How to Survive in the Desert?

Don't Let Your Hopes Dry Up - The Ultimate Desert Survival Guide!

How to survive in the desert

Getting lost in the desert is not as likely as you see in some movies, but never be too sure. If it were to ever happen, it could be one of the scariest situations you have ever been in. It is important to know how to survive in the desert! The emptiness and extreme conditions of a desert environment can be really daunting even for the bravest people. It is very important to know how you might be able to survive in the desert and make your way back to civilization.

It is very likely to have your car break down in the middle of the desert. Extreme heat can cause your car to overheat and breakdown. Another plausible emergency situation wherein you land up lost in the desert is when you go for a hike to the desert and lose your way. Throughout this guide, we will tell you the dos and don’ts that you must keep in mind in case you find yourself deserted – literally!

Why Is It Hard to Survive in the Desert?

Difficult to find water in deserts
It is difficult to find water in deserts!

Before you learn the dos and don’ts, you first need to know what makes survival in the desert so difficult. Two of the main reasons why deserts are among the harshest environments to be in are:

  • Deserts are extremely dry and finding water becomes exceeding difficult. Humans require a lot of water to survive and the deserts are unable to fulfill that requirement properly. Let alone humans, most animals and plants cannot even survive in the desert, therefore making the chances of human survival even more difficult.
  • Desert environments have extreme temperatures. Be ready to face extremely hot days and extremely cold nights, if you are stuck in the middle of the desert. The risk of both hypothermia and hyperthermia is very high.
Desert environments have extreme temperatures
Desert environments have extreme temperatures!

Prerequisites for A Desert Survival Situation

Before thinking about what to do if you’re lost in the desert, you first need to learn what you need to do even before stepping into the desert. Following there prerequisites will automatically increase your chances of survival in a dire situation. They are as follows:

1. Protection From Direct Sunlight With Appropriate Clothes

Protect yourself from direct sunlight in the desert with appropriate clothes
 Protect yourself from direct sunlight in the desert with appropriate clothes!

What are the sources of water loss in your body? Urination and perspiration. Even without thinking about being in a desert survival situation, one should always come prepared. It is recommended to wear lightweight clothes that are also loose. This allows your sweat to stick to your skin, slowing down the process of water evaporation.

Other than that, you should focus on covering as much skin as possible. You should try wearing gloves, hats, sunglasses and other accessories that may protect you or areas of your body from being directly exposed to sunlight.

Also important, is the color of your clothing. Dark colored clothing will absorb sunlight more than light colored clothing. Light shade clothes are known to reflect sunlight better than dark clothes. At the same time, dark shaded clothes provide us extra protection against the harmful UV rays of the sun. Therefore it is recommended to buy light shaded clothes that have a ultraviolet protection factor of 30+.

While light weight clothes are recommended for the day times, you should always pack warm clothes for nights because at nights the temperature drops really low. It is definitely recommended to carry an emergency blanket to shelter yourself from the cold and harsh environment at night

2. Protection From Dust and Wind

Protect yourself from dust and wind in the desert
Protect yourself from dust and wind in the desert!

Dust storms are a common phenomenon in desert areas. Even if not at a stormy level, high speed winds can cause dust and sand to fly around. This can be a massive obstruction when trying to walk through the desert. Vision gets obstructed, your skin and lips can get chapped and sand can find its way into your nose and ears.

It is recommended to cover up your face as much as possible, leaving just enough area for your eyes to see around. Use ski goggles or sunglasses to protect your eyes from the flying sand.

3. Carry Lots of Water

Carry lots of water in the desert
Carry lots of water in the desert!

It is the best to carry lots of extra water when you’re venturing out into the dry and hot terrains of a desert. The average human loses 900 ml of sweat every hour, while walking in temperatures close to 40ºC. So you can imagine how much drinking water supply will be needed under normal circumstances, let alone in an emergency situation.

4. Carry Nutrient Rich Food

Carry nutritious food in the desert
Carry nutritious food in the desert!

While carrying chocolates, chips and sodas might be a great thing for normal circumstances, you must always assume the risk of things going wrong. It is recommended to pack small foods that carry high nutrient value. This way you can carry more and have your food last longer. Items such as energy bars, trail mix, dry fruits etc. are recommended.

5. Always Carry a Survival Kit

Carry a survival kit in the desert
Carry a survival kit in the desert!

Whenever venturing outdoors, be it to the mountains, snowy cliffs, on the waters or the desert, always carry survival kits. A survival pack consists of items that may come in handy in an unforeseen event. Most survival gear includes:

  • Emergency blankets
  • Cordage
  • First aid kit
  • Fire starters
  • Powerful flashlight or headlamp
  • Pocket Knife
  • Signal Mirror
  • Compass and Map
  • Goggles or a dust mask
  • Water purification tablets or filtration system

The Journal of Chemical Education also mentions the above listed items as important, when expediting in a desert! The best survival kits on the market comprise all of the aforementioned items!

You can read more about survival items in our basic survival skills guide.

6. Learn the Terrain/Area

Learn the desert terrain!
Learn the desert terrain!

Last but definitely not the least, you should learn all about the terrain and area you are venturing into. Potential spots for shelter and rest, potential water spots, areas of civilization should all be learnt and market on a map in case you are lost in the desert. Always carry a compass and a map.

How to Survive in the Desert if You’re Lost?

We have already discussed how you can make easy work of your desert expedition, but what to do if you are lost in the desert or if your car breaks down? We have the perfect guide for your survival needs. Let us take a look!

