How to find clean drinking water in the bush

By: Kath Heiman, Photography by: Scott Heiman

Knowing how to find, or create, clean drinking water is a vital skill for all outback travellers.

How to find clean drinking water in the bush
Dry creek beds are a likely spot to dig for water

Beyond your Esky, you’ll find that the Australian bush supports a treasure trove of water resources. With summer approaching, we thought we’d share with you some of our best ideas for generating drinking water in the Australia bush and outback. After all, onboard water tanks can develop leaks, water jerries can get mouldy – and you never know when you might find yourself lost or separated from your group and in serious need of safe water.

A word of warning, though, some water generating plants are poisonous, so get to know what you’re looking for before your next trip. And remember, some water sources can be tainted with chemicals, viruses and bacteria, so water treatment may be necessary.


Water reservoirs

Indigenous people in every country have been sourcing water directly from plants for millennia. You just need to know how to find it. The easiest way to extract water from a tree is to find one that has water trapped in hollows. A simple way to find these gems is to watch the insects. Some wasps and bees need water to make their mud nests, and if you see a column of ants marching into a tree hollow, chances are, there’s water in there.

Water reservoirs such as these are very common in the sheoaks and many species of wattle. Eucalypts can also store water in their trunks and roots. Take the red mallee, for example; out west, you’ll find this species with its long, water-storing roots extending away from the trunk and relatively close to the surface.

There’s also something called a ‘water vine’, which is a large woody vine prevalent in moist areas in eastern Australia, particularly in the north. Cut the vine into short lengths and watch the precious liquid drain into your cup. A young eucalypt trunk cut into short lengths will also bleed water.

Follow the signs

If you notice lots of animal tracks joining into one, it most likely indicates the direction of a water source – particularly if the track is leading downhill. Grain-feeding birds such as pigeons and cockatoos need water so, as dusk approaches, they swiftly fly towards a water source, drink their fill and fly slowly back to their nesting places.

Get digging

Dry creek beds are a likely spot to dig for water. Remember, water is usually deepest at the outside edges of the bends. So these areas will be the last to dry up. Dig down 30-60cm and see if the sand is wet. If it is, dig deeper and let the water pool. If it’s not, move to another spot. But don’t overdo it. You need to be conserving water not using it up in sweat by digging.

If you’re near the coast and surrounded by sea water, look for a dune system. By digging a well behind the dune you may be able to find water. As the water settles in the hole, you should find that the fresh water floats on top of the sea water.

In the desert, dunes tend to be parallel to each other. In the wide valleys between them, vegetation is the key, as it occurs in the water catchments (however small). So, by digging in the lowest depressions, you might find water.

It’s in the dew

If you can’t draw water from inside plants, consider collecting dew drops from the plants’ surface. Do this by tying a spare (clean) shirt around your shins and going for a morning stroll before the sun rises, then wringing out the water into a container. Many early explorers’ lives were saved this way. Alternatively, you can use your chamois and mop up the dew from your car and camper (depending on the cleanliness of your rig). Also consider reconfiguring your awning to trap and collect dew into a container.



If you don’t have enough ‘connection to country’ to get water using traditional techniques, a reliable and energy-efficient method to collect water from plants involves harnessing the transpiration from plants’ leaves. You just need to plan ahead to have suitable food-grade plastic bags among your supplies. One hundred micron-thick bags are the best and will resist tearing. Stick to eucalypts, as many other species will produce tainted (or even poisonous) water.

The method involves tying the plastic bag around a leafy branch. Once secured, the bag will capture the water vapour released by the tree as it condenses on the plastic and drains down to the bag’s lowest point. To achieve the best results, find a young tree that enjoys direct sunlight for most of the day (preferably in a valley or low point where the trees have more access to ground water). If you tie a little gusset in the bag, you’ll reduce the amount of detritus getting in. This efficient water procurement method uses little energy and produces clean water ready to drink.

The collection bag can also be used to collect rain or as a solar still.

Solar stills

A solar still is an artificial means of forcing moisture condensation from the ground and vegetation. Simply make a 1m (or more) diameter hole with sloping sides about 50cm deep in the centre. Place a cup or saucepan in the centre and surround it with urine, mud and waste water along with green vegetation. Consider using a long hollow rubber tube (such as an exercise band) to act as a straw before placing a plastic sheeting (garbage bag or tarp) over the hole.

Seal the hole by mounding the dirt from the hole over the edges of the sheeting to prevent the evaporation from leaking into the air. Then place a small rock in the centre – directly over the middle of the cup. The heat of the day will cause the moisture to evaporate and condense off the underside of the plastic sheeting. This will run down to the centre of the sheet to the indentation under the rock and drip into your cup. In the early morning, the topside of the plastic sheeting will act as a dew trap. So remember to get out of bed and collect it before it evaporates after sunrise.

The location of your solar still is paramount. You want as much direct sunlight as possible. And consider the moisture content of the soil which will increase in lower lying parts of the landscape.


Did you know that the US Environmental Protection Agency reckons that 90 per cent of the world’s water is contaminated in some way? Dead animals and animal (or human) faeces can contaminate a water source with E. coli, Salmonella, Hepatitis (A and E) and Giardia, to name a few. And we’re also at risk from water soluble toxins from agriculture and industry. If you make the wrong decision about drinking water, you could soon be dealing with a bad case of diarrhoea and vomiting with associated fluid loss, hypovolemic shock and possibly even death. So here are some of our favourite techniques for treating water:


The military suggests a rolling boil for five minutes if the water source is unknown, while the US Centre for Disease Control considers one minute to be adequate. Either way, most bacteria won’t survive beyond 76°C. The point is: let the water boil thoroughly. Don’t pull it off the gas at the first sign of tiny bubbles.


Water filters pass water through a microscopic filter that is rated for a certain-size organism. Filter systems such as the Lifestraw range remove 99.9 per cent of bacteria, protozoan parasites and viruses without the need for power, plumbing or chemicals. From personal straws to family-sized desktop units, they’re designed for use in under-developed countries in the most contaminated areas.

If you don’t have a manufactured filter, improvise. Take a trouser leg or shirt sleeve, then tie your shoe lace around one end nice and tight. Fill the sleeve/leg with 15cm of charcoal from a burnt-out tree, add a layer of clean sand, then another of dry grass. Slowly pour your contaminated water into the centre and let it trickle in. The dry grass will remove the macro particulates (lumpy bits), the sand will remove the suspended clay particulates and the charcoal will remove bacteria and some suspended salts. Try using a three-tiered tripod system for mass production.


Many UV-assisted water purification devices need power. Also read the small print. Most brands claim their device will turn any tap or clear natural water source into potable drinking water in just seconds. But that’s the clincher – the water has to be pre-filtered. For an ‘old school’ method of UV treatment – four to six hours of direct sunlight should be enough UV radiation to kill bacteria in pre-filtered water held inside a clear container.

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The full feature appeared in Caravan World Yearbook 2016Subscribe today for the latest caravan reviews and news every month!