follow us:
Shoulders of Giants is closed. Click here for more information
Survival / May 7, 2017

Book Review: How to Read Water

Written by: Stacey McKenna

A born wanderer, Tristan Gooley has made a career honing his exploration skills. He’s led expeditions on five continents, has studied the survival methods of indigenous people across the world, and is the only person to fly and sail solo across the Atlantic. In his latest book, How to Read Water, he offers up a host of simple, actionable tips readers can use to understand the world around them. He shared a few of those insights with me in an interview.

What’s in a puddle is in an ocean

Most of the patterns Gooley reveals loosely apply to all bodies of water, regardless of size or shape. Wind creates ripples in puddles just as it makes waves in the ocean (in conjunction with other factors). And when the wakes behind two ducks swimming on an otherwise quiet pond in England converge, they leave a criss-cross pattern much like those created by waves intersecting near islands in the Pacific.

This universality was Gooley’s inspirational tipping point for How to Read Water. And it’s why the book’s lessons within hold just as much relevance to a landlocked desert rat as a sailor.

Water illuminates the past and predicts the future

When read thoughtfully, water says a lot world around us. A puddle on a dirt road, for example, indicates the passage of heavy vehicles or a much-trafficked intersection. Eyed carefully, Gooley writes, junction puddles can indicate the direction travelers have most frequently turned, perhaps toward a town or other point of interest. That’s helpful info for lost travelers seeking civilization. 

Water also presages events to come. Waves often come in rapid succession before a storm, and unusually high water levels may suggest a drop in atmospheric pressure (another indicator of stormy weather). 


Puddles can indicate a heavily trafficked path and serve as mini-reservoirs for passing critters.

Waves often come closer together before a storm.

Things that aren’t water can tell us about water

The animals, plants, and even human-made structures in an area tell a lot about where to find water, and how that water behaves.

Bridges in flash flood-prone areas will stand taller above the rivers they cross than those in areas where waters rise slowly.

Increasing greenery or the sudden presence of birds in an otherwise parched landscape can indicate an unseen water source.

Glitter paths—those sometimes blinding pillars of light reflected off large bodies of water—widen as waves steepen, providing a visual cue for rough and calm patches of water (calm waters have thinner paths). 

It’s a big, complex picture

As with any natural observation, a good “read” of water should include information from as many sources as possible.

This might mean using different senses. If you hear water, it must be whitewater, whether it’s Niagara or a fountain in New York City. The scent of rotten eggs is evidence of an unhealthy ecosystem.

Consider context. For example, rip currents are tricky to identify from shore because they don’t always look the same. Depending on other factors, such as the wind, a rip current might be more or less choppy than the water around it. Or it might be signaled by a consistent disruption of the waves.

“The only broad rule is that we know that water that is behaving differently will appear different,” Gooley writes.

Water’s behavior can’t be predicted by just the direction of the current or the speed of the wind or the steepness of the waves. But with time and study (and Gooley’s book), anyone can develop the awareness to fit all these factors together.

How to Read Water sells online for £15.99 (about $21 USD).

Do you have a book you’d like us to review? Pitch it to us at [email protected].

about the author

Stacey McKenna

Journalist Stacey McKenna covers travel, adventure, health, environment, and social justice. She has written for numerous print and online publications, including Narratively, Mind+Body, The Wayward Post and The Development Set. A medical anthropologist by training, she applies her expertise as a researcher and fascination with the human experience to tell deeply-reported stories in context. 

read more

related products

Quickview more details
My Medic: The Boat FAK

The waterproof Boat First Aid Kit has everything you need to treat the most common injuries on the river or the lake. And it floats, of course.

Quickview more details
Katadyn: E-Z Clean Membrane Filter Cartridge

This 0.1-micron filter fits into the mouth of all the Katadyn and Hydrapak bottles in our shop.

hit the outdoors

Sign up for the inside scoop on new products, member discounts and inspiration from our giants.