Emergency Water: Sources, Collection, Storage, Stockpiling

Water (H20) is the main constituent of the body, making up 70-75% of the body’s total composition.  It has many functions within the body, including maintenance of the body’s core temperature, helping in digestion (fats and proteins primarily), cushioning / lubricating organs and joints, transporting nutrients, and flushing toxins.

The primary biochemical pathways that occur in the cells take place in a water-based medium and involve water as some of the co-factors to even run their course. Water is not only necessary, it is VITAL to all life!

It follows, then, that you’ll need plenty of water on hand for dealing with any emergency situation but especially long term ones. Running out of water is a calamitous setback in a survival scenario, one that you can hopefully avoid by having enough on hand to last the duration. But properly storing large quantities of water, and acquiring more water to replace what you use, is much easier said than done much of the time!

We are here to help with this comprehensive guide that will teach you everything you need to know about emergency water storage- sources, containers and procedures! If you want to beat the heat and wet your whistle keep reading!

Dehydration Gets Lethal Quickly!

Pretty much everybody understands how important water is instinctively to health and well-being, and preppers more than most people understand how critical it is that you remain hydrated in a survival situation.

All it takes is a few days without water in most environments to lose your life, and in the worst conditions or the very hottest regions you can be in deep trouble well before that.

But even if you aren’t in a scorching hot desert or in the middle of a humid summer heat wave, you don’t even have a couple of days without water before the situation turns dire.

Dehydration will begin to impair, and then seriously disrupt all of your body’s various processes, and make everything you do more painful and more difficult. Considering the fact you are already likely to be working extremely hard, potentially sick or even injured this is the last thing you can afford!

The body loses water every day via normal processes, but loss can also occur with other events. Normal loss happens via urination, bowel movements, breathing out (moisture in your breath), sweating, and crying.  Other events can include diarrhea, vomiting, and bleeding from cuts/trauma.

In a survival situation, it is important to  remember the “Rule of 3’s”, which states the following time frames: 3 minutes without air, 3 hours without shelter, 3 days without water, 3 weeks without food.

This is a great rule of thumb to use when prioritizing your needs in a survival situation, along with your location, weather, and tools you have on-hand or find in the field.

Accordingly, it is helpful to understand the effects of dehydration and generally what the symptoms look like as you progress along the water loss flowchart.

As you’d expect, they get progressively worse and worse until you are able to rehydrate, and even then, you’ll probably need electrolytes in the bargain and some time to recharge your batteries before you start feeling tip top. We will cover this in detail below:

  • Mild (1-4% loss): Thirst, dark colored urine, fatigue, irritability, headaches, dry mouth.
  • Moderate (5-10% loss): Irritability, confusion, nausea, insomnia, dizziness, reduced urine output, lethargy (extreme sleepiness), and paresthesia (numbness/tingling in the arms/legs),
  • Severe (10-15% loss): Severe headaches, increased respiration / blood pressure / body temperature, dim & blurred vision, spastic muscles, wrinkles/shriveled skin, painful to no urination, seizures, delirium.
  • Loss >15% = loss of life

Want to avoid a grueling, ugly death via dehydration? There is more to solving the problem than a simple dependence on bottled water.

Typical Water Supplies may not be Dependable when SHTF

When considering the topic of water storage many preppers simply plan on stockpiling drinking water in bottles or jugs for the purpose. you’ll get no argument from me.

This is definitely a good idea as having known quality, fresh and transportable water on hand is invariably a good idea no matter what sort of scenario or situation you are facing.

However, this plan is really only dependable for short-term situations, or intermediate term at the longest if you have a substantial stockpile.

The problem is that supplies will invariably run low or run out, and without access to typical water sources in and around society you can go through water with frightening rapidity, especially when you are working hard or you live in a hot climate.

Consider two that you’ll need water for more than just drinking, as you’ll also need it for cooking and at least a little bit for hygiene, factor which you should skip at your own peril.

The water that you can typically draw out of any faucet in or around your home may not show up in the aftermath of a major event, or arguably worse, it might show up but be contaminated due to damage, mishap or lack of human intervention somewhere in the supply chain.

Public water supplies rely on an incredibly intricate network of infrastructure, installations and facilities along with skilled human workers and oversight to operate safely, if at all.

