How do you find drinkable water in the winter?

It would be challenging to find a survival situation that is tougher than surviving the dead of winter. Finding water and storing it is especially difficult in freezing temperatures. You are constantly in danger of dehydration, scarce supplies, and bursting bottles. How do you find drinkable water in the winter? Continue reading to learn how to locate and store drinkable water in the winter wilderness.

WARNING: Don’t eat the snow!

Before we get started, I must lay down the law. Don’t eat the snow! A bite of fresh snow might not hurt you in everyday life, but in a survival situation, it is best to avoid it. Eating snow can drastically lower your body temperature and put you at risk of getting hypothermia. Additionally, snow is known to to collect a significant amount of pollutants from the environment.

Where can you find water in a winter wilderness?

A water shortage is a major problem in any survival situation. However, it is even tougher to stay hydrated in the winter. In fact, it is much easier to become hydrated in the winter than it is in the summer. I was surprised when I first heard this too! The reason for this is that our human thirst response is diminished by up to 40% in the winter time. This means that you might not even know when you are severely dehydrated.

Now you know the importance of drinking water even when you are cold and surrounded by snow, but you shouldn’t eat the snow. So what should you do and how do you stay hydrated?

1- Melt snow or ice

When I went backpacking in the winter time for the first time, I melted snow and boiled it for drinking water. Back then, I felt comfortable doing this because we were at a high elevation in a super remote area that didn’t get traffic or much action. Knowing what I know now, I would do things a little differently.

If your only option is snow or ice, go for the ice first. It is easier to melt with less fuel and provides more water than snow. Additionally, it is less likely to contain the toxins that snow can absorb from its environment.

How to melt your snow or ice:

One of the easiest methods to melt snow or ice is to use a tripod and a piece of cloth. Create a tripod with three sticks or boards then hang a clean sock or other piece of fabric from the tripod. Place a clean container directly under the fabric to catch the melted snow. Fill the fabric with the cleanest snow or ice that you can find. Next, start a fire next to the hanging fabric. Alternatively, you could use a camp stove or even hand warmers to slowly melt the snow into the container below.

Remember to purify your melted snow or ice before you drink it. I survived off of the melted snow that I boiled in a pot, but I was 19 back then and nowadays I would take the extra precautions and purify my water.

Winter Bushcraft & Survival: Generating Water From Snow

How do you find drinkable water in the winter?

2- Collect condensation from the inside of your shelter.

Even though it is cold and you’re not sweating very much, you are still constantly losing water. In the winter, your breath is the primary way that you lose water. Eventually, your body heat and breath will create condensation.

A small tent or properly constructed lean-to is well-positioned to be a water collection structure by collecting condensation. Angle some plastic bags on the inside of your roof. If your tent has air vents at the top, cover the vents with plastic. This will keep your body heat inside and will allow you to direct condensation towards a clean container or pot.

The size, shape, and location of your shelter will dramatically impact your success. Experiment with various angles to find the sweet spot for your shelter. If the angle of your plastic is too shallow then your precious condensation may freeze before it reaches the container. If the angle is too steep, it may drip on your while you sleep.

3- Search for running water in rivers and streams

If the water is moving then you won’t need to melt it. That’s one less stop and a lot less fuel that you’ll need to burn. You may need to break through the icy layer on top, but deeper water sources usually remain free-flowing beneath the ice.

How do you find drinkable water in the winter?


Don’t rush to dive in and start chugging because cold water will lower your core body temperature. Also, you should consider any water that you find, contaminated and take the necessary measures to purify it. You can purify your water with the distillation method mentioned above, sunlight, filters, or purification tablets.

  • Using water filters in the cold. Know that water filters can freeze. A frozen filter will result in a broken seal and cracked housing. A simple way to prevent the freezing of your water filter is to keep it with you as close to your body heat as possible. This is not ideal for a larger filtration system, but you can keep a smaller one in your pocket or pack.
  • Using Water Purification Chemicals in cold weather. The chemicals you would use to treat your water are less effective in cold weather. You will need to warm up your water to get the most out of your purification chemicals, but this method will use much less fuel than boiling your water.

Water from streams, rivers, and springs can feel like a godsend to thirsty survivors, but you must proceed with caution. It is not only dangerous to drink unpurified water, but collecting water from those sources can be extra risky. Always avoid walking on ice. Use a long stick to thoroughly test the ground several feet ahead of you. The last thing you need is an impromptu dip in icy water. You can stay safer and extend your reach by attaching a collection container to the end of your stick or pole.

I personally think that this method is extremely risky and it is important to know how to get out of the ice if you accidentally fall in. I think this next video is helpful.

Ice Safety – How To Perform A Self Rescue

4- Collect Rainwater

Thankfully, it tends to rain more in the winter than other seasons. Take advantage of this seasonal feature and make an effort to collect the rain as it falls. Rain is a much more pure source of drinking water in a winter survival situation because it doesn’t absorb toxins as readily as snow does. Make sure that you collect the rain in a clean container.

