(c) 1996, Willis Lamm, TrailBlazer Magazine

"Water Shortage!"
By Willis Lamm

Reprinted with permission of TrailBlazer Magazine for non-commercial use.

About halfway through a summer ride, we descended to a cattle watering area where we expected to refresh our horses. To our disappointment, the pipe supplying the cattle trough from a boxed-in spring had broken and the trough was dry. Fortunately for us the ride was not a long one and we had hung around the previous trough which we had come to until all the horses had drunk. Our sweaty steeds were a little thirsty when we came to the end of our ride, but no harm was done.

But what if the ride was a longer one and we had counted on water being available? Or what if we had broken down somewhere, or had wandered off course, and couldn't make the next "regular" source of water for humans or horses?

The Facts of Life

Water and air are the most essential elements to survival. Depending upon our age and size, we are made up of between 60 and 70% water. Our horses aren't much different. Only a 2% drop in our water content and we start to feel fatigued and headachy. As this drop approaches 5%, fatigue will become significant and dizziness and disorientation are common. As dehydration approaches 10%, we may not be able to keep moving.

When working hard on a hot day it is possible to lose nearly 3% of one's stored water in an hour, particularly if the horse or human doing the work is not fit or if humans are consuming alcohol. Thus it is easy to see the potential for problems if something goes awry in the water supply department.

Proper Preparation

By now we all know the various reasons we should carry a map... right? So use that map to your advantage. Whenever riding out in regions where water is scarce, be sure to find out from knowledgeable locals which sources of water are known to be adequate for your needs and mark them on the map. Inquire about sources not only along your route, but also about others in the general area. You never know when you might need alternate supplies!

In addition to having some knowledge as to where you can find water, you should also be able to make it potable for human consumption in the event you or your companions require more water than you are carrying. A reasonably fresh bottle of saturated iodine (carried in your saddle bag first aid pack) can provide a means of purification. If you are camping, you could carry a water filter, but the filter media must be finer than 5 microns and should also provide chemical treatment.

When participating in organized events one would expect the organizers would be well versed in both the locations and condition of water supplies along the route. Such preparation on the part of others should not relieve you of carrying an official map of the area and making note of ALL the area's water supplies. I have seen riders miles off course, either because they became lost or due to some break down, and in some cases their horses suffered needlessly on a hot day because they had no knowledge of reasonably accessible sources of water. (Ride sketches are nice to have, but they are not always totally accurate and in many cases are of little help if you end up off course.)

Aquatic Pests

Humans are sensitive to a number of contaminants in water, none the least of which is the giardia protozoa which is quite common in the mountainous areas of the west. Those consuming untreated water in the Rockies, Sierras and Cascades should be particularly aware of the giardia problem. This intestinal parasite proliferates through means of cysts which suspend themselves in water, and once ingested, lodge in the small intestine and reproduce very rapidly.

Your first indication of infection will likely be explosive diarrhea, cramps, vomiting, fever, loss of appetite and general weakness. Symptoms can last from a few days to a couple of months. Giardiasis is not generally considered fatal but victims often report that they wish they were dead.

Giardia and other toxic pests generally occur as a result of infected animal or human feces contaminating the water either through direct contact or rain runoff. Stagnant ponds which are frequented by mammals would more likely be a source of this "microbe soup" than would be a small running stream cascading down a steep hillside. The less the water is standing around, and the less likely animals are going to be standing around in it (including upstream from where you are taking water), the more likely it will be contamination free.

So, before you lean down and take that drink because you are thirsty and think things couldn't get much worse, understand that they probably are about to!

Human Water Considerations

A number of scenarios could occur which render you short of water and needing it badly. Assuming you need water and you have to drink what is available, consider the following recommendations.

Drink from small tributaries instead of larger bodies of water. If it has rained recently, water collected in rock depressions is often times cleaner than that which is found in ponds or streams. Disinfectants, such as iodine, can be introduced into the depression and the water can be purified just where it sits.

Avoid ponds surrounded by barren ground, alkali residues along the water's edge, or bleached animal bones. If you have to take water from a pond (hopefully one surrounded by lush green plants), take water from the surface of calm, deep areas, as far away from the shoreline as possible. Many microbes will settle to the bottom of still water while they may be actively suspended in water tumbling over rocks and cascades.

Disinfecting the water is important. You probably won't be able to boil your water, so you'll have to use chemical or filter treatment. The effectiveness of iodine or other chemical decontaminates is reduced in the case of water which is cloudy and/or alkaline. These preparations also take longer in colder temperatures. Read label directions carefully. You may need to fashion a container to hold the water during the decontamination process such as using the plastic bag which you should carry in your saddle pack.

Horse Water Considerations

Your horse can tolerate water which is less pure than we can, but it still needs to be relatively fresh and fairly neutral in pH in order to avoid gastronomical complications. Also, some horses won't drink water which doesn't smell attractive to them, so attempting to get them to drink out of some muddy hole may be a waste of time from that aspect alone.

In general, a pond or stream teeming with life (waterfowl, fish, minnows, polliwogs, etc.) is probably pretty safe, particularly if your horse can take water without stirring up too many sediments. Be careful in drought areas because ponds can partially evaporate and in some cases mineral and chloride concentrations can get dangerously high. A tipoff will often be an absence of the customary abundance of diverse aquatic life and plants. The water may be an unusual color and/or salt or mineral residue may appear along the shoreline. I'd tend to pass up a pond like this for the next water source shown on my map.

No Water!

