Sandstorms, dust storms and haboobs (Arabic for a violent, blasting dust storm) are some of the most sudden and frightening natural phenomena, that can sweep up tons of desert dust and sand into a smothering, all-engulfing cloud that causes death and destruction. They mostly occur in Northern Africa, Central Asia, the Arabic Peninsula and China, but are not limited to those areas.
Sand and dust storms (also known as SDS) can take place in any semi-arid climate zone, such as Australia, Southern Africa and part of the Americas too.
Due to poor land management and climate change, the number of sandstorms are up tenfold since the 1950s, and scientists expect those numbers to rise. So, if we move into these unforgiving and mysterious drylands, you better come prepared.
In case you see such a ravaging wall heading your way on your desert hike, camel tour, cycling trip or jeep ride, here’s what you need to know!
How to survive a sandstorm & what not to do
A few summers ago, I caught the luminous idea to cycle straight through the Chinese Gobi Desert, on my way to Mongolia. I would break up my desert camp at 4 in the morning to get some good mileage done before the sweltering 104 degrees (40 Celsius) temperature would fry me off the road.
I took long breaks in the only shaded places this arid wasteland provided: huge underground pipes to drain water from flash floods. Not the best idea for more than one reason I found out later.
One particular morning, my last full bottle of water crashed from my bicycle without me noticing, which forced me to cycle 50 kilometers on less than half a liter of water before I could fill up at the next station. Within moments, the sky in front of me darkened and a strong, dusty headwind predicted what I was in for. The first thing that came to mind was to see if there was any shelter in this flat desert, then I remembered the drainpipes!
Luckily, the sandstorm wasn’t as fierce as in the movies, or like the one that swallowed and buried the Persian Emperor Cambyses’ army of 50,000 men in 524 BC.
So apart from my camping gear and the inside of my nostrils, I think I got away fairly well that day. But I also realized that if this had been more serious, I could have gotten buried in that drainpipe or, in case of a flash flood, (that can also come from these massive storm fronts) I would have drowned.
As soon as I reached one of China’s good old internet cafes (yes, they still exist) I decided to learn how to stay safe and make better choices when facing a sandstorm next time.
How to prepare for a sandstorm?
When heading out into the desert, and especially into storm-prone areas, make sure you carry the right gear with you. In extreme environments, the right gear can literally be the difference between life and death, no matter how much survival knowledge you have.
Have the right gear for a sandstorm
- Water, water and water. Never skimp on this if you don’t know if or when you can refill your bottles.
- A good quality, tight-fitting face mask that filters out small particles and fine dust.
- Airtight goggles and a scarf. No, your fancy Ray Ban’s won’t keep the sand out of your eyes.
- Petroleum jelly to apply on your nostrils and lips to prevent them from drying out.
- Loose-fitting, but fully covering long sleeves and pants to protect your body. Basically, any part that is exposed to the elements will get badly sand scrubbed during a storm.
- Socks and lightweight fabric boots.
- A warm blanket in case you get stuck in a cold desert night.
- Some food, as you never know how long you’ll be there for and when you can reach help.
The only thing on the list I had on me was a super thick down sleeping bag that was indeed comfy while camping in the desert, but totally useless during an August sandstorm. So I sat in my underground drainpipe without water, goggles or petroleum jelly. So I just wrapped a shirt around my head and sat it out. Again lucky me it wasn’t serious.
What you should know before heading into sandstorm-prone areas
If you’re planning on heading into an area where sandstorms are common, there are a few things you should know in order to stay safe.
A sandstorm typically occurs when strong winds kick up dust and sand from the ground. The dust and sand particles can then scrape against exposed skin, cause respiratory problems, and some sandstorms can last for days, which means that if you are left without supplies and a shelter you could easily lose your way and die a sandy death.
How to know if a sandstorm is coming your way?
Sandstorms can occur in a flash, and you won’t have much time to think. Still, there are some things to know before heading out there.
- Check the weather forecast in the area. If strong winds and thunderstorms are expected, there’s an increased risk of sandstorms. For very fancy and elaborate updates, check out the satellite dust images at Meteologix. There you’ll find detailed information on dust movements all over the world, such as here in Nigeria.
- Learn to read the signs. Even though there aren’t always too many warning indications before you see that wall of brown dust charging your way, there are a few things to look out for.
- When you see thunderhead clouds nearing or if the sky starts taking on a deep reddish hue.
- If wind increasingly picks up speed.
- When the desert sand starts to bounce off the ground you can begin to hear it.
If you have no internet at your disposal, like me back in China, remember to learn the word for sandstorm in the language of the country you’re in and ask around before exposing yourself to this most unforgiving landscape.
What to do when a sandstorm approaches?
How to survive a sandstorm on foot?
Imagine that new profile picture of yourself, all in desert gear, facing a gigantic wall of sand! Ehh, no. As impressive as it may look, your life is in immediate danger. Good news is, you actually have a chance of outrunning the storm.
