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How to Desalinate Water for Survival: Emergency Desalination

Knowing how to desalinate water is not a useless survival trick. On the contrary, it’s an important survival skill that should be a part of your survival preparedness repertoire, along with your knowledge and ability to purify water in survival scenarios.

No matter how far-fetched the survival scenario may be, learning how to desalinate water for survival is worthy of your attention and time. Keep reading to learn about the science behind desalination, and how to use it for survival.       

Why Understanding Desalination Survival is Critical: Threats to Clean Drinking Water

desalinate salt water

Unfortunately, many potential threats could eliminate your access to safe drinking water at home. In addition, besides these worst-case scenarios, you may find yourself in a survival situation where saltwater is the only water available while away from home. 

  • EMP attack causes massive blackouts, preventing the municipal water system from functioning.

  • Chemical warfare renders the municipal water source unsafe to drink.

  • Natural disaster disrupts municipal water treatment and plumbing.

  • Stranded at sea during a fishing trip after a bad storm. 

  • Stranded at sea after surviving a plane crash or sunken ship.  

  • Surviving along the many coastline environments of the United States.

It’s important to consider these possibilities and plan to access drinking water whether you are at home, at your bug-out location, or stranded on an island. 

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The Life-Saving Importance of Clean Drinking Water

In a survival scenario, clean drinking water is the second survival priority after securing a safe shelter. Once you have a safe shelter to protect you from the elements, water is the next item you need, even before you find food. 

Why? Because the survival rule of three says that a human can only survive three days without drinking water, but up to three weeks without eating food.

In a survival scenario, water isn’t only vital for staying hydrated; you also rely on water for other essential tasks. 

  • Preparing and cooking food

  • Cleaning your home

  • Bathing yourself 

  • Irrigating your garden and animals

Without a reliable water source, things can quickly devolve into a dire situation. But what about saltwater—can you drink saltwater? The short answer is no.   

Why Drinking Saltwater is Risky Without Knowing How to Desalinate Water

As humans, we ingest safe amounts of salt daily as part of our diet. This is because the living cells in our bodies depend on salt (also known as sodium chloride) to function properly. In addition, the human body can safely ingest small amounts of pure saltwater. For example, when you go swimming in the ocean or saltwater pool.   

However, too much saltwater is bad for the body and can even be deadly.

Large amounts of saltwater are unsafe for the human body, because saltwater contains higher levels of salt than the human body can digest. The human kidney can only create urine with a maximum sodium concentration that’s much lower than saltwater. Therefore, to expel all the excess salt, the body has to urinate more water than was consumed. 

Over time, the body becomes thirstier and more dehydrated. In dire situations, one can die of dehydration from drinking too much saltwater.  

How to Desalinate Water: Understanding the Desalination of Saltwater

desalination plant

Desalination is a process that removes dissolved salt minerals from water. The two most common methods for desalination are reverse osmosis and distillation. 

In reverse osmosis, water molecules are separated from seawater using high-tech and expensive technology.   

Saltwater is forced through thousands of semipermeable membranes during this process under extreme pressure. The membranes allow the smaller water molecules to pass through, separating them from the large salt molecules and other impurities. 

On the other hand, simple distillation is an ancient method for changing seawater or brackish water into freshwater. 

How to Desalinate Water in Emergency Scenarios: Saltwater Distillation Methods

The two most common distillation methods for survival in emergencies rely on evaporation to distill water. By heating saltwater, you force the water molecules to transform into a gaseous state and evaporate. 

The evaporation process separates the water from the salt and other impurities. The evaporated gasses are then trapped and transformed back into condensation. Then, you can collect the condensation and safely consume it.  

Creating a Solar Still: Practical Application of How to Desalinate

Solar stills use the sun's power to heat up and evaporate water. We will explain the steps for creating a windowsill solar still to keep things simple; however, depending on the survival scenario, solar stills come in various sizes and can be improvised using various materials.

To create a windowsill solar still, you will need:

  • A large glass bowl

  • A smaller vessel, like a porcelain mug

  • Plastic wrap

  • A heavy object, like a rock or paperweight 

Step-by-step directions for building a windowsill solar still:

  1. Position a large bowl in direct sunlight. 

  2. Place another smaller vessel, like a porcelain mug, inside the bowl.

  3. Fill the bowl with saltwater. Refrain from overfilling, as you do not want the mug to float. 

  4. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Make sure the bowl is tightly covered and there are no gaps in the seal. 

  5. Place a rock, weight, or heavy object on top of the plastic wrap in the center of the mug so the plastic wrap sags into the mug. 

  6. Leave your solar still in direct sunlight for three to four hours. Over time, the water will evaporate, condense onto the plastic wrap lid, and drip into the mug in the center.

  7. After all the water has evaporated, remove the plastic wrap and drink the freshly distilled water in the mug.  

Practical Steps for Distilling Saltwater by Boiling

desalination of water by boiling

Distilling water via boiling uses a fuel source to heat and evaporate salt water, separating the salt out of the water. Then, you can collect the evaporated water in the form of condensation, which is safe for drinking.

To distill water via boiling, you will need:

  • A porcelain, glass, or metal container that hand holds saltwater and handles extreme heat

  • A condenser or cooling tube

  • A catchment system or container, like a water barrel

Step-by-step directions for distilling water by boiling: 

  1. Collect your fuel source to build a fire (see also our article on how to start a fire without a lighter), or turn on the stove. 

  2. Place your container over the fire and fill it with saltwater. 

  3. Position the condenser or cooling tube so it can collect the evaporated water, cool it off, and transform it back into condensation.

  4. Position your catchment system so the condensed water can drip and be collected.

  5. Let the freshly distilled water cool off before drinking. 

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The Value of Knowing How to Desalinate Water: Final Thoughts

Learning how to desalinate water may seem like a niche survival skill, and certainly not as easy as how to filter water in the wild, but it’s actually very practical. Even if you never have to desalinate water for survival, understanding the science and having the skills to desalinate water via distillation is worth your time investment. 

At the very least, it’s a fun experiment with the kids!  

Aside from learning how to desalinate water, there's also value in understanding how to store freshwater for long-term use. Having a reliable supply of fresh water stored can be a lifesaver during emergency situations. If desalination isn't an immediate option, stored water can be a temporary solution until you're able to apply desalination techniques.

Water containers made from food-grade plastic materials are often recommended for long-term water storage. These containers are designed to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and algae. It's also advisable to rotate your stored water supply every six months to ensure its safety and freshness.

Having these skills, like desalination and long-term water storage, along with a stockpile of emergency food from Valley Food Storage, will help you be more self-reliant and prepared for any situation. Stay safe and stay prepared.

We hope you found this article helpful. To learn more survival skills or to purchase survival foodvisit our website.