How to find water when exploring by bike

John Fenna


Adventuring by bike is thirsty work, especially if you  and yourself stuck out in the middle of nowhere with not a drop to drink. Never fear! Outdoor enthusiast and all-round survival expert John Fenna knows how to conjure up the wet stuff

Some techniques in this article may be seen as hazardous. Do your own risk assessments before trying anything in the article – the author takes no responsibility for any misadventure you may experience.

The human body comprises approximately 60-70 percent water, with the brain comprising about 85 percent water. To work efficiently, it needs a constant supply of clean wet Stuff daily. In temperate climates, this can be 3-4 litres, but if you are working hard in hot climates, then you could need up to 11 litres. Three days without water is reckoned as your maximum before suffering a very unpleasant death.

Many diseases – cholera, hepatitis, giardiasis and more – are carried by water and many chemical pollutants like heavy metals and fertilisers can also be invisible in water, but will certainly harm you and need removing before the water is fit to drink.

Revealing Sources

The best sources of water when out in the wilds are watercourses. The ideal source has a moderate flow and a moderate number of healthy plants, animals, fish and insects around it; it should also look and smell clean, too. Once you find what you think is a good source, check upstream for carcasses or other pollutants in the water. If a water source has too little or too much algae in it, unhealthy looking vegetation on its margins, unhealthy, dead or no aquatic creatures in or around it, then avoid drinking from it if possible!

Rainwater, collected as it falls, may contain low levels of chemical pollutants, but is generally pure enough to drink. Collect it in clean bowls or rain traps made from clean waterproof clothing, space blankets or ponchos. These can be formed by suspending the material from four sticks and then placing a clean weight in the centre of one side, to direct the flow of water into a container.

Dew trapped in long grass can also be collected for drinking and cooking. Wrap your feet and lower legs in absorbent fabric (T-shirts etc), then walk through the damp vegetation and wring out your waterlogged ‘leg-warmers’ into a container. In boggy areas, you can collect fairly clean water by using a ‘gypsy well’. Dig a hole 30cm wide and 30cm deep and allow it to fill with water percolating through from the saturated ground. The first fill will likely be very dirty, so discard it. The subsequent fills should be clearer, but be sure not to disturb the sides of the hole.

Space blanket used to collect rain water

Wisdom Of Plants

In hot climates many plants store water in their flesh. This water can be accessed by cutting the plant into small pieces and placing in a solar still. A solar still is simply a 60cmx60cm pit dug in the ground with a collecting vessel placed in the middle and – if you have one – a plastic tube running from this vessel to beyond the side of the pit. Put the cut vegetation, plus any dirty or salt water (even urine!) in the pit, cover with a clear plastic sheet and seal the edges with sand, soil or the like. Place a weight over your collecting vessel. The sun should evaporate clean water from the pit’s contents, and it should condense on the plastic to run down and drip into the vessel. Suck on the tube to drink. If you don’t have a tube, you can access your clean water by dismantling the still, though this isn’t ideal.

Even in dry climates, trees suck up moisture from deep underground. You can collect a fair amount of water by tying polythene bags around leafy branches and letting moisture from the tree’s leaves condense on the plastic. The more leaves you have trapped in the bag, the more water you’ll get.

Collect condensation from leaves

Pure And Simple

Do not assume that water the local animals drink, or for that matter the local human population drink, is pure and clean. It could be that they have simply built up a resistance to local bugs that will lay you low. In certain communities dysentery, cholera and other diseases are endemic. Even tap water can be very suspect. I once filled a bottle from a tap at a farm and found a mature tapeworm in it! Even labelled bottled water can be tampered with, so be sure to check the seals.

Salt or very dirty water can be distilled to give drinking water. Boil the salt water in a mess tin and trap the steam in a clean cloth or some moss laid over the top of the mess tin, or direct the steam onto a space blanket above the water to condense and run into a collecting vessel. Rain and condensed steam are usually pure enough to drink; all other sources will likely need filtering and purifying.

Commercial filters and purifiers (such as chlorine tablets) are ideal and easily available. For maximum effect, be sure to try and get filters that remove chemical pollutants as well as cysts, bacteria and viruses. Many commercial purifiers work best in clear water, so filtering water increases their efficiency, while some have their effectiveness reduced by ultra violet light, so use opaque containers for your water, to block out sunlight.

