Just about everyone can agree water is a top priority in any emergency or on a homestead. That’s why it is highly recommended that you stock up on as much water as you can.
So if you have a family of four and are stockpiling for a month (thirty days) for example, you would need at least one half gallon of drinking, and one half gallon of personal hygiene water, every day for as long as you plan on surviving. That’s 120 of water in total.
While stockpiling water is important, it’s more so for you to have some sort of self-sustaining water source that you can turn to in the event that your stockpile runs out. After all, you never truly know how long a disaster scenario is going to last.
One of the most effective ways that you can have your own self-sustaining water source is to dig a well. Yes, it requires time, effort, and dedication on your part to build one. You may also have to dig your well significantly deeper than most depending on your location.
All of that hard work on your part will be well worth it in the end because there is simply no better way to ensure that you and your family will always have good, clean free water for the long term.
In this article, we will talk about some of the most effective ways to dig a well.
Table of Contents
There are quite a few variations in design and operation when it comes to private, residential wells, but they all operate more or less on the same principle, and indeed have many of the same components.
Take a look at the list below to learn the most common definitions of well nomenclature.
Well Hole – What might be called the well itself, this is the hole that is excavated or otherwise created in the earth that creates a path to the water contained in the soil.
Well Casing– The well casing is a constructed or prefabricated structure that is placed in the well hole and goes all the way from the water source up to the surface. This gives a well structure, and prevents it from collapsing.
Whatever the well casing is made from, its purpose is to keep out dirt and potentially contaminated groundwater from the water source that the well is drawing from. The most common modern materials used for well casings are metal or plastic.
Steining – The steining is the wall of the well above the ground, typically built over a base portion called the well curb.
A steining might be constructed in place, or might be designed prefabricated so it can be sunk under its own weight. A steining must be thick enough to hold up the weight of material or well cap above it.
Well Curb – A protective rim or other structure around the opening of the well hole in the surface of the ground.
This keeps things from falling into the well, including people and animals, and also provides the foundation for mounting a covering or mechanism for the raising and lowering of a water retrieval device.
Well Cap – A well cap is any protective cover placed atop the uppermost opening in the well as intended to prevent dirt, debris and insects from entering the opening. This prevents contamination as well as accidents.
Well Screen – A well screen is a crucial component for any modern well, and attaches near the bottom of the well casing in order to prevent the intake how many larger debris like rocks, gravel, sediment, insects or small animals into the water drawn from the well.
Modern variations are typically made from metal or plastic, and designs can range from intricate to simple.
Pump – It is rare to find a modern well without a pump of some kind. The type of pump used will depend on the type of well and its placement, but the two most common are the jet and submersible types.
Jet pumps are typically employed for shallow wells and mounted above ground, relying on suction to pull water out of the well.
Submersible pumps can be used for deep wells, and are lowered into the well casing until they contact the water source where they push it up through a supply pipe.
Vessel – All kinds of vessels have been used in primitive wells for the retrieval of water, the one that is most commonly imagined being a bucket and rope on a pulley or even employed free hand. Other options include leather waterskins, ladles and similar.
Compared to pumps, using any kind of water drawing vessel introduces significantly more chances of contamination, especially from microorganisms. Nonetheless, they might still be required in austere conditions.
Now that you generally know what you are looking at when examining the diagrams or plans for any kind of well, it is time to move on to well design itself, as well as whether or not a well is considered shallow or deep.
Types of Wells
Drilling is the installation method of choice when installing a modern, private well. The only downside to drilling is that it requires more specialized equipment than any other method of installation.
Today, a drill rig is hauled or moved around by large and powerful trucks, but primitive drills of various types were moved and assembled by teams of men over the centuries.
Even when it comes to drilling, a variety of methods might be used depending on the substrate where the well is located. Conventional rotary bits will defeat rock; large, screw shaped augers will get through softer soils; percussion bits will crush the hardest of materials.
Drilling allows installation of the deepest wells, sometimes going more than a thousand feet deep.
Driven wells are another choice for modern installations, and are executed by driving into the ground a small-diameter pipe which serves as the well casing.
This method can only be used in softer substrates such as sand, gravel or certain types of clay, and relies upon a screen at the bottom to filter out any particulates you don’t want to wind up in your water.