If there’s any safe place nearby, such as a house or a car, make a run for it. Though sandstorms can reach up to 75 mph (120 km/h), many of them are slow.
However, if you are on foot and see the storm catching up fast with no immediate shelter nearby, it’s best to stop running and prepare for the impact.
Whether you decide to run or not, make sure no one in your group gets left behind. Visibility could be reduced to near zero in seconds, so make sure everyone either stays or moves together. Ideally, try to link arms or hold a rope between you to avoid being separated or getting lost.
Where to hide during a sandstorm?
Sandstorm winds carry a lot more than just sand and dust, so if you don’t want to get hit by flying debris, it’s best to hide behind something large. This can be a rock, a building or even a parked car.
If possible, find a place that is at least a few feet higher than the rest of the area. The higher, the better, unless the storm is accompanied by lightning strikes of course, as you don’t want to become the tallest thing around.
The densest concentration of sand travels and bounces near to the ground, so on a hilltop you’ll be slightly less sandblasted than even a few feet below. However, do not hide behind the crest of a sand dune, as these dunes swell quickly during a storm, and you may get buried in sand.
By now it should be obvious that it’s unwise to hide in low places such as underground drainpipes, ditches or in low-laying arroyos, which could be a fatal mistake in case of a flash flood.
What if there is nowhere to hide?
Sandstorms are no joke, as the fine sand can blind you, choke you, rip your skin right off or bury you alive.
If there is really nothing to hide in or behind, it’s time for your last measure: sit down with your back towards the wind, wrap your head and face with whatever you have, and wait the storm out. Stay low, protect your head with your arms or backpack and don’t stand up, as it increases the risk of being hit by flying objects.
How do I survive a sandstorm in a car?
By car, you actually stand a chance of outrunning the storm, but if you’re on a road with other cars, be extremely cautious. If you see a sandstorm approaching, start carefully driving away from it for as long as you can, or until visibility drops below 300 feet (91.4 m). While driving, remember to go slow, turn on your hazard lights and honk regularly.
Once you realize you’re not able to outrun the sandstorm safely, it’s best to drive to a place to find shelter. If no shelter is within reach, pull your car away from the road as far as possible and park it with the back towards the storm to minimize the impact of flying debris. Roll up your windows, close your air vents, set your parking brake, and stay put.
One thing to keep in mind is that due to limited visibility, it’s extremely dangerous to keep your taillights on while being parked, as drivers near you may use them as a guide to navigate and could crash into you.
How to survive a sandstorm on a camel?
Whether you’re in a caravan en route to Timbuktu or on a tourist ride in Jordan, a sandstorm or haboob could make your adventure memorable in an unwanted way. Luckily, you’re in royal company, as camels are the survival kings of the desert.
Once a sandstorm approaches, the camel will know what to do. It’ll simply get down and wait, and so should you. Huddle up right behind the camel’s body, so it protects you from the blasting sand.
Though you’ll likely be safe in its calm and formidable presence, keep in mind that the camel can sense your fear and react to it. So, stay practical, don’t panic and wait as patiently as your loyal companion.
How do I survive a sandstorm on a bicycle or motorbike?
When, like me, you’re ill-prepared and far from shelter, high ground, or big objects, it’s best to dismount when the storm closes in.
Keep your helmet on, and in case you’re on a motorbike, keep the face shield closed and turn off your engine. While you can use your laid down bike as some form of protection from the sand, make sure to move at least 30 feet (9 meter) away from it if you see or hear lightning.
How to navigate in a sandstorm?
Sandstorms can completely transform a landscape by shifting entire dunes and covering up roads. This makes desert navigation extremely tricky. Especially since visibility will be near to none during the storm, so after it passed, you may find yourself in an unrecognizable world without landmarks.
- Phone signal in these remote areas tends to be poor, so don’t count on calling emergency services for help.
- If you have enough battery and want to use your mapping tool, make sure you have detailed maps downloaded prior to leaving civilization.
- Set waypoints or markers on crucial turning points regularly, so you’ll be able to backtrack in case you get lost. Keep in mind that the most direct way is not always the best, as there may be a mountain ridge in between. So always have an eye out for obvious landmarks. Alternatively, an old-fashioned detailed paper map and a compass could be lifesavers.
Additional safety measures
- Let people know exactly where you’re going, your vehicle description and travel companions. The more details you share, the better.
- You could even consider a so-called personal locator beacon (PLB), a highly reliable portable device to transmit an emergency signal to the nearest emergency services. Though this may not be effective in every single country, it works well in many places around the world.
Takeaway: Could You Survive a Sandstorm?
In the desert, each misstep can prove fatal. With this in mind, approach this hostile landscape with proper preparation and respect, so that your memorable desert tour won’t turn into a disaster. Stay hydrated, know what to do and stay safe!