On an extended backcountry trip, and certainly in a survival situation, it is important to know how to locate water for resupplying so let’s look at some skills for procuring this precious substance. Most of the following methods I’ve used on desert survival courses during the past two decades of teaching.


Being able to read the nuances of the land is a skill of visual acuity. You are searching for subtle clues written across the terrain that may indicate water. This is a skill that comes with experience hiking in the desert.

Places to Look for Water:
Shady areas at the base of cliffs
Rock pockets and depressions
Tree cavities and hollows
Undercut banks in dry riverbeds
Where insect life abounds
Where vegetation abounds: willow & cottonwood trees can sometimes have water at their bases.

Remember, a hike to a suspected water source is going to cost you physiologically, in terms of your own precious sweat so make certain that you are headed towards water.

Tinaja is a Spanish word meaning Earthen Jar. Many people just call them tanks, as in water tanks. Essentially, tinajas are depressions in rock where water can be found by the gallons, if the rains have been good that year.
In tinajas in shaded overhangs, I have found water holes large enough to swim across. So important were these water sources that many times you can look around and find petroglyphs from the ancient peoples whose lives depended on these precious pockets of life. Water is considered sacred by native peoples where I live and understandably so since without it life would not be possible in so arid a land.

IMG_3893 Claus drinking at waterhole

If you camp out near a tinaja or tank do so from a distance and be mindful not to wash your dishes, use soap, bathe, or otherwise contaminate these delicate, micro-worlds of life. For many animals, it may be the sole source of water for miles around.

What about drinking straight from a murky waterhole?
If you have the means of treating the water then do so. Using a good water filter, iodine tablets, or boiling for 1 minute is always recommended but remember that there is a cure for giardia and waterborne illnesses. There is no cure for death from dehydration! If you can’t properly purify the water then drink up and go see your doctor after your rescue. The saying in the survival field is: just grit your teeth to strain out the big stuff. Stay hydrated (which means peeing clear fluid) and stay cool by soaking your clothes.

Desert Survival Misconceptions About Water Sources

Water From a Barrel Cactus
The notion of slicing open a juicy barrel cactus and scooping out a cup of water to quench your thirst sounds appealing. The problem is that, due to the alkaloids present in the cactus, most people experience severe cramping and vomiting, which only increases their dehydration. Furthermore, the amount of moisture found in a barrel cactus depends on seasonal rainfall and it tastes like a runny Elmer’s Glue not spring water! There’s a reason cactus juice isn’t sold at the grocery store. By the way, the only barrel cactus that isn’t toxic is the fishhook barrel (Ferocactus wislizeni).

A Pebble Under the Tongue
My father, who was in WWII, said he always kept a pebble under his tongue to help with the cottonmouth associated with long, hot marches. Psychologically, he said it helped. Remember, though, that this method only alleviates your dry throat and does nothing to fight dehydration since water is not being added to your system.

Collecting Water With a Solar Still
The solar still involves digging a two foot deep pit with a three foot diameter, placing a container in the bottom, and covering the whole pit with a six foot by six foot piece of clear plastic. The plastic condenses ground moisture on the interior covering where it funnels down to the center and drops into the container.


Constructing a still involves expending considerable amounts of your precious sweat to dig the pit. It also presupposes that you have a sheet of clear plastic and a shovel. If you had the foresight to bring this gear then you probably had the good sense to pack plenty of water. The solar still just isn’t that useful in the desert and yet it still shows up in survival books as a reliable water-collecting device.
I have constructed many solar stills over the years in each of the four North American deserts. Each time I arrive at the same conclusion after seeing the results: Plan ahead and carry plenty of water! If you hadn’t already guessed, this is the mantra that a desert explorer has to live by.

Tony Nester is an author and survival instructor who lives in northern Arizona. He can be reached at www.apathways.com.

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Tony Nester is the author of numerous books and DVDs on survival. His school Ancient Pathways is the primary provider of survival training for the Military Special Operations community and he has served as a consultant for the NTSB, FAA, Travel Channel, NY Times, Backpacker Magazine, and the film Into the Wild. For years he wrote a popular monthly column for Outside Magazine and his freelance writing is frequently featured in numerous print publications. He is also teaches bushcraft and survival classes at Overland Expo West.