Desert Survival Techniques


Desert. What images does the word conjure up in your mind? A desolate dry, rocky terrain dotted with cactus … A sandy windswept dry plain that’s forever changing. The worlds’ desert environments are varied, you realize an ice packed environment could be a desert, but all have one thing in common.,, they are arid. Any environment lacking water creates challenges to survival. But because deserts are not all alike they pose an unique survival challenge that follow a different set of survival rules, some contrary to normal survival techniques.

As we zip along the sparsely traveled side road in our air conditioned motor home, listening to the stereo and sipping on a cold drink, we never give it a thought that we are traversing the same desert landscape that claimed the lives of hundreds of early settlers who became stranded exactly where we now are. No concern on our part. This is modern times. Nothing to worry about.

Really? What has changed that makes dying in the desert impossible today? The landscape hasn’t changed in a 1000 years, boulders lie where they settled a million years ago when the ocean disappeared, and creatures who have inhabited this harsh environment still exist, although unseen. The only thing that has changed is You. Civilized Mankind.

You have become weaker … try cultivating 10 acres with a mule and plow. We are dumber … can you read the stars and know your exact location? We are lazy … do you walk 2 blocks to the video store or drive?

But we have technology! Yep. Cell phones that may or may not have a signal and definitely have batteries that go dead rendering it useless. We have cars that can do everything, even talk to you. But are useless when it runs out of fuel, or suffers an electrical malfunction. Do they still have vehicle repair shops?

You get the point. Don’t fool yourself, one silly or unavoidable mishap could land you squarely in a dire survival situation in a hostile environment inhabited by unfriendly dangerous animals. Ready to learn how to survive if the unthinkable happens? … Let’s do it.

Introduction to Desert Survival Techniques 101

Some survival techniques are so basic there shouldn’t be a need to even mention them. But since people continue to ignore the rule I’ll repeat it.

Tell someone where you are going!

Can’t get much simpler, but …. Let someone who cares about you, not the female bartender you’ve been hitting on, where you’re going. A back country hiking trip should be a no-brain-er, but a trip to Vegas through the desert can turn just as deadly. When you are missed the loved one can contact the proper authorities and they know where to begin their search. If you drastically change your plans, going to Phoenix instead, let the person know. Beginning a search in the wrong direction is worse than not knowing where to begin, as it reduces the area of search. You’ve just completed the first step to desert survival.

Water is the most critical thing to desert survival. Maybe not.

Conventional survival techniques teach finding potable water as the most important thing to do, but the desert alters that rule. Obviously water must be located, but at what cost? Water retention now enters the equation and stumbling about in the blistering sun searching for water is self defeating as you are losing water, through sweating, at a rapid pace and are not replacing it.

Here’s a simple way to look at it mathematically. Water in must equal water out. Simple equation for dehydration, but if the equation gets out of kilter, water in is less than water out for an extended time, death occurs.

Two ways to keep the equation in balance, or at least minimize the rate of speed dehydration is reached.

A. Locate and consume more water…

B. Mitigate or reduce water loss … sweating

If you don’t see water from where you are standing, what makes you think you’ll find it over the next hill? You may, but chances are remote and you’ll lose precious water by walking around in the scorching sun.

Instead find shade. (the altered part of survival 101) The desert is a nocturnal world which comes alive after the searing sun goes down and the temperatures drop. You’ll rest during the day, conserving energy and water, while traveling at night to search for water, food and the construction of a shelter and water producing projects. Avoid sitting directly on the hot ground which has baked for hours, instead try finding a shaded spot.

Back to finding water. If you live near or plan to travel through the desert always stash a piece of thin plastic in your vehicle, backpack, or fanny pack, as it can prove to be a life saver. If you can build a solar still, which we will, the urgency to journey out into the unknown searching for water is greatly reduced.

Simply explained a solar still is a miniature greenhouse which traps humidity under the vapor barrier, which then condenses into water as the temperatures drop at night. Here are the basic steps for constructing a simple solar still.


One: Dig a round hole a few feet by a few feet deep. There’s no need to get carried away and dig a basement or a grave.

Two: Dig the pit in a funnel form, sides angling downward

Three: Stretch your piece of plastic across the hole, it is important to have extra plastic in order to secure the perimeter. That’s why I said don’t go crazy with the size and depth of the hole. **** If you can find some green vegetation place it into the hole under the plastic, as it will contain moisture that can be extracted.

Four: Secure the perimeter of the plastic with rocks or cover with sand/dirt.

Five: You’ll want the plastic taunt, however you’ll want to funnel the water downward to the center in order to collect. Do this by placing a rock in the middle which will draw the plastic down creating a pooling area.

There are several methods of collecting the water depending on what’s available. If you have an empty bottle, set it under the collection point and punch a small hole in the plastic for the water to drip into the bottle. If you have a straw or a reed which can be used as a straw, you can suck the water off the plastic. If nothing else you may have to lap the water like a dog. Whatever it takes to survive.

Want to go on a diet?

