Desert Survival

This section discusses the skills, gear, knowledge and preparation necessary to survive in a Desert Region. These regions can be formidable, and survival isn't easy.  A person lost in a Desert Region has little chance for survival if they have not prepared and/or trained for such an event. It is not feasible for everyone in the country to simply train in a Desert Region for an extended period of time. But, we can all prepare ourselves by learning valuable techniques and methods that can aid in survival.

Gear is also very important and can very much increase an individuals chance of survival greatly. Gear and supplies can make this almost unbearable experience much more comfortable.

This section will discuss many skills, and gear that will be extremely helpful if this event ever occurs for you. Remember that every situation is different. The topics discussed here will vary from the wide range skills that will apply to almost every situation to the lesser used skills and knowledge that will work or be beneficial in rarely seen situations. The aspect of survival in a rescue scenarios, one which you are awaiting or hopeful for the chance of rescue, is quite different than contemplating long term survival or even the necessity to actually cross the desert terrain to reach grasslands or mountains on the other side. But the basic skills never fail you.

Many excellent links, and free downloads are available along with articles written by many world acclaimed survivalists. Remember, everything that is discussed will be tried, tested and true. But what works for one individual may not always work for the next. There is always an exception to every rule.

Technical Data

This page details the technical aspects of what defines a region as a desert and gives valuable information on associated terrain.

Desert Maps

This section contains many types of maps and downloadable PDF files.


Desert Survival Links

This is an excellent page for additional resources, information and links to other sites and sources.


This section goes into detail about the subject of finding and purifying water in a Desert Region.

Animals & Wildlife

This section details many of the animals one could encounter in a Desert Region. Some Deserts are barren, yet many contain multiple types of animals.

First Aid & Medical

This section contains resources and information about the dangers of an extreme environment such as the Desert Region. Articles, downloads and links.

Gear - Survival Kit

This section goes into detail about the various types of gear and supplies that make a great addition to a Desert Region survival kit. Also types of gear that would be considered a necessity.



Survival in a Desert Wasteland.

Surviving in a Desert environment calls for skills, knowledge and preparation.  The knowledge and the necessary skills it takes to find and purify water in a desert, as well as what desert survival supplies to keep on hand and which ones can be made from items in the environment. One of the most important things to remember is that many people die each year from exposure, starvation, thirst or dehydration and other environmental features found in a Desert Region. This is not an easy terrain to survive, as many so called "experts" have met an untimely demise at the hands of mother nature. These types of environments can produce unexpected obstacles and problems never before seen, and can be very dangerous in even the seemingly most benign areas. There are many dangers here, from flooding in the low areas on occasion, exposure, major temperature shifts, falling rocks or avalanches, poisonous animals, insects and reptiles, to simple bodily injuries. 

In many deserts  temperatures during the day can soar over a hundred degrees and sometimes even higher than 120 degrees. This is well above the necessary temperature to cause heat stress and heat stroke. Death can occur very rapidly for those attempting to traverse a desert environment without the proper training, supplies, knowledge and/or resources. 

Evening and night temperatures in deserts, especially in the United States, can drop as low as the lower forties and to barely above freezing(32 F). If the heat doesn't get you during the day, the cold at night can. Refer to the Desert Region Survival link above for more in depth articles and resources.

Desert Region Survival Skills


Regardless of if you've ever been to the desert or even plan on going to one,  events can occur that can make that decision for you. Unexpected events are what usually place us in a survival situation to begin with. An unexpected occurrence or event could possibly force you one day into a Desert Region or to at least have to travel through it. Knowing the proper skills and techniques for this type of environment will save your life in that unexpected situation. Knowledge and skills are crucial to survival anywhere we may one day find ourselves. Be prepared for any situation, don't prep for just one. We never know which direction we may be forced to take in the future.  It's very possible you could end up in a desert survival situation one day.  Millions people live in the American southwest states of California, Arizona, Texas and Nevada. In these areas, they are surrounded by deserts.  If America were to experience a widespread or catastrophic event or disaster, similar to when Japan experienced a tsunami in 2011  killing several thousand people and resulted in the evacuation of multitudes more, we may be forced to evacuate through harsh and hostile environments. In which case it is critical to understand the environment you would be travelling through. To survive and/or evade in these regions, one must understand the environment they will face. Determine how this hostile environment will affect the gear you carry, the skills and tactics you use and how the harsh climate will affect these tactics.  Survival will depend on your knowledge and understanding of the terrain, the basic climatic elements and traits, your personal ability to handle and deal with the harsh elements and most importantly....your will to survive.  Refer to the Desert Region Survival link above for more in depth articles and resources.


