Water For Survival [the essential guide for preppers]

Prepper water storage tips

Without the threat of severe weather or the need for immediate emergency medical care, potable water will be your first concern following any type of disaster. I always advise my consulting clients to strive for at least three independent sources of water for cooking and drinking. For example, stored water, a water well, and a rainwater collection system.

I cannot stress enough the need for reliable water sources. Without water, most people will die in only 3-4 days – a lot sooner if the weather is hot and you have no shelter, or you have to do a lot of physical labor or activity. A person needs about two quarts of water per day to stay healthy barring extreme weather or a lot of physical exertion.

Adding a minimum of one gallon of water for cooking, cleaning, and sanitation, a medium-sized family of four requires almost 30 gallons of water per week at a minimum just to stay alive. That is around 1,440 gallons per year.

Unfortunately, most preppers do not have enough room to store 1,440 gallons of water. Therefore, I suggest that you strive for, at a minimum, 55 gallons per person. If you live in an arid region of the country, I suggest you double or triple this amount.

You will also need to have several different methods of water purification available to you. We will go into detail about water purification methods in the following paragraphs, as well as how to store water long-term.

A Death by Contaminated Water: A few years ago, my grandfather told me a story that illustrates how deadly contaminated water can be. It happened in the summer of 1934 when he was only 9 years old. He was out in the fields gathering corn with his dad, brothers, and sister.

He said it had to be at least 100 degrees because the sun was bright in the sky and the sweat burned his eyes as it dripped from his forehead. His eleven-year-old sister got thirsty, and instead of going to the house to get water, she drank from a nearby stream. She died a few days later.

Upon further investigation, it was discovered that a cow from a nearby farm had died upstream from where she drank, contaminating the water. They used the water from that same spot for years with no ill effects, so they thought it was safe, but it was not.

From U.S. Army Field Manual 21-76

By drinking non-potable water, you may contract diseases or swallow organisms that can harm you. Examples of such diseases or organisms are:

  • Dysentery – Severe, prolonged diarrhea with bloody stools, fever, and weakness.
  • Cholera and typhoid – You may be susceptible to these diseases regardless of inoculations.
  • Flukes – Stagnant, polluted water – especially in tropical areas – often contains blood flukes. If you swallow flukes, they will bore into the bloodstream, live as parasites, and cause disease.
  • Leeches – If you swallow a leech, it can hook onto the throat passage or inside the nose. It will suck blood, create a wound, and move to another area. Each bleeding wound may become infected.

Moreover, pollutants from human activities often find their way into the water – e.g., trash, animal feces, fertilizers, herbicides, oils, heavy metals, salts, and pollutants from vehicles etc. It’s impossible to tell with 100% certainty what water is safe to drink without laboratory testing.

There are, however, some general guidelines that can help. Running water is generally safer than still water. Below are tips to keep in mind as you look for water:

  • Look for clear water.
  • Avoid water that has algae growing in it.
  • Avoid discolored water.
  • Avoid water from marshes/swamps.
  • Avoid cloudy water.
  • Avoid water that has an odor.
  • Avoid floodwater.
  • Water always flows downhill.
  • Listen for the sound of frogs.
  • Never eat snow without first melting it to avoid speeding up hypothermia.
  • Freshly fallen snow on a clean surface is fine but old snow might be contaminated with bacteria.
  • Never drink water from a lake or stream that is near or downstream from agricultural land, factories or mines.
  • Rainwater is perfectly drinkable as it falls from the sky.
  • The safest way to treat questionable water is to first boil it and then filter it.

Berkey Water Filters

berkey filterThe spring water where I live runs in a constant flow from the side of the mountain and it is as clear as bottled water; however, I will not drink it or use it for cooking without first running it through my Berkey water filter. A good water filter is necessary, and one of the very first survival preps that you should invest in. I suggest that your first choice is a Berkey water filter system.