The following disasters could see your typical water supply damaged, destroyed, contaminated or even voluntarily shut off by workers:

  • Tornadoes
  • Hurricanes
  • Tsunamis
  • Floods
  • Earthquakes
  • Terror Attacks
  • Industrial Accidents
  • Sabotage
  • Nuclear Incidents

If you are fortunate enough to have a well on your property and the ability to ensure the pump keeps working you’ll be somewhat better off, but even these deep underground aquifers are not necessarily completely safe from whatever event has put your emergency preparedness plan into action.

This is why it is so important you have prior plans in place for procuring emergency sources of drinking water.

Straight Talk on Stored Drinking Water

Before we get to the actual nuts and bolts of procuring and storing water taken from various sources during an emergency, we need to talk a little bit about that bottled and jugged drinking water you have stashed around.

Compared to food, most people don’t worry about their water spoiling, and assuming the water is obtained from a factory source with its seals intact, you really won’t have to worry about that.

However, stored drinking water can go bad over time, in a manner of speaking. first, even though it is sealed, you’re drinking water can still evaporate over time, and this is especially a problem when storing water yourself in a container or tank bought for the purpose.

Second, even in ideal storage conditions with specially designed and manufactured water storage containers, water is notorious for taking on a bad or gnarly taste over time.

It is, after all, the universal solvent and currently debate rages in various prepper circles over whether or not this means you’ll be ingesting harmful chemicals or particulates.

The bulk of my own researches into various findings from authorities seems to suggest that, unless you are drinking an extraordinary quantity for a very, very long time your bottled water that has taken on a nasty taste shouldn’t hurt you but it is definitely going to make your life less pleasant.

For that reason, you should rotate or cycle your stored water like you do any other consumable good you have stockpiled.

Sources of Emergency Water

Now to the creative part… how to secure water in a SHTF scenario.

If you are bugging in, you have hopefully put some containers of water back for emergency (i.e. no power, water main break, etc.).  If not, then you better think of some ingenious ways to collect it quickly.

Emergency drinking water can be obtained in myriad ways during a crisis situation.

You might have one or two highly dependable methods near your home and around your region to take advantage of, and that is great, but don’t get complacent because those sources like any other source of water could become compromised. furthermore, maybe you are traveling or away from home when disaster strikes and forced to give up your home field advantage.

The more methods you have for obtaining water, the better, so I recommend you familiarize yourself with all of the following on the list below, broken up into two categories for your convenience.

Rainwater collection methods and scavenged water, meaning water that is already on the ground or otherwise contained that you need only access and place in your own container for transport and treatment. 

We will thoroughly discuss each method below.

Rainwater Collection Methods

Bucket Brigading

When the pressure is on and you need to gather reliable, clean drinking water you’ll rarely do better than catching rainwater directly. Unfortunately, sometimes you’ll get caught unprepared for the event and you’ll need to take maximum advantage of what rainfall you are going to get.

There’s nothing for it, so that means it is time to grab every, single container suitable for the purpose and get it out to where it will catch as much rain as possible.

For this task you should use every vessel and container capable of holding rainwater that you can with a few notable exceptions. First, don’t use any container that has held dangerous or questionable chemicals. Second, try to prioritize the use of clean or fresh containers that will minimally contaminate the rain water.

upside down umbrella in rain to collect rainwater
An upside down umbrella in the rain – an ingenious method to collect emergency rainwater. The water goes directly into the 5 gallon bucket underneath the umbrella.

Third, try to position your containers where it can catch the rain directly to minimize contamination from other surfaces. catching rainwater that is dripping off of plants and trees might be okay, but do take care to ensure that those plants are not toxic or irritating!

Once the rain passes act quickly to protect your gathered water from evaporation either by covering the containers or transferring it into a larger vessel that you have prepared for the purpose. 

Tarps and Plastic Sheeting

You can also use a tarp or plastic sheet and pull the corners up during a rain storm to collect rain water, or have the rain collected on the sheet or tarp spill into a plastic storage bin. It’s already clean and drinkable, so no treatment is necessary.

