How Desert Survival Works

By: Charles W. Bryant
The Sahara Desert in Morocco.
Frans Lemmens/Getty Images

A stranger sets off across the desert in search of rescue. The sun beats down as he trudges up and over endless sand dunes. Up ahead an oasis appears, but it's only a cruel mirage. Eventually, the hapless victim succumbs to the elements and collapses to the sand. All seems lost until a kindly desert dweller saves the day with a canteen of water. The stranger is thrown on the back of a camel and taken to safety -- or sold into slavery, depending on the movie.

When we think of deserts, we usually picture a sea of sand, virtually no plant life and turban-clad sheiks riding camels. While there are many deserts that fit this description, they aren't all like they appear in the movies. In fact, only about 20 percent of the world's deserts are covered in sand. The other 80 percent is made up of pebbles, bedrock, desert soil and, yes, oases [source: USGS].


Roughly one-third of the Earth's land is desert [source: USGS]. There are many definitions of what makes a desert, but they all have a common element: very little water. The average amount of yearly rain, daily temperatures, plant and animal life and whether or not people inhabit the area are also considerations. The largest hot-weather desert in the world is the Sahara Desert in Africa. By definition, the largest desert of all is Antarctica, sometimes called the White Desert. The desert at the highest elevation in the world is the Qaidam Depression in China, at more than 8,500 feet (2,600 meters) above sea level. China also boasts one of the lowest deserts, the Turpan Depression, which is nearly 500 feet (150 meters) below sea level [source: USGS].

One common trait deserts share is that they're dangerous if you don't take the necessary precautions. If you found yourself stranded in one of these unfriendly environments, would you be able to survive? Or would you depend on the kindness of the camel-riding desert dweller? In this article, we'll teach you some of the things you'll need to know in order to survive the harsh conditions of the desert. Whether on foot or in your car, we'll walk you through the steps you should take to stay hydrated, prevent heat stroke and help you avoid snakes, scorpions, lizards and spiders.


Building a Fire and Finding Water in the Desert

Collecting Firewood in the Sahara
Doug Menuez / Getty Images

One thing you're going to need in order to survive in a hot-weather desert is water. The intense sunlight and heat you'll endure means you'll be sweating out most of your water. If you don't replace it fast enough, you'll suffer from dehydration.

The following are signs that dehydration may be setting in:


Mild dehydration:

  • Lack of saliva
  • Decreased frequency and amount of urine
  • Deep color and strong odor in urine

Moderate dehydration:

  • Even less urine
  • Dry mouth and sunken eyes
  • Rapid heartbeat

Severe dehydration:

  • No urine
  • Lethargy and irritability
  • Vomiting and diarrhea

[source: Mayo Clinic]

The other danger is heat casualty, which we'll go over in detail later on.

One thing that makes it more difficult to lower the body's temperature in the desert is a lack of shade and shelter. This means more heat, more sweat and, you guessed it -- the need for more water. It's generally thought that the human body needs about one gallon of water per day in this harsh environment. How harsh? The record high temperature for Death Valley, California, was 134 degrees Fahrenheit (56.6 Celsius) in July 1913. While this was a one-time reading, the average summer daytime temperature in Death Valley is about 110 degrees F (43.3 C) [source: USGS].

It's a common mistake for someone in a survival situation to try to ration his or her water. People are often found dead with water still in their canteens. Here's a survival axiom that could help save your life: Ration sweat, not water. And don't listen to your thirst meter -- if you only drink when you're thirsty, you'll be getting about two-thirds of the water you need.

If you're stranded in the desert without any water, follow these steps:

Cottonwood trees in Utah
Jeremy Woodhouse /Getty Images
  • If you find a trail, follow it. It may lead to civilization.
  • Look for birds in the morning and evening. They'll often circle over water.
  • Dig near cottonwoods, willows, sycamores, hackberry and cattails for groundwater.
  • Cactus fruit bears water -- but be careful, because some are poisonous. If you don't know your desert plants, don't risk it. There isn't a sure-fire indicator.
  • Breathe through your nose and avoid talking.
  • If you find wet sand, dig down to get to seeping water.

You can find more tips in How to Find Water in the Wild. That article also details how to build a solar still to acquire water. While that's a good idea in many survival scenarios, it's not wise to do so in the desert. You'll lose too much sweat for the small amount of water you'll be able to collect.

