How to Survive in the Desert


Desert Survival Tricks


(Survival in the American Southwest)

© copyright 2004, by Gary Benton 

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Many areas of the world are arid and seem to completely lacking water. I wrote the word “seem” on purpose. In fact, these areas do receive water, but not regularly. Some deserts can go for long periods, perhaps years, without water and then experience a heavy rain. For a survivor though, the desert environment is a harsh and often victorious enemy. It is unforgiving of mistakes and often your first mistake will be your last.


Desert Survival is never easy. Just being in a desert is uncomfortable, and it becomes almost unbearable when you combine the physical and psychological factors of survival. But, with world being smaller now than it was even fifty years ago, there is always a chance you could end up in a desert environment. Or, perhaps you live in or near the American southwest. What makes desert survival so different than, say, mountain, general, or even arctic survival? There are a number of factors, but lets consider the lack of water and the extreme heat as the two big ones. As you read more, you will discover some of the dangers associated with survival in the desert.


If forced to survive in a desert environment, your first step is to seek shelter immediately. The heat of a desert, at times as high as 120 degrees F, can kill you in just a few hours. Look for an outcrop of rock, the shady side of a gully or streambed, or any shade that you can find. Initially you are looking for an emergency shelter for a few hours perhaps, not a long term shelter. A better shelter can be constructed once the sun goes down. Just remember, you must get out of the sun and into the shade.


Keep your whole body covered if you can. Keep your sleeves rolled down and your hat on. Never remove boots, socks, or any piece of clothing in the direct sunlight. Additionally, you should cover the back of your neck to protect it from the sun. Experienced individuals often remove a t-shirt and use it as a scarf. Or, I have seen them push one end of the shirt up under and cap, and allow the other end to hang over the neck. Regardless of the technique you use, you should keep your neck covered at all times. It reduces water loss through sweating and it also prevents sunburn, often a painful situation for a desert survivor. Dress as much like an Arab as you can, they are the masters of the desert.


Immediately when you become concerned about your location, or believe yourself to be lost, STOP. If you are not one hundred percent of your exact location, DO NOT continue walking. And, make sure even if you do know where you are headed it is a very short distance. The desert heat can kill you in very little time. Let’s consider some basic water facts about travel in the desert. Most survival manuals will state in the 120F heat of a desert, if you rest and do nothing, you might live for two days. If you go meandering out into the desert, you most likely won’t cover five miles. However, if you know where you are, wait until nighttime, you could cover up to 25 miles. So, STOP. Go no further and seek shade immediately!


Once you have a shade and you have decided to stop, what next? THINK! Did you file a trip plan (always recommended by this author) with a friend, wife, or your boss? Who knows where you are, how long you intend to be there, and the exact time and date you intend to return. Someone should always know these details prior to your trip. It will speed up your rescue a great deal. Be sure to phone in with any changes to your plans. Nothing is more frustrating to rescue teams than looking for someone who is not where they are supposed to be.


While you are in the shade thinking, you should also inventory the equipment you have on hand. I strongly recommend that you carry at least a minimum survival kit on you at all times in the field. (If you are unsure what a survival kit should contain, go to my articles listing on the left side of this page and you will find a couple of ideas about survival kits.) If you have a proper minimum survival kit, you will have:


1. A quality penknife or jack knife.

2. Condoms for water storage, unlubricated.

3. Water proof matches

4. Flint and steel or a metal match

5. Water purification tables

6. A long strip of aluminum foil folded up to cook with

7. Fishing kit, i.e., hooks, sinkers, and some line. Nothing fancy.

8. Commercial back packing first aid kit (with instructions). I carry a very small one.

9. One small pack of gum and one of hard candy (energy)

10. A small signal mirror

11. About 25 feet of cord

12. A space blanket


In the desert you should become nocturnal, once the sun goes down, your “day” will start. So, as you think, consider the type of shelter design you want to use, look the area over for possible sources of water, and find out how much water you have on hand. Do all of this from the shade of your temporary shelter.


In the desert, always think before you act. Do nothing that is not absolutely life threatening in the daytime. You want to keep your sweating down to the minimum.


