Wilderness Survival: Part 2 – Desert

Having just returned home from teaching a survival course in the deserts of Nevada, and given the parts of the desert survivalU.S. currently stricken with drought, it felt appropriate to put together a piece addressing survival in one of the most unique types of ecosystems in existence: the desert.  The desert is amongst the most daunting environments to find oneself stranded, and is often perceived as perhaps the most impossible terrain of them all.  Yet it is important to remember that countless years ago, we as a species first arose amongst more arid climes of this earth, and as a result we are well suited to adapt and exist there if need be.

This article is Part 2 in a series on Wilderness Survival (Read Part 1)

Priorities of Desert Survival

As with any survival situation, should you find yourself stranded suddenly in the desert, the very first thing is to avoid panic and calmly address your situation. Use S.T.O.P., or Sit, Think, Observe, and Plan to calm down, consider your situation, assess resources and surroundings, and come up with a pertinent plan to take efficient, necessary steps towards ensuring your survival. Use the Rule of Threes to prioritize your plan of action in order of your most crucial resources.

To learn more about S.T.O.P. and the Rule of Threes, click here.

1. Water

Deserts are known for their extreme lack of water, making it your most precious resource of all.  In a prepared desert survivalistscenario, one gallon of water per person, per day is ideal, and that is just for drinking!  Right away, if you are planning an extensive desert crossing, your route should be mapped around known locations of available water, such as oases, wells, and water holes.  Should you become stranded, immediately assess your water situation and begin to ration accordingly.

When the time comes to drink, consume a reasonably sufficient amount, as taking in a larger quantity is the only efficient way to rehydrate vital organs. Taking tiny sips over an extended time period does not accomplish this, resulting in dehydration. Excess consumption will result in water being secreted and thus wasted.  Despite that they are scarce, there are sources of water in the desert; one must simply become efficient at methods of finding and identifying them.  The presence of any green vegetation is an instant indicator of an oases or water hole, which will often provide not only a reliable source of water, but of potential food as well.  The presence of any large mammal, or a series of converging animal trails are generally good indicators that a viable water source is within a day’s reach.

Also Read: 6 Dangerous Urban Legends About Water

One can sometimes access underground water tables via a hole or well. These wells can sometimes be very deep, How to survive in the desertand as a result a container may have to be lowered on a line to collect the water below.  Digging at the lowest point in an outside bend of a stream bed can yield a possible water source.  Do not dig during the day, as the effort will yield water loss with no guarantee of gaining more water to replenish, and as a result will do more harm than good.

In deserts where temperatures fluctuate greatly at night, such as the Sahara, the Gobi, the deserts of Peru and Chile, and the Middle East, one can exploit the evening’s low temperatures to produce condensation that can be harnessed as a water source.

Plants, such as various cacti, as well as plant roots, can also be exploited for water, although without the aid of a Plants for water in desertmachete, cacti can be difficult to harvest and often more trouble than worth. In Nevada, for example, various species of barrel cactus can provide water as well as various sources of food.  Rain, though exceptionally rare, should also be collected in all possible ways should it suddenly become available.

2. Shelter and Clothing

Retaining the water you already have is every bit as important as finding more. Therefore, you must learn to How to survive in the desertration your sweat by carefully preventing losing any through perspiration.  Find or create a shelter that will allow you to stay in the shade as much as absolutely possible. This will protect you not only from water loss, but also from the blistering rays of the desert sun. At night, a shelter will provide additional warmth from winds and low temperatures.

Also Read: Making Fire With A Bow Drill

Be cognizant of the effort required and resulting water loss of any activity, and carefully gauge whether the gain is worth the precious water lost. Move and exert yourself as little as possible, and limit your activities to the cooler times of dusk and evening.  If available, make use of your surroundings, such as rock outcrops or caves that provide natural shade and shelter.  Be cognizant of any creatures that may be living there already.  Rock piles can be constructed to block high winds.

Avoid lying directly on the hot ground.  When possible, build an elevated bed for additional air circulation.  If you are using tarps or fabrics, additional circulation can be achieved by opening the bottoms during the day, and closing them at night to preserve warmth.  If you are stranded in the desert on account of a car or plane issue, DO NOT take refuge in the vehicle, as they heat quickly. Take advantage instead of its form and resulting shade to build an adequate shelter. Do not hesitate to use materials from the vehicle if it will help to ensure your survival.

