The Full Story on Emergency Water Storage

James Walton James Walton  |  Updated: December 13, 2021
The Full Story on Emergency Water Storage

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Every day, 6,000 children die of water-related diseases.

What an astounding number! Now, to be fair, water-related diseases will also include things like Malaria but sanitation and waterborne pathogens are a large part of this number.

These instances are mostly in nations and regions that do not have a treated water system or access to clean drinking water.

It’s hard to believe but some girls, in places like Africa and India, are not allowed to go to school because they spend their whole day walking to a water source, collecting water and walking back. Without that water, their families could not survive.

Because we have access to clean tap water, at will, Americans have been lulled to sleep. The idea of a water emergency is just not something people concern themselves with. Until something like Flint Michigan pops up. Or we see an earthquake or a hurricane disrupt the water service.

Having emergency water is vital and its a critical part of any survival or preparedness plan. There are many ways to go about building that stockpile of emergency water.

This issue is not just about having access to water but it’s about being able to make water safe to drink. The same bacteria that kills kids in third world nations are floating in our untreated water right now!

Even lakes and streams on the tops of the Appalachian mountains contain things like cryptosporidium and giardia.

Water-Borne Pathogens

What on earth could be in our water that is so deadly and how long has it been there?

The reality is that waterborne pathogens are naturally occurring organisms that have been around for a very long time. They have been around much longer than us.

These waterborne pathogens, like crypto and giardia, reproduce in your intestines and they produce waste like any other living creature. Well, when there are enough of them in your intestines you get sick.

Cryptosporidium is a protozoan parasite with a protective shell that makes it harder to kill than most. It can also exist out of the body and water for extended periods because of this protective shell.

A buildup of this parasite in the intestines is known as cryptosporidiosis

Giardia is another shelled microscopic parasite that can infect you with something called Giardiasis. It has a very similar profile to Crypto in that it is tolerant to chlorine disinfection.

This is why it is imperative to follow the directions when you are disinfecting water with things like AquaTabs. If you don’t use enough chemical these parasites will live and they will infect you. If you use too much, you could get sick from the chemical itself!

Symptoms are often severe cramping, diarrhea, fever, and vomiting. It’s not a fun experience. As you can imagine, we spent a lot of time avoiding that.

People in the American colonies would make tea and brew beer in order to deal with these waterborne pathogens. These two processes would kill them off and keep the colonists from getting sick.

By boiling the water to make tea it would bring the temperature to above 165 degrees Fahrenheit which is hot enough to kill most bacteria. The same boiling took place during the beer-making process.

In the modern age with modern medicine, waterborne illness is something of an inconvenience. Though nothing to laugh about, with proper medical care it’s very rare that people die from waterborne illness in the US.

In a long term wilderness survival situation or a grid-down collapse, these illnesses could become fatal. Particularly if you don’t have access to clean water to rehydrate your body.

Diarrhea and vomiting will deplete your body of electrolytes as well as water. Both of these will need to be replaced. Electrolyte packets can be a great addition to your hiking bag or bugout bag for just that reason.

Emergency Water Storage for Disaster Preparedness

While understanding and avoiding waterborne pathogens is an important part of your water storage plan, you also need to understand the amount of water you should have on hand to avoid hydration and maintain good personal hygiene.

If you don’t have access to water for three days your internal organs are going to shut down and you will die. The lead up to that moment won’t be pretty either.

The purpose of your emergency water storage is to assure you have access to safe drinking water during a disaster. Since you can never know how long you will be without clean water you have to play the odds on total water stored.

So how much water does a family need to have around in case of disaster?

Do you want enough water to get you through a week or are you looking to go for months? The good news is, calculating any amount of water storage is very easy.

The going rate in preparedness circles is 1 gallon per person, in your household, per day. I have seen some preppers set the bar as high as 3 gallons per person per day.

When you begin to set your par levels consider things like hydration, sanitation, cleaning, personal hygiene, and cooking. You will need water for all of these things. Will one gallon per person work for you? When you add all these things together, one gallon a day is simply not enough.

Also consider your climate, too!

If I was in Arizona in July I would not want to be limited to 1 gallon of water per person.

The Hydra of Emergency Water Storage

In Greek Mythos, the Hydra is a multiheaded water-born snake creature. It was the offspring of Typhon and Echidna.