One of the best multi-purpose items that any prepper can own, heavy duty waterproof tarps and thick plastic sheeting can be easily repurposed to direct or hold enormous amounts of rain water in direct proportion to their surface area.

A large tarp that is spread out wide to catch rain can easily hold dozens of gallons after a modest passing shower or thunderstorm.

The most obvious issues with this technique is that it can be difficult to set up securely and quickly.

Water is extremely heavy, and that means anything you do or emplace to form your tarp or plastic sheeting into a basin will have a significant force exerted against it, and of course against the material itself from the weight of the water. This can lead to overflows or collapses, wasting what water you would have gathered.

Nonetheless, tarps and plastic sheeting are widely available, inexpensive and reliable, and generally invaluable for the purposes of improvised rain catching. You’ll be making a terrible mistake to not have both in your inventory.

Roof Collection System

I have also seen people use the roof of their home to collect rainwater as well. A very ingenious method provided you have the right roof and collecting pathway.

You cannot do this with a regular shingle roof (fiberglass anyone?), and this method is typically outside most budgets in our current economical state.

However, this method can be employed for water used in gardening if you grow your own food, which is a completely separate topic.

A roof collection system is, as you might expect, an assemblage of components designed to route rainwater that would normally cascade off of your roof into your gutters and out onto the ground instead into barrels, tanks or other containers for holding it. 

Reasonably inexpensive, these systems have a major advantage over other improvised rain catching systems and that they are highly reliable and can put into storage a massive quantity of water in direct proportion to the square footage of your roof.

However, they do require upkeep and a little bit of planning for proper function, and depending upon the type of roof and drainage system the water going into your tanks could be more or less contaminated.

Although you could do far worse when it comes to emergency water quality, there are all sorts of things that will be on your roof and in your gutters that you don’t want going into your body via drinking water, so have a plan for filtering or treating any rainwater caught in this way prior to consumption. We’ll talk all about that process later.

Snow Melt

Okay, I might be stretching the definition of rainwater collection here, but snow is still precipitation that falls from the sky, and I don’t want to leave out any of our readers who occupy the colder regions or can expect to endure snow at certain parts of the year.

Snow, like rain, is typically among the cleanest natural sources of water that you can expect to procure. Also just like rain, if you can catch it directly before it hits the ground you won’t have too much to worry about when it comes to purification. unlike rain, you’ll need to melt the snow before you can drink it, and that requires elevated temperatures and time.

Assuming you have a way to reliably melt the snow, you’ll have plenty of fresh water.

it is worth pointing out that you should be very cautious about collecting snow in direct contact with the ground or any other surface, as it is just as vulnerable to contamination as liquid water.

Dirty, off color snow is obviously contaminated by something whereas pure, fluffy white snow taken from the upper surface of a drift will be cleaner.

Scavenged Water

Toilet Cisterns and Water Heaters

Commonly cited among survival literature, it is true that the water found in household appliances can be safe, or at least safer, to drink compared to some alternatives. Notably, the water in your toilet cistern- that’s the tank, not the bowl!– and your household water heater are likely to be comparatively clean and free of harmful bacteria.

It is worth noting that metal contamination and potentially chemical contamination is a hazard when drawn from the sources, and you definitely shouldn’t be drawing from your toilet sister if you treat it with those blue or white bowl cleansing tablets. As always, filter and purify the water before drinking it if able, but if you are desperate you could do a lot worse than either one of these options.

I do NOT recommend the water in your water heater or toilet reservoir unless it is an absolute last resort, as chemicals and metal substances can be found it these locations. If you do, you better filter and treat the water extensively.

Household Pipes

Even when the water flow to your house is cut off or interrupted, there is still water in the pipes that can be accessed. This trick works best in multi-story homes that have faucets above ground level, and it is especially useful in taller buildings like apartments, condominiums and office buildings.

to access the water that is still in the pipes we will utilize a trick with air pressure to force the water out of the lowest faucets in the building.

First, make sure all of the taps on the lower floor are closed and you are ready to receive the water and whatever container that is suitable for the job.

Then, open the taps on the highest floor, everyone that you can, sinks and tubs included. This will allow air into the system, providing you with water pressure for a short duration. 

