Common Water Sources when SHTF

Finding reliable sources of water when SHTF will be no easy task. Considering that the average household uses roughly 400 to 500 gallons per day, finding enough water to meet your family’s needs will be time consuming. It helps to narrow down the options. What are our water options when the tap goes off for the long haul? There are seven reasonable options to consider with each having a unique set of pros and cons.

Let’s unpack them one at a time.

Rivers and Streams

Pros -- Rivers have three functions from a survival point of view.

  1. Rivers are usually teaming with fish which could come in handy if you need food.

  2. Rivers are typically cold at the bottom which may help keep some foods refrigerated until they can be used. The deeper the river, the colder the bottom.

  3. Rivers are an obvious water source choice and are less problematic toxin wise than most every other option.

Cons -- Rivers are frequent dumping grounds for greedy and unscrupulous corporations.

  1. Be aware of what’s upstream. If there’s an industrial factory, you can take it to the bank that they have used the river a time or two to dispose of their waste.

  2. Rivers are popular with tourists and with tourists comes the junk, the trash and the nastiness of humanity in general.

  3. Rivers can be dangerous and deceiving especially if the current is strong. Be careful if you’re not a versed swimmer and even if you are, there are some rivers not to toy with in that regard. Know your river before you try to use it as a survival source.

  4. Rivers are notorious hotbeds for viruses, bacteria, fungi and other pathogens, namely,cryptosporidium, giardia and norovirus.

Tips -- Seven pointers that just might save your life.

  1. Try to pick a spot on the river that has decent flow. Some experts will tell you that you should pick a spot on the river that is slow and steady. Their reasoning is that some bacteria are “heavy” and will sink to the bottom. While that may be partially true, the very nature of bacteria requires slow and steady to reproduce. When you wash your hands, do you wash them in standing water or do you wash them under running water? The friction of rubbing your hands together and the force of flowing water helps dislodge and remove bacteria.

  2. While rivers and washing your hands are not the same thing, the bacteria found in and on both thrives under the same conditions. Some bacteria produce a sticky film which helps them cling to each other while they’re attempting to colonize, grow and reproduce. This film is often evident in river based bacteria. Cup some river water in your hand and watch how fast the bubbles pop in your palm. When the bubbles pop relatively fast and without resistance, the water likely has less bacteria. When the bubbles are slow to pop, you may have water that is higher in bacterial concentration.

  3. No matter where along the river you chose to extract your water from, slow and steady or raging rapids, you’re going to want to boil and filter it all the same.

  4. Look for rainbow films. Colorful films on the surface are often indicative of chemical spills, gasoline, soaps and industrial pollution. No matter how hard you try to get it out of the water, it’s just not safe to try. Remember, we’re talking about a time when S has HTF and there isn’t going to be an emergency room to help you if you do accidentally ingest poison.

  5. Try to harvest river water from places that get full sun. The sun’s UV rays actually help kill off bacteria.

  6. Dig a ‘gypsie well’ right next to the river and extract what filters through the sand. It’s not the best answer but this will help remove some toxins. You may want to consider tossing in some hot rocks into the gypsie well pit to boil the water before extraction too. Every bit helps.

  7. Always filter through charcoal and boil any water you harvest even if the river is pristine and crystal clear.


Pros -- Lake water is abundant and stationary meaning you know what’s around it in terms of potential toxins.

  1. There’s a reason ancient civilizations usually chose to build next to a water source and on the edges of lakes. When SHTF, half the water battle will be finding a source that can meet a continuous demand. An average size lake can more than meet that need.

  2. It’s easy to harvest lake water and with enough adaptability, a lake can serve as your continuous water supply through suction methods (think siphoning hose).

  3. Two possible methods to deal with transferring water from the lake to your home include siphoning and running a trench and PVC pipe closer to your home. Both are doable with enough perseverance.

Cons -- Animals and people that carry diseases also rely on this water and like animals do, they may drop feces into the water which can cause huge problems.

  1. One other huge problem with lake water is that if the lake you’ve chosen is particularly well known, you can bet that the locals will also plan on using the same lake as their water source.

  2. Critters also tend to stick close to water sources as well. You might have to share and in some cases, you won’t have a choice. When you attempt to harvest lake water, make sure that you don’t have any four legged company.

  3. Everything that can contaminate other sources of water can also contaminate your lake water with one important addition, norovirus. Just like any other pathogen, SHTF is no time to play around with potentially getting sick. Norovirus isn’t fatal in and of itself but the symptoms certainly can be deadly.

Household Sources

Household water sources include plumbing and water pipes, toilet water (the tank on top), the water heater, canned goods and if you have one, even the pool. This is the kind of stuff you’ll want to know if you happen to be stuck in the city when SHTF and can’t get to safety. In that case, there are plenty of ‘household’ water options that may not be so obvious.

Just for the record, most of this water is drinkable but if you’re squeamish about the prospect of drinking toilet tank water – you can use this water for cooking, hygiene and cleaning too.

  1. Toilet Reserve Tank: There’s anywhere from 2 to 7 gallons sitting on top of your toilet at any given time. This water comes into the toilet tank freshly filtered the same as your drinking water. Again, if you’re hesitant to drink this water, you can (and should anyway) always boil and filter it before use. If that’s still not enough – you can always use it for basic cleaning and hygiene.

  2. Hot Water Tank: The average water heater contains between 30 and 50 gallons of water. Check with your manufacturer's website for specific instructions on how to drain your particular model while we still have access to the internet. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to print those directions and keep them handy, just in case. Sediment will gather at the bottom of the tank. Make sure you toss that first bucket or two from the hot water heater. Then, filter it for good measure.

