Do you have what it takes to survive in the desert in the event of an accident or emergency? If you’re thinking of traveling anywhere among the vast arid stretches of our world, you may want to consider studying up on some desert survival skills before you go. But you don’t have to be a full-blown survival expert to stay alive in the desert, as long as you can keep some important tips in mind.
While much of the survival mindset is the same no matter where you find yourself, survival in the desert is a delicate balance between staying out of the heat of the day and staying warm during the cold nights, between conserving the water you have and drinking enough of it to stay alive, and between stifling your feelings of hunger and seeking out any source of food which will you keep you alive.
It’s been said that the biggest dangers in desert survival are exposure (to the sun during the day, and to the cold during the night) and dehydration, and neither of these is to be taken lightly. One of the best defenses against the sun is getting out of it, and barring that, to always having a big hat or other covering for your head with you. If the top of your head is exposed to the direct sun, or even indirect sun for long periods, your body needs to work hard to keep itself cool, so the first rule in desert travel is covering up. If you’re caught without a hat, use another article of clothing to wrap your head in, or if your skills are up to it, fashion a ‘hat’ out of appropriate materials at hand.
This goes hand in hand with the first tactic, covering your head, except this applies to the rest of your body as well. Finding shade or constructing a shade shelter is one of the first priorities for desert survival, as keeping out of the direct sun and not exerting yourself in the heat of the day will help to conserve water. The immediate need will be for some temporary shade, and then when the sun starts to go down, you can construct a better shelter. Depending on your location, there may be shade cast from small shrubs or cactus, or you may need to seek a place which will shelter you from the sun for even a small part of the day — such as in a ravine or on the north side of a rock outcropping. The general idea is to stay out of the dehydrating rays of the sun during the day, and to travel or forage during the cooler hours of the morning or evening.
Actually, do drink the water, if you have it. Just don’t guzzle it all at the first sign of thirst. A better tactic is to ration it for yourself, taking smaller sips throughout the day. Assess your dehydration by the color of your urine – if it’s light-colored, you’re probably OK, but if it it’s dark, you need to drink some water. If you do come across water in the desert, use extreme caution before you start gulping it down – it may not be potable, and if it’s contaminated, you’ll squander what meager water your body has stored the first time you vomit or have diarrhea.
The more you eat, the thirstier you’ll get, so if you have food with you, take care to only nibble enough to keep the hunger pains away and your energy up. If you don’t have water with you, you’ll do much better to simply not eat for now. Your body can survive much longer without food than it can without water, and the last thing you want to do is increase your thirst.
Panic is one of the most dangerous parts of any survival situation, so if you’re able to calmly assess your predicament and work out your next steps, you’ll be able to head off a wild rush to get out of wherever you are (and possibly into a much worse situation). Unless you know exactly where you are, you’re probably much better off staying put until you can either be rescued, or you have a better idea which direction to head (and have assembled some protective sun gear to shade you during travel).
If you have decided to make a move toward getting back to civilization, be sure to mark your original location and direction of travel, using rocks, sticks, scratching it into the ground, etc., and if you have the means, leave a message for anyone who might stumble across it. Before moving, take a sighting on a distant object in the direction you’re traveling, and use that landmark to keep you on track. Leave small rock cairns or arrows on the ground at intervals, either for yourself to backtrack to, or for anyone who may come across your tracks and could find you that way.
When moving about to find shelter or water, keep your energy expenditures as low as possible, to conserve both what little moisture is in your body and what little food you may have eaten. Move slowly, try not to break a sweat, and keep your mouth closed to slow the rate of dehydration from your breathing. Covering your mouth with a bandanna or a piece of clothing will also help to slow the water loss.
Because daytime temperatures in the desert might fry you, by the time sunset rolls around, it’s a huge relief. But then comes the reality of nighttime in the desert. In many desert locations, once the heat of the day dissipates, the temperature starts to drop, and drop, and drop, until you’re now freezing. Shelter and warmth will go a long way toward keeping your energy and spirits up in the desert wilderness, so finding a cozy spot to hunker down before it gets cold is almost as important as finding a shady spot during the day.
Got any other helpful desert survival tips? Leave us a comment!
Top image: zbigphotography at Flickr
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