Due to the trouble associated with driving any length of pipe through increasingly dense soil (which reaches maximum compression very quickly) driven wells are only used for shallow installations.
As we will learn later, shallow installations are significantly more vulnerable to contamination.
Now we are going old school. Dug wells are the oldest kind of well, and still employed today all around the world. Dug wells rely entirely on human labor with common tools in order to excavate the well hole.
The work is either merely “hard”, but it can potentially be back-breaking depending on how tough the soil is.
Once the water table is reached and a satisfactory fill rate is determined, the digging stops and the well casing is installed from the water table up to the well curb.
One obvious drawback to dug wells is that they are typically shallow and more vulnerable to contamination than other kinds of wells and can only go as deep as the water table itself and no deeper; human beings cannot dig a hole any deeper than the point where it fills in with water!
The majority of wells that are built today are drilled. This will involve a drilling rig, similar to the one that is used for digging for oil.
The advantage to drilling a well is that it will run very deep into the Earth, as in hundreds of feet deep. As a result, drilled wells are capable of not only sucking up more water, but more clean water as well.
The disadvantage to drilling a well has to do with price. You can plan on spending literally over five thousand dollars in total if you want to drill a well.
You’ll get cleaner water, yes, but it comes at a price. If five thousand is too much to spend, the alternative is the traditional method of physically digging a well.
This is where you dig a hole below water level to allow the water to fill up the hole. People have been digging wells like this for many millennia and still do in certain places in the world.
You can either dig a well either with a shovel, or you can use power tools and drilling equipment.
Regardless, dug wells are not going to be as deep as a drilled well and the water will likely not be as clean. But there are techniques that you can use to increase the chances of the water being as pure as possible.
By lining the top part of the water well with impermeable substances such as bricks or concrete, you lower the risk of your well being contaminated.
Shallow vs. Deep Wells
Determining whether a well will be shallow or deep is not just a matter of figuring out how far you have to go to strike water, although that is part of it.
Shallow and deep wells differ fundamentally in where they source their water from, as well as what challenges are present in keeping that water drinkable or otherwise usable.
Shallow wells are any well that is 50ft. deep or less, with the bottom residing above the first impervious layer of soil strata.
The mineral content of the water source from a shallow well is typically low, meaning the water will rarely need any softening treatment, but there is a higher incidence of bacterial and viral contamination in water sourced from a shallow well.
Shallow wells are significantly more vulnerable to contamination by other groundwater, chemical spills, and other mishaps that can all leach through the soil to the well water itself.
Even worse, and a potentially major setback for people living in more arid climates, shallow wells can lose water or even dry up completely in the hot seasons or whenever the water table drops. Your well that you are completely dependent on for water might betray you if it is a shallow well.
Contrast this with deep wells, classed as any well that goes deeper than 50ft., but typically a couple of hundred feet and sometimes even over a thousand feet!
These wells are almost always below the first impervious layer soil strata and the water sourced from them is usually full of mineral impurities meaning the water hardness rating is ‘hard’ to ‘very hard’. Many sources will require softening to make the water usable.
On the other hand, deep wells do have some significant advantages, namely that the water they source is often safer and purer than a shallow well, discounting the mineral contamination.
You’ll be less in the way of bacteria, viruses and other assorted nasty gribblies to contaminate it. Additionally, deep wells will very rarely if ever run dry or otherwise I run out of water, especially when compared to shallow wells.
Whether or not you come to depend on a shallow or deep well for your private wealth is a matter of where you live, the local soil conditions, and a dozen other variables.
Sometimes you can only get away with a shallow well, we’re other times only a deep well is viable. Occasionally you might be able to use one or the other, or even both.
It all depends, and that is why a thorough understanding of all variables involved is essential for correct planning and siting of a well.
Tips for Digging (or Drilling) a Well
One of the most important tips that you can follow when digging your own well is to make sure that it’s legal.
There’s no universal advice that we can give you here because the laws in regard to building wells vary significantly by state and also by local cities.
For example, in some areas of the country you don’t need any kind of a permit or a license in order to dig or drill your own well, others areas do you require you to have a permit.
Other areas are even more strict and only allow certified contractors to dig wells. Read up on your local and state laws before digging or drilling your well.