Lastly, all you’ll need to do is open the taps on the lowest level and you should have some water come out. the amount of water you will gain is dependent on the amount of water left in the pipes and then the amount of air pressure that flows into the system.

Connected Water Hoses

If you live in a warmer climate and use your water hose semi-regularly, you can make use of water that has been trapped in the hose after you shut it off when you are desperate to collect clean, drinkable water.

It isn’t likely to taste very good, and though professional scolds and the manufacturer of said water hoses will warn you not to drink from it, entire generations of American children happily gulped water from water hoses while playing on warm summer days with no ill effects that we can see.

In a protracted survival situation you could gather water from neighboring homes and buildings that have connected water hoses, though as always you should be cautious to not run afoul of the property owners in any case.

Make sure you have a bucket or some other suitable container for catching the water in the hose, and then all you have to do is lift the hose up in the air hand over hand to get all the water out of it you can.

Pools / Hot Tubs

One idea that was in William R. Forstchen’s book “One Second After” (which is a VERY good book I might add, get it!) is using the water you have already “collected” in your pool or hot tub.

Of course, you will have to disinfect and treat the water to make it potable. A pool or hot tub that has been regularly maintained might well be the largest reservoir of drinkable water available if you have one nearby.

Although a neglected pool or hot tub is likely to be murky and scummy, maintained ones will likely be crystal clear, though they are made that way by regular cleaning and more germane to our discussion, chemicals, specifically chlorination.

Anybody who has ever had a mouthful of pool water will likely attest that it has a distinct chlorine or coppery taste and that is because of the antimicrobial chemicals circulated through pool water.

Now, is a mouthful or two of this pool water with a proper concentration of chemicals likely to be hazardous? Probably not, and chlorine in particular, in low, low concentrations is quite safe. However, there are many chemicals in pool water that are not safe, especially in higher concentrations.

Your best bet if you have to source water from any pool or hot tub is to filter it using the best filtration technology you have access to, as this may remove some of the chemicals.

Alternatively, simply give the pool water plenty of time to off gas, as many of the typical chemicals used for keeping the pool sparkling clear break down over time into harmlessness.

Ponds and Lakes

ponds and lakes are often the first source of natural water that people think of in an emergency, and they are dependable options, but you should know they will both require filtration at the minimum and preferably boiling in addition to make them safe to drink over the long term.

Natural sources of water like these are host to an entire ecosystem of microscopic life to say nothing of the dissolved biological matter lurking within.

Bacteria, viruses, protozoa and parasites with much, much more will all be found within pond and lake water. Of the two, lakes might be a better option to draw from because of the sheer volume of the water and the greater overall area of its banks.

Ponds in particular are often completely still and totally filthy, so you should only drink the water from them as is in case of total desperation.

Rivers and Streams

Rivers and streams are another dependable source of natural water that is typically high up on most preppers lists when it comes to emergency drinking water.

Unlike lakes and ponds, stream or river water is moving, as a rule, but contrary to old wives’ tales moving water, even rapidly moving and bubbling white water, is not necessarily any cleaner than still water.

Consider that that water rushing downstream could have passed, picked up and subsequently been contaminated by all of the same biological health risks mentioned above along with anything else that has been thrown into it or rests at the bottom, including corpses, trash and countless other contaminants

You should not be afraid to drink water from a river or stream so long as you can filter or otherwise treat it first, but keep in mind that you are likely to have a rough go with gastrointestinal problems if you drink it untreated.

If you bug out, a river or stream can be invaluable only in as much as you have the means to treat the water so you can drink it without getting sick. Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Dysentery, etc. can make you sick enough to have severe diarrhea and vomiting… a precious loss of vital water and body fluids.

Vending Machines

Vending machines are a generally reliable but often forgotten source of emergency water when you are in a bind.

Since the water they dispense is self-contained, you need not worry about any contamination whatsoever compared to public sources or natural sources of water. if the power is still on, all you’ll need to do is feed it a couple of bills or a few coins and then take your water.

However, if the power is off and your need is desperate you will find these machines not terribly difficult to break into with a sturdy hand tool or two. As always, I do not advocate vandalism or theft for any purpose unless the need is absolutely desperate and you are in a genuine survival situation.

