ACADEMY & CLASSROOM » Survival Water Harvesting Techniques

When faced with a survival scenario its difficult for many people to know what their priorities are.  Shelter, information, self-defense, communication, and basic survival supplies are important elements, but second to none is your need for sustainable, clean drinking water enough for you and your family.  

Survival Water Harvesting Techniques

Rain is the Name of the Game

When faced with a survival scenario its difficult for many people to know what their priorities are.  Shelter, information, self-defense, communication, and basic survival supplies are important elements, but second to none is your need for sustainable, clean drinking water enough for you and your family.  

Like any post-disaster commodity, having an ample supply of water stored in advance of an emergency situation can lend a distinct advantage to your family's chances of surviving and thriving.  But even stored water can go bad, run out, or become compromised in a number of ways and you need to have a system in place to harvest water on a continuous basis.  

There are numerous methods of collecting water simply by using what Mother Nature provides, but the hands-down most sustainable and efficient is harvesting rainwater.

Establishing a system to harvest rainwater can be done relatively cheaply and effortlessly using basic household materials.  These systems often require little maintenance and can provide your entire family with clean water for drinking, bathing, and sewage.  

However, not everyone lives in an area of plentiful rainfall and those who do can't always count on the elements to cooperate favorably.  Additionally, certain natural disasters could force you from your home completely and put you and your family in a bug-out survival situation where you may need to remain mobile for an extended period of time.  

For these reasons, in addition to setting up a rain harvesting system at home you should familiarize yourself with other sustainable means of procuring fresh water in other less-conventional manners.

When Disaster Strikes

Many people have experienced the effects of power outages following a bad storm that can often leave you with only cold water due to a downed heater.  Others, particularly those in the south and southwest portions of the country have faced times of drought wherein restrictions on water usage are often government mandated.  

But very few Americans, save those who were impacted by events like hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and the tornadoes in the Midwest, know what it is like to go completely without water for drinking, bathing, and sewage for an extended period of time.  A large-scale natural disaster like a hurricane, tornado, or earthquake could severely rupture the underground pipes of an entire city and shut off most public access to flowing water.

A particularly horrible event, including a cyber or nuclear attack, could shut power and utility companies down completely and destroy the infrastructure of the plants, pipes, and power networks.  This could, at least temporarily, cause entire populations to resort to primitive methods to procure the basic survival elements as power switches, faucets, and flushing toilets may become luxuries of the past.  

In the event of a nuclear attack, even those many miles away from the initial impact area could experience the effects of radiation that would contaminate the atmosphere and many reservoirs and underground bodies of water.  The bad news is you can't anticipate the coming of many disasters and you probably won't be living as comfortably as you are used to in times of peace in the time following an emergency situation.  

But the more educated and prepared you are to handle such an event and the more systems you have in place to ensure the long-time supply of basic needs like drinking water, the more likely you can maintain your family's survival for the long haul.

Stockpiling Before the Storm

Hopefully you already have a bug-out-bag (with at least 72-hours worth of water and provisions) in place for each member of your family, but it's always best to store as much extra as your space, time, and finances allow.  Even if you ultimately have to abandon your residence and hit the road, it can't hurt to stockpile extra food and water to have in case you do end up hunkering down and sheltering in place.  

One of the easiest and cheapest ways to store water is collect 5-gallon jugs (like those used on office water coolers) and simply fill them with tap water.  These can be purchased at many grocery and home-supply stores and can be stored in creative ways as to not consume valuable living space.  Some people choose to hoist their bed-frames and store multiple containers of water underneath while closets, attics, and basements also tend to offer leftover storage space.  

When storing water in advance of an emergency situation, you must take into consideration that tap water can go bad after several months so you should limit yourself to your ability to dump and refill your containers once at least every six months.

Nothing Beats a Tarp

If a professional system isn't within your budget, or even if it is and the fuel for the generator runs out, the easiest way to collect rainwater is to use a tarp (or other heavy-duty plastic sheeting).  Tarps can be secured to a roof, hillside, or just about any surface that can be angled downward to a low point where rainwater can funneled into a bucket, tank, or pipe that delivers the water to a container located inside or beneath the home.  

If you use larger tarps and apply them to multiple surfaces, coupled with systems to collect run-off water in a collection container, you have increased potential of harvesting more water.  When using this method its best to keep your tarp system away from trees, which are more likely to deposit leaves, pine needles, bird droppings, and other sediment onto the tarp and into your water.  To ensure the water you collect is as contaminant-free as possible, consider cleaning the tarp periodically and using screens to keep the larger particles out of your collection containers.

The Gutter Trap

Though often overlooked by many beginner preppers, most homes have a natural system in place to collect rainwater: gutters.  Gutters collect water run-off from slanted roofs and carry them to downspouts that drain into a yard or underground.  Tarps can come into handy here too and help increase the flow of water into the gutters and through the downspouts, which can be easily modified to divert water into a barrel or tank.  