Many desert animals build burrows below the sand, allowing them to remain cooler during the day and warmer at how to survive in the desertnight. If you have wreckage or other materials to support the sand, you can follow their lead by building your own burrow.  Always make your shelter as visible as possible to aid search and rescue.

Properly dressing for the desert is an integral part of sheltering oneself as well.  Hot climates instantly cause many to reach for shorts and t-shirts, leaving themselves open to extra water loss and the blistering sun and sand. Loose, long sleeved clothing with enough space to create an air pocket to insulate is ideal for cooling, and provides far better sweat management. Anything that can further cover the head, face and neck, such as a swathe of cloth, a bandanna, or a wide brimmed hat is also essential.

3. Fire

As with any survival situation, fire will be essential for warmth, company, water purification, cooking, and how to build a fire in the desertsignaling.  In deserts like Nevada, where there is vegetation, it is consistently dry and will ignite and burn with very little effort.  In situations where no vegetation is available, dried animal waste such as camel dung can provide an efficient alternative fuel for fire.

If stranded due to a vehicle crash or failure, one can effectively create a fire by first filling a container with sand. Next, pour gasoline or oil in with the sand and light, creating a controlled fire that will burn efficiently.  A spark caused by crossing the negative and positive terminals of a car battery can also provide an effective method for lighting a fire, as does using a mirror or glasses to concentrate the sun’s powerful rays.

4. Signaling and Self-Rescue

The best option in the desert, particularly if shelter and resources are available, is to stay put, and take every step to make oneself easy to find for potential rescuers.  Take care to make your shelter and presence as visible as possible to potential rescuers.  Signal fires and large indicators, such as HELP or SOS carved into the sand are instrumental in aiding your rescue.  If stranded with a plane, remain with or near it at all costs, as the black box’s locator beacon should draw rescuers to your exact location.  The rubber on a broken down car tire can be burned to create massive billows of black smoke.

Also Read: Survival Radio

If forced to self-rescue, the distance you will be able to cover will be directly related to the amount of water available.  A rough estimate, in 120 degree weather and based off an individual traveling only at night, and resting for the entire day, one might reasonably cover 35 miles on 2 liters, in roughly three days before collapse. That time is not likely to increase unless water supply more than doubles, barring exceptions.  In all but the most extreme cases, when rescue is impossible or staying still holds your life in imminent danger, it is best to remain within reach of safety and resources and wait for rescue.

5. Food

Despite the unpleasant aspects of hunger, food is at the very bottom of the priority list in the desert. The extreme heat often suppresses appetite, which, in certain regards, can be advantageous to a degree. In desert situations it can actually be detrimental to eat too much, on account of the additional water the body will require to aid in digestion.

In the event that one must eat, do so with caution and ration well. Any animal that can be foraged, trapped, or Desert Survivalsnared can provide a valuable food source. In the desert, this includes insects, lizards, snakes and various mammals. Take care not to expel precious water and energy, or to leave oneself open to injury from attack.

Plans can be utilized as food sources as well. In Nevada, for example, various species of barrel cactus like the one featured above can yield edible seeds, flowers, fruit, and meat at various times of the year. In the same desert, the outer layer of the Prickly Pear can be skinned off, and the inside roasted and eaten.  Other plants, such as the central stalk of the mescal plant in Mexico, or the desert gourd in the Gobi or Sahara also provide a similar style food source.

Potential Hazards

1. Animals

Deserts are inhabited with a variety of hazardous animals. Depending on where one is in the world, they could best tricks for desert survivalpotentially encounter any combination of venomous spiders, scorpions, snakes, or lizards.  Never stick your hand or appendage into a dark hole or space, and always be cognizant when collecting any resources.  Always take care to keep what you can off the ground, and shake out clothes, shoes, sleeping bags, packs, and any other personal item that such a creature might conceal themselves in.

2. Sandstorms

Sandstorms are sudden and violent windstorms that can reduce visibility to nothing. They are sometimes accompanied with lightning storms, and can be as brief as a few minutes, or in some parts of the world can linger for weeks or even months at a time. Sandstorm conditions are often the same conditions ideal for rainstorms, and  consequently flash flooding as well.  Should you find yourself caught in one, cover all parts of yourself, particularly head, face and mouth, and seek shelter immediately, even if your best option is to crouch behind a large rock.

3. Flash Floods

Flash floods occur when rainfall or water suddenly exceeds the ground’s capacity to absorb it. They are particularly dangerous in the desert, as they can often occur far upstream of your actual location, where for all intents and purposes things may seem perfectly calm. They’re depth and intensity can be deceiving and deadly, so always be extremely cautious and aware of desert gullies and stream beds, even if the weather appears fair. In fact, according to the USGS, more people drown in the desert on account of flash flooding than die of thirst. Anticipation and avoidance are your best weapons against this phenomenon.