You can look for vending machines outside of many businesses but don’t forget to check inside office buildings, schools and other structures which will typically feature them.

Canned Goods

Once again I might be stretching the definition a little bit, but I’m not stretching the spirit of this inclusion. Many types of canned vegetables and canned fruits are packed in water, water that can quench your thirst and even restore some electrolytes.

The idea of chugging vegetable water in an emergency probably doesn’t sound too appealing, but it will keep you alive and is a great way to make maximum use of what resources you have on hand already.

Transpiration / Dew

If you are in severe and truly desperate need of water, it is possible to collect a tiny but still meaningful amount of of plants in the morning right before and after the sun comes up.

That same dew that soaks your socks and get your shoes all wet can be used to quench your thirst if you have a good way to collect it. if you could mop it up with a cloth or sponge and ring it out into a cup or other container you can collect enough to make yourself a decent swig or two of water.

Another method of collection involves draping plastic over a plant to catch its released moisture, known as transpiration, akin to human respiration or breathing. this is another method that is reliable but slow with a small yield although it is viable.

as always, do your best to ensure any collective water is not coming off of an irritating or poisonous plant and plan on filtering or otherwise purifying the water just the same.

Solar Still

The last method is rare but usable… distillation. Cody Lundin used this method on “Dual Survival” (Season 2, episode 9) when they were stuck on a pacific island, and he had found enough garbage to make a “still” to turn ocean water into drinkable water.

Not often used, but another method to keep in your bag of tricks if needed. Others include a solar still and collecting moisture from plants/trees with a plastic sheet or bag.

Disinfection and Purification Methods for Collected Water

The mostly commonly used disinfection methods to ensure water is safe to drink is boiling and chlorinating.  These methods can be found all over the internet and vary in their times, amounts and applications.  It’s amazing what you can find while scouring Google with a cup of coffee in your right hand.

A simple metal cup, pot or other small bottle can be used to boil the water and destroy all water-borne pathogens.  The general rule is a rolling boil for 5 minutes to take care of all “bugs” that can make you sick.

Another way to treat water is chlorination.  This is accomplished with simple bleach (nothing scented or with other fillers… obviously!).

The general method here is 3-5 drops of bleach per 1 quart / 1 liter of water, shake vigorously for a few seconds, then let the water sit for 30 minutes to destroy all pathogens.

There are plenty of filters on the market, but how about at home if you don’t have one, but you do have a pool with a filter… AH-HA!  Potential!

Some things you could use for a basic filter include a piece of cloth or clothing, coffee filters, fish tank filters (clean and unused of course), clean sand, cotton, burnt wood from the fire pit to pull out impurities… The possibilities are endless.

As a personal preference, I do not trust UV radiation as a treatment method. I know the mechanics of it and how it destroys the bugs.  However, I just do not trust this method; therefore I would not use it.

One last one I can think of is the use of ozone to treat water. Ozone is made up of three oxygen molecules with chemical bonds that require more stability. As the ozone is introduced into water, it breaks apart looking for more stabile bonds, creating free radicals in the process, which in turn take care of the bugs.

This was utilized in the Discovery Channel show “The Colony”, Season 1. 30 minutes of using ozone can destroy the bugs and make water drinkable.  The professor in that show was a genius. There are devices that produce ozone for use in hot tubs and pools if you buy that option.

Bulk Water Storage Container Options

when storing large quantities of water yourself, having the right containers is an important consideration logistically and for ongoing quality of life.

Depending on the size of your container and the application, your water will be mobile, semi mobile or completely immobile. This can also greatly influence the efficacy and cost of cycling your water supply as it ages. 

Also, consider it mandatory that any water storage container you choose for drinking water storage be appropriately rated food grade.

Non-food-grade containers might suffice for very short-term or contingency usage, but it is foolhardy to choose a container that is not food rated for long-term storage as they might leach harmful chemicals into your water, ones that can cause a variety of ill health effects. Choose accordingly!

Water Jugs / Cans

Among the most portable water containers that still hold a meaningful amount of water by the gallon, water jugs or cans are a close relative to similarly shaped military style fuel cans, commonly called jerry cans.

Though very heavy when loaded they are still man portable and can easily be fitted to specialty carriers on vehicles. These are typically not so large or carry such a capacity that there are particularly difficult to rotate or clean.

