How to Survive in the Desert?

“Take care that the voice of God and the Devil sound one and the same in the desert. Trust your instincts. You were not put on this earth to be naïve, blindly optimistic, or passive; you are here to be vigilant, to survive.”

After the endless ocean, the worst place on earth to get stranded is in the middle of a scolding desert. Whether after a plane crash, a sandstorm or due to an accident, the world’s deserts are among the most inhospitable places, and can kill a perfectly healthy adult in a matter of hours. 

As a teenager, me and my family drove straight through Death Valley. I am not sure why, but at one point we had to take a diversion of the main highway and the already quiet road saw less and less traffic.

When we made a quick pit stop to walk into the summer heat, I became aware of the magnitude of this empty world and realized how little chance I would stand in this wasteland. My contemplations were cut short by a warning rattle near my feet, which chased me back into the air-conditioned car. I plugged into my Walkman again and forgot about desert survival altogether. 

Disaster can strike at any time

What people in air-conditioned vehicles often fail to see is how near to disaster any turn of events can be. In his Desert Survival Handbook, Charles A. Lehman writes about a father and son who got their car stuck in the Mojave Desert sand. They tried to pull their car out, but while doing so, spent all their energy and got overheated.

Then, instead of waiting for the night to set in, they started walking towards the highway, but never made it. The official cause of death was dehydration, but in reality, it was poor decision-making. The part where they tried to get the car out of the sand was good, but the choice to push on in the burning heat instead of taking a break in the shade, and then to leave the car and all supplies behind to make for the highway during daytime are fatal mistakes in this environment, where a few miles’ hike can be a death sentence.

Among the main causes of death in the desert are hypothermia, hyperthermia, and dehydration, so this article focuses on how to avoid these and make it out alive. Connected to these are your three priorities in desert survival, which in most cases are water, fire, and shelter, before even thinking of food and rescue. 

Where am I?

The first step when stranded in the desert is to get out of the sun. Every minute you’re exposed to the midday heat means losing extremely precious fluids through sweating. If you’re in a vehicle, you can hide in its shade, unless your AC is still working. Around noon time, you can even lay under your vehicle. 

When there is no shade around at all, try to keep your body covered as much as possible, and, when the sun starts setting, try setting up a makeshift shelter, which we’ll cover later. Another emergency option is digging a hole, as temperatures drop significantly at even a few feet deep and can protect you from the worst of the heat.

If you don’t have a working phone, GPS, or other ways to send out an emergency signal, see whether you can easily reach a high point from which you might be able to see a road or other signs of human life. Do this when the sun is over its peak, but with still enough daylight to see clearly. Remember to move slowly, conserving your energy and sweat. 

First priority: water

Hot deserts can kill a healthy adult in about six hours if he or she doesn’t carry any water. The average person loses about 30 oz (900 ml) of sweat every hour when walking around in a 104 degrees (40 ºC) desert, so preserving your body fluids becomes a matter of life or death quickly.

That’s why, after having found a shaded place, you should check how much water you have left and resist the temptation to gulp it all down. Ideally, you came prepared and brought enough water.

If not, it’s time to ration tightly. However, many have died with water in their canteens, so it’s good to recognize signs of dehydration and to do your utmost to prevent it rather than holding on to the last drop in your canteen. Generally, you can assess your level of dehydration by the color of your urine (which you shouldn’t drink!).

The darker it is, the more in need of water you are. Dehydration comes sneakily and will strongly impair your judgement. If you have water, ration it wisely, but keep drinking. Oh yes, and stay away from that campfire bottle of whiskey. It will not help.

The next step is to either locate water or to find the safest way to get out of the desert.

Second priority: fire

Even before setting up a proper shelter, you need to start thinking about making a fire to prevent hypothermia in the cold desert night. The average lows in the Sahara or even the Chihuahuan Desert are between 25 and 27 degrees (-2.5 and -4 ºC), which, without a fire, could be deadly. 

Gather firewood just before the sun goes down, and make sure you have enough to last you all night. If you have nothing on you to light a fire, practice the rubbing method, as explained in detail in our deserted island story. 

If possible, make several fires around you to preserve your body temperature and vital energy. For longer heat and continuous sleep, keep about 15 medium-sized rocks in the fire for one to two hours and bury them 6 inches below the ground you’ll be sleeping on. This will likely keep you warm throughout the night

If you already have a shelter, make sure to keep ventilation holes, so you don’t get smoked out.

Third priority: shelter

Ok, so you have your campfire organized, and your water is rationed. Now you need a place to shelter against the harsh elements surrounding you. 

