How To Use Desiccants For Survival & The Best Desiccants To Buy
In order to properly prepare for future emergencies, you must be willing to make investments.
Investments in dollars to amass supplies. But also an investment in time to research the right life-saving supplies.
We do this to protect ourselves and our families from an unknowable future.
But these critical emergency tools and supplies will likely sit around for months (or years) before they actually get put to use.
And honestly, we all should hope and pray the day we actually need these supplies will NEVER come.
No one in their right mind hopes for a real disaster to strike!
But if one does, you want to ensure you’re keeping your supplies in the best condition possible.
You don’t want your investments to spoil, rust or decay.
One of the best ways to protect your survival investment is to keep them away from water, moisture, and humidity.
That’s why you need desiccants.
So today in this article we will be covering in detail the following topics:
- What’s A Desiccant Anyways?
- Items You Should Protect Using Desiccants
- Common Desiccants & Makeshift Desiccants
- Desiccant Safety
- Best Desiccants For Survival and Preparedness
- Difference Between Oxygen Absorbers and Desiccants
What’s A Desiccant Anyways?
Simply put, a desiccant is any material that adsorbs moisture and holds on to it.
For your survival supplies, you place them inside an enclosed space and if the container is 100% sealed, the desiccant will remove a bunch of harmful moisture from the container.
Desiccants are also ideal for keeping sensitive electronics, tools, and weapons rust free – especially in humid climates.
Humidity (moisture in the air) is one of the primary drivers of survival supply corrosion and spoilage. Desiccants are made to combat this harmful humidity.
A prime example of this in action is most commercial desiccants help maintain the freshness of their food items. Especially foods easily damaged by moisture.
So if you’ve spent money, time, and energy dehydrating or freeze-drying food, desiccants can help protect it. They prevent the dried foods from re-hydrating (due to humidity in the air) and spoiling your supplies.
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Items You Should Protect Using Desiccants
One of the first questions people ask me about desiccants is, “What survival supplies can they protect?”
Upon review of my survival gear, I quickly realized everything in it is susceptible to moisture damage!
I keep my garden seeds in a sealed container with several small desiccant packets. These packs prevent the seeds from sprouting prematurely or growing mold.
During the winter, I keep a survival blanket and spare clothes for car emergencies in a giant ziplock bag in the back of my vehicle. I add a large capacity desiccant to prevent them from feeling damp if I ever need them in a roadside emergency.
Just about any survival tool or supply in your emergency plan needs be kept as clean and dry as possible.
And that’s why desiccants are a critical survival tool in and of themselves. They help protect your important survival supplies for the long haul.
Here are 10 surprising uses for silica gel desiccants:
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There’s a broad range of desiccant options on the market. Remember a desiccant is any material to removes moisture, there are lots of materials that can do this.
Some are good at removing moisture from large spaces while others are best for small enclosures. The fundamental materials in each type of desiccant are different.
So let’s cover the most common types of desiccants used for survival and then we’ll cover a few makeshift desiccants as well.
One of the most common desiccants you’ll run across is silica gel. It’s a stable polymer (usually in the form of small beads) which can adsorb roughly 10-20% of its weight in water vapor.
You can find small silica gel bead packs in medication bottles, food pouches, and even shoe boxes. This past weekend, I opened a bag of beef jerky to discover the familiar white silica gel pack keeping my favorite snack dry.
One interesting fact about silica gel beads is even after they’re fully saturated, they don’t feel damp or lose their shape.
Most small disposable silica gel packets are for single use only. But, most large silica gels containers are reusable.
These reusable ones often include a moisture indicator of some sort. A moisture indicator that changes color once the silica gel beads are completely saturated.
Since they can be reused, they can be “recharged”. This is done by drying them in a low-temperature oven, which drives off the moisture. Once cool, you can reuse your dry silica gel desiccant!
Here’s a good video on how silica gel actually works:
When you need to remove A LOT of moisture from a larger area, reusable silica gel packages are not your best option. Large humid spaces are where calcium chloride desiccants are most useful!
Calcium chloride is a fancy name for salt and is generally found in bags of small white pellets. Unlike silica gel, calcium chloride is not a reusable desiccant, but it makes up for this with ease of use.
Most calcium chloride desiccant setups are simple. They are basically a small basket of pellets held in a mesh basket over a bucket.
As the calcium chloride adsorbs water, it slowly dissolves and drips down into the bucket. Eventually, leaving a bucket full of water and an empty basket.
These require more hands-on attention meaning you’ll need to periodically empty the bucket and refill the basket with fresh calcium chloride.
But the results are impressive. I’ve seen calcium chloride used in electronic cabinets the size of a small bedroom on ships.
Dry Uncooked Rice
In the modern world, we’ve all heard horror stories of dropping a smartphone in the kitchen sink or toilet.
Common knowledge is to leave it turned off and to stick it in a bag of rice for a couple of days. Once it’s dry, you should be able to turn it back on without shorting out anything.
The reason this works is that dry rice is a natural desiccant.
In a small, enclosed area like a plastic bag, it can absorb the trace amount of water inside your electronics. It will slowly dry it without having to open up the phone case.
