SURVIVAL

Desert Survival: The Ultimate Endurance Test

Desert survival
Dennis Owens
Written by Dennis Owens

If you’re planning a trip in one of the world’s deserts, then having at least some basic desert survival skills should be your starting point. There are two possible perspectives on this topic: you could be planning a camping trip where everything is uneventful or your trip can go completely sideways, like your car breaking down in the middle of nowhere, leaving you with few supplies and a minimal amount of water.

The skills and knowledge needed in the second case scenario are therefore different, but we’ll try to cover both these possibilities.

The Smooth, Run of The Mill Desert Jaunt

Even if you’re as worry-free with your desert voyage as you would be going to Disneyland, you should still take into account that this is one of the harshest environments on Earth.

Desert voyage

An inhospitable, barren landscape will pose many more physical and psychological dangers than a comfortable, welcoming one, which means your experience will be a whole different level of interesting.

Sharing is caring

The first thing to take into account, even if you think you’ve got everything under control, is to let your friends and family know where you’re going and what your plans are. This can be really important in case something unpredictable happens to derail your trip.

As such, your close ones should know exactly:

  • Where and when you’re planning to go.
  • What your starting point is.
  • Whom you’re taking along.
  • All your contact information.
  • When you’re planning to contact them (e.g.: every three days at 8:00 p.m.).
  • Your precise route.
  • Rescuing service points on your route.
  • How long you’re planning to be out there.
  • What your pit stops/ camping spots are.
  • When and where you’re planning to end the trip.

In case people haven’t heard from you in very long, or if you haven’t reached the next camping point, knowing the exact route will enable them to reconstruct your steps and find you easier.

Means of communication

You may want to be completely alone in the wilderness in order to fully experience the marvels of this untamed, virgin stretch of land and to test your strengths, but staying in touch with the civilized world can make the difference between life and death. Our piece on the top solar phone chargers can help you make the best choice for your gear.

Satellite phone solar panel

The devices you’ll need are:

  • Mobile phone. This is the basic communication option you can think of, and everyone has one of these now, which is why it’s convenient and easy to pack. However, don’t neglect the coverage: your provider may not cover the desert area where you’re going, given that it’s so far from the civilized world. Just ask them beforehand to make sure.
  • Satellite phone. This is a much better option than the previous one, because it will offer you more coverage as it gets its signal from the satellites that orbit the Earth. Satphones are bigger than typical cell phones – in fact they look like cell phone models from 20 years ago.
  • GPS. Don’t neglect the benefits a GPS can bring along to your trip. Even if you’re a master at using the night sky or the sand dunes to guide you, a GPS can be a much safer bet. The maps, photos and satellite images it can offer you are indeed lifesavers. See our guide to the best hiking GPS to keep you safe.
  • PLB. The PLB or the Personal Locator Beacon is the ultimate emergency tool. As its name suggests, it sends a signal to the closest rescuing point to indicate your precise location. So in the case of a real emergency, this is definitely the thing to have.

Get the right wheels

We’re assuming that if you’re planning a trip to the desert, you’re not going on foot – at least not the whole time. So you’ll need a good offroad car which can handle being on a rough terrain, but you’ll also need to be experienced in driving one. It’s not the same as driving your usual car, so if you’re not feeling quite confident in your skills, keep in mind that you can take special driving lessons for this.

Best wheels for desert

Another thing to consider when it comes to your means of transportation in the desert is having the car checked before you leave, so that you have the all clear from a professional mechanic. But get a toolkit with everything you need along, and make sure you know the basics of fixing your car in case something happens.

Hydrate yourself

You’ve probably heard a thousand times that you shouldn’t neglect food supplies and water when you’re going out camping, but this is indeed the type of situation when having the right supplies is a life or death issue.

Firstly, when it comes to water you will need more than one bottle to carry it. Make sure that you have access to enough – at least one gallon per day – and that the bottles are resistant and don’t damage easily. Do check our article for the top electrolyte supplement to nourish your body properly.

Hydrate yourself

Besides, limit your drinking to sipping instead of guzzling, even if you’re thirsty. That way, you’ll likely avoid long-term thirst, as well as be able to ration it better. The same goes for food, don’t stuff yourself because that will only make you thirstier. Instead, have small but frequent snacks to keep your blood sugar up.

If you’re feeling particularly dehydrated, check the color of your urine: if it’s a darker shade of yellow, then you might be indeed experiencing dehydration.

Preparedness is life

Surviving in the desert means being prepared at all times and foreseeing the dangers that might lie ahead. As such, be ready with enough supplies and try to ration them precisely. Don’t take more than you can carry.

