If you live in, near, or travel through a desert, listen up because this article was written for you. Deserts present a unique survival challenge.
They are unlike other survival environments and have a totally different set of survival rules to follow. That’s why I’ve put together this list of my 10 best desert survival tips.
Desert Survival Introduction
The dry, hot, thirsty desert, where the bleached bones of too many unprepared souls still remain. Picked clean in years past by a flock of opportunistic vultures.
And yet, this dangerous desert environment never even crosses your mind from the safety of your air conditioned vehicle. Because you’re safely isolated from its unbearable heat. You absently take a drink from a chilled water bottle to quenching your thirst. You don’t have a care in the world.
But don’t be fooled just one silly mishap and you’ll get your chance to experience this unforgiving place.
Are you prepare for it? I sure hope so.
And not only does the desert inflict its pain with heat and dry alone, but it has more hidden survival traps to offer. Dangerous ones such as venomous snakes, scorpions, dust storms and flash floods.
So here are my 10 best lifesaving desert survival tips to help you prepare, adapt, and overcome.
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1 – Tell Someone You Trust Where You’re Going
Anytime you plan to venture into or through a desert, make the smart choice of telling someone. Heck, this is a wise survival tip for any outdoor adventure, not just the desert.
Have you ever heard the name, Aron Ralston?
His story is famous in the survival realm. His “adventure” was captured in the movie; 127 hours.
Aron took a solo trip into the desert for a bit of canyoneering. But accidents happen, and his hand gets crushed by a shifting boulder.
I won’t ruin the movie for those who haven’t seen it yet. But believe me, he ends up severely regretting not telling anyone where he was going.
Don’t make this same mistake.
You should tell someone you trust. Someone who will notice if you go missing.
Telling a random gas station attendant on the edge of small town U.S.A. doesn’t count. They won’t notice should you go missing. And if by some miracle they do, they probably won’t care enough to contact the authorities.
Instead, tell a family member or a close friend. Let them know when you are leaving, exactly where you’re going, and when you expect to be back. And resist the urge to deviate from your plan once shared.
Because if something horrible does happen, that person will alert rescuers in a timely manner. And they’ll have a very specific area to focus their search efforts.
2 – Keeping Cool Is Priority 1
This desert survival tip might seem a bit counter-intuitive at first. Because if you get stranded in a desert with no water, shouldn’t seeking water be your number 1 priority? Deserts are hot, and water is hard to find, right?
Yes, that’s true. However, wandering in the deserts brutal heat searching for water will increase your dehydration rate.
Or another way to think about hydration is using a very simple math equation. [Water In (-) Water Out].
Where [Water In] equals Water Consumed and [Water Out] equals Water Eliminated through waste and sweat.
So dehydration begins when this equation gets out of balance. When [Water In] is less than [Water Out] for a significant period of time. And if this balance is not eventually corrected it will lead to death.
Now, using this basic hydration equation, there are two ways to reduce the speed of death by dehydration.
- You can either find and consume water (i.e. increase [Water In])
- Or mitigate water losses (i.e. decrease [Water Out])
And in a brutally hot North American desert, in the middle of the day, mitigating water loss is the smarter choice. A better survival option than stumbling around searching for an oasis that probably doesn’t exist.
The risk/reward of searching for a rare water source with the sun beating down sucks. You are guaranteed to lose a lot of water through sweat. While there’s only a slim chance of finding enough water to replenish the amount you lost.
That’s what I call a sucker’s bet.
Instead, seek shade, and get some rest during the hottest part of the day. You’re going to need it since you’ll be strategically active in the evenings when the temperatures drop. That’s when it’s time to travel, search for water, food, and build a solar still.
Also, avoiding sitting directly on the hot ground. Desert ground that’s been baking in the sun for hours will retain that heat. Instead, try to find ground that’s been in the shade for a while.
3 – Learn How To Make A Solar Still
If you often travel in or near a desert, do yourself a favor and stash some thin plastic in your survival pack or vehicle. Why? Because this gives you the ability to make a solar still. And if you can craft a solar still, you can collect some much-needed water.
Solar stills are ingenious yet simple survival contraptions. They’re designed to create a miniature “greenhouse”. Heat enters through the plastic vapor barrier but gets trapped and cannot escape.
