The world we live in is full of harsh environments, places where survival is difficult. For the most part, people avoid those areas, although that isn't always possible. When it is necessary to enter them, extra precaution must be made, in order to avoid any risk.
By and large, the knowledge we have as survivalists and the precautions we routinely take to ensure our survival are enough, even in these harsh environments. But some environments create special hazards, which normal precautions are not sufficient to protect us from. In those cases, we need to ensure that we take the right precautions, over and above those that we normally would.
Take a desert environment, for example. Most of our survival training focuses on keeping warm, as if we will be in a cold and wet environment. That's because there are more places in the world where we are likely to encounter that sort of environment. But many of the things we would normally do in a cold wet environment are useless in the desert. So, we need to adapt.
The Desert Environment
When most of us think about the desert, we imagine heat and blowing sand dunes as far as the eye can see. Somehow, the Sahara Desert has become our image of a desert. But not all deserts are the same; and while the Sahara is the world's largest desert, it's still only one desert.
What makes a desert a desert isn't heat or sand. The Mongolian desert has neither. It is actually rather cold there much of the time and the terrain is flat slabs of rock, rather than sand dunes. But it is as much a desert as the Sahara. However, it does have one thing in common with the Sahara, that is a lack of water.
This is the defining point of any desert. Technically, to be considered a desert, it must be a non-polar climate in which precipitation is too low to sustain vegetation or at most a very scant shrub. It is the lack of water that makes it a desert. It has to be non-polar, because even though the polar regions have little precipitation, they are a climate unto themselves.
In order to survive in such a climate, it's usually necessary to bring water in with you. However, there are many places on Earth, which are near-desert environments. In these areas, one can survive, at least for a while, as long as they take the right precautions.
While heat is not a requirement for a climate to be classified as desert, I'd like to mention that most deserts are extremely hot environments. So for the purposes of our discussion, we're going to assume that they are both hot and dry climates.
Desert Survival Priorities
It would be easy to assume that our priorities in a desert survival situation would be different than otherwise. However, nothing could be farther from the truth. Our priorities remain the same, although how we meet those priorities changes considerably.
Let's review those priorities:
- Maintaining body heat (homeostasis)
- Clean Water (keeping yourself hydrated)
Normally, when we talk about maintaining body heat, we're concerned about hypothermia. But in a desert environment, we are concerned about both hypothermia (lowering of the body's temperature) and hyperthermia (raising of the body's temperature). The extreme swings in temperature which are common during the average desert day, make both of these possible.
While water is still the number two priority, our awareness of its importance is heightened. Many would naturally think that this is our number one priority, simply because of the scarcity of water, but keeping our body's temperature stabilized is still a higher priority. Lack of water can kill someone in three days, but lack of maintaining body temperature can kill them in 30 minutes.
Preparing for Desert Survival
Unlike survival in a woodlands setting, the most common wilderness survival scenario we train for, desert environments provide little in the way of resources that we can use to survive. It is difficult to draw our resources out of nature, when those resources aren't there. When it comes to things like wood, water and food, deserts offer us much less to work with, than a woodlands climate.
Therefore, it is even more important to bring adequate resources with you into the desert, than it would be to bring them into the mountains or woods. You can pretty much count on the fact that if you don't bring it with you, you're not going to have it to use in your survival efforts.
The idea of surviving off a bug out bag or survival kit in the desert is impractical. You can't carry enough water to keep you alive, let alone everything else. In addition, distances in the desert are usually so vast and resources are so scarce, that you can't count on walking out of your predicament or walking to where you can find food and water.
Of course, few people would walk into a desert willingly. Rather, one might find themselves in such a survival situation because of a car breaking down while driving across a desert or because of surviving a plane crash in the desert. Either way, the vehicle and what it contains become your survival resources.
Proper packing of your vehicle is essential for desert survival. More than anything, that means bringing adequate water. While most survival instructors will tell you that you should have one gallon of water per person, per day, in a desert environment you should increase that to two gallons of water per person, per day. It's possible to sweat out more than a gallon of water per day in the heat.
Carrying that much water with you might seem excessive; but you will have little to no chance for resupply. If you don't carry it, you can't count on finding a stream or spring to get it from. Likewise, you can't count on finding animal life that you can kill for food.
You also need to ensure that you carry along a shovel with you, as well as plastic bags and plastic sheeting. These will be necessary for gathering water, as we'll discuss in a moment.
Maintaining Body Temperature in the Desert
As I already mentioned, the desert presents opportunities for both hypothermia and hyperthermia. Although it is usually hot during the daytime, at night the temperature can drop by as much as 60 degrees. This is in part due to the fact that there is nothing there to hold the heat. Once the heat caused by the sun's energy radiates out of the ground, there is nothing to keep it there. So it rises quickly into the night sky, leaving a colder layer of air near the ground.