Locating a well is probably the single most important step in your journey, as getting this part wrong means the rest of your work is either going to be harder than it has to be or end in abject disappointment when you fail to strike water or only strike water of middling or even poor quality.
Proper locating is about knowing where to dig and also as importantly where not to dig.
Avoiding the trouble spots is many times easier then figuring out the “good” spots so you can improve your chances of a successful well installation by following the reductive method.
Take pains to avoid any man-made installations that could be a source of contamination, and double your caution if you are installing a shallow well.
Anything like a marsh, swamp, sewer line, septic tank, in-ground cistern, oil tank, above ground dump and so forth must be avoided as far as practical, and preferably you well sited no closer than 50ft., and even that is pushing it.
Additional below-ground hazards that you must check to avoid include buried utility and power lines as well as any other underground installation.
It is also important to make sure your well is not cited downstream along the path of flow for rainwater as rainwater can leach hazardous substances out of any of these troublemakers and then carry it to the location of your well.
After you have avoided the trouble spots, choosing the correct location to dig is mostly a matter of learning to read the terrain and any geological surveys, and then choosing a site that will provide a dig path that presents the least possible resistance to your digging method while affording you the best possible chance of striking a quality water source.
.It’s ultimately more dangerous to drink contaminated water than it is to not drink any water at all, so make sure that your well is going to be in a completely safe location before you even think of digging or drilling it.
Finally, the last important tip for you to follow is to keep in mind the different layers of the Earth when you drill.
There are many different layers of soil beneath us and each layer consists of a different kind of material, such as rock, dirt, coal, clay, and sand, for example.
Of these layers, the one with sand is easily going to yield the purest water. The trick, however, is digging deep enough because sandy soil tends to be several layers deep into the Earth.
As you dig, you should start to find water after fifteen to twenty feet. As you dig deeper and begin hitting more layers, each layer is going to yield a different kind of water because each is made out of a different type of mineral.
As we just stated, the best water is found in sandy layers, which are going to be down deeper.
You can stop digging at that fifteen to twenty-foot mark if you want to, but if you want to hit the purest water in the sandy layers, you’re going to have to be prepared to dig a lot deeper (as in one hundred feet or possibly much more).
Remember that there are two main ways to do it: digging and drilling. Is it possible to dig a well a hundred feet deep with nothing more than a shovel? Yes, but it’s going to take a lot of time and exertion on your part.
That’s why drilling a well is going to be your best bet for reaching the purest water. Even though it’s infinitely more expensive, drilling a well will not get you just hundreds of feet into the Earth but thousands of feet.
How to Dig a Well – Hand Digging Methods
Now that we have learned about the different methods for constructing a well and some important tips to follow to yield you the best (and safest) results, let’s learn about the steps to follow to actually dig a well.
A majority of wells that are dug for off the grid purposes are at least two hundred feet deep and are constructed using some type of drilling equipment and power tools.
A well that is two hundred feet deep will provide you with more than enough water for irrigation purposes and to allow any livestock you have to get enough water as well.
There are certain procedures that you will need to follow when digging your well…
No matter how you want to dig a well by hand, it is going to be grueling work, and probably the work of many long days or even weeks depending on how deep you need to go and how tough the soil is.
The good news is, people have been digging wells using nothing but hand tools for centuries, and that means you can do it too with a little bit of grit and some sweat equity.
Just because you are forced or prefer to dig a well by hand does not mean you need to go willy-nilly with hand tools however. There are some people powered methods that could present huge gains in efficiency and save you a bunch of time and pain. We’ll talk about several of them below.
This as you are probably expecting is the simplest, most laborious and often the most time-consuming method of hand digging you can employ. Tools commonly utilized for the task are shovels, buckets, picks, mattocks, and adzes.
Anybody who can swing a tool with basic coordination can dig a well using this method. When you have plenty of labor but little in the way of material or skill, this might be your best choice.
Unfortunately, hand digging a traditional well means the well hole itself must be wider in order to accommodate the worker or workers, and that means that the well water itself is easier to contaminate even though the well produces more water compared to a smaller well hole.
Additional hazards include the risk of cave-ins for those working below. It is rare that a hand-dug well will ever go deeper in about 50 feet, though some have been recorded nearly a hundred feet deep or a little farther.