Ideally, find a place between or behind rocks. Perhaps you can find a small cave or a nook in a canyon wall. See if there are no trails of snakes or other potentially dangerous animals.

If there are rocks around, try to make a little wall to protect you from the wind and sand. Beware of low-lying caves in canyons or holes in sandy banks. In case of a flash flood, your shelter could be flushed out or collapse, so sticking to high ground is always preferable, as, unexpectedly, flash floods are the number one cause of death in the desert.

If no such cave is available, consider building a simple lean-to, by placing branches diagonally against a rock. The thicker your layer of branches, the safer you are from sand, sun, wind and even rain. 

When your shelter and fire are organized, try to find leaves and soft branches to make a bed, so you’re not laying directly on the cold ground. 

Should I stay or should I go now?

Unless you’re dead sure where you are and how to get out of the desert in under a few miles, you could make it after the sun goes down. But if there’s even the faintest trace of doubt, don’t play tough, and just stay put. Especially when you’re in a vehicle, rescue teams can spot you much easier, so if you leave in some random direction, you may never be found. 

Wandering off will take a lot of energy, even when you leave at night. And since preserving energy, water and your overall health are your main concerns in survival situations, it’s usually best to wait for help and not play hero. 

If you’re quite sure that nobody has a clue where you are, it might be worth considering making a move when circumstances allow. If doing so, keep these tips in mind.

  1. Your priorities
    Stick to the main survival priorities, and keep your energy expenditure low, sweating as little as possible.
  2. Shut up!
    Keep your mouth closed to prevent dehydration from the dry desert air. 
  1. Stay blister-free
    Make sure your shoes and socks stay free of sand, as sand and sweat can create nasty blisters, which could seriously impair your mobility, and therefore be deadly. 
  1. Mark your way
    When walking, try to leave some clear, colorful markings, indicating the direction you’re heading. 

In short, if you have water and people know where you are, stay put. If not, you need to look for water or get out of there.

How to navigate in the desert?

Although there are many types of deserts (even Antarctica is considered one), they’re all easy to get lost in. Landmarks can apparently vanish, visibility can be reduced to zero, and even entire sand dunes may shift position overnight. Also, due to the vastness of the landscape, distances are hard to estimate.

Mark a point in the distance to move towards to make sure you keep track, as it’s easy to get disorientated in the desert, or even tricked and led astray by mirages. Cause yes, people have been falling for mirages for thousands of years, and you could be next.

Imagine yourself exhausted and dehydrated, seeing the picture below in the distance. Would you change course or keep heading in the planned direction?

Another helpful friend can be a straight stick which you can put into the ground if you roughly know the time. When it’s around noon, and you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, the shadow of the stick should point North. For the Southern Hemisphere the opposite works. 

SOS

Since we can’t always rely on phone coverage or other modern-day technology, try these time-tested methods to draw the attention of anyone in the wide area. 

  1. Smoke
    Building a smoky fire, (the smokier, the better) and keeping it on all 24/7, is a good way to be seen both day and night.
  2. Signs
    Place rocks or other large objects on the ground to write SOS or HELP. Make this big and obvious enough to be spotted by an aircraft.
  1. Make some noise!
    Car horns or even firearms can be used to draw attention. Try to honk or shoot in series of three consecutive blasts.
  1. Your magic mirror
    The signal mirror is one of the best ways to send out flash signals, which can be seen from the air for up to forty miles distance, which is huge. 

Prepare

Whether on a caravan to Timbuktu, or on a leisurely ride through Death Valley, in most cases you will know where you’re going, which means you can prepare. Because you’re heading into one of the harshest and most dangerous environments on earth, you really want to be well organized for your upcoming desert ride or hike.

Since you carry a lot of responsibility towards yourself, your travel companions, and your loved ones, I’m gonna assume you’ll do your homework. Have a look at the checklist of our sandstorm article. The main points are water, water, water, good clothing, a blanket, some food, and to let people know exactly where you’re going.

Finding water

There is water in the driest desert, in the air, in the soil, and in the plants. A means of tapping it is a transpiration still, by tying a clear plastic bag over a bunch of living branches.

Fasten the bag tightly around the branches and tie it down, so a corner catches the condensed droplets. If there are any green plants around, you can set up several stills. 