This increasing heat forces the moisture in the soil to vaporize. Creating a trapped humid atmosphere under the vapor barrier.
Then once night comes, the temperatures will drop and the moisture in the air will condense on the plastic. When setup properly you can collect this condensed water in a small container.
Here’re the basic steps to create a desert solar still:
- Dig a round hole a few feet wide and a few feet deep
- Setup a small collection pit at the center of the hole using a plastic sheet
- Stretch your thin sheet of plastic across the hole
- Find some moderately heavy rocks to hold the plastic sheet in place around the hole
- You want the plastic sheet up off the ground but with a slight drop to the middle of the hole. Do this by adding a medium sized rock to the center of the sheet.
Now the plastic sheet will help collect the moisture. Water will slowly build up on the plastic sheet and as it builds, it will run towards the center of the plastic.
Then once the water collecting in the center of the plastic sheet get heavy enough, it will drop into your small collection pit.
In a desert, this process probably won’t fill an entire water bottle, but it may be just enough to slow your rate of dehydration.
Here’s a video showing you step by step how to build this desert survival tip.
4 – Don’t Worry About Food
This desert survival tip boils down to statistics and probabilities.
The good news is your odds of dying of starvation is a desert survival situation is very low. Why? Because you’ll likely be long dead from dehydration, injury, or rescued before starvation sets in.
A relatively healthy person can survive at least three weeks with no food. Your body will begin by using your fat reserves and then stealing your muscle fibers to keep you going.
Since death by starvation is a slow process, save your energy for other survival priorities.
Now with that said, don’t be an idiot and pass up a free lunch if one happens to present itself. If you stumble on some bird eggs, snatch a rodent passing by or can quickly kill a snake then, by all means, eat up.
But if a food source doesn’t readily present itself, try to ignore the grumbling noises coming from your stomach. You got more critical survival issues to worry about right now.
5 – Don’t Build Fires During The Day
You should build fires; just not during the heat of the day.
For one, building a fire takes energy. And remember, we need to save our energy and mitigate water loss by avoiding sweating. Plus, fires are hot, duh!
So the last thing you need in the middle of a brutally hot desert day is more heat.
But what about using a fire for signaling? During the day, it’s better to use a signaling mirror (if you have one) or a shiny knife blade. These tools work great to flash bright sunlight at a passing helicopter or airplane.
The exception to this rule is if you have a way to create thick black smoke. If you’re stranded with your vehicle, then drain its oil and burn it. Burning oil creates thick black smoke that rescuers will spot from many miles.
So the best time to build a fire in a desert is at night, for three reasons:
- A rescue team will spot even a small fire at long distances in a desert environment.
- Deserts can get bitterly cold at night. Sometimes cold enough to make hypothermia a concern. Especially if the only thing you’re wearing is shorts and a tank top. So you’ll need the warmth from a fire to keep you alive.
- Fires also help keep desert predators at bay such as coyotes, bobcats, or mountain lions.
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6 – Keep An Eye Out For Rattlesnakes
Speaking of dangerous animals, in a desert you’re more likely to die from a rattlesnake bite than getting mauled by a bobcat.
So you’ll need to be diligent about the places you choose to rest. Carefully scope out the perimeter of any area you plan to sit or sleep. The last thing you can afford is to end up with a poisonous snake bite.
Those are what I like to call “survival game enders”. You’ll also want to watch out for sidewinders.
Now, many people fear scorpions in the desert but scorpion stings are rare. Pay attention to where you’re sitting down and you should be safe from scorpions.
7 – Flash Floods Are Rare But Deadly
Yes, you read that correctly, you need to think about floods in a desert. Why? Because the desert ground is dry and hard from lack of regular rain. So when a rare deluge does occur, it won’t soak in. It will run and collect, turning quickly into a dangerous flash flood.
Plus, flash floods are a leading cause of deaths in the desert. As recently as September of 2015, 18 people died in desert flash floods near the Utah-Arizona border in the United States.
So while the downpour may seem an answer to your survival prayers, it may end up being your ultimate demise. Especially if you’re swept away by the powerful flood waters.