My father and grandfather used to drive out to my place most weekends and fill their jugs from the spring – they drank and cooked using the water without any filtration or other purification. They have never had any trouble. Still, I prefer to filter all of my water before drinking.

The Berkey filters are extremely effective at removing pathogenic bacteria, cysts, parasites, chemical contaminants, and impurities. The elements have an indefinite shelf life and will filter at least 3,000 gallons of water before needing replacement. My filters are stored in zip-lock bags inside a small plastic tote.

Boiling Water

boiling water for purification

Boiling water is one of the surest methods of water purification. This method of water purification will effectively kill viruses and bacteria. However, boiling will not remove chemicals and other pollutants such as lead, oil, and fuel.

To purify water by boiling, all you need is a heat source, a suitable container, and water. Bring the water to a rolling boil to kill any viruses or bacteria that may be present. Contrary to what a lot of survival “experts” say, you do not have to boil the water for five to ten minutes in order to kill any viruses and bacteria that it might be harboring. All that is required is that the water reaches a rolling boil.

Warning: boiled water tastes stale; however, the taste is improved greatly by pouring the water back and forth between two containers to re-oxygenate it.

Sodis Method of Water Purification

The Sodis method of water purification is one of the simplest and most cost-effective water purification methods available to the prepper or anyone needing potable water; however, like boiling, the Sodis water purification method does not remove chemicals, metals or other solids. All you need are plastic (PET) or glass bottles, water, and sunlight. The image below from https://goo.gl/m03zMY explains it better than I can in words (image used with permission).

Water Purification Tabs

Water purification tabs have been used by hikers and the military for years. They are a lightweight and portable way to effectively purify water for safe consumption. However, like boiling and the Sodis method, these tabs will not remove chemicals or metals.

The military suggests adding two tablets to a quart of water and letting it sit for thirty minutes or more before drinking. However, there are a number of different brands of water purification tablets on the market and you should follow the exact instructions for the brand you are using.

Purification with Bleach

water purification with bleachWater purification with bleach is one of those methods detailed in every survival book and any article that even hints at ways to purify water. However, it is not my first choice. If possible, I would use another method such as boiling or Sodis.

Water treated with bleach (only use unscented bleach) tastes like, well like bleach. Long-term use may lead to an increased cancer risk. I do not like it and will not use it unless no other alternative is available. Add four drops of unscented bleach (or two teaspoons per ten gallons) to each two-liter of water and let stand for 30 minutes before using.

Making Urine Drinkable through Distillation

Urine can be made drinkable (and clean) via simple distillation, which will also work for seawater. However, the downside to distillation is that it takes a significant amount of energy to boil the water for the duration required.


No matter what water purification method you use, it is a good idea to “pre-filter” any dirty or murky water. You can use a coffee filter, a clean shirt, or a bandana. This will help remove any larger particles from the water, making it more potable and increasing the life of water filters used.

Emergency Water Storage and Containers

55 gallon water drum for catching rain waterAs for water storage, I have six five-gallon containers that I bought at Wal-Mart in the sporting goods department. I have also set up a 200-gallon rainwater catchment system and another 55-gallon food grade barrel that I installed to catch water runoff from the roof of my chicken coop. I use this water for my chickens, but of course, if needed, I could filter and drink it too.

If you live in one of the drier desert regions, water would be a major concern and that may necessitate the storage of thousands of gallons of water for an emergency. A rainwater catchment can be as sophisticated as the one pictured below or as simple as purchasing a livestock watering tank or kiddie pool and catching the rainwater from your downspouts.

You can also rig tarps or plastic sheeting to funnel the rainwater into the containers. Do not store water in used five-gallon milk jugs. They are not strong enough for long-term storage and will break down and leak.

The five-gallon containers sold in the sporting goods section of most department stores work great as do the 55-gallon food-grade plastic drums. Just be sure that the drums are clean and contain no harmful chemicals before filling. If you must use small containers, emptied 2-liter soda bottles work well. They are stronger than the aforementioned milk jugs, have better lids, and are more convenient to use.