Once the sun goes down, you should get busy. Your first priority is to construct a shelter. If you have a space blanket, a casualty blanket or a poncho, you can make a simple lean-to type of shelter, using the 25 feet of cord in your survival kit. I also carry a casualty blanket (a super quality “NASA” designed space blanket) and a poncho with me at all times in my survival gear. This extra equipment gives me two materials for shelter construction and one for sleeping (counting the space blanket in the minimum survival kit), if needed.


Simply secure one end of the material to the ground (called the secured end), using stakes or heavy stones, and angle the other end of the material up (called the angled end). Do not make the angle too steep, or you won’t get the needed sun protection you need. I suggest you make the angled end no higher than 4 feet off the ground. At the angled end tie it to bushes, stakes, or rocks. Then, place five of six pieces of brush on the material, and then cover the whole thing with material once more…it will be, shelter material, brush, and shelter material. I use a casualty blanket for the first layer of material and my space blanket as the top layer of material. I place the space blanket on the shelter with the florescent orange side up, to aid as an emergency signal.


Most survival professionals agree to the need for this type of “sandwich” shelter. It forms a dead air space between you and the sun. It insulates and keeps the shelter cooler than a single layered shelter. Remember to only construct this shelter in the cool of the evening, NOT during the day. Now that you have a way of keeping the water you have in your system, let’s look at how to procure additional water needed for your survival.


First, do not ration your water. However, If you drink more than you actually need, you will pass it out in the form of urine. And, when you urinate, check the color of your urine. Dark colored urine indicates you need to increase your water intake. Many survival professional recommend that have a least one-quart of water for every two lost. But, remember, less fluid will NOT result in less sweat! In extreme heat, you may not even feel yourself sweat because the sweat evaporations very quickly. Always be on the look out for sources of additional water.


So, you need water, right? Not sure where to find it? Well, here a few suggestions. Not all of them work all the time. But, all are worth the attempt. First, keep in mind that water flows downhill. That means that water may be at low points in your area.


One place to look for water, using the above information, is on the outside bend, lowest point, of a dry streambed. Do NOT dig for water during the day; you will lose liquid from your body you might not be able to replace. Do not do anything that causes you to sweat that is not necessary. Keep that water inside of you!


Another possible water source can be added by make a solar still or using condensation bags. However, both methods require plastic sheets of material.


To construct a solar still, dig a hole approximately 3 feet across and about 2 feet deep. Make a smaller hole, or slump in the middle of the hole. In this slump you need to put a container, pan, can, or pot to collect the water. Once the hole has been dug, cover the hole with a plastic sheet. Be sure to secure the edges of the sheet with sand and rocks. Next, place a rock in the center of the sheet, so it sags down.


How it works is simple. The temperature in the hole, both the soil and air, rises due to the sun. This increase in heat causes vapors, which condensates on the inside of the plastic sheet and runs down. It then drops into the container in the sump hole.


Condensation Bags are easy to construct. Leaves and small branches may be cut and placed into clear plastic bags. How it works: The heat from the sun causes the liquids in the foliage to be extracted, much like the solar still, and collect in the bag. However, this method may produce bitter water and the taste test should be used to determine if it is safe to drink. If the water has a bitter taste, do not use it for drinking. WARNING: This method of water procurement may produce water with toxins and thus not safe to drink.


Another method of procuring water is by using a transpiration bag. In this method a large plastic bag is placed over a living limb of a tree or large bush. (I suggest it be high enough to be off of the ground). Insert the limb or bush just like you would a hand into a mitten. Then, tie the open end of the bag around the tree or bush. At the closed end of the bag, tie a rock so the bag is weighted and forms a collection point for the water. How it Works: Like the solar still and the condensation bag, it uses heat and evaporation.


Cactus as a source of water is often, in my opinion, over rated. We have all seen the cowboy movie where the hero, lost in the desert, kicks over a barrel cactus and is saved. It just doesn’t happen that way. Some cactus can even have a bad taste and may not be suitable for your use. Eat or drink nothing that has a bitter taste.


