Ground Water Source: A Dug Well


A dug well is a simply a hole in the ground dug by shovel or backhoe.

Years ago, a ‘dug well’ was used for many a household’s water supply, but most are “relics” of older homes, dug before drilling equipment was readily available or when drilling was considered too expensive.

In a SHTF world though, knowing the basics of a ‘dug well’ (and the fact that it is possible) is good knowledge. If you don’t have access to drilling equipment, and your surface groundwater table isn’t too deep, it may be possible to dig a dug well to supply some or all of your water needs for survival…

Simply put, a dug well is formed when you dig (excavate) below the groundwater table until incoming water overtakes the digger’s bailing rate.

Afterward, the well is lined (cased) with something like stones, brick, tile, or other material to prevent collapse of the side walls and to help prevent contamination entering this way.

To prevent contamination from above, the well is then typically covered with a cap – made of wood, stone, or concrete, etc.

Since it is so difficult to dig beneath the ground water table, a typical dug well is not very deep. One problem is that being so shallow, a dug well has a higher risk of becoming contaminated. To minimize the likelihood of contamination, your dug well should have certain features like sealed side walls and a cap.

The land surface around the well should be mounded so that surface water runs away from the well and is not allowed to pond around the outside of the wellhead.

Land activities around a dug well can also contaminate it, so be sure and protect the area around the well – at least 50 feet.

Another problem relating to the shallowness of a dug well is that it may go dry during a drought when the ground water table drops.

If you have a dug well, be sure and test the water – as you should periodically with any well, but especially with a dug well which is more susceptible to surface contamination.

Don’t forget about the necessity to clarify and purify the water before drinking.

The shallow groundwater table may vary widely – even in short distances. In some regions there is no such thing as shallow ground water, while in other areas the water may be inches below the surface.

The concept of a dug well is simple, but from a preparedness standpoint it is good simple knowledge. Fresh water for drinking is a precious resource and necessary for survival, second only to the air we breathe.

A few interesting resources:
USGS online Groundwater Atlas of the United States
USGS Active Groundwater Level Network (map)
Google Earth Groundwater Stations Map


  1. We keep a pitcher pump, well point, and 25 feet of well pipe in our preps.

    Right now I’ve got 1 million gallons of water piled up in my front yard as snow, anybody want any of that?

  2. There are a lot of hand dug wells around. Note where ole homesteads used to be, big maples where tire swings used to hang, or even foundation stones. You can bet there is a well nearby! They just need to be cleaned, maybe sterilized. So, if your lucky to find such a place, keep it under your hat!

    1. Not many of the old wells around here. Actually there aren’t many new wells around here controlled by homeowners. One side effect of Municipal Water. Color them important.

      I would treat water from an old well as being unpurified and act accordingly.

  3. six, bought a few acres 6 years ago. When I finished the new house and moved in my closest neighbor came up and asked if it was alright to keep using my shallow well for irrigation. Surprise, I have a shallow well, awesome. It’s not listed on any of the historical permits for the property and I think it was from the original homestead which was close to the neighbors house.
    Any suggestions about sterilizing a shallow well? I figure if he is using it in the summer then that is probably a good thing as far as keeping the water moving.

    1. I know you were asking sixpense, but thought I would chime in.

      Congrats on the property.

      I don’t think it’s possible to sterilize an old well. They were built before such was considered important. Maybe you have an old well that is tight enough to keep out infiltration by problematic substances. Probably not.

      You can make the water from the well safe in a number of ways. Many are discussed on this site.

      1. Yes, wells can be sanitized. Maybe Ken has something in his archive. Maybe he can bring it to this thread. I have seen it somewhere. They do it all the time in Afghanistan where dead bodies are thrown in the wells deliberately to ruin the water supple! There is a lot of data on the web describing methods to sterilize a well. All old homesteads had wells or cisterns. They are still there somewhere hidden in the tall grass, under the shed, or even under the house. Look for the ole well cap. The wells will be lined with brick or rocks and the cisterns may be block or brick shaped like a milk bottle. Any farm house 50 years old will have had a well, before city water was piped to the country. Think outside the box?