The North American deserts are highly accessible, well-researched and very diverse, so they provide a good basis for understanding desert ecology. These deserts are found in a broad band running down the western side of the USA and into Mexico. They lie in a large basin between the Rocky Mountains to the east and the Sierra Nevada to the west. They receive relatively little water - typically less than 25 cm (10 inches) per year - because most of the precipitation falls on the higher mountain ranges and not in the lower-lying desert regions (which are in the "rain shadow" of the mountains).

Approximate boundaries of the four main deserts of North America

These North American deserts are grouped into four major types - the Great Basin Desert, Sonoran Desert, Chihuahuan Desert and Mojave Desert - depending on their characteristic physical features (rainfall, topography, soil types) and characteristic vegetation and associated animal communities.

  • The Great Basin Desert is the largest desert area of North America. It is also the most northerly, covering most of Nevada (Ne), the western third of Utah (U) and parts of Idaho (Id) and Oregon (Or). It is a cold desert because of its northerly location and its relatively high altitude - most of the land lies above 1200 meters (4000 ft), but in the 'rain shadow' of the higher mountain ranges. Much of the precipitation occurs as winter snowfall, but not all of this melts into the ground because some of it evaporates in spring. The vegetation tends to be very uniform over large areas of this desert. It is dominated by various types of sagebrush, or by saltbush where the soil has a high salt concentration. In fact, the soils often have a high salt content (sodium and calcium ions) caused by evaporation of water in the hot summer months, and no vegetation can grow in the saltiest regions.
  • The Mojave Desert occurs further south and covers the southern part of Nevada and part of California (Ca) but elements of it extend into Arizona (AZ) where it blends into the Sonoran Desert. Again, it is classed as a cold desert because of the low winter temperatures. The precipitation occurs in winter, usually as rain but sometimes as snow at the higher elevations. The features of the Mohave Desert are difficult to define because of the marked variation in topography, soils and climate. For example, the northern section is composed of low-growing shrubs, similar to those of the Great Basin Desert, whereas the southern section blends into the Sonoran Desert, with extensive tracts of creosote bush. The Mohave Desert includes Death Valley - the lowest (below sea level) and driest of all desert regions, where there may be no rain for several years. The Majove Desert contains some highly characteristic plants and animals - most notably the joshua tree at higher elevations.
  • The Sonoran Desert covers the southern part of Arizona and part of California, but extends south into the mainland of Mexico and into the extended isthmus of the state of Baja California (BC) in Mexico. The Sonoran Desert is a hot desert and, unlike all the other desert regions of North America, it receives both winter and summer rains. This pattern of rainfall is caused by the seasonal shifts of major storm tracks across the USA. The Sonoran Desert receives winter rainfall from moisture-laden air carried on winds from the Pacific Ocean, and summer rainfall from air carried northwestwards from the Gulf of Mexico. As a consequence, parts of the Sonoran Desert can support unusually lush vegetation, including several trees and sub-trees, and some very large cacti such as the saguaro and cardon. The Baja California peninsula of Mexico is also included in the Sonoran Desert, but the west-facing slopes of this peninsula receive moisture-laden air from the Pacific Ocean and have some uniquely lush vegetation, including epiphytic plants that gain their moisture from the sea mists.
  • The Chihuahuan Desert occupies the extreme west of Texas (Tx) and part of New Mexico (NM), but the largest part of this desert occurs in mainland Mexico. This desert region receives summer rains from the Gulf of Mexico - typically about 20-30 cm per year. Over much of this desert the soils are derived from calcareous rocks and thus have relatively high pH. The Chihuahuan Desert also lies at relatively high elevation (typically about 1200 meters, or 4000 ft) and thus has cool winters with periodic frosts, but the summers are hot. The combination of relatively high rainfall, calcareous soils and cool winter temperatures favors the growth of grasses, yuccas and agave. There are many small cacti, but few of the larger cacti associated with the Sonoran Desert.

While some of the desert areas of North America are now protected from development by being designated as State Parks, National Parks or National Monuments, vast areas of land dominated by creosote bush and other less spectacular vegetation are now been used for irrigated agriculture, drawing water from major rivers. When irrigated, these desert can be phenomenally productive because of their year-round warmth and solar intensity. Refer to the Desert Region Technical Data section above for much more detailed information about the climate and various deserts throughout the world. 



