How To Find Water in the Desert Reliably

The arid, hot, and unforgiving desert is one of the toughest places to survive. While it is extremely difficult, it is possible with the right knowledge and skills. In this guide, I will share tips and practical advice on how to find water in the desert reliably.

Is there water in the desert?

Yes, of course there is water in the desert! Since you cannot see puddles, lakes, and other water sources, one might assume that the desert is a barren and dry wasteland. Thankfully, water does exist even if you can’t see it at a glance.

How To Find Water in the Desert Reliably

Animals and plants that live in the desert need water just like any other living thing. Even the smallest plants growing out of the parched cracks in the landscape need water to survive.

Follow the animals

How To Find Water in the Desert Reliably
How To Find Water in the Desert Reliably

A seemingly obvious way to find water is to follow the animals to their water source. While this may sound like a reasonable tactic in most survival situations, the problem is that larger desert animals don’t come out in the blistering heat of the day. In fact, you should avoid the blistering heat, too.

Tracking an animal at night in any condition is challenging, but it’s a nightmare in the dessert because it is cold, hard to see, and you are probably lethargic from dehydration. You can still follow creatures to water sources, but you will need to think smaller.

Flying Insects

We often ignore or try to repel insects. If you have the kind of blood that doesn’t make you popular, consider it a blessing because mosquitoes and bugs love to feast on me. I try to repel them because they carry diseases and can give bites that can get infected, but they are great water detectors. In the desert I would allow the flying insects to lead me to water. If you see them, there’s a good chance that there is water nearby. Bees are an especially lucky find because they tend to fly directly from their hives to the water. This means that you will spend less time searching.

Ground Insects

Ground insects are more challenging to find because they have excellent camouflage and they hide when they feel the vibrations from your footsteps. They must conserve energy because they lack the advantages of wings and light bodies. This means that they tend to stay closer to the water source. A one-off bug isn’t an indication of water, but if you see several bugs in a small radius, it could mean that water is near.

Snakes and Lizards

Snakes and lizards can set you on the path to water. It is easy to spot their trails in the sand and they often burrow or sun themselves near insect nests or high activity areas. And as we mentioned earlier, insects stay close to water. so if you find snakes and lizards, it’s only a matter of time before you will be able to locate water.


Birds are able to fly long distances and may hunt further from home, but they are still a good way to find water. They spend a significant amount of time hunting insects, lizards, and small desert rodents that live near a water source. Birds are like the desert’s billboards. If you see a bird circling high in the air, take it as a sign that water is nearby. The best time to find a flock of birds is in the early morning or right before the sun goes down.

Landscape features can help you find water

How To Find Water in the Desert Reliably
How To Find Water in the Desert Reliably

Search for dense, green plant life

Just a single plant is a sign that there is water. Of course, the more vegetation you can find, the better your chances of finding water, but you’re more likely to see a single plant first. Search for vegetation that gets thicker and greener. If you follow the signs, you might get lucky and find a lush greenbelt or an underground water source.

A Tree -any tree

Since trees take a long time to grow, you can be almost certain that water is nearby if you spot a large tree. Cottonwoods and willows are especially nice to find, but any broad leaf tree is a treasure because they often have water at their bases. If you don’t find a spring or watering hole near the tree, trying digging a hole near its roots and the hole should fill with water. Another nice bonus is the shade that a large tree can provide for you in the desert.

Check downed trees and stumps

Downed and dead trees often absorb and hold water. If you get lucky and see insects going in and out of a stump or hole in a tree, there may be water stored inside. Don’t reach in! That’s the type of thing that nightmares are made of. Instead, tie a piece of cloth to the end of a long stick and poke the inside of the tree. If it comes out wet, then you’ve hit the jackpot! Squeeze the water into a container then go back for a few more rounds.

Search around rocks

A rock is generally impermeable to water so you can often find small amounts of water hiding in and around rock formations. Look for dividing lines between rock formations and in any natural dips or chips. You can also check the ground below where the rock slopes into the sand or soil. Water may have settled underground near the rock’s base.

Dig in dried riverbeds and ponds

If you come across a dried stream, riverbed, or pond, you may be able to find water just below the surface. The surface water might have evaporated, but if you find damp sand a few inches below the surface, it means there is more water to be found. Keep digging. The best place to start digging is right in the bend because this is where the water has eroded the bank and probably got stuck and settled into the bed. Once you have a deep hole that appears to be moist, cover it (so critters don’t contaminate your water hole) and wait a few hours. When you return, the hole will hopefully be full of water.