Of course, it’s still nowhere near the efficiency of other desiccants, but rice is easy to find and cheap.
Plus, it’s an excellent long-term food for survival caches. I love any survival tool or supply that can pull double-duty!
Odd Makeshift Desiccants
Non-Dairy Coffee Creamer
It turns out that non-dairy coffee creamer packets contain a surprisingly good desiccant.
One of the creamer ingredients adsorbs moisture from the air. So you can build yourself a makeshift desiccant from a bunch of creamer powder!
No, not my first choice for a desiccant (especially with valuables), but it’s good to know it works in a pinch.
Another desiccant to file under “it works, but now what?” Cement mix is a powerful desiccant.
The nature of cement attracts moisture and converts it into a solid mineral.
Don’t believe me? Try leaving a couple of bags of ready-mix concrete out in the rain. You’ll soon notice they suck in moisture and turn the bag into a hard concrete pillow.
In a humid climate, this can even happen even without direct contact with water.
Of course, turning the powdery concrete mix into rocks isn’t the best way to control moisture. But if you have a bag of concrete on hand and need a desiccant in a pinch, it may be worth trying.
Yes, you can use your stash of old newspapers for more than just starting fires.
Whenever I have wet boots or gloves that can’t go into a clothes dryer, I crumple up some newspaper and stuff it inside. Then I leave the paper stuffed boots overnight in a warm place.
Dry newsprint paper is particularly good at absorbing water. So it draws moisture out of the fabric and holds onto it.
Try swapping out the newspaper a couple of times a day to helps dry your boots even faster.
This idea was contributed by a Skilled Survival reader (Illini Warrior)
Drywall can also be used as a makeshift desiccant.
“Heat it gently to dry it completely countries …. – use a piece as a container base or line your container completely – used commonly in the 3rd World”
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While most of the time desiccants are not extremely dangerous to handle, they can be harmful in certain situations.
Not For Consumption
We’ve all seen the silica gel bead packs in a box of shoes and gave a chuckle because of that silly “Do Not Eat” warning plastered all over it.
Seriously? They don’t look or smell at all appetizing, so I’ve always wondered “why the stern warning”? But it turns out there’s a reason to avoid consuming desiccants.
Desiccants are, by design, very good at adsorbing water and holding it. They can even pull water directly through your skin.
In particular, you should keep them away from your eyes, nose, and mouth. Powerful desiccants can damage sensitive skin and tissue in these areas.
Have you ever mixed concrete and noticed a sharp stinging sensation in your nose? That’s concrete dust you inhaled. It’s the lime in the cement pulling water out of your nasal passages.
You’ll also notice your hands are dry and chapped if you came in contact with the fresh cement without gloves. Again, the desiccant has pulled the water from within your skin.
The effects could be even worse if you happened to consume a hefty dose of desiccant. It can form a large solid mass INSIDE your stomach that needs to be removed by surgery!
So when working with a powerful desiccant (like concrete mix), always protect your eyes, nose, and mouth. It’s also smart to wear gloves and protective clothing on any exposed skin.
And for those small silica gel packs (I can’t believe I even need to say this but..) – “Do Not Eat Them.”
Note: While those “do not eat” warnings might seem silly, the bigger fear is that a baby or pet would accidentally consume them.
Babies put everything in their mouths and dogs love anything that smells like beef jerky. So those warnings are to let YOU know to keep them away from those who might accidentally consume them.
Keep Away From Pets
Keep all desiccants away from your pets.
Most pets avoid the stinging sensation of an airborne desiccant like concrete dust but don’t take chances. Keep your pets clear.
Some of the improvised desiccants (dry rice, flour, etc.) are food items and might be enticing to your pets. Keep them stored out of their reach, and you’ll both be happier.
Trust me; pet surgery isn’t much cheaper than human surgery these days.
Another safety concern comes from one of the color-change indicators in silica gel desiccants – Cobalt (ii) Chloride.
This material is a light blue color when dry but slowly changes to a bright pink when it has adsorbed a significant amount of water.
These blue/pink indicator silica gels are common in the US. They are also available in sporting goods and craft stores. But, there is some concern that cobalt (ii) chloride is a hazardous material.
The European Chemicals Agency suspect it may be carcinogenic. But test results aren’t conclusive yet, so it carries a label of “substance of high concern.”
Since there are several other moisture indicators on the market, you may as well play it safe. I recommend avoiding the blue/pink indicator silica gels altogether.
At the very least, it adds one more argument NOT to snack the silica packets in your new shoes!
Here’s an article from the National Park Service. It includes more information on cobalt (ii) chloride in silica gel.
Best Desiccants For Survival and Preparedness
When it comes to survival and preparedness, the best type of desiccant depends on the intended use.
The desiccant you use to keep your basement, attached garage, portable garage, shed, or gear cache dry will not be the same you toss in your gun safe, ammo storage containers or toolbox. A
And when it comes to keeping food safe, the requirements change again.
But, they’re a consumable product and so reuse is not an option. The good news is active ingredient is available relatively cheap in bulk.
I would start off with all purpose-built system like Dri-Z-Air.