Surviving in Desert Regions

The 1st & Most Important Step is Preparation

Preparation begins within. To have the skills and necessary abilities to survive through conditions that could easily bring harm or even death, we have to be prepared mentally and physically. The aspect of physical fitness seems to be a subject some avoid. We don't have to be Rambo, but no one can deny the fact that being physically fit greatly increases the chance of survival in any environment, and not to mention increases our every day well being. The aspect of mental preparation is a large subject. Some have had the experience of having survived catastrophic events, wars and other disasters. Those that have had to live through an event have already been tested on both aspects. To prepare ones self is not an overnight task, nor will it be a simple one. But, it is a necessary one. Mental toughness, as some may call it, is a trait some are born with, but some have to work toward. The task of preparing your self mentally and emotionally starts with one thing....knowledge. To be prepared, prepare your self by learning and training in the basic survival skills. These skills will build the confidence needed to remain focused and level headed during a crisis or dangerous situation. The peace of mind in knowing that you possess skills that can keep you alive in various environments, should help calm someone in a bad situation. Remaining calm and trusting the knowledge and skills that you have acquired will enable you to make quicker and more efficient decisions when necessary. Being mentally prepared is not the easiest subject to simply learn. But rest assured, if you study the environment, or learn the things you would likely face in your immediate area, then the skills you learn there will apply in multiple environments. Be familiar with the terrain, plants (edible & poisonous), animals, environmental factors (weather patterns, heat and cold), population density and general features of the local or other areas you may possibly find yourself in. This knowledge coupled with the essential survival skills......Fire, Water (locating & purifying), shelter (identifying & building) and basic first aid.....enables you to assess your situation and give yourself the greatest chance of survival. So mental preparation, or knowledge, is essential in survival. If you have the knowledge, then in addition to this,having the physical abilities to effectively carry out your tasks will make the possibility of survival becomes a reality.

Various topics to Help with Survival

One aspect of preparation starts with how you dress. When people are standing upright, we are exposed to about 60% of the solar radiation that animals on all fours are exposed to. By using a hat, one with a wide brim and closed crown, the head and body are even more protected. A very common misconception or mistake made by new desert visitors is to wear shorts and sleeveless shirts. This exposes a large area of your skin directly to sunlight, which will lead to quicker dehydration, sun poisoning and fatigue. Loose fitting long sleeves and pants provide good air circulation and much better protection than sunblock. There's a reason that inhabitants in areas such as the Middle East are known for wearing hoods and robes, which are loose fitting clothing that helps keep cool, especially when one is walking and perspiring. Although some sheikhs are known for wearing white garb, Reality is that black robes can make for some of the best clothing options for traveling through a hot desert. This subject is debated and contested, but the truth is, that baggy loose fitting clothing will help keep you cool. Because this will allow air flow and also covers your entire body.

Case in point: The Bedouin, which is a Nomadic Arabic Desert tribe that typically wear all black.  Although the color white reflects sunlight, it also reflects your body heat right back onto your body. Black on the other hand absorbs sunlight, but it also absorbs your body heat.

Sunglasses that block ultra-violet(UV) light are a good addition, and there are many studies in which claim that they  help prevent cataracts later. Other areas of preparation include proper vehicle maintenance, bringing and purifying water, first aid and survival kits for desert regions, a reliable and sharp knife, along with some basic skills and knowledge.

The Panic Factor

The biggest killer in any emergency situation is panic. Panic blinds a person to reason and can cause them to compound the emergency with fatal results. Controlling panic is a matter of focusing the mind and operating in an organized manner. My Australian counterpart, Bob Cooper, teaches the ABC's of survival to ward off panic and start the person on a constructive course of action.

A: Accept the situation. Do not blame yourself or others. Do not waste time contemplating "What if I had..."

B: Brew up a cup of tea. This is a typical Aussie approach to the solution of everything. What you are actually doing is starting a fire, which is needed, and completing a familiar, calming chore. You can brew coffee or just build a fire.

C: Consider your options. Take stock of items at hand, such as water reserves, survival kits, etc.

D: Decide on a plan. Taking into account of your options, decide on a plan that best ensures your health and safety. Thoughts such as "I have to be at work tomorrow," are not considered.

E. Execute the plan and stick with it unless new conditions warrant.

The brain is by far the best survival tool we have. Survival is much more a mental than a physical exercise, and keeping control of the brain is necessary. The large size of the human brain requires a high metabolic sacrifice in water and temperature control. Keeping the brain hydrated and in the shade will be more beneficial than all the gee-whiz survival gizmos in the sporting goods store.

