storm. No matter where you are, if you’re in the wilderness, the unexpected can hit you at any second.

When emergency strikes, finding and filtering water will become a top priority. From snowshoeing to backcountry camping, here’s how you can hunt down water in the wilderness any time of year.


Ice and snow melting on a lake in the mountains.

Melt ice and snow into drinkable water using fire, a shirt, and a sealable container.

Melting Ice and Snow

In times of desperation during the winter, look for ice and snow. The good news? Finding the ice and snow is typically the easy part. Melting them into drinkable water, however, can be a little more challenging.

First and foremost, DO NOT EAT SNOW! While there’s nothing wrong with snow itself, chomping on the cold snow will rapidly lower your body’s core temperature—something you definitely don’t want when you’re already in a cold climate. Unless you’re out of options, don’t consume any snow until you’ve melted it into water.

If you can start a fire, fill a spare sock or shirt with chunks of ice or snow, tie the top, then place it in or over a container next to your fire. The ice or snow will melt into water, run through the fabric, and drip into the container.

If you can’t start a fire but have a sealable container, fill it with ice or snow and place it underneath the outer layer of your clothing to melt it. At night, place the container in your sleeping bag to prevent the water from freezing!

At midday, be on the lookout for large rocks. When the sun is at its highest and hottest, snow that sits atop big boulders will begin to melt—even if temperatures are below freezing. Collect the water in your water bottle to keep hydrated!


Mountain stream surrounded by trees and snow.

You can drink water from a lake, river, or stream even if it's frozen! Just warm it up before you guzzle it down. And don't forget to filter it!

Drinking Lakes, Rivers, and Streams (Even if They’re Frozen)

No matter the weather, a natural body of water will be your best bet for hydration. Unfortunately, they’re not always easy to find.

Before you begin your next outdoor adventure, scope out the area online. Where will the nearest water source be? Will you have access to any lakes, rivers, or streams? Know before you go!

When you’re on your way out, make sure to pack a physical map. If you’d rather use your phone, download your map to make it accessible without cell service—and bring a portable charger!

If you find water that’s frozen, use something sharp to break through its icy layers. While shallow water sources may be frozen all the way through, deep water sources usually stay free flowing under the surface.

Even if the water looks like it’s clean, don’t drink it until it’s been treated or filtered (and if the water is from a frozen water source, wait until it’s warmed up). Drinking dirty water is more dangerous than having no water at all! You can drop purification packets or treatment tablets into water you’ve already added to your water bottle, or you can use a water filter or filtration bottle that’ll filter your water while you drink.

Don’t forget that water filters can freeze! Frozen filters can cause cracking parts and broken seals. If you use water filters, keep them close to your body heat whenever possible to protect them from the cold. If you purify water with treatments, warm up your water before dropping them in—they’re much more effective when water is warm.

There are plenty of options for a range of preferences—whatever fits yours best, be sure to bring it along when you’re enjoying the great outdoors!


Rain pouring onto pine tree branches.

Collect rainwater with a tarp, rope, and bucket! (It's easier than you think.)

Collect Rainwater

When it rains, it pours—water! And lots of it. If you find yourself in an emergency situation and a rainstorm, thank your lucky stars and start collecting that rainwater!

There are many ways to collect rainwater during a storm, but among the best is the tarp-and-bucket method. Use a rope to string up two ends of a tarp to tree branches, then string the opposite ends up and toward the tarp’s center to create a funnel shape. Place a pot, pan, or other container underneath the center of the tarp to collect the rainwater. (To see how it’s done, click here.)

If you don’t have a tarp on hand, you can use plastic sheets, plastic bags, or rain ponchos instead. Or you can try another method entirely!


Dirt holes filled with puddles of water in a forest.

If water is nowhere to be found, try underground! Look for a low spot in the land around you, then start digging.

Start Digging Holes

If you’re struggling in your search for a water source, the answer may have been beneath your feet all along: underground.

Water runs downhill and settles into the ground. To find some for yourself, look for a low spot in the land around you. Your chances of discovering water are even higher if you spot a dried-up stream or riverbed nearby!

At the lowest point of the land, use a shovel to start digging. Once water begins to pool, you’ve struck gold!


Birds flying in the sky above bushy green trees.

Birds fly straight and low when they're on their way to water. Don't be afraid to take cues from the animals when you're looking for water nearby!

Follow the Animals

Water: it’s something we all need, whether human or wild. Bugs, birds, and beasts alike can indicate that a water source is on the horizon.

Carefully follow the animals you find or look closely at the trails they’ve left behind. Below are a few tips and tricks to taking cues from animals about water nearby:

  • Bees are rarely far from fresh water. If you can see a hive or hear a buzz, it’s likely you’re only three or four miles from hydration!
  • Birds fly straight and low when on their way to water. When they’re heading back to blue skies, they take regular rest breaks from tree to tree. Rely on grain-eating birds like finches and pigeons to lead the way—water birds and birds of prey don’t drink water often.
  • Mammals and birds typically drink at dawn and dusk. Keep your eyes especially peeled during those times.
  • Meat-eating animals obtain most of their moisture from prey. Getting too close to them won’t take you far—and it can be a dangerous game.

Have you ever had to use any of these survival skills? Which method led you to the most success? Share your story in a comment below!

1 comment

  • stephane

    Taught all that in the Alpine Troops in a Foreign military. As well as Ski Patrol and Avalanche Courses.
    Make some charcoal of oak and cedar. Collect a little sand. In a plastic bottle holder, make layers. Keep that close to body and fill slowly with warm water. The little hole at the bottom pours clean potable water.

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