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  • Writer's pictureChris Walden

What to Do When You Run Out of Water in the Wild


The trail seemed to go the direction you were headed until a series of switchbacks left you pointing south when you wanted to travel northwest.

You’ve already hiked several miles out of your way and your canteen is running on empty.

Discovering that your stores are running dry when you’re miles from home is no joke.

You can dehydrate quickly when sweating from exertion, particularly in arid climates. So what do you do when you run out of water in the wild?

The following nine tips could save your life.

1. Stay Calm

When you realize you’ve lost your way in the woods, your first instinct may be to panic.

Now’s the time to put on your mindfulness hat, take some deep breaths and get your emotions controlled first and foremost.

Why? When you experience stress or anxiety, your body amps up sweat production, dehydrating you more quickly.

The effect occurs due to the rush of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.

Since a flood of these substances strains your ticker along with the lack of water, it’s doubly crucial to cool your jets.

Stop and sit down for a few moments if you have to.

2. Recognize the Signs of Dehydration

You’ll probably feel thirsty before becoming dangerously dehydrated. However, you need to recognize the other signs to know when to seek shade and wait a bit.

One sure symptom is dizziness and overheating. Feeling lightheaded can result in tumbling down a cliff, which won’t improve your circumstances.

If you start to feel woozy, find a shady spot to rest, preferably near a watering hole.

If you wait until you begin to hallucinate, you could get yourself in a worse jam.

3. Depend on Your Equipment

When you’re parched, that muddy puddle looks mighty inviting, tadpoles or no tadpoles.

However, sucking down bacteria and other organisms can result in vomiting and diarrhea, which will only further dehydrate you.

Carry a device like a LifeStraw that removes over 99% of parasites and other nasties.

You can use it with canteens, along with simply bending down to slurp directly from that little pond beneath the cliff face.

4. Grab Some Tablets

Another way to render water potable is to treat it to kill germs chemically.

Fortunately, a pack of water purification tablets won’t take up excess space in your back frame.

Carry them with you even on short jaunts — maybe not all who wander are lost, but it does happen sometimes.

5. Build a Fire

If you wear glasses, tip your hat to yourself for your wisdom. Who cares that myopia played a role in having a fire-starting device on your face?

Take them off and let the sunlight help you start a blaze.

If you have 20/20 vision, you can find inexpensive waterproof fire-starting kits that take up less room in your backpack than a pen.

To purify water, make sure you boil it for at least a minute, longer if you are at higher elevations.

While this method takes a bit when your tongue feels like a cotton ball stuck in your mouth, it’s better than going dry.

6. Look for Greenery

Like humans, plants need water, but they lack feet for walking to the well. Therefore, they tend to proliferate near hydration sources.

Granted, this tip won’t help you much if you find yourself deep in the California redwoods or an east-coast thicket where everything is green.

However, if you find yourself in the midwest or west, your “oasis” may resemble a grove of cottonwood trees.

7. Get Close to the Mountains

If snow-capped peaks surround you, you don’t need ropes to scale to the top.

Get yourself close to the mountains and walk parallel to the base to find streams and creeks that trickle down.

If you get lucky, you might find a spring where the water filters through the rocks.

If so, give thanks to the nature spirits, for you’re about to taste the purest beverage ever known to humankind.

8. Save the Morning Dew

Did you decide it was safer to bed down for the night? If you’re thirsty, don’t miss the opportunity to harvest morning refreshment.

Take a piece of absorbent cloth, like your T-shirt, and lay it on a bed of grass or a bush overnight.

Before the sun climbs high overhead, wring it out into your canteen — or mouth.

9. Learn Your Lesson for Next Time

If you found yourself resorting to survivalism after running out of water in the wild, take note for next time.

Yes, that unmarked trail looks tempting. You can come back and explore it with a full canteen and ample provisions.

In regions like the southwest, you need about a liter an hour minimum. Don’t let your wanderlust override your common sense.

What About Food?

While you can go much longer without food than water, your muscles need fuel, especially if you travel far off the beaten path.

Consider adding a few meals ready to eat (MREs) to your back frame, as they take up minimal space.

Look for those labeled low sodium to prevent adding to your dehydration when you snack.

Conclusion: What to Do When You Run Out of Water in the Wild

Running out of water in the wild can lead to dehydration and, in severe cases, death.

Make sure you travel prepared and heed these tips if you find yourself in a pinch.

Do you have any other tips for staying hydrated in the wild? Let us know in the comments section below!

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