The other thing you'll want in the desert is fire. Even though daytime temps are severe, the desert can get very cool and even cold at night. Aside from providing warmth, fire will also:

  • Allow you to purify the water you may find
  • Provide a cooking flame
  • Give you light and a sense of security at night
  • Help ward off desert critters
  • Make smoke for a rescue signal

If you don't have a lighter, fear not -- just read about alternative techniques in How to Start a Fire without a Match.

In the next section, we'll give you some tips on how to survive the desert if you're stranded in your car.


Stranded in the Desert: In Your Car

Palm trees in a desert oasis
Sergio Pitamitz /Getty Images

Let's say you're driving southwest across the desert and you want to avoid the major highways in favor of the more scenic two-lane roads. Before you go, you should take some extra precautions. Being stranded in your car in 100-plus degree heat is nothing to take lightly.

The first thing to do is tell someone where you're headed and what route you're taking, and then stick to that route. Get your car checked out beforehand to ensure that everything runs properly. Bring a working spare tire, backup hoses and belts, a gas can and a couple of quarts of oil. Pack a few gallons of radiator water and some extra coolant in your trunk, in addition to several gallons of drinking water. Pack a blanket as well -- the desert may be hot during the day, but temperatures can fluctuate as much as 40 degrees in a 24-hour period.


If your car breaks down, stay with it. Even if the trouble isn't under the hood, raise it to indicate that you need help. The inside of your car is going to be like an oven, so don't sit in it. The desert floor can be as much as 30 degrees hotter than the air, so stay off the ground. If you're in a van with removable seats, pull one out and put it in the shade that your raised hood provides. If not, sit on a blanket, tarp or anything else you have that will insulate you from the ground heat. Even though you're hot, don't shed your clothes. Loose-fitting clothing will soak up your sweat and keep you cooler. Think of how much colder you are in wet clothing than no clothing at all. If you don't have a hat to wear, fashion a head covering with what you have on hand. You may look silly wearing a cardboard hat, but your goal is to survive, not win a beauty contest. Drink about a liter of water per hour to stay properly hydrated.

If your car is stuck in the sand, take a moment and assess the situation. Most people get stuck further by reacting and spinning the tires. Get out and let some air out of your tires, but not too much. You want them partially deflated, but not so much that you won't be able to drive once you get unstuck. Apply even and slow pressure on your gas pedal and turn the wheel slightly and slowly. If you find that can't get yourself free, raise your hood and follow the rules listed above.

But what if no help arrives and you're running low on water? You're going to have to hoof it. We'll give you some tips on the safest way to set out on foot on the following page.


Stranded in the Desert: On Foot

A hiker climbs a sand dune in Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park, Idaho
Steve Bly / Getty Images

If you're forced to leave your car or you're lost while hiking, you're going to need to make all the right moves in order to survive. Desert hiking shouldn't be treated the same as being on foot anywhere else.

The first rule of desert hiking is to walk slowly. You're going to have to force yourself to do this, because your natural reaction may be panic, which will increase your pace. Calm down -- this is your best bet to survive. Take a break for at least 10 minutes per hour. Look for large desert rocks to provide some shade. Use smaller rocks to prop your feet up, then take off your shoes and change your socks if you have fresh ones. It's important that you only take your shoes off if you can find shade and elevate your feet. If you take them off while standing in the sun, your feet may swell and you might not be able to get your shoes back on.


The time of day you choose to walk is also important. Try to stick to the early and later stages of the day to do the bulk of your hiking. Take a long break in the peak mid-day hours and rest in the shade. This will also help keep your spirits up. Whenever you have a choice on which route to take, choose the easier path. It's better to go a longer distance over easier terrain. Remember, water loss is your main enemy, so while you may save an hour or two by trekking up and over that small mountain, you'll be overexerting and putting yourself in danger. Zigzag back and forth to keep your exertion levels in check and take more rest breaks. If you're with other people, set your walking pace based on the slowest and least fit member and stick together. You should only send a single member of your group ahead of the pack if someone is injured and can't continue.

In the next section, we'll detail some of the dangers you'll face in the desert.


Dangers of the Desert: Heat Casualty

This mirage in the Namibian desert looks like a pool of water. But it's not. It's sand. Nothing but sand.
Pete Turner/Getty Images

Heat casualty is the most common danger you'll face in the desert. There are three basic types of heat illness:

Heat cramps are caused by a lack of salt due to excessive sweating. The sodium and chlorine in salt are electrolytes, and your muscles need them to function properly. Heat cramps feel like regular cramps -- the muscles in your legs, arms or stomach constrict, causing discomfort. When you feel the cramps setting in, stop walking and get into some shade and off your feet. Drink some water and, if you have it, add some salt to your canteen. If you've been saving that sports beverage, drink it -- it has a good amount of salt. After some rest and hydration, your cramps should go away.


