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Drinking Your Pee: Survival Technique or Myth?

Drinking Your Pee: Survival Technique or Myth?

Last November, Ron Hutter, an experienced hiker and former Boy Scout set out on a 20 minute hike intended only to pass the time before meeting a friend for lunch.  As such, he left his backpack in his vehicle.  Not long after starting out, though, he realized that he had somehow missed the trail and was lost.  He spent the next four days and three nights fighting to survive.

Towards the end of that first day, Hutter took stock of his meager supplies, which included just 10 ounces of water.  At this point he remembered, as he explained in an interview after his rescue on Tucson News, a “survival technique.”  That is, to stay hydrated, he would have to start drinking his own urine.

Is Drinking one’s Urine a Survival Technique?

One of the most common questions that I am asked during my survival courses and lectures:  “Is it okay during a survival situation to drink my urine?”

Click to watch Grylls drink his own urine in Australia (source: Discovery Channel)

And why wouldn’t it be, since after all, many have watched Bear Grylls, host of the popular reality television show Man vs. Wild, cheerily drink his own pee on more than one occasion.  As he explains in one episode, “It may seem disgusting, but your own urine is safe to drink.”

Moreover, since it is being asked within the context of helping to stave off dehydration, the idea certainly appears to make logical sense on its face.  After all, as one may reason, if one is dehydrated, one needs water, so one shouldn’t waste it, even if it is one’s own bodily waste product.

This point is spurred because the topic has been regularly featured on other reality television programs, online, and in magazine articles.  In turn, the issue has been featured in a steady stream of news accounts of people having been rescued from dramatic wilderness survival situations during which they drank their urine.

Click to watch story (source: CBS Miami)

Just this past December — almost a month after Nutter was rescued — a Pennsylvania woman, Karen Klein, walked and ran roughly 26 miles over a 30 hour period in an effort to rescue her husband and son after their vehicle became trapped in the snow along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon during a holiday outing.  Multiple news sources report that out of her desire to remain hydrated, but stave off hypothermia, Klein chose to drink her urine rather than snow.

None of this would be so bad except that since the start of this year alone, I have read numerous news accounts of people in various types of wilderness distress resort to drinking their pee in a perceived effort to survive.  I fear that in some future emergency someone is going to get hurt, or worse.

Drinking Urine is Not a Survival Technique

Let me explain why in my professional opinion it is negligent to promote pee drinking as a survival technique, and rather reckless to accept the concept simply because we saw it on television or read about it online or in print, even if from an otherwise reputable source.

Let’s start by writing what should be obvious … Reality television isn’t reality!  As we all learned in kindergarten, just because we saw something on television, a friend told us, or, worse, we saw it on Youtube, doesn’t make it true.  Enough typed.

Let me, though, share with you the brief medical explanation of why you shouldn’t resort to drinking your pee in a survival situation.

  • First, drinking urine will only further dehydrate you because of its high salt content.  Urine has a salt content of about 2% (depending on the person and situation), which isn’t much lower when compared to the salt content of seawater (3.5%).  And it is commonly accepted knowledge why we don’t drink seawater when thirsty, right?
  • Second, drinking urine only adds toxins back into your system.  Urine contains such waste as formaldehyde, ammonia, and dissolved heavy metals which your kidneys worked very hard to filter in the first place.  So, if you drink your urine, then you are only adding concentrated toxins back into your system which will only overburden your kidneys.  Worse, your kidneys may not be able to even process it since your body is already dehydrated.  This could, then, not only cause permanent kidney damage, but also kill you (which has happened).  So, although urine is “safe” in the sense that it is sterile, it is definitely not safe for ongoing consumption.

Consider, too, the simple practical matter that people often tend to gag and vomit as they bring that bottle of smelly, brown urine to their lips.  Vomiting only worsens dehydration.

Look, I appreciate firsthand the almost primal throe of dehydration, where you will do anything for even just a sip of water.  And I praise Nutter and Klein for surviving a situation that would likely kill me.  But none of this justifies promoting wrong information, even if unintentional, that will prevent others from making the best decisions possible in their wilderness emergency.  The fact is they survived, not because they drank their urine, but despite it.

Conclusion

My concern is that someone in the near-future will find themselves in some unexpected wilderness emergency and, based on information gleaned from poor sources as those previously described, will drink their urine in a fit of desperation, thereby initiating a descending spiral that results only in a body recovery by SAR teams.  It probably already has happened, but there is no way to know for sure.  Let’s at least try to prevent it.

Solar Still (source: U.S. Army Survival Handbook)

So, if you feel absolutely compelled to drink your urine, and you have the luxury of time and energy, let me suggest that you at least use it in a solar still by “jumpstarting” the moisture in your hole by peeing in it.  Although solar stills are my least favorite water collection technique, as they are labour intensive with only minimal potable byproduct, they are still a good tool for recapturing water from the sea or a vehicle radiator.

Frankly, though, there are better options.

First and foremost, consider the maxim that it is better to ration your sweat, not your water.  Choose slow, deliberate actions and stay out of the sun and heat when possible.  Heck, if you feel compelled to use your urine, then simply pee on a clothe and put it over your neck or head to help keep your body cool.

Transpiration Bag

Transpiration Bag

I have found that with time and very minimal effort, transpiration bags provide a very good source of potable water (though it will still require filtering).  In our Advanced Wilderness Survival courses, clients typically collect 1/2 to 1 liter of water in a 24-hour period.

Also, consider that of the “Seven Priorities of Survival,” water is only Six.  While, yes, water is a fundamental ingredient to Life, second only to air, you can still typically function for up to three days without it.  And consider, too, that 95% of search-and-rescues are concluded in this same 72-hour window … The same point in which Nutter was rescued.

Ultimately, though, the fundamental keys to survival are mindset and preparation.  Even if you possess a just few pieces of gear, coupled with the skills and knowledge to best use them, then your chances of survival rise exponentially.  This will help you make the best decisions possible, maximize the speed with which you are found, and return to your loved ones with dignity.

But don’t just take my word for it, consider other sources too.

About the Author

Erik is the founder of True North Wilderness Survival School. He is a police officer, EMS provider, a Wilderness EMT, and a Fellow of the Academy of Wilderness Medicine. He has been featured in national and international media, including CNN, the Associated Press, and Backpacker. To learn more about Erik, visit him on LinkedIn and be sure to follow him on Facebook.

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