Take a first aid kit with you, making sure you have the right medicine for desert specific injuries or affections. Take into account things like:

  • Insect bites.
  • Snake bites.
  • Hyperthermia.
  • Hypothermia.
  • Sunburns.
  • Heat-stroke.
  • Panic attacks.
  • Flu.
  • Nasal congestion.
  • Sprains and fractures.

Moreover, if you or someone traveling with you have a specific illness, make sure they bring their medication along.

Be prepared with batteries or energy supplies for all your electronic devices – a GPS can’t really help you if it’s not charged.

Preparedness is life

Don’t forget:

  • Flashlights.
  • Waterproof matches.
  • Sunglasses.
  • Bandanas.
  • Lip gloss.
  • At least one hat.
  • Proper clothing.

Dress for success

People who normally reside in desert areas know that less is not more when it comes to clothing. It’s a fact that wearing shorts and tank tops is a sure recipe for disaster, as it can lead to sunburns, heat strokes, dehydration and even meningitis. We know it’s not particularly cool or trendy to dress in long, large clothes, but you have to do it in the desert. This is how you’ll keep your body temperature in the normal range, while also making for good air circulation.

The color of your clothes should be light, as it refracts the sun rays. Dark colors actually attract the sun and make you feel hot, but not in a good way.

Consider changing your socks and undergarments frequently, making sure that your feet are dry. Otherwise, you can wound your feet, get blisters or even infections. A nice, solid, airy pair of shoes that’s in the right size is another must for a desert trip.

Keep an eye out for everything

Let’s review some of the things you need to be on the lookout for when you’re in the desert:

  • Storms. Desert storms are a pain, and you have to be prepared for them. Be sure to cover your airwaves, and seek shelter immediately.
  • The cold. Desert nights are pretty cold, and can even reach freezing temperatures creating a thermic shock for your body. Make sure you don’t fall asleep without the proper clothes or blankets, and without starting a fire to keep you warm.
  • The animals. Depending on the particular desert area you’re going, there are a number of poisonous snakes and insects you have to guard yourself against. Be aware that you may even encounter dangerous predators, so make sure they don’t have access to your shelter and you can defend yourself if push comes to shove.
  • Your emotions. Being alone in a harsh environment might prove a challenge for everyone, so make sure you don’t let your emotions get the best of you. Which they might if:

Your Desert Adventure Goes to Hell

This can happen for various reasons, neither of which seems particularly enticing, like:

  • Your car breaks down and you have to reach your destination or the next rescue point by foot. This is where a PLB would come in pretty handy, but let’s say you don’t have one.
  • You run out of water or food because you didn’t plan carefully or because some wild critter stole them.
  • You don’t have shelter because your car broke down and can’t carry the tent/ or simply don’t have one because it was supposed to be a one-day trip.
  • You are bitten by a poisonous snake or insect, which makes you completely delirious.
  • You are in a dangerous situation, without any way of contacting someone to help you and you have a nervous breakdown.

It might seem that we’ve exaggerated a bit with the examples above, but you never know what might happen.

Stay on the road

So here is some of our advice on how to survive in the desert in an atypical situation.

Stay on the road

If your car broke down on a roadway, or if you have just recently passed one, make sure you go back and stick to it.

Chances are that someone will find you faster, all you need is one person driving on the same road you’re on. Besides, wild animals usually roam farther from the roads, so you won’t have that issue to worry about too.

Melt your meltdown fast

If you don’t have enough supplies, the necessary shelter and you’re also alone, you can see how that can lead to a panic attack. While it’s normal for these factors to trigger your anxiety, it’s also better for you to keep a cool head. Which we know it’s easier said than done and telling someone to calm down rarely actually calms a person down.

But if you’re reading this, we’ll just assume that you’re not having a breakdown in the middle of the desert just yet, so you have the time to learn a few skills to manage a panic attack in case it happens.

Melt your meltdown fast

Accepting

This is the first very important step when dealing with a panic attack. Because of its symptoms, such as breathing difficulties, headaches, nausea and even loss of balance, you might easily mistake it for dehydration. However, if your urine is clear, then you might just have to accept that you’re dealing with an anxiety episode.

This can be very hard to do actually, especially if you see yourself as a strong person who can control their emotions and you haven’t experienced episodes like this before. But keep in mind that a panic attack is nothing to be ashamed of, and your dire circumstances can fully explain it.

That entails two things: one, don’t think you have to want the panic attack. There’s a difference between desire and acceptance. And two, don’t resist what’s happening. Simply acknowledge how you’re feeling, tell yourself it’s normal, and it will pass faster.