A Note about Tap Water for Long-Term Storage

tap water long-term storageIf you are storing tap water from a municipal water system, there is usually no need to add bleach as suggested by some writers. Water from the municipal tap already contains enough chlorine to prevent any bacterial growth and can be stored without any other additives.

When putting water away for long-term storage, I use a Water Preserver Concentrate from Amazon.com instead of bleach. Water preserver concentrate will extend the storage life to up to five years.

Choosing the Right Retreat Property to Ensure Water Independence

When buying a retreat property, your first consideration should be to secure a reliable, non-grid dependent water source. The best source would be a deep well (have it tested before using, especially if it’s an old well). The next best option would be a full-time spring. And finally, the next best option would be a river or creek, or even a pond or lake.

All water from ponds, rivers, and streams should be treated as if it is contaminated with the worst pathogens, just to be on the safe side. Better safe than sorry, I always say.

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M.D. Creekmore

Owner / Editor at MDCreekmore.com
I've been interested in prepping and homesteading topics for over 25 years. I’m the author of four books that you can find here. Five days a week (Monday through Friday) I will get up at 6:00 o'clock, drink a cup of coffee, eat breakfast, pour another cup of coffee and then head to my home office where I will scour the internet for the most 10 recent and important news and happening from around the world and post those in a ten-point list with my thoughts and options. Hope you enjoy.
M.D. Creekmore

Latest posts by M.D. Creekmore (see all)

M.D. Creekmore

I've been interested in prepping and homesteading topics for over 25 years. I’m the author of four books that you can find here. Five days a week (Monday through Friday) I will get up at 6:00 o'clock, drink a cup of coffee, eat breakfast, pour another cup of coffee and then head to my home office where I will scour the internet for the most 10 recent and important news and happening from around the world and post those in a ten-point list with my thoughts and options. Hope you enjoy.

28 Responses

  1. Mrs. B says:

    My new farm has two spring fed ponds and am planning on adding a catchment system for water for my garden. I am blessed with great water from the well, albeit hard, and made sure I could run the pump on a generator if I needed to.

    In the summer, the ponds get algae filled but I am adding some grass carp and looking into solar options for a aerator. Great article MD.

      • Anonamo Also says:

        I am in the best shape i have been in for years on water, have a pond, a bucket filter system which we use regularly and rotate thru the filtered water totally every 2-3 months, routinely, and approx 45 gallons non filtered for uses internal uses,.could be filtered should it be needed for that. roughtly we have 180 potable and plus the 60 unfiltered./ stored. working toward water catchment supplies fo roof of coop and house. catchment containers are the rub here. when available funds are not…some day they will be avail. when funds are here… and back up power options as the shorter – long term goals to be addressed this fall..(.List is so long priority has to be placed somewhere.)

  2. Oxymoran says:

    I have heard the comments about using Bleach tablets as a way around the short storage life of liquid Bleach. But there are no directions on the bottle that would give any reference to the concentration value of a tab.
    If any one knows how to properly use them for treating water,I would appreciate it greatly.
    As always MD yours is the go to site for me.

  3. Izzy says:

    Excellent article. One question; why listen for frogs?

    I also looked up PET bottles. Another item to add to my stock. Just wondering if amber colored ones would be better than clear?

  4. Jesse Mathewson says:

    Awesome article, loved it! We live in arid land, and I have enough water for 6 months for us *potable* storage is rather difficult in arid sunny areas.

    Also apple cider vinegar regularly taken can assist in fighting or killing things like dysentary / eg., montezuma revenge- while in places your not used too.

    My only thought without adding or taking away, as the article was amazing, is remember the old ways.

    Mead thought to be created by northlanders and in China several thousand years ago was used as a means of purifying water prior to understanding that water could be boiled. The connection was made that when you had mead or further south less beneficial fermented drinks from honeyed goats milk through wine people were less likely to become sick.

    Mead can be made with extremely low alcohol content, less than 2% which is plenty safe for young ones and of course made stronger if so desired.