In our American southwest there are many different kinds of cactus from the barrel cactus to the prickly pear. All can be used for gaining additional moisture, but it can take a great deal of work to open a full sized barrow cactus. Not to mention the fight you will have with the spiny thorns that protect it. If you decide to take on a cactus, do it in the cool of the evening. (Chunks of freshly cut cactus can be added to the sloping sides of your solar still to increase the water level collected). Using caution, remove the top of the barrow cactus. Once the top is off, you will find a white a white substance that reminds me of “water melon meat” inside (this is a liquid filled inner tissue). Using your survival knife cut out hand-size chunks and squeeze the moisture from it.


The prickly pear is easier to collect and prepare. I use a large sharp stick and a good knife. I stab the round prickly pear with the stick the then cut it off with my knife. Then, returning to the fire, I simply burn the thorns off of the cactus. Make sure you sear the cactus well to remove even the smallest thorns.


Once the thorns are removed, I peel the green or purple colored outer substance off, and eat the inside. Prickly pear “meat” is so tasty, that in Arizona and New Mexico you can find jellies and candies made from it. It is the moisture filled inner tissue you want to chew, not the rough outer “bark.”


Use caution with all cacti. The thorns usually cause infections if you are unlucky enough to be “grabbed” by one. I use sharp sticks, knifes, and fires to handle cactus safely. Any injury from a cactus plant should be treated immediately to reduce the risk of infection.


Now, we had discussed the immediate requirements to survive, what about additional information? Well, you should also be aware of a few other things about the desert.


  • Food is not usually much of a problem. If you don’t have enough water, don’t eat. The USAF told us if we did not have more than ½ a liter of water a day NOT TO EAT. When your body processes food into waste, fluids from your body are used. So, if you do not have enough water in you, you can speed up dehydration by eating. Besides, most healthy North Americans can go for a long time without eating. Water is your primary concern in the desert. If you urine color is not dark, food intake may be considered.
  • Insects can be a problem at times. If your water source is adequate, you can always fix up a nice meal of bugs. See the article on my site on preparing insects as food sources. In any case, avoid scorpions, spiders, and other “may hurt you” bugs. This includes centipedes, or brightly colored insects.
  • Spiders are there with you as well. While the large spider most often seen in movies (the tarantula) is scary and it can bite, the bite is usually just disabling and very rarely fatal. And, yes, the tarantula lives in the desert of the American southwest. Be sure to always shake out your removed clothing and your boots prior to putting them on. You may be surprised what will set up home in your gear. Avoid any spider you see in the desert.
  • Snakes may be dangerous to you, but they can also provide a filling meal. For the sake of simplicity, we will consider only the American rattlesnake. As a safety consideration, always keep your clothing on and your boots (I would never even consider going into a desert with sneakers or shoes on). Additionally, use caution when you move around at night. Rattlesnakes do not always warn with a rattle prior to striking. Most snakebites occur to the legs, below the knees, or to a persons hands. The rattlesnake may be found in rocky areas, or in holes or shadows. Do not put your hands where you cannot see. If you see a snake, and know you can kill it, it does make an excellent source of food. Some states in the southwest have an annual rattlesnake roundup. These snakes are caught, killed, then cooked and eaten. I have had eaten rattlesnake and it tastes just like…snake, believe me, not chicken.
  • Lizards are found in the desert as well. The Gila Monster is seen at times in the American southwest. It is a fat, short, lizard with a rounded head and a bright yellowish colored body. It will run away from you if it can, so avoid cornering it. The bite is very poisonous and should be treated the same as a snakebite (I will soon have a new article out on the treatment of snake bites).


Surviving in a desert environment is never easy. Even for the best prepared and most knowledgeable there is no assurance of survival. The heat, dehydration, and hazards of desert survival often win in the end, even when against the most determined and prepared victim.


If you want to survive in the desert, you must maintain your body’s fluids, do nothing that is not absolutely necessary, and find ways to procure water. The key to living is to maintain your water level. Nonetheless, with the information provided in this article and with a strong determined will to survive, you too, will have the tools that could make the difference between your being another victim of the desert, or a survivor.


Take care and I will see you soon along the trail.


Desert Survival


Gary Benton has over 45 years of outdoor experience in camping, hiking, fishing, and other activities. He's no armchair survival man, he's walked the walk from the arctic to the desert and all the area in between. Gary has an associates degree in Search and Rescue, Survival Operations, a B.S. in Industrial Occupational safety, and all but his thesis completed for a M.S. in Counseling Psychology.
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