Heat exhaustion is caused by further loss of water and salt. Some signs that you may be suffering from heat exhaustion are:

  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Excessive perspiration
  • Weakness
  • Pale skin tone
  • Vomiting or nausea
  • Cold and clammy skin
  • Fainting

Treat heat exhaustion much like cramps. Get in the shade, sit down, elevate your feet and drink water. If you have enough water, douse a towel or bandanna and apply it to your skin. Loosen your clothing and fan yourself.

Heat stroke is caused by a complete failure of the body's heat-regulating system. This means your body temperature rises rapidly and you're unable to sweat and cool down. The symptoms are:

  • Severe headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Muscle twitches or spasms
  • Confusion and aggression
  • Very high body temperature and hot, red skin
  • Increased heart rate
  • Hallucinations
  • Unconsciousness

Treat the same as heat exhaustion. Find shade, lie down, elevate feet, loosen clothing and drink water. You should also pour water on your skin and have someone in your group fan you vigorously. You could die from heat stroke, so it's no time to save your water. If you have some cool compresses in your first-aid kit, apply them to your armpits and groin area -- two areas that will help lower your overall body temperature.

­On the next page, we'll read about desert dangers that crawl, bite and sting.


Dangers of the Desert: Crawlers

If you camp in the desert, this scorpion might climb into your shoe and try to kill you.
Frans Lemmens/Getty Images

The desert is a lovely place, but fraught with peril. They don't call it water, the desert is also full of critters that can bite and sting. Some of these guys can even kill you if you aren't able to find medical help. Spiders, scorpions, centipedes, and snakes are all found in dark places -- caves, abandoned buildings and under rocks. Never reach into a hole or under a rock and always check where you lay down. It's also a good idea to shake your boots or shoes before you put them back on.

Spiders - Deserts have many kinds of spiders, but most of them aren't venomous. The creepiest looking of these is probably the tarantula. Although they may look fierce, their bite isn't very dangerous and they aren't very interested in you anyway. What you need to watch out for is the brown recluse and the black widow. You can spot the black widow by its shiny black coat and red hourglass marking on its belly. Their bites are rarely fatal but can make you very sick -- headaches, dizziness, nausea and cramps. Brown recluses are light brown and have a violin-shaped marking on the head and back. If you're bitten by a recluse and don't get medical attention, you could die, but it's not likely.


Scorpions - There are more than 30 different types of scorpions in the Arizona desert alone, but only two produce venom that can kill a human. They inject this venom through stingers on their tails. You'll know if you've been tagged by a scorpion if you feel pain at the site of the sting, numbness, increased heart rate and difficulty in breathing. Keep your distance from all scorpions just to be safe.

Spider bites and scorpion stings are most dangerous to small children and the elderly. If you're bitten or stung, treat it the following way and get some medical attention as soon as possible:

  • Sit down in the shade and relax.
  • Wash the area with soap if you have some. If not, rinse with water.
  • Apply a cool compress to the bite or sting.
  • Elevate the area above your heart level.
  • Take an over-the-counter pain reliever if you have one.
  • Tie a light constricting band around the affected body part about three inches above the point of contact. Use a bandanna, a shoestring, some gauze or anything else that isn't too heavy. It should be loose enough to get a finger between your skin and the wrap. This helps slow the flow of venom into your bloodstream.
  • Get to a doctor as soon as you can.

On the next page, we'll learn about snakes and lizards.


Dangers of the Desert: Scaly Critters

If you saw this Gila Monster coming you way, would you wait around to introduce yourself?
Tim Flach/Getty Images

Snakes - The only snakes you need to worry about in the desert are the rattlesnake and the coral snake. Both are venomous and dangerous to humans. There are many different kinds of rattlers, and they're easy to spot by the buzzing rattle on the end of their tails. Coral snakes are slim and have red, yellow and black rings. They can be deadly to humans. There are nonvenomous snakes that mimic the coral snake, but the colors aren't in the same order. There's a handy saying to help you remember which is which:

Red touches yellow, it can harm a fellow. Red touches black, it's okay for Jack.