About Joshua Valentine: A lifelong outdoors and survival expert, Josh combines years of backcountry experience  with a lifetime of unique and inventive fitness training, designed to prepare the body and mind for the rigors of the wilderness.  Josh holds certifications as a Wilderness First Responder (WFR), American Canoe Association Whitewater Raft Guide (ACA), and Personal Trainer (AFAA).  He is also a recorded Adirondack 46’r and White Mountain 4,000 Footer.

All photos by Joshua Valentine



Joel Jefferson
Written by Joel Jefferson

Joel is one of the original founders of SurvivalCache.com. After college, he joined the USMC where he served as an (0302) Marine Infantry Officer. Joel is an avid outdoorsman and spends much of his free time in the mountains. Joel’s hobby is researching survival gear & weapons as well as prepping. Read his full interview here. Read more of Joel's articles.

2 thoughts on “Wilderness Survival: Part 2 – Desert”

  1. Thank you great job on the post.
    I would like to post that if you know you have to try to cross or survive a desert climate or live in one and want to have supplies / equipment in case of emergencies or bugging out I would have a few items that are not usually on "THE LIST"

    This is a good place to remind about a Fresnel lens I have bought them for less than a dollar called page magnifiers. A Fresnel lens (pronounced /freɪˈnɛl/ fray-NEL or /ˈfrɛznəl/ FREZ-nel)
    The old projection TV's had these as part of the view screen.
    The desert is a perfect place for these you can boil water in seconds create heat that can melt Iron steel copper aluminum brass and lead in small amounts as to the size of the lens a good size one can burn your arm to the bone if you pass it through the focal convergence.
    the Internet has plenty of information on them and if there is sun you can practice in your back yard danger children should never be allowed to play with them unsupervised IMHO.

    Stainless steel water bottles a couple of them I ended up with the large KRU 82 vodka stainless bottles.
    You will need silicone plugs to fit them {silicone will withstand temps to 550 degrees
    and 6 to 10 foot of 1/4 inch copper tubing to make a simple still one to another.
    A piece of HDPE plastic most larger inflatable pools or pond retainer material is made of this I only recommend this as it is very durable does not degrade in sunlight, and can be used as a shelter / tarp
    This is for a condensation pit a dug hole a container in the center with this material over it held down with sand or dirt around the rim in the middle a rock to make an upside down pyramid over the container in the middle.
    over night any moisture will condense against the plastic and run down the pyramid into the container.
    You can increase output by adding plants that you crush around the container in the center doing more than one pit and with crushed cactus around the container it can make water during the day all day using polyethylene or ice maker tubing as a straw into the container you can get a drink without undoing your work.
    as the vegetation releases its moisture you will have to replace it.

    I Only state copper tubing for your still as you will have to boil the other container and the heat will effect anything other than copper and copper is commonly used for potable water, as are the stainless bottles.
    the ice maker tubing is so light you won't notice it added to your kit.

    there are variations on this system people have used damp dirt moved it to the pit in the sun to extract the water
    2 containers are the best in any situation one can be dirty the other processed water.
    I have had a running disagreement with those who preach Nalgene bottles I am not against them but only as a 3 piece of equipment not as primary in any situation.
    water requires hot enough temps and often enough that nothing but stainless will hold up aluminum is better than plastic but again not anywhere near as long lasting and price is not that much different in the scheme of things.

    Copper tubing make a heck of a arrow head easy to form hard enough to penetrate easy to sharpen on a rock if need be, as detachable head for bow fishing and done with some hand tools so I buy scrap copper tubing 2 inches or longer of all sizes.

    As in any situation your region will dictate your survival equipment and how durable it must be.
    If it does not suit your terrain you may as well be hauling an anchor as in carrying or using it will work you to death.
    if it is not long enough thick enough or have a heavy duty handle you will find it works you your not working IT.

    I would also have a "GOOD" folding cot as was posted you need to stay off the ground especially at night.
    Good luck your going to need it <};=}

    Here is a site about poisonous Cacti / cactus and some are technically succulents
    like the Candelabras the pencil and Christmas cactus some barrel cactus are poison look for milky sap as it has an alkaloid content there is a lot of information on this page I stick to prickly pear edible can cook it and obvious. http://www.desertmuseum.org/books/nhsd_echinocact

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