You can use any type of waterproof material to assist with rain collection including:

Stretch the material out between three or four trees and secure it at the corners. Next, place a clean rock in the center of your material. Rain will collect in the middle as it falls and will provide you with a good supply of water depending on the amount of rain.

You could poke a small hole in the material near the center and collect it from below in a bucket or canteen. I wouldn’t personally compromise my valuable fabric because I might need it later.

How to Collect Rain Water Using a Tarp

His climate is obviously different from what we are discussing here, but his approach demonstrates what I just described.

5- Purify your urine for drinking

This option is NOT at the top of my list for obvious reasons, but if you have run out of all other options, it’s something. There are ways that you can make urine safe to drink and I’ve covered them in my “Is It Safe To Drink Urine For Survival?” article.

Distillation is going to be your best bet in the winter. Distillation involves collecting your urine, boiling it, then collecting the vapors. This is very similar to the condensation collection method above. The drawback is that you’ll need to burn some fuel to make this work. Since you’ll be using your precious fuel to boil urine, you should use the same fire to cook food, dry your clothes (catch the vapors!), and warm your shelter.

How to keep your water from freezing

Now that you have found a source of safe, quality, drinking water, you need to keep it from freezing so that it is ready to drink. This can be extremely challenging in the harsh winter wilderness, but there are some things you can do to help.

Keep your water bottle close to your skin

Make sure that your water bottles and containers are fully closed then place them in your sleeping bag with you while you sleep. A good sleeping bag can retain your body heat for a significant amount of time.

Alternate ways to insulate your water bottles:

  • Store them in socks.
  • Wrap them in spare clothing, towels, blankets, tarps, plastic bags, or anything else that can hold heat.
  • Keep them in your sleeping bag.

If your water is already frozen, do not use your body heat to warm it up. A cold bottle against your skin will quickly make your body temperature drop to dangerous levels. Melt it then put it in your sleeping bag or under your clothes.

If you have absolutely no other way of melting ice or snow, put the container between two layers of your clothes, but never directly on your skin. This is far from ideal, but it’s better than getting dehydrated, causing frostbite, or getting hypothermia.

CamelBak Warning:

Wearable water options are not ideal for winter survival. While CamelBaks and similar hydration systems work really well in warm weather, the tubes and nozzles tend to freeze quickly in cold temperatures.

Store your water bottles upside down

Ice forms from the top down. If you keep your bottle turned upside down, the bottom will freeze first and you will still be able to drink from the top. This works for any water container as long as it has a good seal.

How do you find drinkable water in the winter?

Why can’t I just eat snow?

I know you’re probably thinking that if you were in a survival situation in the dead of winter, that water wouldn’t be an issue because you’d be surrounded by snow. The truth is that you shouldn’t eat snow for several reasons.

Reason #1: Hypothermia

Your body is already working extra hard to protect you from the external cold. If you consume frozen water, you will lower your core body temperature and put an inordinate amount of strain on your system.

In the dead of winter, there’s a strong chance that you may not be able to recover from that. Imagine bitter cold biting winds on the outside and frozen water running down your throat. That would be a perfect recipe for hypothermia.

Reason #2: Potentially Toxic Contaminants

In addition to the cold temperature, snow is also full of toxic chemicals. Each snow flake is a tiny net or scrubbing brush that falls slowly from the sky. On the way down it catches all the particles in the air.

A study conducted at McGill University in Montreal, Canada discovered that snow can absorb massive toxins in the air in as little as one hour. They found many pollutants in the snow including:

  • Benzene
  • Ethylbenzene
  • Toluene
  • Xylenes

Those pollutants remained in the water even after the snow melted.

What if the snow looks clean?

Many people believe that the snow is safe to eat if it’s white, but that’s just not true. You may be able to see dirt and black carbon (soot), but you cannot see things like sulfates and formaldehyde. Even if you are in a rural setting, you snow isn’t necessarily safer than city snow. There may not be as much city pollution in wilderness snow, but there is still a little.

In the wilderness you have to worry about bacteria and parasites from woodland creatures. The alarming truth is that pesticides can pop up in snow even decades after they were used, according to Staci Simonich (Professor of Environmental and Toxic Ecology at Oregon State University.) She even found 50 year old pesticides in higher elevations in many U.S. National parks.


Yikes! This whole conversation has made me feel thankful that I always melted and boiled snow before drinking it. At 5 years old, I knew that it was gross when some neighborhood boys were walking along the road with their sleds and picking up the gray snow on the road to eat.

Securing water in a winter survival situation is a complicated task. In a perfect world, you would have enough water with you to make it through any situation that you encounter. Still, you wouldn’t be much of a prepper if you didn’t have a few winter survival tricks up your sleeve.

I would love to hear about your winter survival tips and tricks! comment below to share!