Possibly the most important thing one can have in the event of a catastrophic failure of society, zombies or not, is a source of water. Bottled water would be the first thing looted from any store. Treated water from municipal water supplies would not be available for long as those systems would fail and become useless quickly. The question then remains: how does one get water in a world with no water?
The first thought would be “Oh, there’s plenty of water, I’ll just drink from a stream, river, or lake.” That is an option but one that may have dire consequences. First of all, most water in the wild has the potential to harbor several pathogens; none of which you want in your system. Giardia, microsporidia, dysentery, botulism, and salmonella are just a few of the numerous bad guys already found in waters all over the globe. Any of these critters can cause diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and a host of other dangerous or deadly reactions in the human body.
Add that to the threat of potential corpses and infected blood in any given water supply, and you’ll be in real danger if you don’t have a method of creating potable water. With the world gone to hell and the population suddenly dispersed into areas that were previously uninhabited or scarcely inhabited and you’ve got a real threat. The zombie contagion is now potentially in nearly every water supply on the planet and none of it would be considered even remotely safe to drink. Survival experts claim that it’s better to drink water and get sick than not drink water and die. At least, if you get rescued, you can recover from being sick. There’s no recovery from being dead… unless you count becoming a zombie. I don’t!
There are several mechanisms for making water safe to drink. Boiling, filtering, and chemical treatment are all viable mechanisms for purging pathogens in water. Having a combination of these methods works to your advantage and wouldn’t necessarily add to your pack weight or diminish your pack’s overall carrying capacity by much. Regardless, this would take precedent over something else in times of survival.
Boiling water can usually remove these pathogens. Any water sourced from the wilderness should be boiled for at least 20 minutes to ensure that the offending pathogens are killed off. Of course, you’d need some things in order to accomplish this task, namely: a fire and a container in which to boil liquid. The container is fairly easily obtained. Just try and find a square mile of this planet that does not have trash of some kind in it. A plastic bottle, tin cup, or even a paper bag can be used to boil water. The next issue is a fire; it can be a bit tougher to come by.
It’s easy to make a fire with a lighter or matches. Those should also be high on your list of lootables when you’re scavenging for supplies. No matter how many you get, though, you’ll run out eventually. Lots of stores, especially camping stores and department stores with camping and outdoor equipment, have flint/steel firestarters. Swedish Firesteel is probably the most famous of these. It’s a small, simple device that allows you to take advantage of one of the oldest, most reliable methods of creating fire on the planet. You merely rub the flint rod and steel plate together and sparks are created. Throw those sparks onto dry tinder and fire is created.
There are certain situations, however, where creating a fire isn’t an option. If you’re in a particularly wet region, such as a rainforest, bayou, or the everglades, finding dry tinder or firewood may not be possible. Not only that, but there may be times where you value your stealth in avoiding the undead or marauding humans. In this situation, a better solution would be water filtration and/or sanitization. The Katadyn Pocket Water Microfilter would be handy, compact item to carry in your pack. It is capable of filtering baterial and protozoan pathogens from drinking water in the wild while not occupying much pack space.
Another option that is available is water purification tablets. While these are effective at killing pathogens in water, they’ll quickly be used up. I would suggest packing a combination of water treatment tablets, iodine, and the Katadyn Microfilter to ensure that I had multiple ways of treating water to extend my ability to remain hydrated.
The final bit of knowledge survivors should keep close to their heart is the availability of clean water in the wild. While it can be rare, it does exist. Springs are found in all mountainous regions of the US and, if their source can be located, the water from these springs is almost always safe to drink right out of the ground. It is filtered by the earth and kept cool by geothermal tempering. It is not only safe, but usually quite delicious water. Some springs, however, can contain sulphur. The water from these springs may taste bad, but it’s still safe to drink.
Locating springs can be tricky for the uninformed, but I’ll attempt to make you a bit more informed. If they are shallow springs, which is what you wish to find, they will encourage more plant growth around them. Look for dense, mossy vegetation or any area that is unnaturally soggier than the surrounding ground cover, especially if there hasn’t been rain for a while. Dig down a bit and see if the hole fills in quickly. If so, you’ve found a spring. It would be beneficial to find out exactly where the spring is bubbling from the underlying rock since the more time it spends in topsoil, the more likely it is to have been contaminated. You want it straight from the ground.
A great many springs in the Appalachians have been located and aquaducts built from them to bring them to a more convenient location. Look for PVC pipe protruding from a rock face. find that and you’ve found a spring. Stock up on the everflowing water from these pipes and mark its location on your map (You DO have a map, right?). This is largely due to the American tradition of making moonshine. The old bootleggers would find a spring to use both to ferment their mash and to cool the steam from their still into alcohol. The efforts of these fine gentlemen may one day save your life.
If you’re in the deserts of the Mojave desert in the southwestern US, you’ll be able to find what are known as arroyos. These are dried up creek beds that may not be flowing with water at the moment, but do become inundated with any amount of rainfall. Arroyos, while they look dry, may still have subsurface water available. Once you find one, dig down and see if the soil gets more moist the deeper you go. If you’re lucky, you’ll find an underground stream similar to a spring.
Identifying these may be a bit easier, as it’s quite easy to tell vegetation from bare sand, but finding them may be a challenge. It’s a desert for a reason, there’s not many of them. Most of the Mojave is barren and desolate. If you see green, go for it. There’s water there. Whether it be an arroyo, a stream, or man-made structure, there’s water there. Unlike a spring, water from arroyos won’t be as naturally filtered but are likely free of the zombie contagion. It’s still imperative that you sanitize the water you find from these as well as you can.
One final last-ditch method of purifying water is the solar still. If you’ve run out of fire creation materials, chemical assistance, and your purifier’s broke, you’re still not competely out of options. Solar stills can be created quite easily but their yield is small and time consuming. To make a solar still, find the cleanest plastic bag of size that you can find and dig a shallow pit into the ground. Take a small cup, anything to hold water in, and put it in the center of this pit. Then put your water (or urine, if it comes to that) around the cup (NOT IN IT!) and lay the plastic bag over the pit and secure the edges. Finally, put a rock or some sort of small weight directly above the cup.
The natural action of evaporation will purify the liquid in the pit and it will condense on the plastic covering your still. The rock serves to help the condensation to run towards your cup and finally fall into it. It will take several hours to produce any appreciable amount of water from this, but the concept could be adapted into a larger construction if you can find the materials to make it happen.
Staying alive in the zombie apocalypse isn’t about just looting and killing zeds. It’s about thinking quickly and knowing your options. You HAVE to remain hydrated. Without water, you’ll die in a few days no matter what. Do whatever you have to do, but keep that water coming!