An additional psychological factor is the will to survive. It may sound odd, but some people have just given up due to what they felt was hopelessness, impending pain, hunger, etc. In the lid of my survival kit I keep a photo of my two sons, ages 7 years and 22 months, as a reminder of who needs me.

Women should not be discouraged in these situations on the basis of their gender. Women have several physical advantages over men in high stress situations. I participated in a 200-kilometer survival trek in Western Australia in 1996 with two women in our group, and they did as well as the 7 men.

Survival Kits

I am a believer in a well-planned survival kit. In the Australian trek, each of us had a pocket-sized survival kit that fit in a soap dish. That, along with a knife, two one-liter canteens, a medical blanket and a compass each, we all crossed the finish line at the Indian Ocean. A survival kit must be small enough to carry at all times in the wilds. By cramming them full of unnecessary items they get too bulky and tend to get left in the car, backpack or elsewhere, which is the same as not having one at all. The contents of such a kit is at the end of this article. You'll be surprised at what can fit in a 4x3x1-inch" box.

Desert Survival Priorities

While there are some exceptions to this rule, desert survival priorities usually fall in this order of importance.


Deserts are defined by their lack of water. Learn to ration sweat, not water. By staying in the shade, limiting activity to cooler times such as night and using your available water, your chances for survival increase greatly. Sipping water does not get it to the brain and vital organs. Take a good drink when you need it. People have been found dead from dehydration with water in their canteens. Also, do not rely on "parlor tricks" such as solar stills as a primary source. These will often produce more sweat digging the hole than is obtained from water gained. Learn to locate water through areas of green vegetation, flights of birds, converging animal trails and digging in the outside bends of dry creek beds. Javelinas and burros are excellent at finding water and digging it up in creek beds. Best of all, plan ahead, and allow one gallon per person a day. This does not include your needs for cooking, pets or auto maintenance.


Fire may seem odd to have so high on the list of desert survival priorities, but there are considerations other than warmth, though a fire may also be needed for that reason. Fire can be used to signal, cook food and purify water. Fire also provides psychological comfort. People do not feel so lonely with a fire. It makes the night less frightening, and while there are few large animals dangerous to people in North American deserts, fire will keep them at bay. It is important to know how to start a fire under severe conditions with means other than matches. Friction methods such as the bow and drill take much practice and should be learned before they are needed.


Aside from your clothes, additional shelter may be needed. In desert areas, shelter from the sun is usually the main consideration, but cold, rain, hail, even snow can also be factors. It is important to keep the skin temperature under 92 degrees F, to keep from sweating away precious water. Draping a sleeping bag over a bush for shade, while allowing for breezes, may be the best bet. Try not to sit on the hot ground, even if it means tearing the seats out of your brand new 4x4. Try to make shelter visible to searchers. Build shelter in a safe place, such as out of creek beds which can flash flood.


Signaling for help will hasten rescue. Signals, whether visible or audible, must be distinguished from nature. A signal mirror is best for sunny desert conditions and can be seen for miles. Flash at aircraft, dust clouds (which may be vehicles on dirt roads) and periodically scan the horizon. Burning a spare tire will put up a huge column of black smoke, but the tire must be punctured or have the valve core removed first to prevent it from exploding and injuring those nearby. Flares are good at night if there is reason to think they will be seen. Put the hood up on your car and tie a rag to the antennae. Wearing bright colored clothing will help aircraft see you better.

Audible signals should be made in rhythmic bursts of three. A long whistle blast sounds like a hawk from a distance, but 3 timed short blasts sound like a signal for help. Gunshots and car horns also should be timed in groups of three. Yelling is the poorest alternative. A whistle is a very good emergency item -- especially for children, who may be frightened by strange noises at night. If the noise is caused by searchers, a whistle will bring them closer. If caused by animals, real or imagined, a whistle will scare them away.


"What did you eat?" is the question I get the most about my Australian trek. Most people think of survival in terms of lack of food. In hot climates, however, food is not as important as other factors. If water is in short supply it is important not to eat anything because it increases your water needs to digest the food. On my Australian adventure I had a 6-inch perch, a handful of wattle seeds, and 6 cattail shoots.

I lost 20 pounds, but after day 3, I did not feel really hungry. Water was our biggest worry. Most people today can go 3 weeks without eating. I think more people are afraid of the pain of hunger than starvation.