Search for desert trails

Search for desert trails created by animals, dried up running water, or other survivors. It’s a good sign if a trail is well worn because it is likely that you’ll find water at the end of it. Make sure that you follow the trail cautiously because you never know what could be waiting for you around the bend. Animals, other survivors, or a dramatic drop into the sandy abyss could cramp your style.

Look around the hills

Water will always rest at the lowest point of the landscape. This means that if you see hills, you may find water at the base. The hill is still a wonderful tool even if you don’t find water. Climb to the top for a view of the surrounding area. Search for signs of water like trees, birds, greenbelts, dried rivers, or ponds.

Search North-Facing Canyons

Canyons are the lowest point and tend to fill up with water when the rain falls. North-facing canyons are an ideal place to search because they get the benefit of the shade throughout the day which slows the evaporation of water. If you happen to find water in a canyon it will probably be stagnant and mucky from sitting for a prolonged period. Make sure that you purify the water you find before consuming it.

How To Find Water in the Desert Reliably

Other Water Sources

Collect moisture from plant leaves

You can collect a few sips of water from a plant’s natural vapor. Simply place a plastic bag over a plant. Next, place a small pebble into the bag to create a dip for the water to collect in and tie the bag snugly around the stem. Check on the bag at the end of the day. While this isn’t a quick fix and you won’t get a ton of water this way, you could get a few sips to wet your whistle in the blistering desert heat.

How to Collect Clean, Drinkable Water from Plants

Can you drink cactus water?

I hate to tell you that Hollywood fooled us into thinking that the desperate cowboy could simply cut into a barrel cactus and drink water from it. This is a dangerous lie because it turns out that barrel cacti are NOT big, friendly barrels of water waiting to re-hydrate you. While, you can find some moisture inside of a cactus, it is difficult to get and it is not water. The liquid you could get from mashing cactus flesh could greatly tax your kidneys and increase your suffering. As a result, you could end up vomiting during a time where you need your fluids more than ever.

There is only one type of barrel cactus that won’t inflict torturous suffering. The Fishhook Barrel Cactus(Ferocactus wislizenii) can still cause some gastric upset and it tastes super bitter, but it is not toxic like the others. It lives in Northern Sonora, Mexico and South-central Arizona. You can also find them in New Mexico and Texas. This cactus can be identified by its thick (2 foot diameter), barrel shaped body, and long hooked spines. Its red / yellow flowers always grow at the top of the plant.

What about cactus fruit?

Once upon a time, in my early 20’s, I lived in the Bay Area of California and was thrilled to find ruby colored prickly pears adorning a giant cactus. I reached out to grab some and was able to fill a shopping bag of cactus jewels, but I quickly learned the prickly lesson of glochids and the reason why they are called PRICKLY pears.

How To Find Water in the Desert Reliably

Cactus fruit can provide hydration and some nutrients and is less likely to make you ill. As I learned, the hard way, the spines and prickly hairs can cause injuries and much discomfort. Quickly burn those off with a few seconds in a fire or flame. If you don’t have a fire, you can peel the spines away with a knife. It is honestly a long and arduous process that may not be worth-it if you have access to other water sources.

If you do opt to choose cactus fruit for hydration, they are easy to spot with their vivid red and yellow colors. I think that prickly pears are the best because they are easy to identify and grow well in a variety of climates. They are a staple in Central American diets and also found in the Southwest of the US, Australia, The Galapagos Islands, and in Northern Africa. They have also been spotted as far north as British Columbia.

How to Pick and Eat Prickly Pear Fruit

How to collect dew in the desert

Morning dew is often an overlooked desert water source. An individual droplet may not seem like much, but collecting morning dew could save your life. There are a few proven methods for collecting dew, but don’t be afraid to experiment with new methods along with the tried and true.