Registering

This step is very important for overcoming the anxiety episode rapidly, as well as for managing future episodes like this one. Be sure to pay a lot of attention to all your symptoms, all your physical and psychological transformations. Detaching yourself from the anxiety will turn you into an objective observer, thus making you feel more in control.

There’s nothing a panic attack can do to you, except making you afraid. That’s it. Your heart won’t cease working, your head won’t break open from the pain and your breathing won’t stop either. But rationally observing your symptoms and the order in which they manifest is what will help you tick the boxes and understand that after every box has been checked, the panic attack will end.

Acting and thinking straight

Acting

The best thing you can do in a situation like this is breath. We know it doesn’t sound like much, but it truly is the number one advice given by psychologists and doctors all over the world for two very important reasons.

From a physiological standpoint, deep breathing oxygenates your body better, helping your heart beat more regularly and alleviating headaches and nausea. Therefore, inhaling deeply for about 5 to 7 seconds, and then exhaling for about 5 counts can really ease your symptoms.

From a psychological point of view, deep breathing will ground you in the present moment because you have to pay attention to your breathing and not to your problems. This will make you accept the situation, and understand that you are safe in the present. A panic attack brings fear of the future, but that hasn’t happened yet, so you still have time to act and save yourself, provided you read the advice below on how to get water in the desert, how to make a shelter and how to read the night sky.

Get the water

  1. Seek a river bed that has dried, because there are higher chances of moisture here.
  2. Dig a few holes in the ground until you find moisture. The holes will be about 20 inches deep, but if you’re in a more arid land, you’ll probably have to make them deeper. Remember that these holes will also have to be a convex. Besides, for this to work, the holes have to be dug in the sunshine, not in the shadow.
  3. Find some plants or leaves to put in every hole.
  4. Place mugs in the center of the holes, surrounded by the leaves.
  5. Cover every hole with plastic wrap.
  6. Create a sealed environment by placing sand on the corners of each plastic wrap that covers the holes.
  7. On top of every plastic wrap, place a small rock.
  8. The sunlight will condense the water both from the plants, as well as from the ground, making it drip in the mug.

Improvise a shelter

If there are trees available, and you have a blanket or a poncho with you, simply tie its corners around the trees.

Improvise a shelter

If there are no trees around, dig a large hole in the sand and use rocks to secure the blanket placed above the hole, in order to get some shade.

Find the North Star

The North Star is a shining star found above the Big Dipper, that always indicates the north. As such, if you know the next rescue point is east, west, south or north, you can find your directions by using this star as a trustworthy guide.

Can You Make It?

Taking all this information into account, the main question you have to ask yourself before planning a trip in the desert is whether you can make it or not.

It’s fairly obvious that the desert is an unwelcoming environment, not at all fit for the faint-hearted, especially since any accident or inconvenience can prove fatal.

Nevertheless, understanding the underlying dangers is what will help you prepare better and increase your survival chances, as well as your ability to enjoy this unforgettable experience.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dennis Owens
Dennis Owens

Dennis Owens is a graduate of National Camping School and REI Outdoor School. He knows everything about what gear to take with you, how to plan your trip to stay safe and what to do if you get lost in the mountains. We are lucky to have Dennis with us as he is a ‘walking encyclopedia’ when it comes to the wilderness.

  • Marco Medina

    I once read a lot of literature about surviving in the desert. In some deserts, especially the Sahara, the deserts of the Middle East, Peru and Northern Chile and in some parts of the Gobi desert in Mongolia, there is a huge difference in day and night temperatures. Night condensation of moisture from the atmosphere may serve as a source of water, and in the Namib desert in southern Africa, the fog, which comes from the sea, is often a source of life. In other places, such as in Western Australia, in the North of Mexico and in the Mojave desert in the southwestern part of the United States, where the temperature differs slightly, the condensation is very small, and as a result, vegetation and fauna are scarce.

    • Dennis Owens

      I remember this literature as well, and I can say this really works because the condensation eventually collects significant amount of moisture to quench thirst and gets you through the day.

  • Ryan C.

    Dry air, lack of moisture quickly dehydrate the human’s body. Without proper care, lips can get painful fissures, deep as the wounds thus water is the main factor for survival in the desert. A person needs about 1.5-2 liters of water. Carry it with you as much as you can, even if you have to leave something else. It is better not to walk in the heat and only go in the evening, night or early morning. In the sand dunes go the hard sand, in the valley between the dunes or along the ridges.

    • Dennis Owens

      Your lips are the first ones to show evident signs of dehydration. They do get chapped and form these fissures that may crack and bleed. Bottomline is, stay hydrated as much as possible and refill your containers whenever you get the chance to get some potable water.

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