The basics of desert survival? Prepare for the worst. Control panic. Use your brain. Use energy and water wisely. Be ready to signal. Don't listen to your stomach. Most of all, do not fear the desert. For many of us, it is home.


Protecting from the Wind and Sand

In a time of high wind, sand and dust can be whipped up, making it nearly impossible to see. Your lips can become split and chapped and even your face chapped; sand and dust can fill your nose, making it difficult to breathe. The Bedouin pull their hoods forward, covering their faces. You can do that or simply use a shirt or bandanna as a loose covering for your face, leaving just a thin visor of space for your eyes to see from.

Ski goggles in your survival pack can play a secondary role in the desert -- protecting from sand and dust, not just snowfall.

One final note about the Bedouin -- they make their clothing from the wool of camels, sheep, and goats, common animals the Bedouin are known for. Pulled tightly to the body, wool clothing will help keep a person warm at night in the desert. During the day wool clothing must be worn loosely though, allowing air to flow and help keep a body cool during the daytime, especially when walking. See: Why Wool?

A survivalist in the American Southwest, preparing for a disaster, should consider that an evacuation on foot could one day occur. If this evacuation takes place in the summer months, desert temperatures could be near 130 degrees -- an extreme yes, but still a possibility.

Piecing together an outfit (a wool black robe) for a possible desert exodus may prove to be a life-saver.

If a wool black robe seems like an extreme step, or you simply don't have one on hand that day, wearing a loose fitting long sleeved shirt and pants and a wide brim hat with a crown might be the next best thing -- and of course sun glasses to protect against the UV rays of the sun.

Things About Water


Deserts are defined by their lack of water. Learn to ration sweat, not water. By staying in the shade, limiting activity to cooler times such as night and using your available water, your chances for survival increase greatly. Sipping water does not get it to the brain and vital organs. Take a good drink when you need it. People have been found dead from dehydration with water in their canteens. Also, do not rely on "parlor tricks" such as solar stills as a primary source. These will often produce more sweat digging the hole than is obtained from water gained. Learn to locate water through areas of green vegetation, flights of birds, converging animal trails and digging in the outside bends of dry creek beds. Javelinas and burros are excellent at finding water and digging it up in creek beds. Best of all, plan ahead, and allow one gallon per person a day. This does not include your needs for cooking, pets or auto maintenance.


One thing that's interesting to note about the Bedouin -- they're capable of living off a single liter of water a day in the desert. Most likely their bodies have adapted as they've aged. For the rest of us not accustomed to life in harsh desert, our goal for water should be a gallon or more a day, in order to stay well hydrated and ward off heat stroke.

Tip: When you drink water in the desert, take a good, long drink. Reports indicate that people have been found dead in the desert, even with water in their canteens -- it's believed they sipped their water, rather than taken longer drinks. The problem with taking sips of water in hot temperatures is this -- it's not enough to hydrate your brain and internal organs, which leads to death.

Make Water a Priority

If you're going to be any where near the desert, water is an absolute priority. Without proper planning, you may never make it out.

To find water in the desert, your best sources of fresh water are going to be streams and springs -- though yes, they are going to be few and far between, perhaps impossible to find in vast stretches of desert. Any available streams may in fact be underground.

Water can be so sparse and deserts so hot and dry that you can die of thirst or heat stroke before ever finding a new location to replenish water.

Lakes, in the desert, may have high salt content -- if you detect a salt-water taste, this is water that will need to be distilled first, to remove any salt. (To learn how to distil water in a desert survival situation, see: How to Find Water in the Wilderness).

Survival in the Desert Calls for Research

Survival in the desert is a lot like survival in a remote area -- be sure to do your research on any area you may one day find yourself in, before you embark. Talk to geologists, museums, ranchers and wildlife offices of people who know the area. Ask if they know if there are any underground springs or large bodies of water near the surface anywhere -- and mark these down on your map -- which areas of the desert do these underground rivers come closest to the surface of the land?

Study the terrain and vegetation on maps; notice lines of green vegetation that may signify a dry stream bed or that there is a shallow underground river.

A few deserts have major rivers that cut across, such as the Colorado River running through the Grand Canyon and into the Mojave Desert where it reaches in Nevada.

Know Where Water Can Be Found in the Desert

For example, though the Colorado River crosses through the eastern portion of the Mojave Desert, there is another river, the Mojave River, that can be a source of water -- for those able to find it. Though it passes above ground near cities like Victorville, CA., other portions of the river are underground.