Sometimes referred to as drive pointing. This is a comparatively simple method of manual well installation where a sharpened metal point at the end of a perforated pipe is driven into the ground using a sledgehammer or a maul.
This is a true one-man capable installation that can be completed in as little as a couple of hours. This is an ideal installation method for shallow wells.
As you might be expecting, there is no free lunch and there are quite a few drawbacks with the sand pointing method.
First, as the name suggests, it is only effective in sand or very loose soil where you can expect to find the water table comparatively near the surface. Near a river or a large lake this method works well.
But rest assured, once again because soil reaches maximum compression quickly, after you get about 15 feet down it is going to be extremely hard going even with a large hammer.
Perhaps most troubling, it is very difficult to effectively seal a sand point well adequately meaning that contamination will always be a concern.
Sludging is an interesting and ancient method of installing a well that relies on a combination of teamwork and simple physics. A rudimentary gantry is erected by which an open-topped pipe is rigged up to be lowered and raised via a lever.
The well site is a hole that is already full of water. Working in teams, the cutting pipe is lowered forcefully into the well hole where it will begin to cut into the soil.
Then another person on the crew will cover the hole in the top of the pipe at the very top of the upstroke, right before the pipe starts to plunge down again, the person covering the hole removes their hand allowing the excavated soil and water (sludge) to flow out of the top.
This method is adaptable for shallow wells or deep wells, and the needed materials can be fashioned from almost anything, even bamboo.
This makes it a viable method for installing a deep well even in austere conditions, but it is extremely tiring and works best with large teams of people able to contribute.
It is also only workable in soft soils with perhaps clay being the hardest substrate that is capable of being penetrated. Also, like sand pointing, it is difficult to install an effective sanitary seal.
The most advanced of the ancient well installation techniques, impact drilling, also called percussion drilling, consists of repeatedly lifting and dropping a heavy, cutting, drill head that is attached to a cord or flexible rod.
This is best employed by teams of people. It is hard work, but gravity takes care of all the impact, saving effort. The biggest advantage with impact drilling as it is the only method capable of reliably penetrating rock and the hardest soils.
Disadvantages of this method include its complexity compared to the others and greater reliance on specific materials and construction techniques to employ.
It is also only truly viable when you have a coordinated team of people to help you. On the other hand, it creates a nice, clean well hole that is easy to seal and can reach quite deeply for a manual well, in excess of 150 ft.
This specialized manual drilling method is easy to execute, but requires a purpose specific hand drilling auger. This device looks like a bucket with the bottom cutaway with the lower rim lined by cutting teeth.
This auger head is attached to the bottom of a rod that runs up to the surface to the crew, who turn it using an attached t-shaped handle.
As the crew pushes in unison and turns the auger around and around, the head will eventually fill up with cuttings. It is then hauled to the surface and dumped before being inserted into the well hole for more drilling.
This is a fast and efficient way of installing a shallow well, but it does not deal with hard soil or rock at all, and becomes exceedingly difficult the deeper you go, meaning you will rarely be able to employ this method for installing a deep well.
Squeezing water from the ground is not a type of well installation at all, but is mentioned here for completeness since it is used to procure water directly from the ground after digging a shallow hole.
It’s a technicality, you might say! Most preppers will know this method better as a solar still.
It is executed by digging a shallow hole in the ground that is as wide as practicable. A wider hole will produce more water. Next, a suitable container for holding the water is placed inside the hole at the very center.
After that, the hole should be entirely covered with impermeable plastic sheeting with the edges sealed by burying them with soil.
Lastly, a small weight (pebble, fishing weight, etc.) should be placed on the plastic sheeting directly over the container, in essence allowing water that condenses inside the hole on the plastic to flow toward it before dripping into the container.
So long as you have the materials needed, this is a slow but effective way to start getting clean and drinkable water immediately using a minimal amount of labor.
One thing you must watch out for is water condensing on the plastic, but failing to flow toward the weight in the center.
Water that condenses only to eventually drip back off onto the ground without flowing towards the container is largely dependent upon the type of plastic used.