Being carried away by a mass of rushing water is a helpless situation. The initial wall of water will knock you off your feet, sweep you away, and drown you in seconds. Or it may just bash you against a nearby rock cliff.
So flash floods should be a matter of a concern when choosing a resting location.
The bottom line is dry channels, ditches, and lake beds are poor choices for taking a nap. These low-lying sites can fill up quickly during torrential downpours.
Flash floods are also deadly in slot canyons, so be extra cautious if traveling through them.
Here’s some great video footage giving you an idea of how powerful these desert flash floods can be.
8 – Don’t Leave Your Vehicle
If stranded in a desert with a vehicle, Do. Not. Leave. It.
The only exception to this desert survival tip if you know for a fact that civilization is only a few miles away. In that case, it may make more sense to abandon your vehicle and make your way to civilization.
But be smart about it and do so in the morning, evening or night and not in the heat of the day. Just in case, it’s a longer distance that you anticipated.
Ok, so why should you stay with your vehicle? Because it’s an object that will stick out to rescuers from the air and it’s full of useful survival items.
Here are a few of the best ones:
- Mirrors – Vehicle mirrors work great for shining bright sunlight at passing rescuers.
- Fuel – Gas or diesel are both flammable and can be used for making fires. However, gas is also very explosive so take extreme care if you decide to use it.
- Oil – If you’re able to collect the engine oil and burn it during daylight hours, it will spew out thick black smoke. This smoke will draw the attention of rescuers from miles around.
- Battery – You can use a battery to make sparks. Sparks can be used to create fire.
- Horn – Loud noises may get the attention of others who are in the area.
- Hood – A raised hood is a universal signal for a broken down vehicle and someone who needs help.
- Roof – Stay under the roof of your vehicle to keep out of the sun. Just make sure you keep the doors and windows open to avoid sitting in an oven.
So as you can see, there are a lot of solid survival reasons to stay with your vehicle. Unfortunately, the unprepared masses let fear take over.
They will get scared at the first signs of trouble. Panic causes them to ditch their vehicles right away, which often turns out to be a poor choice.
And if you’re forced to ditch your vehicle be smart and leave a note behind. A couple of scribbled out sentences will tell rescuers the direction you headed and when you left.
Both vital bits of information to help rescuers find you faster.
9 – Surviving Dust Storms
Dust storms suck. They suck even worst if you’re forced to endure them out in the elements. If you have a vehicle, ride out the storm in it.
You may want to shut the doors and roll up the windows too, but be mindful of overheating. You may need to crack the windows to avoid sitting in an oven.
If no vehicle is available, then look for large boulders or low-lying outcrops for shelter. You can use these natural features to create a shield to block the worst of it.
You should also create a makeshift survival bandana to cover your nose and mouth. The last thing you need when you’re suffering from severe thirst is to add a bunch of sand and dust to your lungs.
Hopefully, the dust storm passes quickly and clears out after a few minutes. Because it won’t be much fun riding out one that lasts hours.
And honestly, the only thing you can do with dust storms is hunker down and wait them out.
Here’s some dust storm footage to give you a sense of what it’s like to experience one.
10 – Cactus Water Is A Last Resort
Drinking more than a few sips of cactus water can make you severely sick. We’re talking diarrhea sick. And diarrhea accelerates the dehydration process.
So if you’re truly in the final stages of death via dehydration then try sipping a little bit of cactus water. You’ve got nothing to lose at that point.
But in general, avoid drinking cactus water; desert survival isn’t a Hollywood movie.
However, there are a few edible and useful plants in the desert you should take the time to learn. Start by watching this video.
Desert Survival Tips Action Plan
So those are my 10 best desert survival tips. But before you go, I have a question for you, “what are you going to do with this information?” If the answer is nothing, then you’re no better off than before you read this article.
Instead, do yourself a favor and follow my advice to help:
Always have your essential everyday carry survival gear with you. No exceptions. It’s a fundamental rule of survival and preparedness.
If you’re on foot, throw your everyday survival gear in a pack. If you’re in a vehicle, toss your survival pack in the back.
That way if life decides to spit you out into the hot dry desert, you’ll have your essential gear to help you survive it.