        1. Sterilize has a distinct meaning. Both you and ghsebldr used the term. Sanitize means something quite different.

          I guess you could fill the well with bleach or make it very hot (at a significant steam risk). It still wouldn’t stay sterile for long.

          Polluting water supplies has been used in war for many centuries. Long before anybody used terms like sterilize or sanitize. Before Pastuer and bleach were around.

          There are wells here. None, that I’m aware of, are shallow. In the old days they used surface water here.

          Not arguing just to argue. We need to be precise as some less informed folks are reading.

        2. Yes, your probably correct. The word is sanitize. Sterilize is something I do with lab equipment. You could probably never sterilize a well, but almost? Really depends on the quality of water that fills it thereafter. Bleach does kill everything!

    2. A few jugs of bleach will help but for drinking you will need to filter and treat.Most homesteads used a well for watering stock and gardens.Drinking and cooking water usually was from a spring.Look around i would bet there is at least a small seasonal spring on the property.Look for a circle of stones the spring may be filled up with dirt and gunk and need to be cleared and re dug.Regardless take samples and sent to the area extention service.They will tell you if its drinkable or fit for farm use.

  4. What type of water test kit is avaiable…???

    It would be a good idea to have one/couple on hand.

  5. Please be aware that in some areas these wells can have high nitrate levels. While the water is ok for adults, it can be deadly for babies due to “blue baby”, a type of oxygen deprivation caused by the nitrates. Boiling will not remove nitrates, I don’t know about filters, but store bottled water for the little ones if you plan on using a shallow well. We still use our well for livestock and garden watering, and if shtf I won’t mind expanding it’s use again. I’m not sure the nearby water department is providing better water.

  6. I came across an old homestead while hunting years back, it had a well just like the picture Ken has. Had an old wooden cover, I slid it back to take a look………….oooooooooohhhhh. There were snakes lying on all the rocks down the shaft. I will never forget that!

  7. My sister-in-law has a well. They draw a pail of water every day for drinking .Its called a bucket on a rope. To my knowledge, the well has never been tested and it was dug around 1850.

  8. thanks six and Alfred, The well has 3′ wide cement culvert sections on end that reach down 16′. It had a thin concrete cover with a pump mounting flange and a hole through it for the water pipe.
    I am going to send out a sample to some online lab. I’m sure if I sent it to the county they would be out the next day if the water was bad. Their application asks too many questions for me.

  9. Be aware of collapse, 4′ or deeper and sheer walls of dirt become unstable. Vibrations from equipment, or even a nearby road can cause parts of a wall to sluff off. In my 12 years as a professional fireman Ive had to recover 2 bodies from one trench collapse scene. As you dig shore sides up. I can only guess that over the years many a well digger have perished in a terrible fashion. Enjoyed the article, thanks.

    1. Well said, as a miner/pipe layer the rule is 4′ vertical soil unbraced. I would suggest dig 4′ do the masonry, anchoring to the side walls, a couple days later do the next 4′. never work alone! someone will have to pull the dirt out and drop the ladder back down. ventilation is critical, a stand by plan to get your passed out body out. the masonry will take up at least 4″ all around so your going to need a good size hole. I’ve done many big jobs like this, 3 hours a day after work. Good luck

    1. Great job Mark, Im just starting in Bohol, still looking for a lot.
      again very well done. Thank you

  10. You can use concrete pipe sections for the well walls by standing the section on end with support. By digging at the bottom of the pipe from inside the pipe, by hand, the section can be pushed down. That way, no one is in a hole with earth sides that could collapse. You do need a pipe large enough to work in.
    It was done that way in Poland.

    1. Thanks for the tip. That makes sense. Let gravity do the work as you dig from inside the pipe section and then stack another section on top (repeat). The challenge comes when you hit water and wish to dig as deep as possible…

    1. According to my folks, then its time to seriously dig. Bail water & dig. Want it deep/below water table coming in. There were families that devoted their expertise to “well digging”. They were also more apt to find your water be “witching” the water via a peach or cherry rod.

Comments are closed.