I liken emergency water storage to the hydra for a couple of reasons. Water storage is a problem with many, many solutions, many “heads.” The Hydra is also a water monster so I like to correlation.

To really take control of your emergency water needs you should be operating on as many levels as possible. There are at least six heads on the emergency water storage Hydra.

  • Purchased Water Storage
  • Tap Water Storage
  • Water Catchment
  • Well Water
  • Water Sourcing

If you consider all of them you will come out on the other side with a great emergency water storage plan.

My first purchase for emergency water storage was a Katadyn Hiker Pro. It took me about 2 years to get out and use the thing! I never regret buying it and I use it a lot more often now.

However, if I were to advise someone on a first purchase for addressing water storage needs it would be a few gallons of unscented bleach. We will get to that later but it’s cheap and highly effective.

Purchased Water Storage

Legions of people travel with a case of water in their car. It is not a bad practice except for the fact that you are going to have to do something with all that plastic.

Most of the time that plastic winds up at my favorite fishing hole! It’s hard to believe the number of water bottles that roll downhill into our waterways. No matter how you feel about climate change we gotta get better with plastic.

Gallon water jugs are the best solution for purchased water storage. These can be bought at 6 gallons per case. That is a nice way to start building your water storage at home.

With just five cases you can take care of a week’s worth of water storage for a family of four.

However, the water you store in your home should not be your main source of emergency water. This water is stored for convenience above all. There is no need to treat this water and it can be used for immediate hydration.

Storing water in house takes up space, its dangerous to the structure of your home because of bursting jugs and its also very heavy!

Tap Water Storage

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The most incredible thing about water here in the US is that it comes out of the tap. As much as we want! You can turn the tap on and fill up containers all day long today.

The water is safe and will last a long time.

Popular water storage containers like WaterBricks can be used as the containers that you fill directly from the faucet. These go a long way! They can also easily be integrated into your decorating or hidden.

Another popular means of taking advantage of your tap water is the Water BOB which fits in your bathtub and can be used to store a bathtub’s worth of water in a large bladder.

Long Term Tap Water Storage

If you are going to go this route and create long term water storage from tap water, you have to be very careful about how long this water sits. it will need to be treated before you drink.

Our tap water is treated with chemicals to kill bacteria and over time those chemicals will lose their efficacy. At which point, bacteria will be able to grow again.

Treating your tap water is just about assuring the chlorine levels are 2-3ppm. Don’t assume the water you have stored is safe because it came out of the tap. Treat it anyway!

You could also adjust chlorine levels straight out of the tap. I don’t do this because I am going to treat my water before drinking it anyway.

It might be worth purchasing some test strips to test your long term stored tap water. These are cheap and used by restaurants everywhere.


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You also have to careful not to store your water anywhere near direct sunlight. That will also help the growth of things like bacteria and even algae.

A simple hack is to paint larger containers black on the outside to keep the sunlight from getting through.

Plastic Containers

While I was working in the food banking industry I watched so many pallets of water get crushed, fall off trucks or just slowly crush the water below it. Water was a popular donated item which says a lot about sales on that item.

The impending flood that followed would be quite a mess even in our large warehouse. This always makes me wary of storing water in weak containers in my own home.

Invest in high-quality plastic containers for water storage. Don’t use old juice jugs or milk jugs. These are nearly impossible to get clean. They are also not very durable over time.

If you are interested in sourcing your own plastic containers you are looking for food-grade HDPE 2 or Type 2 plastic containers.

Water Catchment

If once a week coffee fell from the sky, we would do a helluva better job at catching it. The laziest person would at least set their cup out there in the morning!

Life-giving, food growing water falls from the sky and most people curse it all and watch it sink into the ground.

In June I visited Ocracoke Island for the first time. I have a side interest in Blackbeard the pirate so this was very cool for me. After Hurricane Dorian, I am doubly grateful I got to visit when I did.

While touring the island with my father in law I happened upon an old buried water cistern. That’s when my wheels started spinning on how they kept a small island like that hydrated.

In 1977 they started reverse osmosis treatment of saltwater but before then it was cistern and even well water! Who knew you could dig a well on an island. I don’t think I would have even tried it!

This is one example of how effective catching water can be in your emergency water storage plan.

The biggest consideration you are going to have to make is to what degree do you want to execute water collection. The size of containers varies wildly. How much water you store is completely up to you.

