How to Find Water in the Desert: Outdoor Survival Tips

Exploring the all-mighty desert can definitely be more challenging than it looks like, right? The blazing sun and the distance you’d be very likely covering shouldn’t be underestimated – though carrying enough water is more than essential in this case! But did you know you can also learn how to find water in the desert yourself?

Even though it looks almost impossible, finding water in one of the driest places on Earth can be done – as long as you have a few tricks up your sleeve. In fact, finding water when you very much need it can help you avoid severe dehydration in emergencies and it might even save your life one day!

That’s why we’ve decided to go on and teach you a few survival tips that could come in handy while you’re out there exploring dry regions. On top of that, we’ve included ways with which you can purify the water and make it safe for drinking.

Why Is Water Important?

Water is important in maintaining normal body temperature as well as maintaining proper blood circulation. On top of that, drinking enough water prevents the risk of dehydration. In order to stay healthy, experts recommend drinking at least eight glasses of water each day – though how much should you drink in the desert?


The intense heat and sunlight make the body sweat out most of the water meaning you’ll have to drink more than a gallon of water in a day to replenish your fluid supply in extremely hot weather conditions.

Staying properly hydrated requires you to first know that you should bring along plenty of water. It’s a common error to limit the amount of water you have to save it for a longer period. Instead, you need to drink a lot of water in swallows and not in sips – this allows you to keep hydrated throughout the day in hot weather.

How to Tell If You’re Getting Dehydrated?

It takes a healthy person 14-20 days to adjust to the hot desert weather, therefore you might find it useful to know if you’re getting dehydrated. Here are the signs to look out for when you’re not drinking enough water.

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In order to avoid dehydration, you’ll need to seek shade when it gets very hot. Staying covered to avoid direct sunlight on the skin during the hottest part of the day prevents dehydration. Also, the amount and type of food you eat determine how much water your body retains – therefore reduce the amount of food you’re eating!

Tools That You Will Need to Find for Water

You’ll need some basic supplies that you’ll use to make your found water safe to drink. These are the basic equipment that you need to carry along.

However, never assume that any water that you find is safe for drinking even if you find it from a clear flowing stream! Filter or purify all the water that you find and plan on drinking.


Though this may not be practically possible at all times, always take precaution – don’t forget, any water you find could be contaminated and thus represent a risk for your health.

  • A water bottle – 2 or 3 large three-liter plain, non-coated, unpainted, non-lined aluminum or steel water bottle works best.
  • A rubber hose – A ¼ inch plastic rubber hose will help you draw water from otherwise unreachable sources.
  • A plastic shovel – This will be important when you want to dig water and is also helpful in digging a defecation hole at least 200 meters from any source of water – bury the feces a foot deep.
  • Hand sanitizer – Always keep your hands clean to prevent infections caused by harmful germs.
  • Fire-starter – Carry a non-fuel dependent fire starter that is hardy and can work in any environment.
  • A plastic sheeting and plastic bags – A plastic sheeting will come in handy when digging an underground sill. Plastic bags are also important when collecting water from plants

Proven Ways to Find Water in the Desert

Below you can read about several proven methods that will help you find water in the desert.

Always Carry Your Water When Going Out!

Deserts are normally very hot during the day reaching up to 134 degrees F (56.6 Celsius) and cold at night – this makes water a vital resource in the desert. This will be your number one priority before leaving to go out.


Carrying as much water as you can when you are going out in harsh environments is very important. To start with you’ll need more than one liter of water which weighs 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) and that’s heavy! So, how much water can you really pack and carry?

Plastic bottles and thermoses are okay to use but take much space in your backpack, instead use hydration bladders as your first option.

The other way you can pack your water more efficiently is using collapsible plastic jugs which carry 5 gallons of water or a hydration reservoir backpack which has a ‘hydration sleeve’. This will keep you hydrated at least until your storage runs out.