A couple of drops of household bleach per litre of water, a few grains of potassium permanganate to turn the water pale pink, iodine (as crystals, resin filters, tablets or liquid), chlorine and silver, have all been used as purifying agents for drinking water, though some are now out of favour for their possible medical side effects.

You really need to check on any chemicals you consider putting in your body to see if they will harm you; others, though harmless, just taste awful. Adding a little ascorbic acid (Vitamin C powder) or lemon juice will reduce the flavour of nasty tasting chemical water purifiers, while simply blowing air through boiled water (or pouring it from one vessel to another to aerate it) plus adding a small lump of charcoal, will improve its flavour.

If nothing else, simply boiling water will kill off a lot of nasties and provide a measure of protection, but will concentrate any chemical pollutants. To kill bacteria, bring your water to a rolling boil and keep it there for a few minutes, just to be sure!

There’s A Hole In My…

A condom, supported by a sock, can easily carry one litre of water. Waterproof clothing can also be used for this purpose by tying off the legs of your overtrousers to give you a large water skin container.

If you are going on any kind of journey, especially in arid areas, always overestimate your water supplies.

If you are going to be travelling in areas known to have poor quality water supplies, carry enough in the way of water – filters and purifiers that are well proven and reliable and of a capacity to cope with your needs, as well as causing no medical complications (for example, those with thyroid complaints should avoid using iodine-based purifers) and you should have a pleasant trip.

Frozen Water Sources

In cold conditions you may find all water locked up as snow and ice. Do not try sucking it to get a drink as it takes too much heat from your body, does not supply a decent drink and can lead to dehydration. “Never eat yellow snow” is also a truism. Snow and ice are only as pure as the water that formed them and may need purifying before drinking. Even some bacteria and viruses can survive prolonged freezing.

Given the choice, ice is more useful than snow for producing drinking water. Break it into small pieces and melt it to give almost the same volume of water as of ice. Snow gives a lesser volume of water, and this can prove a problem. If you heat a mess tin full of compressed snow, the bottom layer can melt, an air gap form and the pan will burn. Instead, carefully melt a mess tin of loose snow (it gives about one-quarter of a mess tin of water), then add more snow to the water until you have what you need.

You could also try filling a soft cloth bag (this could be improvised from clothing) with snow and suspending it near the warmth of your fire, with a collecting vessel below to catch the drips, or try making an ‘Eskimo marshmallow’ by jamming a large snowball on a stick near the fire and collecting the water as it melts.

If there is any sun, black or dark plastic (such as a waterproof jacket or clean bin bag) can be lightly sprinkled with snow and solar heating could melt you a drink. Angling the plastic on a slope will allow you to collect the water.

Ice provides more liquid per volume than snow

Make Your Own Water Filter

If you can only find muddy, dirty, debris filled water to drink, you can make your own water filter from what you have around you. You will need some kind of long, narrow container – a plastic drinks bottle is ideal, but even a pair of trousers will work! Hollow logs, socks and tights can also be used. To make a trouser filter, push one leg inside the other, tie the bottoms tightly and suspend the trousers by the waistband from a tripod of sticks to hold them open. With a drinks bottle, just cut off the base, turn upside down and suspend.

You can then fill the container with a filter medium. Various things can be used, from dried sand (scorch it on your fire to sterilise it), dried charcoal from your fire (not ash, as this would make a caustic lye solution!) and dried grass.

Put the finest sand or charcoal in the bottom of your container and the coarsest higher up. Above this, fine dried grass, and at the top, your coarser dried grass. Then pour your dirty water in the top and let it filter through and you should get relatively clean water pouring out of the bottom of the filter. If you are using charcoal, this may discolour the water, but will not cause other problems.

With the worst of the debris particulates removed from the water, it will now be ready to purify, either by boiling or chemical treatment. You may find that you need to change the filter medium fairly often if it is used with very dirty water or is full of debris.

Who’s writing?

John has been involved in outdoor education for over three decades. He has diplomas and certificates in everything from fashion design (he turned it to designing outdoor activity clothing – honest!) to canoe coaching. He’s led expeditions in Eastern Europe, several African countries and Thailand, as well as literally walking the length and breadth of England. John started riding motorbikes at 16 and finally passed his car licence in his late 30s. Married to a very understanding wife, John lives in west Wales, but spends as much time as possible in wild(er) places.