If you are in desperate need of water and can find none, here are some possible solutions for you, depending on your locale.

Several types of birds circle over water early in the morning and in the evening. Check those areas (although I'd be a bit leery if the only birds circling were buzzards and vultures!)

Regularly used campsites are typically near some source of water. A well worn path could lead you to it.

After a rain shower, don't forget to check rock depressions. During rain showers, catch water in your plastic garbage bag.

Water heads downhill and you can try following dry creek beds to lower elevations. Finding tracks of animals doing the same thing is generally a good sign.

An area of lush vegetation in an otherwise arid area shows good potential for water. When such vegetation appears on slopes or hillsides, a spring or seep is possibly present. In rocky canyon country this vegetation may be minimal. Carefully observe canyon walls for signs, particularly in shady side canyons.

In low lying areas lush vegetation may point you to a spring or pond or the water could be just below the surface of the ground. Try digging in a sandy area. If the ground becomes moist, you might find water or the location may be a prime situation for making a solar still with your plastic garbage bag.

When streams run, water "piles up" at the outside of bends in the stream (see Safe Water Crossings, March/April, 1996). When the stream beds have gone dry, these make good areas to dig for water. If the subsoil shows no signs of moisture, try another location. If you can't find enough to drink, but the ground is moist, this would probably be a good location to try a solar still.

Note: When you are absolutely stuck, don't underestimate the potential of digging for water. We have a BLM burro as a pet who, after years of captivity, still can't resist digging holes during the dry season until she gets down to moist subsoil. Her youngster, born in captivity some years ago, doesn't display this tendency. We attribute her behavior to a survival technique learned in the desert.

Making Survival Stills

From your plastic bag you can fashion a vegetable still. Crush up the most succulent plants you can find and put them in the bag. (Don't crush them inside the bag and avoid thorny plants.) Fill the bag with air, tie it off, and set it in the sun. Over the next few hours the moisture from the plants will accumulate as water in the bottom of the bag. The flavor may or may not be to your liking, but you can drink it.

With your plastic bag or better yet, a sheet of plastic, you can fashion a solar still. You will need some sort of receptacle, such as a tin cup or can, to catch the water. Hollow out as large a hole as you can that your plastic bag or sheet will cover. Set your container in the center and surround it with whatever vegetation you can find (the more succulent the vegetation, the better). Make sure the plants don't touch the plastic.

Seal off the edges where the plastic meets the ground with stones and dirt. (It needs to be air tight). Place a couple of small stones in the center of the plastic in order to make it sag and form a cone directly over the cup. After about an hour, the underside of the plastic will sweat and the water will start dripping into the container. Depending on soil moisture and the moisture in the plants, it may take several hours to get enough water for a good drink. Most stills will produce a quart of water every 24 hours.

Once you open the still to take out the water, it will usually take about an hour to start producing water again. If you can't find plants, the still will still work, but not as fast. Also since the plastic won't make contact with the plants, crushed cactus can be used in the solar still.

Other Ramifications

Also remember that when riding out in arid areas, one must also consider the possibility of wildfires (see Coping with Wildfires, October, 1993) and land dwelling pests who may be hanging around the water holes to either quench their thirst or dine on whomever might be taking a drink!

Rider's Challenge

  1. Other than your canteen, what is the most important item you should carry with you when riding out in dry country?
    a. Iodine
    b. A tin cup
    c. A shovel
    d. A map

  2. What items in your first aid pack will help you if you are desperate for water?
    a. Iodine
    b. Triangular bandage
    c. Salt tablets
    d. Plastic bag

  3. Which is most likely the cleanest source of drinking water?
    a. A small waterfall
    b. A clear pool
    c. Water collected in a rock depression
    d. A large river

  4. What is the most serious source of natural water contamination that you should be concerned with?
    a. Animal waste
    b. Rotting plants
    c. Silt or mud
    d. salt

  5. If you have to drink water from a pond, where should you get it?
    a. From the inlet to the pond
    b. Along a sandy shoreline
    c. Along a shoreline lush with plants
    d. From the surface as far out over the center as possible

  6. Find a suitable patch of dirt in the yard or garden and try making a solar still out of a plastic garbage bag. How long did it take you to distill a cup of water? (You'll get your own answer for this one!)


  1. Your most important resource is a map with water clearly identified on it. If you don't know where the water is in the first place, you are not likely to need the other supplies.

  2. An unexpired bottle of iodine can help you disinfect water which you find. If you're heads up enough to keep your supplies secured in a plastic bag, it will be useful also! On the other hand, salt tablets will just make you more thirsty.

  3. Typically speaking, the cleanest water you will find (from the standpoint of bacteria and parasites affecting human health) is rainwater caught in rock depressions. Obviously this answer assumes the depression to be reasonably clean and free from animal droppings!

  4. When taking water from a source which otherwise looks healthy (lots of plants and aquatic animals), your greatest concern is contact with animal waste. The presence of one giardia cyst (usually transmitted through animal waste) can make you sick if you swallow it. The consumption of a dozen will almost certainly do you in. Even slightly salty water won't hurt you (unless you drink it on a regular basis), but that giardia critter certainly will!

  5. You want to take calm water over as deep an area as possible. Most harmful microbes will settle towards the bottom of calm water. Secure your container to a stick and skim along the surface. You should still treat the water if you can, but the likelihood of ingesting something bad is lessened if you take water from the cleanest possible source.

Our thanks to TrailBlazer Magazine for permission to post this series on our web page.
You can visit the TrailBlazer website at www.horsetrails.com.

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