One researcher on the Mojave Desert writes: "The Mojave Road followed along the river from Soda dry lake to the Cajon Pass. Desert Indians used this as a trade route where water could easily be found on the way to and from the coast. Later, the Old Spanish Trail and Salt Lake Trail (Mormon Road/Trail) joined up with the river near where Daggett is today." See: Finding water in the Mojave Desert

Historical Maps May Reveal Locations of Water in the Desert

What we learn from the Desert Indians (Native Americans in the southwest United States) is that a path or road through the desert can be a lot like a path or road through the mountains -- realize that indigenous people (like the Desert Indians crossing through the Mojave Desert) may have established routes and places marked on maps where water can be found.

Smugglers Know How to Find Water

"Coyotes" -- smugglers who help aliens sneak into the United States across the Mexican border -- are likely to provide information on water sources (sometimes good information, sometimes bad) beforehand. So, like a modern day Coyote, before you set out across a desert -- or send other people across a desert -- do your homework first. Find out where above ground streams are located, as well as where they travel underground. Find out where springs exist and even wells (that still operate).

Locate Routes of Indigenous People

Where ever you are in the world, find out the routes that indigenous people from that area used to cross expanses of barren and dry desert or desert mountains, and get to know these desert routes well. See: Secrets of Ancient Bedouin Navigation and [DOC] Southern Paiute - Chemehuevi Trails Across the Mojave Desert

In a worst case scenario, remember what you learned above -- if you're on the ground and need to find water, study the terrain; look for areas of dark green vegetation; here you're looking for a dry stream bed; follow that stream bed until it bends; look for water (in the ground) on the outside bend -- that is where gravity would pull the most water when that stream was running above ground (following a rare rain, for example) and where an underground trickle may still exist.

Dig seeps, build solar stills and capture water from condensation sources. (To learn how to dig seeps, build solar stills, and other methods for finding water, see: How to Find Water in the Wilderness).

Early Morning Dew Provides Water

Another method to practice when it comes to finding water in the desert: Early in the morning, just before dawn, turn over half-buried rocks. As morning sets in, dew will collect. Be alert to dangers, such as scorpions, which live in a number of deserts, as well as dangerous snakes and spiders. Turn over enough rocks and you may collect enough dew to get you by for the next few hours.

Dew can also collect on desert grass -- run a towel or other cloth through the grass and once soaked through, squeeze drops of water into a water bottle. Collect as much as you can and squeeze from the towel into any containers that you have with you. You just might collect enough to get you through the next few hours -- until you can find a spring, lake or stream.

Can You Drink Water from A Cactus?

Unless you know plants and cactus species well and -- better yet received first-hand instruction from a desert survivalist -- only look to cactus as a source of water as a last resort. Though certain species of cactus can store a generous amount of water in their stems, they often have high amounts of oxalic acid. Oxalic acid -- specifically on an empty stomach -- is a fast way to get diarrhea. See: Can You Get Potable Water From a Cactus?.

Most cactus fruits are edible -- for example, the fruit of the saguaro cactus has been important to Native Americans in Northwest Mexico and the Southwest United States for many centuries. When it comes to wild edibles though, always know what you're eating -- we can't say that enough.

Drink More Than a Gallon of Water a Day in the Desert

In extreme temperatures the body can require more than a gallon of water a day. Desert people like the Bedouin shepherded animals to fresh pastures whenever grazing lands were exhausted. They moved frequently and yet survived in a harsh environment with little water to be found. Life required knowing where water could be found (for the Bedouin it was often wells that had been dug) and plotting routes based on water locations.

Finally, a large goat skin may have been all a Bedouin nomad had to carry water in.

Whatever you use to carry water in the desert, be sure it's large enough to carry enough water to keep you hydrated until you can reach the next location to replenish water.

When it comes to finding water in the desert, the questions to ask are: How much water can I carry before setting out? What routes can I take and where does water exist along these routes?

Travel at Night

When the desert is just too hot during the day time, realize that it would be best to travel at night, when the temperature drops. To get through a hot day in the desert, at first light (early in the morning before the temperatures heat up) build a small desert shelter out of sticks, brush and even a tarp or bed sheet if you have it, capable of providing shade, leaving a small opening at the top and openings at the bottom for air to flow.

Reflect the Sun in the Desert

Carry a few emergency space blankets, that you will use as a "skin" for your shelter -- reflecting the sun's rays off of the shelter, helping it stay a few degrees cooler inside.

If you have to scavenge materials from your home, prior to an evacuation, grab a large roll of aluminum foil and duct tape -- you can make your own reflective skin for a desert shelter when nothing else is handy.