Using your gutters to collect rainwater still puts the water at risk of containing sediment and contaminants.  You can minimize these dangers by keeping your gutter systems clean and clear of build-up, installing screens over the downspouts and gutters themselves, and using a system that ensures that the water flows continuously to a sealed storage tank so that no stagnant areas build-up to offer mosquitoes and other insects a place to breed.

Keeping It Clean

It's important to understand that water collected directly from your roof or other outside surface isn't suitable for immediate consumption, even if you've taken measures to keep out the initial unwanted particles.  Most modern roofing materials contain toxins that can mix with rainwater run-off and contaminate your stores.  

If you want the rainwater you collect to be drinkable you should consider installing stainless steel or enameled galvanized steel roofing panels that are freed of lead contaminants and chemical finishes.  The acid rain that you often hear about in environmental news really only poses a danger to soil and the growth of crops and should not be a source of worry for your family's health.  In fact, many scientists agree that water from the sky is significantly cleaner from the spring and well water most people are accustomed to drinking.  

Make sure any cracks and openings are thoroughly sealed and consider layering them with some sort of cover to keep debris and insects away.  Especially if you are storing your water container outside in contact with sunlight, heavy black-colored barrels and tanks with insulated lids are the most likely to block sunlight and prevent algae from growing inside.

Ensure That It's Pure

Water that falls directly from the sky is more or less safe to drink, but any water that comes in contact with your roof, a tarp, or is harvested elsewhere from the ground or wild should be boiled to ensure drinkability.  Any water you tend to consume, whether by drinking, brushing your teeth, cooking, or cleaning utensils should be boiled to kill any unknown bacteria or contaminants.  

If the water is coming from a relatively clean source, boiling for two or three minutes should be sufficient, but any questionable liquid should be put over the fire for at least five.  If you are forced to bug-out during after a disaster, finding and purifying water becomes and even greater priority.  In addition to having multiple fire-starting methods, a camp stove, and cook pot in your bug-out-bag, you should also consider carrying at least one other method of purification.  In addition to boiling water, you can purify small quantities for drinking using:

  1. Halazone tablets – Available at most sporting goods stores and pharmacies, two of these pills will make a quart of water safe for drinking within 30-minutes.  More tablets can be used depending on the murkiness of the water, but all you need to do is add the tabs to a sealable container with a quart of water and allow them to dissolve, shake the contents, and then allow to rest for the desired time before drinking.

  2. Bleach – Chlorine in some form is one of the best ways to disinfect water, and often one of the cheapest and most widely available too since household bleach can do the trick.  Just a few drops can purify a small portable container while a heaping tablespoon can disinfect up to eight quarts of contaminated water.  You should wait thirty minutes for the solution to combine before consuming and while there may be a slightly bleachy aftertaste, the water will be completely safe to drink.

  3. Iodine – Iodine, commonly used as a topical antiseptic, can be mixed with a quart of water and treated similarly to Halazone to make water drinkable within a half-hour.

  4. Iodine tablets – Widely used by the US military in hostile environments, Tetraglycine Hydroperiodide tablets are effective disinfectants of dirty water.  They are particularly useful in tropical and semi-tropical environments where chlorine compounds are ineffective against the volatile contaminants that can grow in water sources.  One is enough to disinfect a quart within ten minutes but more can be added for particularly murky or debris-ridden water.

Securing and Storing Your Cache

When deciding on a water storage container, especially one kept outdoors, take into consideration how you will access the water inside.  You may want to support the tank on stacked cinder blocks or otherwise elevate it so that gravity can act to deliver the water to a valve or faucet at the bottom.  

Accordingly, you should only use tanks that have a larger port on the topside that allow access to the inner walls of the tank for cleaning.  In an extreme survival scenario you never know who will intrude on your property and what their intentions will be with your provisions.  If keeping your water caches outdoors, consider keeping them out of sight and disguised with plants, trees, and other inconspicuous debris.  

Depending on your location, elevation, and exposure to the elements, your water tank may undergo extended period of freezing temperatures.  Both indoor and outdoor tanks can be outfitted with insulting blankets or other makeshift materials like Styrofoam and fiberglass insulation wrapped with duct tape.

If you live in an area with plenty of sunshine and aren’t at risk of below-freezing temperatures you can keep your water tank above ground an in an area with the most exposure to direct sunlight.  When full of water, tanks exposed to sunlight throughout the day can retain enough heat to prevent freezing overnight.  

Black tarp can help keep tanks warm as sunshine warms the air underneath the tarp and creates a layer of warmth around the tank.  In areas without much direct sunlight and/or persistent freezing temperatures, you may consider buying your containers underground below the frost line or keeping them in cellars with warm microclimates.  It's also helpful to store your water cache close to your home's heating or cooking unit and using the radiant heat to keep the tanks from freezing.

Ultimately, there is no one trick pony when it comes to making sure you can acquire water in a survival situation.  You should always be prepared for a worse-case scenario and plan to have backup methods to your backup methods for water procurement.  Every situation is different, and much depends on the given geography, weather conditions, terrain, season, and survival scenarios.  The more you study up and practice different ways to collect, produce, and sterilize water, the better off you'll be when real disaster strikes.

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