Look For Streams, Rivers, Lakes

This is the most ideal and obvious source of water you should look for in the desert – clear flowing water since it doesn’t allow bacteria to fester. Compared to large rivers which are generally polluted, look for small streams first. Water from ponds and lakes are within acceptable limits as long as they are going to be purified.


How do you find these bodies of water? First, you need to be perfectly still and listen carefully – you can hear running water from a distance. Water runs downhill, use common sense to scout the environment or follow valleys to lower ground and you’ll most likely run into a body of water.

Follow Animals, Bees, Birds, Mosquitoes, and Other Insects

If you have completely run out of water, the easiest way you can locate a source of water is following birds, bees, mosquitoes or other insects.  The best time to employ this method successfully is in the morning or evening.

Animal tracks are easy to find with your eyes particularly the ones leading downhill into valleys and canyons. Follow them and see if they lead you to a source of water.

Look For Green Vegetation

Unlike pine trees, deciduous and other broad-leafed trees have a tendency to grow near water sources in the desert. Low areas in the desert tend to have dense vegetation that stands out – this is also another clear indication that there is a close source of water.


For instance in North America, you can look for plants such as hackberry, willows, cottonwoods, sycamores, and many others while in Australia, you can look for desert Kurrajong, Mallee eucalypts, needle-bush, water bush and desert oak. If you are in the Middle East or in Africa, palm trees are a fantastic indicator.

Collect Morning Dew

You can add your water reserves by collecting early morning dew early in the morning from grass or plants – avoid any poisonous plants.  Though you can’t count on this method to give you sufficient water to last you a day, it’s still essential in desperate situations.

Dig an Underground Sill

If you’re planning on rationing your water in the desert, the most reliable method is digging an underground sill which provides a consistent, fairly substantial supply of water.

Once you have identified a likely spot, proceed and dig 1 foot in the soil and wait for at least an hour to see if that area will get damp – you can try different spots for more water. One underground sill roughly gives you about ½ -1 liter of water in a day.


There are two types of sills: underground and above ground. The former is your best bet because it is larger than the above ground, which means that it will collect more water. So, to dig the sill, you’ll need the following:

  • A large container
  • A digging tool
  • Clear plastic sheeting
  • A drinking tube or straw
  • Rocks

Important note: you can get straws from Camelbak or a bamboo tree if you don’t have any.

The first step is to find an area that is exposed to sunlight during the day. Once you have identified, dig a pit that is three-foot-wide by two-foot-deep. Dig another small hole inside this one that will perfectly fit your container. After this, take the straw and attach it to the bottommost part of the container. Gently place your container in the pit, and run the straw up out of the hole.


Now cover the hole with the plastic sheeting and use rocks to keep it in place. Next, place a small stone in the center of your plastic sheeting and hang it over the container to enhance condensation (the sheeting should look like an inverted cone which leads water down in the container).

Once the water has collected, you can drink straight from the straw! Or if you want to store the water, you can replace your container whenever it fills up.

Collect Water from Plastic Bags Wrapped Around Plants

This is another method that uses the process of condensation. You’ll need to wrap plants with plastic bags to collect water. Shake off any contaminants in the plants first, then wrap the whole plant with a plastic bag from the stem – avoid poisonous plants.


To create a water collection point, weigh down the closed end with a rock then wait for the water to collect and check later in the day how much you have gathered.

Eat Plants Containing Fluids with Great Caution

If you are running of options, you may be forced to take fluids from plants that you can’t identify. However, extreme caution must be taken when testing unknown plants. Here are some precautionary measures:

  • Select part of a plant that releases fluid when broken
  • Do a reaction test by touching the plant with the back of your wrist
  • First test the leaves, then the stem, flowers, buds, each at a time
  • Steer clear of plants with strong odors – they could be poisonous


If you have completely run out of water, it’s recommended that you stay away from eating food since this can lead to dehydration. In addition to this, stay for eight hours without eating before you test any plant for fluid.