  3. Plumbing and Pipes: There’s anywhere from 5 to 10 gallons sitting in your water pipes. Depending on how long it’s been since SHTF, you might still be able to find water in the water pipes in your home. Use the ones at the lowest point and because it’s been stagnant, make sure to filter/boil it before use.

  4. The Pool: There’s anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 gallons of water in your pool depending on the size and location (above ground vs. underground). If you’re lucky enough to have a pool in your yard, you have a nice back up water supply. Chlorine is normally used to disinfect water in municipal water supplies which is the same stuff used to keep your pool clean and free from infectious materials. Pool water must be boiled and filtered (at least 3 times per gallon) before use because of the chemicals, toxins and bacterial invaders potentially sitting in the water.


Pros -- Dew is condensation that eventually becomes water stored in clouds.

  1. Is dew safe to drink? Yes! Dew and Condensation forms on foliage in the morning before the sun has time to evaporate it into the atmosphere. If you’re quick, you can collect the dew and use it as a water source. You can drink this water but much like anything else, after collecting it, you’ll need to filter and purify before use.

  2. There are a couple ways to handle gathering dew. You can create a dew trap or you can use an ordinary paper towel to absorb it.

Cons -- Dew evaporates fast and there’s rarely enough to do anything meaningful.

  1. Dew traps will give you between 2 and 3 ounces per bowl and roughly the same amount for a single paper towel. When SHTF and water is scarce, you'll want to have as many water sourcing options at your disposal as possible.

  2. Dew is tedious to collect and the payoff isn’t that great. However, while dew isn't going to give you MUCH water to use -- it's important to keep in mind the many ways you use water from the tap right now. Dew might just be enough to tackle smaller tasks.


Pros -- When you’re desperate for water, a clean pond might help curb the problem.

Cons -- Harmful Algal Blooms are common in stagnant pond water and ponds are a hotbed for mosquito larvae.


  1. If you come across a pond that appears stagnant, steer clear. Pond water is essentially a much smaller lake. In fact the chief difference between a pond and a lake is the depth and the amount of light that reaches the bottom. If you’re dealing with a shallow body of water, chances are that it accumulated in the area and isn’t necessarily “safe”.

  2. Bringing pond water to a rolling boil for at least 3 minutes should be enough to kill mosquito larvae but unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do about HABs. Once a pond is overrun by HAB’s, nature has to take its course. HAB covered pond water is completely unusable. Period. HABs are fatal to both animals and people.

  3. Cattails are natural filters. When you encounter a shallow body of water and there happens to be cattails nearby, try to harvest somewhat close to them. Water extracted close to cattails still has to be filtered and boiled.


Pros -- Rainwater is easy to collect and abundant.

  1. Collecting rain doesn’t require much in the way of creativity. All you really need are some containers that can withstand the job itself.

  2. Use kiddie pools, rain barrels, clean and empty trash cans, 2 liter bottles, large bowls, tarp and barrel or whatever you have. Collecting rain water is incredibly easy and abundant.

  3. Despite the potential for contaminants, rainwater is cleaner and safer than most other sources.

Cons -- If ever there were a source of water that felt safer than any other, it’s the water given to us from the sky. Unfortunately, the rain you’re collecting may have come in contact with environmental hazards.

  1. There may also be other kinds of toxins in rain water as it comes into contact with bird poo, viruses or pathogens in the atmosphere, from your roof or in the container you’re using to collect the rain.

  2. Using gutters to collect rain: The problem with using your gutters to collect rain water is all that rain travels right over debris, bird poop, insects, larva, chemicals and other kinds of nasty impurities that stick to the roof. When all that rain slides into your gutters, it settles and sediment forms at the lowest points. All those impurities that drain from the roof and settle in the gutters will slide right into your rain barrel.

  3. In some places, it’s illegal to collect rainwater, particularly those places affected by drought. Double check on the laws in your area that have restrictions on collecting rainwater.


Pros -- If you live in the north, snow is abundant in the winter.

  1. Can you use snow to drink? Yes, you can use snow as a water source. In fact, if you live in a region where snow is typically viewed as a four-letter-word, you're in luck. It falls from the sky in pretty good shape contaminant wise and it's usually abundant when it does fall.

  2. You may have seen or heard warnings against using snow as a water source. Snow in and of itself is not the problem -- it's the potential for frostbite that comes with collecting it as well as the risk of hypothermia when you attempt to eat it right off the ground.

  3. All you have to do is gather, melt, filter and boil. It’s that easy.

  4. Snow is relatively safe when it's falling. It comes through all the same impurities in the air that rain does but because it FREEZES, it does kill off some of the more dangerous bugs (such as cryptosporidium which can be killed when frozen).

Cons -- Not all snow is considered ‘safe’ to harvest.

  1. When you gather snow to melt, you may be surprised at how little water you end up with. I experimented with this last year and found that, after shoving as much snow as I could in a 1 quart mason jar and letting it melt naturally, I wound up with about 1 cup of liquid water.

  2. Hypothermia is the whole reason you shouldn't eat snow off the ground because doing so can lead to a drop in your core temperature. In fact, the colder the air outside, the colder the top layer of snow will be. Even if the snow is slightly warmer when it's closer to the ground, your central temperature is almost always right around 98.6 degrees. Snow in any layer is at least 32 degrees. This is almost a 66 degree difference in temperature. Your body may respond with shock which is never a good idea, much less during a SHTF situation.

  3. Don’t harvest near a road. Car exhaust and the salt used to melt the ice is a bad biological combination. This could make you sick.

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