How To Survive In The Desert

surviving in the desert - plane crashed
surviving in the desert - plane crashed

Learning how to survive in the desert should be a priority for anyone that lives in a region where there are large open areas of the desert landscape. 

When you live in a desert area, you never know when something unexpected will happen that will end up with you being stranded miles away from the nearest people. If you find yourself stranded in the desert, there are several things that you can do to help keep yourself alive.

One important thing to remember about the desert is that it will kill you very quickly unless you plan your actions carefully and know what you are doing. While there is a lot of survival gear that can help you to survive in the desert, there's a good chance that if you are in a survival situation that you won't have any of this gear with you. That means that you will have to rely on your ingenuity and training if you want to survive.

Plan Well Ahead Of Time

If you give the desert respect, and plan, you can avoid being stranded in a survival situation in the first place. While knowing how to survive in the desert is important, it's even more important to plan so that you can avoid the situation in the first place. If you go off on a hike or for a day of biking in mountain trail without preparing first, you are practically begging for something bad to happen.

By following the following tips, you can help to ensure that you are going to be safe while you are out enjoying the beauty of the desert.

1. Always tells someone where you are going, what you will be doing, and when you will be back 

If you don't do this then by the time anyone realizes you are missing you may already be dead. What happens if you fall off of your bike and get hurt? Or you step in a hole and break an ankle? How long would you lay there injured and in pain before anyone even started to look for you? Worst of all if you didn't tell anyone where you were going, then there wouldn't even be a search and rescue operation launched. On the other hand, if you act responsibly and tell a friend or family member you'll be back tomorrow, and where you will be, they will know to send help if you don't show up.

2. Bring enough water and other supplies to survive for a few days

If you ask anyone who has ever survived being stranded in the desert not one of them will ever tell you that they planned to get stranded. So if you are going to be spending time in the desert, you need to prepare by having enough supplies to survive a few days if the need arises. This means carrying at least a gallon of water, as well as some food, and two methods of starting a fire. The chances are that you won't need any of these supplies, but if you do you'll be glad, you packed them.

3. Bring a satellite phone or GPS emergency beacon

Cell phones are great until you are out of range of a cell tower. Then they are fairly useless to you. This is why you need to be carrying either a satellite phone or a GPS emergency beacon when you are planning on spending time outdoors. This will give you a means of alerting people that you are in trouble and that you need help. This can be especially helpful if you have become injured and are incapable of walking out. While having a satellite phone or a GPS emergency beacon is a great idea, you shouldn't assume that these items make you safe. It's possible that they won't work, or that you may damage them during a fall causing them not to work.

Heat Kills

The thing that kills most people that are stranded in the desert is heat stroke and dehydration. In the desert, water is at a premium, which is even worse because you are going to be sweating a lot. When most people realize they are stranded in the desert, or in any other type of environment, they tend to panic. In the desert, this will kill you. If you panic and start moving quickly hoping to find an easy way out, then you can easily overheat and end up dying from heat stroke. So if you find yourself stranded in the desert, then you need to find a way to remain calm and assess your situation. While in a normal situation an average person can survive for several days without water, in the desert that isn't going to happen. In fact, if you are remaining active during the day, and aren't drinking enough water, you can die from heatstroke in just a few hours.

When you are stranded in the desert, you need to make staying cool a priority. That means that you should only be up and trying to make it back to civilization when it is early in the morning, late in the evening, or even overnight. While walking in the dark is always dangerous, if you have a light source then you should risk it since it will help you to avoid heat stroke. Always remember that you should be moving slowly and that you need to make any activity you are doing constructive. You don't want to be wandering around, or pacing, or doing anything that doesn't improve your situation. Any activity you do raise your body temperature, and in the desert that can prove fatal. So make sure that you have a plan, and that you are only doing what you must to help keep your body temperature down.

The following are some general rules that you should follow when you are stranded in the desert during a survival situation and are trying to avoid heat stroke.