Eat A Cactus Fruit But Don’t Drink From A Cactus Plant!

Ever seen in the movies a cowboy getting a drink of water from a beach ball-shaped cactus? Well, it’s a common misnomer that a cactus plant has water in it! Most barrel cacti contain fluids that are very high in alkali and drinking this liquid can cause vomiting, diarrhea and even temporary paralysis.

The only cactus that you can drink from is the fishhook barrel variety that is non-toxic. It has long hooked spines and is two-foot wide in diameter with a yellow flower or fruit at the top. To eat this you need to:

  • Chop off the top with a knife or any other iron tool with you
  • Cut open the cactus and crush the watermelon-like insides into pulp and squeeze out the fluid
  • Be cautious and drink the cactus liquid in small portions since it can cause kidney problems


Conversely, there are lots of edible juicy cactus fruits such as the prickly pear which is safe and contains sufficient moisture. Collect the fruit carefully and roast them for 30 seconds to get rid of the little hairs and spines. The prickly pear cactus is best gathered at its peak in spring.

Tree Crotches and Rock Crevices

The process of collecting water from rock crevices and tree crotches works best if it has been raining in recent days in the desert. Bird droppings near a rock crevice is a pointer to the presence of a water source.

To collect the water from a rock crevice, stick a piece of clean cloth and give it time to soak up moisture, pull it out and wring out the water. Tree crotchets also contain rainwater which you can collect in the same manner.

Walk to A Higher Ground

Let this be your last result – Instead of wondering about, move to higher grounds to get a better viewpoint and look around for dense vegetation. When you are on a higher ground, it’s easy to see cottonwoods and willow trees –to spot such areas, carry a pair of binoculars.


The best time to do this is when the sun is low so you don’t have to burn a lot of energy, through sweating and probably risk dehydration.

Make Water Safe for Drinking

Here are a few ways in which you can make water safe for drinking.


The most effective water purification method is boiling. This eliminates viruses and bacteria from the water making it safe to drink. To do this, you need to have a container (a steel water bottle would do) and boil the water for a minute.


There are two types of filters in the market: ceramic and carbon fortified filters.  Both work fine to remove gunk from water drawn from a gross source and kill viruses and bacteria.


It’s a good idea to work with a filter, however, they are quite heavy, complex and very costly – not very ideal to carry along on a hike.  A clean sock or piece of cloth will do to remove gunk. Paper coffee filters can also be used for the same purpose, make sure to pack a few, they add no weight to your luggage.

Chemicals and purification tablets

This is the most preferred and affordable way of purifying water. You only need to add two drops of Tincture of Iodine which is very effective in killing both viruses and bacteria.

You can also use bleach which works the same way as the Tincture of iodine. Add two drops of bleach to the water bottle and shake it thoroughly. Use water purification tablets 30 minutes before drinking your water.

UV Lights

There are battery-powered devices such as Steripens that use UV light to purify water which is chemical free, simple to use and environmentally safe. They are very effective in killing microorganisms but work best if the water is first filtered.


However, the usage of ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) to treat water should be used minimally to reduce the risk of skin cancer and aging.

Solar Power

If you have no other means to purify your water, you can use the sun’s UV radiation. You’ll need to fill your bottle with water then leave it in the sun for a full day or two.

However, this method of purifying water should be the last result because it’s very slow in cases where water is needed urgently.

Is It Possible To Find Water In The Desert?

Yes, it’s possible to find water in the desert. If you’ve run out of drinking water, you need to be persistent and resilient in your search for safe drinking water.


Be keen on the times of the day when you are out searching for water. Early mornings or late evenings are the best times of the day when you can go out searching for water. Stay under shade in the hottest parts of the day and away from the wind.

Make sure to try out any of the methods we have mentioned here to avoid the risk of dehydration when you have run out of water in the desert. Also, do you know of any other way on finding water in the desert? If that’s the case, let us know in the comments below – we’d be glad to hear back from our readers!

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