The first thing to do before you start digging is to select your site, as this video shows:
We already discussed this earlier in this article. Not only does your well need to be dug in a location where you know water can be found, it also needs to be dug in a safe location away from things such as a septic tank, fuel tanks, and a sewage system.
If you simply your dig your well in a random location, it can deliver either insufficient amounts of water or water that is unclean to begin with.
Hire an Expert
This is why it’s a good idea to test out locations before you dig your well. Consider hiring an expert who will be able to consult with the state geological survey office to find the best aquifer spots on your property, or who test out the specific areas on your property in person.
Even though it costs money to hire an expert to do this for you, it will be an investment well worth the cost to know for a fact you’re digging in an area where there is water. This also saves you a lot of time.
Furthermore, a certified expert will be well aware of any state and/or local laws that need to be explicitly followed when digging a well.
Remember that in certain areas of the country, only certified experts are permitted to dig wells in the first place.
Dan’s note: one VERY good reason to hire an expert is that, if you’re not careful, you can destroy the aquifer that feeds the spring. An expert would be able to tell you exactly where to dig your well.
Construct Your Well Screen
The next procedure, once you have selected your location, is to construct your well screen out of a metal pipe, as shown in this video:
This will filter out any debris that gets into the water to keep it clean. To do this, your well screen will need dozens if not hundreds of little slits.
Each slit should at least an inch and a half apart from one another. Mark the slits with a marker before cutting them with a hacksaw.
Select a PVC cap for your well screen that is tight enough to prevent any leakages. To ensure that the cap stays onto the screen, consider sealing with primer and cement.
Remove Dirty Water
Now that your well has been dug and the pipes installed, the next step is to remove the dirty water in the pipe. This step is crucial or else your previous efforts will have been a waste.
Simply lower a bailer rod down the length of the pipe and it will fill up with water when it reaches the groundwater. Lift it up, empty it out, and then repeat the process until the water is no longer dirty.
Install a Hand Pump
The next step is to install a hand pump that will use pressure to suck the groundwater out of the Earth. Screw your pump all the way into the end of the PVC pipe and make sure that it has a handle.
Pump out some water and have it tested to check for quality. Never check the quality of your water by drinking it.
There should be facilities in your city that can test water for contamination and bacteria. For survival purposes, however, you can still filter and purify the water on your own.
How Much Does All This Cost?
Unless you get really lucky with a shallow well, you can expect to shell out some money for the installation of a well by professionals.
Even if you do it yourself, the cost of materials and tools will be fairly significant, and this cost grows geometrically the deeper the well goes.
Below is a list the calculates just some of the cost of installing a well using various methods:
- Average Cost of Professional Well Installation in U.S.: $5,000 to $7,000.
- High-Side Cost of Professional Installation in U.S.: $10,000 to $12,000
- Cost of Power Dug Well: $8-25 per cu.ft. excavated. (Shallow Wells Only!)
- Cost of Power Drilled Well: $10-$35 per cu.ft. excavated
Equipment Costs for Well (Not Including Professional Installation Costs):
- Pump, shallow or deep: $75 to $1,500.
- Switching and wiring harness: $50 to $200
- Casing Pipe: $500 to $3,000
- Pressure Tank: $1,250 to $2,500
- Purification System: $850 to $3,000 (If required.)
Remember: None of this includes labor, none of this includes any permitting or licensing fees if required, and it doesn’t include the cost of surveying. This is all just cost for parts and equipment.
But if you want to do the job correctly and give yourself the best possible chance of keeping your well water uncontaminated you want to do the job right. Simply digging a muddy hole in the ground and chugging that filthy water down is a surefire way to get sick or even die.
Digging a well is one of the best solutions for ensuring that you have a self-sustainable water source in the disaster because the overwhelming majority of fresh water in the world is located beneath the ground. That’s a lot of water that you can’t afford to go untouched.
Remember that you can’t survive for more than three days without water and that you will also feel the negative effects of dehydration, such as dizziness and migraine headaches, in less than one.
You need to have all the water you can get in a disaster scenario. While stockpiling as much water is helpful, you should also set up a water well so that you’ll always have water to turn to in the event that your stockpile runs out.
Nick Oetken is a prepper, outdoor enthusiast but, most of all, he is our in-house firearms expert. Look out for his articles on guns to find out which ones you need for your survival.