1. Shelter and rest during the day

While it may seem strange to be inactive during the day, this is one of the best ways you can help to keep your core body temperature down. When you are in a survival situation, it is very important that you get enough sleep. Lack of sleep hurts your mental faculties which can cause you to make poor decisions. In the desert, a single bad decision can kill you. So since you need to sleep, and you should stay as inactive as possible during the hottest parts of the day, then sleeping during the day is the obvious solution. But to be able to sleep, you are going to need shelter. There are two main components of any desert survival shelter. First, you need something that will block the sun. This can be anything from a small cave you find to a makeshift roof you put together using materials you find. The other thing a shelter must have is something for you to lie on. Lying on the hot ground will only serve to raise your body temperature more, which will help speed you along the path to heatstroke.

2. Do not remove your clothing

A common mistake made by people stranded in the desert is to try to cool down by removing their clothing. The problem with this is that it exposes you to the sun, which will end up causing sunburns. Severe sunburns can cause you a lot of pain, and they can quickly knock the fight right out of you.

Water Is A Priority

Hopefully, if you are stranded in the desert, you had the foresight to bring along an ample water supply with you. If you didn't, then you are going to be in trouble very quickly. While you can go without water for a few days in most environments, in the desert you need water on a regular basis. Without it dehydration sets in, which leads to heat exhaustion, which then leads to heat stroke. Unfortunately Hollywood once again got it wrong on many occasions when they show people chopping into a cactus and getting fresh water. Let me be very clear; this doesn't work. You may find a liquid in the cactus, but it won't be water. If you get desperate and drink it, you will end up getting sick and throwing up.

This will cause you to get more dehydrated, thus worsening your problems:

1. If you have water drink it and don't ration it?

When it comes to desert survival, there are two basic trains of thought. The first one says you should ration your water; the second says you shouldn't. The truth is that rationing water is not the right move. Sure you may be happy you have a little to drink when you are getting overheated, but that mouthful of water won't do much more than wet your mouth. Once you are in the process of overheating only ample amounts of water are going to help you. So instead of rationing water, you should drink it when you are thirsty so that you can put off dehydration for as long as possible. The longer you remain fully hydrated, the more you can do to improve your situation. Once heat exhaustion begins to set in you won't be able to be active to look for water, shelter, or rescue, or do much of anything else. So if you have water, drink up.

2. If you don't have water or don't have enough, finding more is a priority

In the desert in a survival situation, your number one need is water. If you made the mistake of not bringing water with you, then you need to search for and find more water urgently. This doesn't mean you should frantically be running around hoping to find a creek. What it means is that you need to be smart about it and search for water during cooler mornings or evenings. The good news is that there is water in the desert. The bad news is that it's scarce and finding it can be a major challenge.

Get to an Elevated Point

The first thing you should do if you are looking for water is to get to an elevated point. When you are at elevation, you will be able to see your surroundings which will help you to find signs of water. If you see any canyons, then this is a good indicator that there may be water there. Canyons are formed by rivers running through them, so if there is a canyon, there is a possibility that there is a water source at the bottom of it. After getting to the canyon don't be discouraged if you don't find any flowing water. It's possible you are here during the wrong time of year and that there was water here not long ago. You can often get access to this water by digging into the ground. If the ground feels cool or moist to the touch, there's a good chance that there is water underground.

Look for Green Plants

The other thing you should look for are lots of green plants. If you see green trees or any other type of lush green vegetation, then this is a good sign of water. Desert plants need water to survive, but most of them have adapted to survive with very little water. If you see an area in the landscape that stands out because there is more foliage there, then chances of a water source are high. Much like searching in a canyon, don't be discouraged if you don't see water right away. Instead, take the time to explore the area and then dig to see if there is an underground supply you can find and get access to.