Stackable Water Containers

Stackable water containers are often approximate in size to small or medium water jugs, or water cans, but are designed as the name suggests to be stackable.

This makes them the ideal solution for modularly increasing the amount of water storage you have on hand at the expense of making rotation and cleaning a bit more painful. For maximizing the water storage of any particular space, stackable water containers are convenient and efficient.

two rain barrels on cinder blocks for rainwater collection
two rain barrels on cinder blocks for rainwater collection

Water Barrels

One of the most traditional forms of water storage is the water barrel, typically employed with some variety of rain catching system and guaranteed to be a fixture on most rooftop rain catcher installations.

Water barrels hold anywhere from 40 to 55 gallons of water, perhaps more, and can be daisy chained together with the appropriate series of connections to hold even more than that with the water within usually being accessed via a tap or simple hand activated pump arrangement.

Note that any barrel kept outside must contend with UV exposure and be completely proof against pests if it is going to be a reliable option for drinking water.

Bathtub Basin

Probably my favorite option for emergency water storage, a bathtub basin is a large bag with a valve and sometimes a spigot capable of being placed into any common residential bathtub before being filled from the tub faucet.

Easily capable of holding dozens of gallons of water, these are a great, no profile contingency option they can be easily kept nearby in a closet conveniently and out of the way until needed before being filled at the outset of an event.

Large Water Tanks

Traditional, large water tanks of the above and below ground variety are commonly seen on and around farms, homesteads and remote, off-grid residences where a connection to public Water supplies is either out of the question or hideously inefficient.

Capable of being fed by a variety of sources and often supplemented by rain catching at the minimum, these tanks will hold dozens to hundreds of gallons of water as a rule, and are more than capable of sustaining a large family for a very long time with judicious usage.

Considering the difficulty in rotating and cleaning, supplementary filtration of drinking water is a good idea.


Obtaining and storing emergency drinking water during any emergency but particularly long-term emergencies is a critical survival task.

Having the right supplies on hand and buttressed with the proper procedure for sourcing and safe, secure storage is essential to keeping you and your loved ones properly hydrated no matter what might happen.

emergency water storage pin image

updated 12/09/2021

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7 thoughts on “Emergency Water: Sources, Collection, Storage, Stockpiling”

  1. Good post, good ideas.

    I live in a fairly humid environment with lots of green growies around. If you are in a similar area water can be collected by 1) digging a pit in a fairly sunny location, 2) placing a cup or can in the bottom of it, 3) lining the pit with fresh vegetation, 4) placing a plastic sheet over the pit and securing the corners (rocks, bullets, large sticks, etc), 5) placing another rock (or whatever you have) over the center of the cup, and 6) let the sun cook the water out of the vegetation – it will condense on the bottom of the plastic sheet run down to the depressed center and drip into your can. This is similar to the condensation method noted above.

    Learned all kinds of neat stuff in Ranger school (even if it was 30 mumble years ago).

  2. Remember its about being properly hydrated, and that includes a lot of things besides just plain old water. Especially when you are sweating.

  3. I agree that water is a critical resource and that sources need to be found quickly in most situations. But here in the arid west most of the sources you quote won’t work or aren’t available.

    Here’s a great tip that I gleaned from the internet: Make sure you carry 2-4 “shamwows” or similar with you in your bug-out-bag. Fasten them around the tops of your feet/lower ankles in the early morning. Most mornings (but not all) you should have dew in the grass. Simply walk around until the shams are saturated and wring them out in a cup. Repeat. Be sure to boil the water (or otherwise purify it) as there will be bacteria or worse on the grass that will come off with the water.

    — Bowser here in Drought Land

  4. Some great ideas. I agree with the solar still idea, and the shamwow idea. You will not get much of a yield on the water amount, but depending on your locations (Bowser), some is better than none. Thanks for the input everyone!

  5. One thing that works really well I learned from watching Discovery. Dig a pit where you can pee in. Put a cup in the middle of the pit (after the pee) and put a sheet of plastic over it. Finally, lay a stone on the plastic over the location of the cup. The water will evaporate and will get into the cup via the plastic, also works with sea water


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