1. Don’t Panic and Think Calmly

Panicking in a panicky situation is your worst enemy. As much as an oxymoron that is, it is true. Humans lose their ability to think rationally the moment panic sets in. Going on a wild goose chase will probably cost you your life in such a situation. Calmly consider all your possible options under such a situation and formulate a plan. Also, brew coffee for yourself if you have a portable coffee maker!

2. Decide If You Should Move or Stay Put

It is essential to know whether moving from your position will be better for you or will staying put increase your chances of being rescued. Moving around will need you to spend your energy and will probably increase your chances of being dehydrated. In case you decide to stay put, you should only spend your energy on gathering essential items for your survival viz. food, water and shelter items.

3. Find Water

Staying put or on the move, first and foremost consideration for anyone should be finding water. Do not rely on just the water you’re left with, always find more. Human beings can survive without food for weeks but without water, maybe just 3-4 days. Sweat loss and dehydration that will come with hot climates will reduce this 3-4 day period even further! You should drink water judiciously in desert conditions.

Here are some sources of water you can seek out:

  • Morning Dew – Early morning dew gathering can be a good source of water. Although you will find very less green vegetation where due can gather, if you do manage to find some, even a few drops of dew can make a lot of difference. Half buried rocks are cold on the underside. You can turn them over early morning before the sun rises to allow condensation to form on them
  • Rain Water – A desert is an area defined by the lack of the rainfall it experiences. It is very less likely but is still possible. If you’re lucky enough to experience rain while searching for water in the desert, try to collect as much of it as you can in containers or bottles.
  • Dried Up Water Beds – If you find any water bed with a damp service, dig away! There is a good chance you will find water underneath which you can then purify to drink.
  • Desert Plants – You can extract the pulp from cacti to use as a suitable alternative to liquid water. Sucking on the pulp will give your body the water it needs. Green vegetation may also indicate that there is a water source nearby. Water can also be found inside hollow tree trunks.

4. Build or Find Shelter

Shelter should be given as much importance as water. Water keeps your body hydration and shelter keeps your body from dehydrating by protecting you from the sun and keeping your body temperature low.

If you were smart enough to carry a tent with you, bless your life! But if you do not have a tent to rely on, you can find shade under hanging cliffs. Try to stay out of sunlight as much as possible.

If none of the above is possible, what’s left to do is building a desert shelter for yourself. Try finding higher ground as deserts can be subject to a flash flood. You can make a quick shelter by using the most basic items you can find in deserts. Follow the following steps:

  • Find high grounds to avoid flash foods
  • Dig a trench, 2-3 feet deep, between two sand dunes
  • Using the dug out sand, build mounds on three sides of your trench
  • Place sticks on all corners of the trench and cover it with a cloth or tarp
  • Secure the cloth or tarp properly lest it is blown away
  • Make sure you have proper ventilation from one side
  • Be sure to carry a sleeping bag and blankets when venturing out to the deserts

5. Find Food – Desert Plants, Animals, Insects

Finding food can be excruciatingly difficult in barren areas such as deserts. We would always recommend you to steer clear of areas and paths that are completely dry and have no vegetation whatsoever, when on a desert hike or drive. Here are some potential sources of food in the desert.

  • Reptiles – You will only find lizards and snakes in abundance a hot desert climate. They hide under flat rocks before the sun comes out. Catching snakes and cooking them for food can be a great source of protein. Use sticks with one side with a V shape. Trap the snake or lizard’s head in the V and cut it off. Stay aware as the fangs can poison you.
  • Edible Insects – Some insects are okay to be eaten. Grasshoppers, tarantulas, praying mantis are some insects you can cook and eat, so long as you catch them. Stay away from dangerous insects such as scorpions as their sting can cause a lot of harm.
  • Edible Plants – If all fails, you can always resort to eating plants that are edible. They might not provide as much nutritional value as animals, but something better than nothing. Keep your knowledge up to par so you know which plant and what part of it is edible and what is harmful.
  • Hunt Animals – You might be able to find small animals such as rabbits, mongooses etc. in the desert. Seek out rabbit holes and try to hunt whatever animal you can. Also try to spot fresh carcasses that might have been hunted by coyote or birds. Scare them away and steal their kill. Be aware about dangerous animals such as mountain lions, cougars etc.

6. Travel At Night

Heat exhaustion is a real bane and should be avoided at all costs. You shouldn’t let your skin temperature rise due to exposure to the hot sun. Therefore it is recommended that you travel during the nights. Sunset time is the best for traveling because you will not find better conditions to travel otherwise.

You should avoid walking in the mornings to keep your hydration levels maintained. Even a few hours in the sun can drain you out.

7. Increase Your Chances of Being Rescued

If you have decided to stay put and wait to be rescued, you should try to maximize your chances. How can you do that?

  • Signals are key. Audio or video signals are very important if you are lost. Something as simple as shouting out “Help!” can be a lifesaver under dire consequences.
  • Signal mirrors or any reflective surface can be extremely helpful. They help in making signals to rescue planes that may be hovering over the horizon.
  • Signal fires are very useful. You could use green vegetation to create a dense smoke that rises really high. If you are stranded with your car, burn your spare tire. It will create a lot of black smoke that can be seen from miles away.
  • Try to wear clothes that will make you contrast your surroundings. It makes it easier for you to be spotted by someone at a distance.
  • Try to keep your shelter visible, especially if you plan on sleeping. You don’t want to miss out on someone nearby. Always make it obvious that you are lost and are situated where you are. Hanging out clothes or even drawing a message on the ground can help!

Final Words

With that, we come to the end of our survival guide for the deserts. This covers everything you need to know before you head to the Grand Canyon for the trek of your life! Make sure you are as prepared as possible for you never know when something can go wrong.

Always be prepared for the worst and hope for the best. If you have any questions, queries or suggestions, please feel free to let us know in the comments below!

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