Just remember, you're Jack in this scenario. Snakes don't have any interest in people, so you'll likely only get bitten if you surprise one. Keep your eyes peeled, watch where you step and avoid caves and dark holes.


Lizards - The desert is chock-full of lizards. Luckily, there are only two that are venomous -- the Mexican Beaded lizard and the Gila Monster. The Mexican Beaded is only found in the deserts of Mexico and Guatemala. Gilas are found in the Sonoran Desert of the United States and northern Mexico, and their bite is extremely painful. Gilas can be as large as two feet and have round, raised scales. They're short, stout and have a thick tail. The Mexican Beaded has white to yellow spots and stripes on round, raised scales and is about a foot long. While both are venomous, neither is considered fatal. However, if you see a two-foot long lizard coming in your direction, maybe you should just walk the other way.

If you do get bitten by a snake or have a Gila Monster attach itself to your leg, try to stay calm. Many people's attempts at first aid are performed in a panic, and they often end up doing more harm than good. Chances are, the bite is not life-threatening and you'll have a few hours before any serious complications set in.

Follow these steps:

  • Get to some shade, sit down and try not to move the affected limb.
  • Wash it with soap and water or just rinse if you have no soap.
  • Elevate the affected area above your heart level.
  • Do not lance the bite or attempt to suck out the venom. This is only successful in westerns.
  • If you have a snakebite kit, use the extractor to remove as much of the venom as you can within the first few minutes of being bitten.
  • Remove any jewelry near the bite and loosen tight clothing.
  • As with scorpion stings and spider bites, tie a light constricting band around the affected body part about three inches above the point of contact. And again, keep it loose enough to fit a finger between the band and your skin.

In addition to these slithering and crawling dangers, there are also all kinds of bees, wasps, hornets and ants that can make your life miserable. If you stay on the alert, watch your step and don't go digging around in the sand, you should be fine.

In the next section, we'll look at two more natural desert dangers -- flash floods and sandstorms.


Dangers of the Desert: Flash Floods and Sandstorms

A desert sandstorm can reduce visibility to practically nothing.
Frans Lemmens/Getty Images

So you're doing a good job in the heat and you've managed to avoid your biting and stinging enemies. You're home free, right? Not so fast. There are a couple more natural dangers that may come your way: sandstorms and flash floods.

Sandstorms are violent wind storms that occur often in the desert. In the Middle East, sandstorms can crop up and stay there for up to three months. While these winds won't kill you, they frequently cause auto accidents as a result of the blinding effect of the sand. If you're driving and a sandstorm occurs, pull over immediately, turn off your car and headlights and turn on your flashing hazard lights. If you're on foot, put on goggles or sunglasses if you have them and find a large rock to crouch behind. If there's a large dune nearby, get to higher ground only if there's no lightning accompanying the storm. Tie a bandanna or other piece of cloth around your face and mouth. If you have spare water, wet the cloth beforehand. If you don't have goggles or sunglasses, wrap the cloth over your eyes as well and sit tight. These winds vary widely in duration -- it may only last a few minutes, so don't panic.


This SUV owner probably wishes she had read this article before heading off-road.
Karl Weatherly/Getty Images

Sandstorm conditions are also ideal for rain storms, in which case flash flooding becomes a threat. The desert sand doesn't soak up water quickly, so heavy rains can produce flood conditions very quickly and without warning. Dry channels, ditches and lake beds will fill quickly and the water can be strong and violent -- sometimes creating a wall of water 10 to 30 feet high. Remarkably, more people drown in the desert than die of thirst [source: USGS]. Because of the threat of a flash flood, you should never rest or sleep in ditches or dry creeks -- even if it doesn't look like rain. Desert thunderstorms come on quickly and without warning and can uproot trees and move boulders. A rain storm in Las Vegas in 1999 swept cars away, killed two people, injured many others and caused millions of dollars in property damage [source: Desert Research Institute].

In the event of a flash flood, get to higher ground as fast as you can and avoid standing near rocks or trees. It's best to get 30 to 40 feet higher than the nearest low point. If you're in your car, pull over and put on your hazard lights until the rain has passed. If the rain continues and rises up the car, abandon the vehicle and move to high ground on foot. These storms are rough, but usually short-lived.

Your best bet for surviving a flash flood is to keep an eye out and anticipate its arrival. Most people who die in these floods are caught off guard. Pay attention to weather reports and be alert for thunder and lightening in your area. If you suspect a storm is coming, get to high ground and wait it out.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

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