Tip: Consider heavier duty space blankets. Many space blankets are thin, light-weight material that tears easily and usually only good for 1 or 2 uses. A heavier duty space blanket will be more versatile, allowing more use.

Note: Don't use a space blanket as clothing. It will reflect heat in also; worn close to your body you will heat up in the desert (only do this in the evening hours when the temperatures drop).

Note: In Afghanistan, the Taliban has used space blankets at times to hide their heat signature from Nato forces.

Tip: If there's no time to build a shelter when the sun is scorching the desert below, build a make-shift umbrella (like one you'd carry in the rain) out of a few thin, sturdy sticks, something to tie with, and a space blanket (this won't work in high-winds). Use it to provide shade as you walk. Use light weight sticks so that you're not carrying more "weight" -- added weight will mean greater physical exertion, which you want to avoid when the temperatures are hot.

Desert Shelter

Be aware that flash floods can take place in the desert, especially in the low lands. All it takes is a surprise rain in the nearby hills to create a flash flood. Build a shelter on a nearby hill. To minimize physical work, look for outcroppings, boulders, and ledges that will work as natural walls, where you only need to use a poncho or space blanket as a roof.

Watch out for dangerous insects and snakes.

Building a Desert Shelter for Extremely Hot Temperatures

Because this shelter is going to call for some digging, this is one you will have to build in the early hours of the morning, before physical exertion becomes dangerous.

1) Look for a shallow area in the ground, between two dunes for example.

2) Dig a space deep enough for you to lay in about two feet deep.

3) Pile the dirt or sand dug from the trench around the top edge of the trench.

4) Use four sticks as stakes, planted at the four corners of the trench. Tie a corner of your darkest covering (tarp, sheet, blanket) to each stake, so that it forms a flat roof, over the trench.

5) Be sure to leave a few inches of space between the top of the trench and the covering so that air can flow.

6) Using four taller stakes and a white sheet (for reflecting sunlight) or a space blanket, hang a second flat roof a few inches above the first flat roof. (If you have nothing to tie with, use piles of rocks to anchor down the corners of each layer of cover).

Done right, the physics of a trench desert shelter are reported to be several degrees cooler than a simple shelter that only supplies shade. The white sheet (top layer) reflects the sun, while the black cover (bottom layer) absorbs your body heat. Space between the two layers as well as between the bottom layer and the ground allow for air movement.

This is a shelter for extreme desert conditions -- sometimes shade may be all you need instead. Sometimes though, especially in temperatures soaring over 100 degrees, you'll want to put more thought and effort into your shelter, remembering to sleep during the day and travel at night.

Finding Food in the Desert

The hotter and more barren the desert -- like the Sahara Desert in North Africa -- the less likely it is that you're going to find anything edible. Choose routes on maps that show the greatest amount of vegetation, as well as paths that follow or cross shallow crevices (you don't want a route that passes deep crevices -- those could turn out to be cliffs and canyons; make sure you know how to read elevation changes on a map before setting out across a desert you're not familiar with).

By choosing routes that pass over shallow crevices and near dark green vegetation you're increasing your chances of finding edible wildlife. In the desert that is likely to be snakes, reptiles, and scorpions, but in some areas could include rabbits and other small mammals and even birds and insects like ants and centipedes.

Tip: If you're short on water, avoid eating food. Digestion will use up your body's water stores -- which you need right now to keep your brain and internal organs functioning.

Edible Insects in the Desert

Ants, scorpions, grasshoppers, centipedes and tarantulas are all edible and can be found in many desert areas. Many areas have one or more of each of these insects. For instructions on finding, catching, and eating insects, see: Top 10 Edible Insects in North America).

Edible Plants in the Desert

Unless you plan on surviving in the desert long term, your time will be better spent harvesting insects, snakes and other reptiles as you walk along, rather than count on a book knowledge of wild plants coming through for you in a desert survival situation.

Your goal should be to exit the desert -- not suddenly try to survive in the desert long term -- not without actual desert survival training where you would learn first-hand methods for identifying wild plants that are safe to eat as well as hunting and trapping methods.

The desert is simply an obstacle -- there are more fertile lands to live off in the far off distance -- lands with cooler temperatures, more sources of water, and larger game animals. If your goal is to live off the land long term, set your sights on these distant areas, which may be hundreds of miles north, east, or west if your journey is across a desert in the American Southwest.

For our Australian readers, that land of course may be to the south, depending on your location.