Purify Water

While you may be desperate for a drink if you find water you should always make sure that it is safe to drink before you start to quench your thirst. Unfortunately, when you are in a survival situation you have limited resources. That means that finding a way to purify water is going to be a challenge. Now if you have matches or a lighter and a container that you can boil water in, then you are set. As soon as your water begins to boil it should be safe to drink, you can wait a few extra minutes on top of that just to be sure.

But what if you don't have fire making materials? It's a lot harder to start a fire using friction than they show you on television. So if you find water, and can't purify it, should you drink it? Yes, you should. The reason that purifying water is important is that it may have microbes in it that can make you very sick. The thing to remember here is that while you may get very sick, it likely won't happen for a few days. So if you are dying from dehydration, then you want to drink. This will save you for now, and even though you may suffer for it later, there's no sense in worrying about that when you are dying because you haven't had any water to drink. Who knows maybe by the time you get sick you will have been rescued. The point is that in a survival situation you need to think about your needs at the moment first, and then worry about long-term needs later.

You Should Only Try To Walk Out If You Feel There Are No Other Options

One of the biggest mistakes that people make in any survival situation is to walk away from their vehicle and try to walk out. Do you know how hard it is to search and rescue to spot one person on foot? On the other hand, if you were in a car that broke down you will be much more visible to people looking for you.

While it's possible you could walk a hundred yards and find help, it's more likely that you won't, and you will end up trapped and alone in the desert.

1. Instead of trying to walk out you should shelter in place and wait for rescue.

The desert is brutally hot, and there is very little water. This is a recipe for disaster. So if you were in your car when it broke down, you should use it to help shelter yourself from the heat and then you should focus on signaling for help. If you have a car, you can take the tires off and burn them. One great thing about the desert is that it is free of clouds. So if you can light up car tire and produce a lot of black smoke, then it will be visible for miles.

Another reason you should stay with your car is that it can provide you protection from the cold. Most people don't realize that winter temperatures in the desert can drop below freezing. While the heat of the day can kill you so can the frigid cold at night. So by climbing into your car at night, you can help to get some protection from the cold. Sleeping in your car can also help to keep snakes and venomous insects from getting to you while you are asleep.

2. Walking Out

If you have waited for more than a day or two, and your supplies are running low, then you may decide that the only way you are going to survive is by walking out. If it comes to this make sure that you leave early in the morning so that you will be traveling when the temperatures are still lower. You should also use parts of your car to make a large arrow that shows which direction you were heading in. That way if rescuers find your car they will know which way to go to try to find you.

Survival Is As Much Of a Mental Challenge As It Is a Physical One

When you first realize you are lost or stranded, it's far too easy to give into fear and allow yourself to panic. But if you make this mistake it can send you on a downward spiral that ends up with you dying. This is what makes survival so challenging. You are trapped in an unfamiliar situation, and you are not sure what to do. It's perfectly natural to panic, but you can't-do that. Instead, you need to compose yourself, try to calm down, figure out what supplies you have on hand, and then decide on a course of action. What you should remember is that long before we had the technology, we now depend on people lived and thrived in the desert. This means that with careful planning you can survive long enough to either be rescued or if necessary to walk out.

The key to being able to remain calm and use your ingenuity to survive is to prepare ahead of time. You need to have a good amount of knowledge of what to do and when to do it when you are stranded in the desert. If you decide to just walk your way out this could very easily prove to be a fatal mistake.

So first take the time to inventory your supplies. If you have enough water to last for a few days, then you are probably best served by staying where you are and building signal fires to attract the attention of rescuers. On the other hand, if you have a limited supply of water or none at all, then waiting for rescue should only be done if you feel like walking out is impossible. If this is the case you need to build a signal that shows which way you were heading, and then look for water as well as a way out. The point here is that by remaining calm and making intelligent decisions, you can survive in the desert so that you can return to your life and the people you care about.


Featured image: Stuck in Customs Burning Man Crash? (CC2 license)
How To Survive In The Desert
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