As I said the desert has a way of changing things. Statistically and probabilities dictate if lost in the desert you will most likely die from dehydration, injury or be rescued before you will from starvation. That might sound a little harsh, but it is the truth. Therefore, don’t waste energy or water searching for food. However, if an easy meal presents itself in the form of an egg, rodent or snake … by all means take it. But don’t lose sleep over being hungry. Be glad you are alive to feel the pangs.

Fire … when men became men except during the day

You should never build a fire during the day. Why? Number one it’s hot and you are already in a miserably hot environment, plus it takes energy to build a fire. Just walking around collecting firewood burns energy and worse yet … expels water through sweating. There’s a time for a fire, but not daytime.

You may ask about a fire for signaling purposes. Rescue crews, on the ground and in the air, are taught to look for something out of the norm when scanning huge areas. A shiny object like a mirror or knife blade, reflecting sunlight, work much better for attracting attention.

There is one exception for a special circumstance. If you need a black bellowing smoke, and you are at your stranded vehicle, which you better be, then drain the oil and burn it. This will create a black plume you can see for miles.


As night begins to approach it’s time to start the fire. Don’t wait until dark to gather firewood and try lighting a fire. You may need light to see why you are having trouble getting a fire started, and critters begin coming out at night so it’s better to not be out blindly lifting sticks and what ever, not knowing what’s under them.

Fire is extremely important for numerous reasons. A fire can be seen for a long distance in the desert at night even on a starry night. It doesn’t have to be a blazing inferno, but glowing embers don’t help a lot. Never underestimate how quickly dried wood burns. When you think you’ve gathered enough for the entire night, triple that.

The desert gets bitterly cold at night, ironic isn’t it, and a warm fire will go a long ways in insuring your survival and peace of mind. Especially if your in your normal summer suit of shorts and a tank top.

A lastly, all those critters you didn’t see during the day are now out and moving about, hunting for food. Man is normally not on the menu, but you could get caught in a crossfire between a snake and a rat. The fire will help persuade them to give you a wide path.

Keep an eye out for rattlesnakes

Of all desert creatures the rattle snake poses the greatest danger to you. In America poisonous snakes cause very few fatalities, but that’s because emergency medical treatment is usually reasonably close. Even with the administering of life saving anti-venom, you will still incur incredible pain. You don’t want to try and endure this in the wilderness and hope your body can ward off the effects of the bite.

A scorpion rarely stings unless it is hunting or feels threatened, but that doesn’t mean to ignore them as a danger. You know you mean no harm to the scorpion you just put your hand down on, but it doesn’t … and even it did it’d probably still sting you for invading its space.

Bottom line is … always be aware of your surroundings and watch for any sign of danger.

Flash Floods can be deadly.


You are quite aware of the dangers posed by a flash flood, but in the desert where you’ve been searching fruitlessly for a bit of moisture, that much water sounds impossible. Unlikely … perhaps. Impossible … con tare … very possible. In fact people die every year in the American Southwest due to flash flood drownings. The problem is the atmosphere over a desert can change drastically in a very short time. The starry night you fell asleep by may erupt into a torrential storm out of nowhere.

Again, the extreme challenges to the rule created by deserts. Because there is very little moisture the ground bakes in the scorching sun becoming concrete like. When suddenly engulfed in a flood of rain the ground can not absorb enough of it quickly enough to prevent a massive runoff. Every gully and rut will experience the same runoff, joining together to create a tsunami which will destroy anything in its path.

So when deciding on a place to rest or camp, always survey the area. Staying in the bottom of a dry channel, ditch or dry lake bed is dangerous, not saying you absolutely should not rest there, but be aware of the possible danger and the weather conditions.


Hell, here comes a dust storm

Dust storms are another of those freaks of nature’s desert that can really be troubling. If you are at your vehicle stay inside it. Roll the windows up as tight as possible to keep the elements out, but you may have to roll one down slightly if the heat becomes too much. You don’t want to bake yourself into oblivion.

If you are caught out in the open look for large boulders, low lying rock outcrops or any other natural shelter to hide behind or under. If you are lucky enough to encounter a straight wind dust storm, some swirl, the rock shelter will help block the worse of the storm. Always place something, a rag or handkerchief over your mouth and nose to keep from inhaling dust particles. A bunch of sand and dust lining your mouth and lungs won’t do any good for your already raging thirst.

Unfortunately there is nothing you can do but hunker down and wait for the storm to end. One last personal note. If you have no extra clothing to cover your mouth and nose I would recommend taking your shirt off and covering your entire head. The sand may sting, but you have protected your eyes, mouth and lungs.

Think Twice Before Drinking Cactus Water


I know you see cowboys cut off a chunk of cactus and drink to their hearts desire, but this ain’t Hollywood and you ain’t John Wayne. The chances of cactus water making you ill, very diarrhea type ill, is quite high. Come down with a case of the runs and dehydration goes into warp drive. But … as a last resort … you are dying of thirst … go far it. What do you have to lose?

These desert survival techniques are not all inclusive, no manual contains everything. Special forces are continually coming up with new ways to survive in hostile environments, but learn and adhere to these basics and your odds of surviving have skyrocketed.






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