Eating Reptiles and Snakes

Always cook reptiles and snakes thoroughly before turning into a meal. Salmonella (bacteria) is common in reptiles, even on the skin. It can make you extremely sick and if you're already dehydrated and in a survival situation, it may cost you your life. Always wash your hands after handling reptiles.

Catching Snakes

To catch a snake in the desert, find a long stick with an extra branch at the top. Break off that branch so that the stick you have now has a shallow "V" shape at the top. Use this long stick to pin down snakes, especially venomous snakes. See: Desert Snakes

Once pinned, cut off the head with a knife or simply crush it with a large rock.

Once removed from it's body, bury the head of any snake you kill -- a careless step in in the dirt and those fangs could still inject venom into your blood.

Study the Terrain to Find Wildlife

Due to the need for shade at times, look for lizards and snakes under large boulders, rocks, and other outcroppings. As mentioned above, you increase your odds of finding wildlife by looking in areas near green vegetation -- because that is where snakes and reptiles are going to have their greatest odds of finding food.

Rabbits: Some desert areas will have rabbits (think jack rabbits) and other varmints. A coyote or Hawk or other predator may have caught an animal that you can turn into food. Any flesh they're eating is likely to be fresh -- chase away the predator and then cook the carcass thoroughly and you just got yourself a free dinner.

Rabbit holes may be found in areas of sage brush. Set fire to the sage brush -- once it burns down, sit at the base of a rabbit hole with a short, thick stick, out of sight of any rabbit in the hole; club any rabbit as it exits.

Lizards, out in the open, can be killed with a swiftly thrown rock or "throwing stick". Also, in the early morning hours, look for lizards under flat rocks. Pin it with a stick or kill it with a rock.

Snakes may be found and caught easiest with minimal risk when they're sunbathing on a rock (the risk is greater when you have to look under rocks for snakes -- they can catch you by surprise).

Preparing Food

Desert Soup: If you're near a water source like a spring or river, dig a small pit and fill it with water. Heat up rocks in a fire and drop them in the pit to get the water boiling. Drop in insects, snakes, and any lizards you've caught. Cook thoroughly. (Insects can be eaten raw but from time to time may carry bacteria -- if you have the means to cook them first, do so. Plus, they may taste better.)

Oven Baked Lizard, Insects or Snakes: Place insects, snakes, or lizards on a flat rock. Arrange a small pile of rocks around the flat rock. Place a larger flat rock over the top, creating a small box (that will work as an oven) with a partial opening where you can keep an eye on your food as it's cooking. Build a fire next to this box (not in front of the open area) and check on it periodically -- you want it to cook and blacken from the heat -- you don't want it to catch on fire.

Desert Weapons

Most animals you'll turn into food in the desert don't call for a high powered weapon: A good slingshot and steel pellets for ammunition will take down rabbits, lizards, birds and even snakes -- if you're a good shot.

If you're going to have a rifle on hand, you increase accuracy and firing distance for taking down an animal in the desert. You don't even need a real gun -- a .20 caliber or .22 caliber Air Rifle is enough to take down large varmints.

Summary of Desert Survival

Stay well-hydrated, preparing for your trip by having essentials supplies and maps and specific routes in mind.

Set out on this trip across the desert carrying more water than you'd typically carry into the wilderness, knowing you'll need a gallon of water a day or more in hot temperatures.

If you know exactly where water can be found as you cross the desert, you may be able to carry less water -- which will mean less weight, and less physical exertion -- like the Bedouin who know where wells are located in vast stretches of desert.

So do your homework -- talk to people who know the desert, especially people who have researched the lives of indigenous people in your region of the country (like the Desert Indians in the American Southwest) and find out what routes they traveled, where they found water, and also where water can be found today. As a caution, the sources of water that existed just a few centuries ago could be vastly different today.

Talk to farmers and ranchers in the area -- they may have spent some time in the desert and may know about water sources -- springs, wells, caves, and underground rivers -- that aren't known by other locals. Mark these on your map.

Today, consider short jaunts into the desert to locate a few of these before you're in a survival situation, if you have the means -- you want to be sure the information you've been given is good information.

Always let people know where you're going in the desert and when you'll be back -- that way they know where to look for you if you don't return or call by a specific time.

The desert might look harmless -- but it has it's dangers -- the desert can kill the unprepared or over-confident person quickly. Learn how to navigate these dangers and you can be successful in the desert a lot like Desert Indians in times past or the Bedouin in Arabic deserts today.


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Knowledge to Survive…Skills to Thrive