Above Ground Rain Barrels

From simple food-grade containers to modern planters/rain collectors, the above-ground rain barrel comes in many shapes, sizes, designs, and colors.

I remember driving my brother in laws truck down I-95 with three olive barrels ratchet strapped to the truck bed and praying they stayed that way. I am a bad driver so everyone expected me to come back with more of a story than a few barrels.

After some slight modification to the lids and the addition of some screen, I added faucets to the bottom of these barrels and sat them under my newly shortened downspouts. It was crude but it worked!

At 55 gallons of water each, I was consistently carrying at least 150 gallons of water and when it rained we got up to max capacity in a hurry!

Just to put that in perspective I have a family of four and I believe in storing 2 gallons of water per person per day.

I have little kids so half a gallon can wind up on the floor in no time. I need another gallon for some cushion.

This means I need 8 gallons per day to handle my family’s needs. that gives me just under 19 days of water storage in my rain barrels. That also doesn’t take into account any rain that could come in those 19 days or stored water.

You can undoubtedly find the perfect rain barrel that matches your home and looks the way you want in this modern age of convenience and mass production.

Underground Cisterns and Storage Tanks

For some, the rain barrels just ain’t cuttin’ it. Some people want even more water storage. It’s understandable, too!

If you are planning on watering a large garden on a daily basis or if you have aquaponics, you are going to need the water to do that. This means you need more than 2 gallons per person per day.

These cisterns are very similar to what we discussed on Ocracoke Island. They are designed to capture water and hold it until you need it most. Some can be patched right into downspouts, as well.

The big difference here is that underground cisterns often hold hundreds of gallons of water. If you are really looking to grab the reigns of emergency water storage, you can bury a cistern that collects 550 gallons of water!

Maybe you bury one out front and one out back!

For those in desert regions or those who want to go to the next level, you can look for water storage tanks that can store up to 1,000 gallons of water or more!

Some of these are above ground and some underground. Because of the many trials that above ground can present, I would go for the underground models.

Well Water

People all over this nation draw water from wells each day. They drink from that well water and execute life in the same way that people who are patched into a city water system do.

Despite the success of my own emergency water plans, drilling a well is on my todo list. That is because I truly believe that you can never have enough “heads” in the water storage game.

If I were to take that on this weekend, I would use PVC and I would muscle and struggle through it by hand. I am very close to the water table so, aside from hitting some vines and roots, I think we would be ok.

Of course, my new well would be outfitted with a hand pump and I might even invest in a solar-powered pump, too! That pump could be used to bring water to the home or to the garden. That would make a world of difference.

For those living off well water, it might be worthwhile to figure out your delivery system and what could go wrong with it in order to repair or replace it when the time comes.

Hauling buckets of well water by hand is no fun.

Water Sourcing

It’s easy to get stuck on things like digging wells, water filters, rain barrels, and emergency water storage. Sometimes we are blind to the resources that are right in our face.

Water sourcing is about identifying those bodies of water in your immediate area.

These could be lakes, rivers, creeks, and streams. There is a good chance that you have a number of water bodies on and around your property. A simple search on google maps will give you an idea of the bodies of water in your area.

If you have lots of land you might even have a creek on the property that you haven’t found yet. Do some exploring.

Understanding the Source

Now, finding a body of water is just part one. What is the source of that water body? What do people use that water for? What is feeding into that source?

Giardia concentration is directly related to animal feces in the water.

A quick visit to the source or a walk around the lake could give you a lot of intel about that body of water and if its one to consider.

You need to understand the source of that waterbody because it could be a discharge of putrid waste, it could be a pond of dangerous chemical runoff or any number of other dangerous things.

All that said, if you find a body of water that is safe for water sourcing, well, you have quite the resource in terms of emergency water. There might even be fish in that body of water.

Perhaps you can get dinner and a drink from the same location!

Cleaning Your Emergency Water

It might sound counterintuitive but you will want to clean most of your water. Whether you decide to use powerful water filters, chemical solutions or boil your water, you will have to do some form of sanitization to much of the water you store.

Sometimes things like filtering water are just about improving clarity and taste. However, if you are catching water off of asphalt roof tiles, you need to consider contamination, too!

The goal of cleaning or disinfecting your water source is to remove as much of the harmful chemicals and bacteria as possible.

Water Filters

KatadynPocket Water Filter Replacement Cartridge

Water filters are a very interesting part of your emergency water plan. There are water filters that are so small they fit in your pocket and others that hook up to your home water supply.