    Apple cider fermented and even beers all this can be a fun and easy way to avoid contaminated water issues … it should be noted that fermentation takes 4 days to 4 weeks depending on what it is.

    Non regulated mead, wine, cider, beers all have good probiotic properties as well as other beneficial nutritional values.

    Definitely dont be an alcoholic, however, a glass a day can aid in digestion and acclimate your body to potential changes in water purity –

    Yes I love making my likker-and no I do not actually drink much if any.

    • Jack says:

      Jesse, if a person were a mind to, that water distillation equipment kept for emergency use could be used for nefarious purposes. My Canadian cousins listened intently to a relative who was in the RCMP and related his experience with illegal liquor production. They were able to cobble up a working still and yes, they did make use of it for a time. Let me say they were doing a proof of concept trial. One of the first projects Europeans did when settling in a new place was to begin alcohol production in one form or another. BTW, Braggs apple cider vinegar is on the shelf here in the Philippines at several local grocers, we use every day.

  5. JP in MT says:

    Since we are grid dependent, I have looked at just about every way for us to get/purify water here. We have an inline particulate filter on the city water. We have a counter top purifier for drinking water. We have all the set up for a catchment system. We have filter systems from straws to hand pump versions to a Berkey. Plus we store/rotate bottled water.

    Our camper has a filter attached to the fauset for drinking water. I have a bucket filter for using stream water into our trailers holding tank.

    All of the above is excellent information. Water is, IMO, going to be the #1 issue after any type of grid failure. Then there are floods (not here but may be in your area) along with other sever weather events.

    Plan accourdingly.

  6. Farmer says:

    MD…30 gal/week times 52 weeks…1560 gal/yr

  7. Bobbo says:

    MD- thanks for the info.
    I’ve given little attention water in my preps.
    I live on a well & filter ALL drinking/cooking water through my Berkey. It employs 2 types of filters & filters a gallon in 1 to 2 hours. I keep about a dozen 24oz bottles filled to the brim of the ‘Berkeyed’ water.
    I also have a hand pump for the well, but have not installed it as yet for I don’t wish to advertise it to curious onlookers- especially gov’t types. It can go in in about 1 or 2 hours, as i have a plumber neighbor, it will be his first job should SHTF. A brace & bit are available for this.
    My BOBs & GHBs all have Berkey sport bottles (w/a spare filter) as well as water purification tabs.
    I feel I am pretty well covered, but most of my neighbors don’t prep. While they are by & large good peeps, I feel they may well be planning on me for what they’ve ignored.
    I do plan on expanding on these once I relocate, but I’m thinking I’m good for now. It’s frustrating thinking of how many hands will be extended @ my front door should SHTF, but overall, it is what it is…..
    TCGB all.

  8. Larry McEachern says:

    Running water is less safe to drink than still water. This was studied in California in multiple locations. The still water generally has a better exposure to sunlight than running water. This of course provides for ultraviolet exposure better than running water which constantly mixes deeper water which has less U/V exposure. This was presented at a Wilderness Medicine course I took at Lake Tahoe two years ago.

  9. leonard says:

    this spring we had a blizzard forcased here in South Dakota, i spread a 42 x 48 billboard tarp on the ground and used firewood to make sides to capture some snow. we had around 18 inches fall acording to the news.

    lots of the snow escaped but i pumped the melt into a 1700 gallon swimming pool and filled a 200 gallon tank along with many 55 gallon barrels.
    it is my wife and a baby and i, 2 small dogs and a cat. we still have over 500 gallons left. we shower, drink, cook and wash clothes etc and use a reverse osmosis to filter every drop we use, the water that if flushed out of the filter is discharged into a 55 gallon barrel which is then pumped back into out storage.
    we do not use toilet paper but instead we wash our butts each time we use the toilet in our camper as well as wash the toilet each time we use the toilet.
    we heat water to wash with using the waste heat from our battery charging generator’s exhaust ( engine driven car alternator) to charge our 12 t105’s, 6 of which are in our electric powered golf car which i have used large ampereage anderson connectors to make it possible to convert those batteries from 36 volts to 12 volts by just connecting or disconnecting the anderson connectors. also to connect or disconnect the golf car to the other battery bank. we also have the camper powered exclusively by the batteries as i took the factory power system completely out of the camper along with the factory water system. we have lived off grid in this camper since the spring of 2016.