There are many other ways of finding water. Without going into the technicalities of them all, I’ll sum them up for you:

  1. Look for concentrated places of green if there are any. 
  2. Dew often gathers on plants or rocks at dawn.
  3. Rocky areas may hold water if it rained recently.
  4. If you see animals or their tracks, there’s a good chance a water source is near, especially if the tracks go downhill. Circling birds or swarms of insects can indicate the same.
  5. Follow canyons or dry river beds upstream, and look for a depression, especially in the bends.
  6. Flip half buried rocks in the early morning. A little condensation will form.
  7. Look for a slope of hard, non-porous rock, where rainwater would run into the soil. Dig in the sand or soil at the base of this slope.
  8. You may need to dig for water in the abovementioned places. Dig at least 1 foot deep and 1 foot wide and wait to see if it fills up with water. This can take hours, but it’s worth the wait. It’s always best to boil or purify the water if you have the chance, but if you don’t have a choice, drink it anyway. The pros will most likely outweigh the cons. 
  9. The benefit of drinking from cacti is a myth. Please don’t do it, as the water can be poisonous.

Finding Food

Hunting for food could cost you very precious energy. Remember that the energy and fluids you spend doing this could be more valuable than the food itself. TV-survivalist Bear Grylls puts it very simply: “go hungry and preserve water. Eating uses precious fluids, and digestion takes out the water in your body.”

Only continue reading when it’s abundantly clear that your priority is to preserve sweat, and that food can be considered if plenty of water is available to digest it. If that’s on your radar, we’ll share some of the edible things you find in the world’s deserts.

Gather!

Many cactus fruits and buds are edible. Just make sure you get even the tiniest thorns off. Removing these could be a good time pass during the hot day.

Other than this, it depends on the part of the world you’re in. The Chinese Gobi has wild onion, the Sahara wild gourds and there’s wild buckwheat in the Atacama Desert, 

Hunt!

The desert is abundant with small animals like rodents, lizards, bugs, and snakes, most of which can be eaten if cooked thoroughly. Look for a spot where you see lots of tracks and set up a trap. A time-tested one is the figure 4 trap. You set this up by balancing a flat rock on a stick and putting something edible underneath. After you made a catch, clean it properly by removing hair and entails and then cooking it extremely well over hot coals.

Dangers in the desert

Danger can come from above, below, and around you. You’ll be grateful for having read this though if you ever get stuck out there. I’ll sum up some of the main dangers.

The top 3

Protecting your body from hyperthermia, dehydration and hypothermia is your most critical challenge. We already and shared tips on how to prevent loss of heat and moisture. In any case, try to prevent sunburns and heat strokes, as you won’t have the means to treat them on your own. 

In hot weather that means limiting your physical activity, wearing your clothing loosely, staying in the shade, and drinking plenty of water if possible. Even in winter, when temperatures are relatively mild, take care of your fluid loss, as people have died from dehydration during those months.

Flash floods

As said earlier, flash floods are the main cause of death in the desert, which means you should always try to find higher ground, especially if thunderheads are in sight. Do not remain in dry washes (arroyos) that could flood suddenly.

Animals

Luckily, most reptiles and mammals will stay away from you. Still, with many poisonous creatures around, it’s best to be on your guard. Some of the potentially dangerous animals are:

  • Snakes
  • Scorpions
  • Killer bees
  • Gila monsters
  • Spiders like the tarantula and the black widow

General tips to avoid getting bitten are the good old rule which says: never stick your hand into a dim hole. Also, check your shoes each time you put them on.

If you get bitten or stung, best is to not panic, as this will aggravate your situation. For instance, most scorpion stings are not dangerous. When you get stung, do not attempt suction or even cutting, clean the area with water and soap or antiseptic if possible, drink water to dilute the venom, and lay on your side if you feel short of breath. 

If the bite or sting is more serious, it’s important to seek medical help. If you know where to go, head out after sunset, move slowly and keep all safety instructions in mind. Stress and rushing will increase your blood flow and will increase the speed at which the poison spreads throughout your body.

Keep your cool

As in every episode, we end with the panic paragraph! 

Panic is the biggest danger in any survival situation, as it can make you either completely apathetic (like a hiker who died within 24 hours after getting lost and was found surrounded by cigarette buds) or makes people head out into the midday heat to reach the road ASAP. Both examples show that your emotions are no good counselors in the desert, where any mistake can be fatal. 

If you’re able to stay calm, assess your situation and take it step by step. You’re much more likely to make the right decisions.

So, when your mind screams that it just wants to be home, wants to drink all the water or run off towards the road, sit down quietly for a minute and look at the practical things you can do right now rather than at the big picture. 

So, the take-out of desert survival in a nutshell: stay out of the heat, preserve your sweat, ration your water wisely and stay put unless you know exactly where you are. Following these tips, you’ll be much better equipped for survival in one of the most challenging environments on earth. 

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