Distilling Water in the Wilderness

There is no purer or safer water than water that has been distilled i.e. condensed from evaporation. And if you're in an environment where the sun shines brightly enough to warm the surroundings, creating a water still is a great way to take cover of one your greatest survival needs. The best part is that once set up, these water stills require little ongoing maintenance. You simply need to check once in a while to have a drink.

Vegetation Bag
For this technique you'll need a plastic bag and access to health and nonpoisonous plants. Your life will be easier if you also have a section of surgical tubing that is 4 to 6 feet long.

  1. The first step is to find a sunny slope preferably early in the day.
  2. Fill the bag with air as this will help with putting the vegetation in to it.
  3. Fill the bag one-half to three-quarters full of the lushest and greenest vegetation you can find while being careful to not puncture the bag.
  4. Place a small rock or something similarly heavy into the bag.
  5. If you have a surgical tubing, slide one end inside and toward the bottom of the bag. Tie the other end in an overhand knot.
  6. Close the bag and tie it off as close to the opening as possible.
  7. Place the bag on a sunny slope so that the opening is on the downhill side and slightly higher than the bag's lowest point.
  8. Position both the rock and the surgical tubing at the lowest point in the bag.
  9. If using surgical tubing, simply untie the knot to drink or collect the water. If no tubing is used, loosen the tie and drain off the available liquid. Be sure to drain off all liquid before sunset, or it will be reabsorbed into the vegetation.
  10. For optimal results, change the vegetation every two to three days.

Transpiration Bag
The advantage of a transpiration bag over a vegetation bag is that the same vegetation can be reused once it has been given enough time for it to rejuvenate. As the name suggests, you'll need a bag to construct a transpiration bag and a 4 to 6 foot section of surgical tubing will make collecting the water easier.

  1. Find a tree or shrub that has direct sun exposure throughout a majority of the day.
  2. Open the plastic bag and fill it with air to make it easier to it over the vegetation.
  3. Place the bag over the lush, leafy vegetation of the tree or shrub. Try to aim for the side with the greatest exposure to the sun. Don't let the bag get punctured!
  4. Place a small rock or something similar in size into the bag's lowest point.
  5. At this point, if you have surgical tubing, place one end at the bottom of the bag next to the rock. Tie the other end in an overhand knot.
  6. Close the bag and tie it off as close to the opening as possible.
  7. When water has gathering, simply untie the knot to drink any collected water using the tubing. If no tubing is used, loosen the tie and drain off whatever water is available. The water will be reabsorbed during the night so be sure to collect the water before nightfall.
  8. Change the bag's location every two to three days. This will ensure optimal results and allow the previous site to rejuvenate so that it might be used again later.

Below Ground Solar Still
Should you be in a survival situation where water and vegetation are scarce, you still have one option for using a still to obtain water. Unlike with the other stills, you don't need a bag, but you do need a sheet of about 6 feet square and a container in which to catch the water. A 4 to 6 foot section of surgical tubing will make drinking the water easier. In addition, you'll need to move the solar still every two to three days.

  1. Look for a location where the ground contains moisture such as bend in a dry stream, near lush vegetation, or a low-lying area where water may have recently collected.
  2. Dig a hole approximately 3 feet across and 2 to 3 feet deep.
  3. At the bottom of the hole, dig a flat-bottomed sump that is large enough for the bottom third of your container to fit in.
  4. Place the container into the sump and then put one end of the surgical tubing in it while keeping the other end up and out of the hole. Tie a loose overhand knot in the tubing to anchor it in the container while still allowing for water flow.
  5. Cover the hole with the plastic sheet and place a small rock onto its center, allowing it to drop 18 to 24 inches into the hole so that the lowest point is directly above the container. If done correctly this should look like a funnel with the spout (if there was one) directly over the container.
  6. Secure the plastic into place with rocks and clumps of dirt, but be careful that it does not come into direct contact with the dirt within the hole. If contact occurs, condensation destined for the cup will instead be absorbed into the ground.
  7. Tie a knot in the free end of the surgical tubing to prevent the loss of moisture through evaporation.
  8. If using surgical tubing, simply untie the knot to drink any collected water. If surgical tubing is not available, you'll need to open the still to drink the water that has been collected.

The water yield from a below ground still can be increased with these additional techniques:

  • Add nonpoisonous plants to the sides of the hole. For best results, change the vegetation every two days.
  • Urinate on the ground inside the still. As the moisture from the urine evaporates, clean water is produced.
  • Pour polluted or salt water onto the ground in the still. Again, as evaporation occurs, clean water is produced.

References:
Wilderness Survival by Gregory J. Davenport

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7 Comments

  1. What are the chances that you'll have 4 to 6 feet of surgical tubing in a survival situation??? Ridiculous!

    • Surgical tubing may not be on hand, but tubing of some sort may be. If your situation involves a broken down car or other vehicle or you're just somewhere that has lost power there may be such resources at hand.

  2. Hello, I was finishing my lab report for science. We did a lab where we took a plastic bag and put it around a few leaves on a tree. We left it there for a few days and when we returned, noticed that there was condensation in the bag. I was curious and searched for an answer to see wether or not that water was safe to drink- and found this article. So would water that comes from live, non-poisonous plants, would it be safe to drink also?

    • Yes, drinking water that has evaporated and condensed is safe as all of the impurities would have been left behind.

  3. does anyone know if the transpiration from any mangroves is good/safe for drinking?

  4. will a dark garbage bag work for any of these devices or does it have to be clear?

    • The darker the bag, the faster the evaporation and distillation. A clear trashbag doesnt really absorb that much heat compared to a black one.

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