    • Jack says:

      Lenord, excellent work man. When the power goes out, I can imagine that you do not even notice at first that something went wrong outside your home.

  10. BullDogBeau says:

    Excellent article! So much I printed and put in a binder of important survival information.

  11. Jack says:

    MD, excellent article on what I believe to be the most important aspect of survival. I greatly miss the two wells on my former New Hampshire property. I could wish I had those wells here in the Philippines but the reality is we must work with what we have. We do have an abundance of water and especially now that rainy season is fully underway. The caveat is you would NOT want to drink our water untreated. We have a few “critters” in our TUBIG (Filipino for water) not present in the US. This is probably true in many tropical regions. I am always scoping out new potential sources when out in about to back up what we have prepared. Our water security works as follows:
    1. We have delivered water that comes from a company that proudly shares the water test results with customers. We purchased twenty 5-gallon carboys and affixed high-quality waterproof labels to each. No other family uses our jugs. Five are at the refill station and fifteen at our home. We call for a delivery of five units each time we use five. This is our trusted day to day supply.
    2. We have rain barrels but there is not enough to last an entire dry summer most years. We have several alternate sources. and our water storage tank (approx. 200 gallons) with a booster pump that can be turned off and the water used sparingly for emergencies.
    3. Finally, we have chemical treatment, several renewable means to boil water and filters. Lots and lots of quality filters. Cheap filters DO NOT remove viruses. We felt it important to be able to remove viruses if we ever were in a situation where we could not boil the water first. We plan to filter even boiled water to remove any chemical residues and for improvement of the taste.

  12. mom of three says:

    I can water each time I am canning food, I add two quarts for each canner I do. I use filtered water and get it very hot pour into two quart jars wipe the lip add your lid and ring and process it at least 10 minutes, I do it with my jams so its going for 15 minutes. I have close to 4 extra gallons in my pantry.

  13. Prepared Grammy says:

    I’m hoping someone can answer this question for me. I’m allergic to iodine contrast. Can I drink water that has been purified with iodine tablets? I asked my doctor several years ago, and he didn’t know.

    • Anonamo Also says:

      It would depend on the severity of your reaction to the iodine and how long since your last exposure. I would Guess that you would go into an allergic reaction quickly.
      I have a family member who can not eat any shellfish/other seafoods because of iodine ALLERGY .If this was me, I would have every other method available to purify my water besides iodine, and make sure it was well away from my preps.
      You would need to be on guard because others might not be considering this as an allergen.
      .Keep an epi pen, other anti-allergen treatements available for sudden and unexpected exposures.

      • Prepared Grammy says:

        My allergy is severe. I have gone to the ER twice because a restaurant cooked my food in a pan that wasn’t washed well. I keep four pens with me. I have to have multiple injections on my way to the hospital. I even react to breathing shellfish being cooked, such as in a crab boil.

  14. SDinTX says:

    Good article. Good information. Thank you for the time you take to educate folks.
    I am wondering why you didn’t mention to those who are on wells adding a hand pump, or maybe I just missed it. Probably the best preparedness decision we’ve made. I

  15. Bill Philipson says:

    Re: “Adding a minimum of one gallon of water for cooking, cleaning, and sanitation, a medium-sized family of four requires almost 30 gallons of water per week at a minimum just to stay alive. That is around 900 gallons per year.”

    30 x 52 = 1560, not 900.

    • Bill,

      Apparently, you did not read the updated version of the article where I noticed that and corrected it. This was done about 30-mins after I first published it. Thanks for your comment.