Water filters are graded by how they filter the pathogens we mentioned earlier. The metric is called a micron. All water filters have pores and the size of those pores determines what can get through them.

Bacteria range in size but as long as the size of the pores in your filter is less than the micron size of the pathogen than it will get caught in the filter. If you have a filter that is 1 micron and your filtering a pathogen that is .5 microns you are not safe.

This is often the case with filtering for viruses. while the big guys like crypto and giardia range from 6 microns to 12 in size, viruses range from .1 down to .004.

Most water filters are not equipped to deal with such small pathogens. Many water filters will be marked “Absolute” which means that they are safe down to 1 micron. Not good enough for virus protection.

However, you can purchase virus-specific water filters.

Household Water Filtration Systems

Many people have water filtration systems that patch right into their water lines at home. This is a pay to play game and you spend a lot of time and money filtering safe water from your tap.

The taste and quality of water from these systems is far superior.

If you plan on patching water filtration into your water lines just be aware of two very important things.

  • Extra filters are now a serious prep and you need plenty on hand. Filter water through contaminated filters is going to get you sick, too!
  • If your tap water goes out then your water filters aren’t helping.

Companies like Brita and Berkey give consumers other options when it comes to filtering water at home. The Big Berkey is a far superior unit to the Brita and will do all the filtering you might need in a disaster.

It also filters larger quantities.

The Berkey does not tie into your main water system and can be used to filter other water sources. This is a very important option in your emergency water storage plan.

You might want to filter rain barrel water or water from a local creek.

I reviewed the Pressurized Jerrycan by HydroBlu about a year ago. To me, this product represented exactly what I am looking for in a larger scale water filtration system. It is mobile, its large enough to be useful, it pumps to refill things like water bladders and canteens and it even offers a virus filter.

After drinking the filtered water from an urban creek and not falling to illness, I was pleased with the HydroBlu product and have since added it to my personal emergency water storage plan.

Backpacking Filters

Having a large filtration system has its benefits in a disaster.

There may come a time when disaster forces you to mobilize and leave home. This could be in the form of an evacuation or a bugout. Having a reliable water filter that can fit in your backpack can actually lighten your overall load.

When I head into the Virginia mountains I take a little water to get my day started but after that, I refill through the Katadyn Hiker Pro. This allows me to carry less water in total.

I can feel the difference at the end of the day.

Straw Style Filters

LifeStraw Personal Water Filter

Be careful with filters like the LifeStraw. If you are looking to be operational and mobile I wouldn’t recommend depending on straw style filters. They can be great options as a last resort but you really need a filter that does more.

A primary water filter should have the ability to refill via pump or squeeze like the Sawyer Mini. If you cannot refill than you have to stop at every water source.

Don’t panic! Remember what I said about the Hydra. You want all the methods of water procurement. If you have a LifeStraw as your primary now, just start putting some feelers out for a filter that pumps by hand.

Field Crafted Biofilter

You can craft a crude water filter in the field using grass, rocks, sand, and pulverized charcoal.

Most of the filters we have discussed utilize some form of charcoal in their design. That is because products like activated charcoal are tremendously porous and have lots of surface area for gathering pathogens and contaminants.

Using a cut off sleeve, pantleg, handkerchief or shemagh, you can build a filter in the field. tie off one end so it can hold your filter materials.

  • Start by adding a few handfuls of pulverized charcoal into your vessel.
  • Then a few scoops of sand on top of the charcoal.
  • Next, add a handful of fine rocks.
  • Then a layer of larger rocks.
  • Finally a layer of torn grasses.

You can filter water through this multiple times. Boil your water after filtering just to be sure it is fully disinfected.

I almost always boil my water before drinking it no matter what water filter I am using. It just gives me a clear conscience and one less thing to worry about.

Water Cleaning Solutions

Another means of disinfection is to utilize some form of solution. Here are the two solutions that I depend on for water disinfect when I am sourcing water in the wild.

Both of these solutions, when mixed correctly, can kill pathogens that will make you sick.

Chlorine Disinfection

You can buy chlorine-based tablets like Aqua tabs for this type of disinfection. However, you can also depend on regular unscented bleach. I have even read about people using pool shock to clean water for drinking but I have never actually done it.