Dri-Z-Air is an all-in-one solution, and you can refill with fresh calcium chloride pellets.
When the basket is empty, and the material has adsorbed water, just dump the contents down the drain.
The basket is held shut by a cotter pin so you can easily refill it.
If you go through a lot of calcium chloride (say, winter in the pacific northwest), you’ll need to buy in bulk.
Fortunately, calcium chloride is also a good deicing material. So it’s usually easy to find in bulk bags.
Morton Safe-T-Power is one available brand, consisting of nearly pure calcium chloride.
It can be used in the same “basket and bucket” systems as Dri-Z-Air, which makes it an excellent refill material.
For smaller, more enclosed spaces (such as a gun safe), calcium chloride systems are often too large and messy. The area is too small for all the white dust and buckets of water.
In these situations, I turn to silica gel with a moisture indicator.
I have several sleeves of bulk silica gel, tied off in cotton socks to form a desiccant beanbag. These are great to toss in the back of the gun safe to provide a lot of protection.
But, you can’t see the moisture indication color change through the cotton material. So I also have one prepackaged silica gel visible on an eye-level shelf in the safe.
Most of these prepackaged desiccant packs are made of perforated metal. They include a window to see the moisture indicator, like the ones sold by Hydrosorbent.
I buy packages containing the orange moisture indicator, rather than the blue/pink. It’s slightly more expensive but doesn’t have the same hazardous cobalt (ii) chloride.
Once the silica gel changes color, it’s time to toss the bulk sock and the smaller pack in a low-temperature oven. Just leave the desiccants for several hours to drive off the moisture and recharge them.
If you don’t want to go the pre-packaged route, you can always put bulk silica gel beads in a clear glass container. Then just punch a few small holes in the lid to allow moisture in, while keeping the beads contained.
When it comes time to recharge the beads, take the lid off and put the whole jar in the oven.
Here’s a review of one of these silica gel color changing packs:
On a smaller scale, jars or packages of dried fruits or jerky need their own desiccant protection. For these small containers, I turn to individual silica gel packets.
You can buy these in bulk and create small packets with fabric or coffee filters. The commercial 1g and 5g sizes are widely available and inexpensive.
They don’t have a moisture indicator added to the silica gel. But this means fewer chemical stored with your food, so it’s not a significant inconvenience.
Whenever I open a bulk container of dried food, I toss in a packet or two. Doing this prevents outside moisture from creeping in and spoiling the remaining supply.
Similarly, when we jar a batch of dried fruit, I store it in glass jars with a silica gel packet. The desiccant keeps our dehydrated fruit from adsorbing extra humidity during our wet winters.
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For those who like to Do It Yourself and save a few dollars, you can create your own desiccant containers from a few cheap materials.
This idea came from a skilled survival reader (Illini Warrior) –
Difference Between Oxygen Adsorbers and Silica Gel Desiccants
Ok so if you’ve read this far into this article, you already know how silica gel desiccants work. So let’s briefly talk about oxygen absorbers.
Oxygen absorbers are tiny packs that contain three ingredients:
- Iron filings
The clay material provides moisture and helps the salt activate the iron filings.
This activation process begins once the oxygen absorber is exposed to oxygen. The iron filings start oxidizing.
This is essentially the same process of creating rust on the iron filings. But the rust is a byproduct, the important fact is this process releases nitrogen.
Adding nitrogen to sealed food packs helps keep it fresh for longer periods of time.
This chemical reaction also removes oxygen from the package. Without oxygen, nasty bug and insects (such as weevils) cannot survive.
Most oxygen absorbers have a small pinkish pill. This pill changes to blue once the oxygen absorber is no longer effective.
Some more interesting oxygen absorber facts:
- Do not use oxygen absorbers with salt or sugar. If you do, you’ll end with a rock hard block.
- Only store unused oxygen absorbers in airtight glass jars or mylar bags. This is to prevent them from being prematurely activated using turning the surrounding oxygen in the air.
- You should try to calculate the correct number of oxygen absorbers you need for the specific application. Use too many and you’re unnecessarily wasting money. Use too few and the food you’re trying to protect won’t be fully protected.
- You cannot reuse oxygen absorbers, they are a one and done device. Because the chemical reaction only works in one direction.
Can you use oxygen absorbers and silica gel together?
The answer is yes, but…
“The desiccant bags must not be close to the oxygen absorbers.Desiccants will negatively affect the performance of the oxygen absorber when stored close by”.
Oxygen absorbers need moisture in order to function.
So if a silica gel desiccant is located close to the oxygen absorber it will absorb the moisture, stopping the oxygen absorber’s activation process. Thus, turning the oxygen absorber a useless device.
You’ve put a lot of time, money, and thought into which items are critical resources. The survival resources and supplies to keep yourself (and your family) safe and secure.
Keeping those items clean, organized, and free from damage is a crucial part of your survival plan.
No matter your survival plan, take time to ensure your food, weapons, and tools are at their best when you need them.
Desiccants are cheap insurance against moisture damage. Using them to protect your supplies is a necessary investment.
We’ve shown you a few good options for different scenarios. There are plenty of ways to adapt desiccants into your preparations!
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