  • Method #1: Hang clean clothing on a stick, plant, or rock overnight. It’s as simple as that. The clothing will absorb the morning dew and you can wring it into a cup, bowl, or right into your mouth in the morning. Be sure to rise early and wring the water out before the sun gets too hot, otherwise, the water will evaporate.
  • Method #2: If you happen to have mesh inside of your backpack, clothing, or other gear, you can use it to collect dew. Remove the mesh from your selected source and stretch it between two sticks, trees, or rocks. Tip at a steep angle and stick the bottom of the mesh inside of a canteen, bowl, or other clean container. The mesh will collect fog and dew like a spider’s web. Gravity will help to guide those dew drops into your collection container. Additionally, you can use a cloth to absorb the dew from the dew catcher.
  • Method #3: Cactus spines are not only designed for protection. They also catch water from the rain and fog and direct it towards the base of the plant. You can use a little cloth to absorb dewdrops from cactus and other desert vegetation. Squeeze the cloth into a container or into your mouth. This is a long and slow process, but it can keep you alive if you can’t find water anywhere else.

Use a stick to find water (Dowsing)

The ancient practice of “dowsing” has gone by a variety of names. Twitching, water witching, or simply “the gift.” It’s all about using a stick or other small object to find water. I haven’t personally used it, but I know other preppers who swear by it. It’s because of them and some interesting research that I have decided to include dowsing in this article. If I’m ever stuck in the desert with no water and no other options, I won’t allow skepticism to be the death of me.

Most experts believe that dowsing is a pseudoscience or old wives’ tale, but there was a German study that attracted some interest. In the 1990’s over the course of a decade, researchers had dowsers and geologists work together in several dry locations to test the accuracy of dowsing. Those researchers discovered that dowsing was surprisingly accurate. Additionally, well-drillers were able to find water 96% of the time thanks to dowsing techniques. Those techniques not only predicted where the water would be, but also told drillers the depth and how much water there would be.

If you’re curious and would like to give dowsing a shot. Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Find a Y-shaped stick (think sling-shot.) The ideal sticks are 12 to 16 inches long.
  2. Hold the short ends (the top of the Y) with one tine in each hand. Use an underhanded hold (palms up) where the palms and heels of your hands are facing the sky. Face the long end of the stick (the tail) directly in front of you.
  3. With a loose grip, slowly move around the terrain.
  4. Concentrate on the dowsing rod and when you feel it tug downwards, it means that you are close to water.

Some dowsers claim the tug is hard to miss and you need to tighten your grip as you get closer to water otherwise the stick will drop.

Do you know how to find water with a dowsing stick?

Drink your urine

I covered the topic of drinking your own urine for survival in great detail in a previous article. I know that it’s gross, but it is worth mentioning here. You can drink your urine for survival, but it should be your absolute last resort and you should take the time to distill and filter it. If your only option is to drink it straight from the tap with no filtration, make sure that you have exhausted all other hydration options first. Once you drink your urine, it is only a matter of time before it becomes dangerous and puts significant strain on your kidneys. Eventually, it will further dehydrate you. Drinking urine can buy you a few extra days in a tight situation.

Dig holes for water

You can dig a hole in any area where you believe there may be some moisture below the surface. Generally, the deeper you dig, the more moisture you’ll find. This is probably the most reliable way to locate water. Utilize the information to identify an area with moisture then start digging!

  • If you don’t have a shovel, use a sturdy stick or a flat, broad rock.
  • If you don’t have a shovel, stick, or rock, wrap your hands in your shirt to protect them.
  • Dig approximately 1 foot. If the soil or sand is still dry after 1 foot, find a different location. If it’s damp, it means that there is water deeper down. Keep digging!
  • Sand can swiftly fill your watering hole so scoop it out and push it away from the edge.
  • Pat the sides of your hole to shore up the edges and prevent caving.
  • If you don’t have a bottle, cup, bowl, or container, use your shirt or other clean fabric to soak up water from the source and wring it into your mouth.
  • Always filter your water. Underground water sources are less likely to be contaminated by parasites or animal feces, but that doesn’t mean that it’s safe.
  • Be patient. It may take a few hours for your hole to fill with water.

Finding Water in the Desert | Primal Survivor


If you ever find yourself in the desert with no water, don’t give up hope. With this guide and a little determination and perseverance, you will be able to find enough water to survive while you work your way out of the hot zone. Do your friends (and me) a favor and share this article so that they will be equipped with this knowledge too! You might save a life!

Now I would love to hear from you! Do you have some strategies for finding water in the desert? Please comment below to share!

See you soon!