The simple formula we rely on is 8 drops of 6% unscented, nonconcentrated bleach per gallon of water you are disinfecting. If you have 8% bleach use 6 drops.

Disinfection takes time so stir the drops in and let your water sit for 30 minutes.

Tincture of Iodine

You can also use a 2% tincture of iodine to disinfect water. This solution is great but you must be careful of people with shellfish allergies as much of the iodine is sourced from shellfish.

The ratio is 5-10 drops of tincture per 32 fluid ounces of water.

The disparity of 5-10 drops has a lot to do with the water itself. Judge by the clarity and quality of your water source. The less you trust it the closer to 10 drops you should use.

Wait 5 minutes and disinfect the rim of your water bottle.

This is done by holding the bottle upside down and slowly unscrewing the top just until a water ring starts to form. You may lose a little water but that’s ok.

Give it 30 more minutes to disinfect totally and you are ready to drink!

A Note on Water Transport

Water is heavy! Unless you are carrying bricks of ammo, for some reason, water will likely be your heaviest asset. It will be the biggest burden.

On a bugout, this isn’t the biggest deal because you are going to use that water as you go.

Eventually, you will be sourcing water from somewhere. It might be a well-thought-out system of cisterns and tanks or it could be from the local creek.

Carrying water to and fro by hand is going to eat up lots of calories and its going to take a lot of time. Now is the time to consider a better way.

This could be solar-powered pumps like those for your well or it could be a simple wheelbarrow to make carrying lots of water in buckets much easier. At the very least you should consider the massive strain that water transport will have on your human resources.

Those human resources might just be you!


Emergency water storage is a rare case. We only have 3 days to go without it but we have a slew of methods to keep it around, find more, disinfect it and even catch it from the sky!

In my opinion, you should be operating on as many levels of the emergency water gameboard as possible. A well-balanced emergency water storage plan is going to include all of the elements that we talked about in this article.

If you have any concerns with your disinfection methods or filters just boil the water as a fail-safe. Yes, its another step but it’s one that kills bacteria 100% of the time.

While we have a tendency to fantasize about things like bad guys with guns and radical events that could take us out in a serious disaster scenario, it will most likely be disease from lack of sanitation and personal hygiene.

Last week I spoke with a woman providing disaster relief in the Bahamas. Following the incredible havoc of that storm, her biggest concern was just what I mentioned above.

Clean water plays a massive role in how you execute sanitation and hygiene. Build it all into your emergency water storage plan.

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5 Responses to “The Full Story on Emergency Water Storage”

  1. I’m wondering the best way to “treat” well water that has been stored for emergencies…say in 55 gallon drums or Water Bricks. Obviously, it’s been filtered and doesn’t have the additives found in central water…but if it’s been sitting for any length of time, it should probably be treated before drinking. Thoughts.

  2. what do you know about purifying water with silver? most portable filters use a silver lining to kill off micro-organisms, but i’ve read that it’s possible to just put silver into a container, wait, and drink. i know the pioneers who went west in wagons had silver-lined containers that kept water or milk safe to drink; and it used to be traditional to give babies silver cups and utensils to help keep them safe from germs. but i’ve had a hard time finding info online about exactly how to use silver for this purpose.

  3. Even with freeze dried foods, you need water to make it tasteful as well as fully eatable as with cooked entrees. But, consider winter time freezing temps. It is said that the sun is entering a solar minimum. Harsher winters are here and colder is coming. Each year is going to get colder. You may have barrels and tanks of water, but if they are even partially frozen, your supply is again limited. You may have power via the grid or emergency generator, so consider having a new electric livestock water heater to keep your containers from bursting and unfrozen for daily needs.

  4. Bleach is great for making water safe, but it’s not something you can stock up on and then just forget about it on a shelf. Bleach starts to break down fairly quickly and after 6 months it can’t be trusted to be strong enough to do the job. So make sure you rotate your bleach out regularly.
    And for long term storage consider calcium hypochlorite (aka pool shock.) But before you go with the pool shock, make sure you read up on how to handle it properly and get the right personal protective equipment to use with it. Then read up on how to handle it safely again. And print out copies of the directions to be left with your PPE and supply that’s stored in glass or plastic containers with no metal (read up on calcium hypochlorite to understand why…) It’s dangerous if mishandled, but it can be a life saver in a long term emergency….just a few pounds can make tens of thousands of gallons safe to drink.

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