Deserts become hot in the daytime in part due to their location. You don't find deserts in the higher and lower longitudes, where there is a lot of cold. Rather, they are located closer to the equator, in areas that tend to a lot of heat. Here in the United States, all our deserts are in the Southwest. However, there are a number of other areas which have a near-desert climate; once again predominantly in the Southwest.
The biggest challenge to maintaining body temperature is avoiding the heat during the day. While it is impossible to do this entirely, there are a number of things that can be done to reduce one's exposure to the heat and avoid becoming overheated.
The first and most important is to perform all physical activity during the night hours. When we move, our muscles burn sugar, generating heat. This heat is normally radiated into the air around us. However, if the air temperature is higher than our body temperature (98.6oF), that excess heat can't leave our bodies. Trapped inside, it heads us in the direction of hyperthermia.
The next thing to do is to avoid the direct sun. Shade is your friend in a desert survival situation. While that shade might not seem a whole lot cooler than the surrounding land, the few degrees difference it makes is well worth it.
In addition to being cooler in the shade, the shade keeps the sunlight from hitting our bodies and clothing, where at least some portion of it will be converted to heat. If you are wearing dark clothing, a lot of that sunlight will be converted to heat. That's why Arab's traditionally wear white clothing; it absorbs less sunlight, therefore generating less heat.
Set up your shade in low ground as well. According to what we all learned in high school physics, heat rises. That means that it will be hotter on the hillside, than it will be in the valley. Not only is it hotter up there, but you're going to have a harder time finding any shade up there too.
It will be even cooler if you can manage to dig a hole in the ground or a small cave. It is always cooler underground, than it is on the surface. While digging a cave may be difficult due to hard ground, if you have the ability to do so, take the opportunity.
When nighttime comes, be ready for it. The rapid change in temperature can be shocking. While it will feel good for a while, you could quickly find yourself becoming chilled. This is especially dangerous if you were sweating during the day. That sweat, trapped in your clothing, will evaporate into the air, drawing heat out of your body as it does. But if it draws too much heat out of your body, you can go into hypothermia.
The solution for this is the same as you would use any other time; cover yourself with warmer clothing and build a fire to provide heat. You may even find that you need to put a coat on. While the idea of building a fire for heat in the desert may seem totally insane, at night you will probably need it.
Deserts can become windy at any times, especially at night as the temperature drops. This increases the evaporation rate of your perspiration, cooling you all that much quicker than normal. If you have other clothes to change into, then change your clothing once the sun goes down. Allow the sweat in your clothes to evaporate and the clothes to dry. If you have a solar still set up, put those clothes in the still to reclaim that water.
Keeping Yourself Hydrated
Normally, when we talk about keeping ourselves hydrated, we're actually talking about drinking enough water. That's especially important in a desert survival situation. You have to have enough water to drink, or you're not going to survive.
But there's another part of this that we need to explore as well. That's keeping the body's water in the body, rather than allowing it to evaporate away. Your body perspires as a normal cooling mechanism. In order for that perspiration to evaporate, it has to absorb a lot of heat from your body, cooling your body.
While it would seem to make sense to speed up that evaporation process, there is some risk in doing so. The more perspiration that evaporates off your body, the more your body will sweat. That makes you lose your body's water faster. So, it's actually good to try and avoid having that sweat evaporate away.
There are two means to show the evaporation of sweat. The first is to wear enough layers of clothing to trap the sweat inside, near your body. This seems counter-intuitive, as we're used to adding layers of clothing to insulate our bodies from the cold. But those layers of insulation work the same to insulate your body from the heat around you as well. At the same time, they will help trap moisture, slowing down your body's loss of water.
The second thing to help you avoid losing your body's water is to stay out of the wind. Wind increases the evaporation process, by constantly brining fresh, not moisture-laden air close to your body. That's why the air from an electric fan feels cooler. The fan isn't cooling the air, it's just that your sweat is evaporating faster.
In addition to perspiration, your body loses water through urination. There is no way to stop this and in reality you don't want to. Urine carries excess minerals and other toxins from your body. You can't drink the urine, as that would put those minerals and toxins back into your body; but you can put it through a solar still, to separate the water from everything else.
Finally, avoid drinking anything that is a diuretic, like coffee and tea. These cause your body to urinate more, eliminating water. So they are actually working against you in keeping your body hydrated.
Finding water in a desert environment is difficult, but not totally impossible. While it may seem as if it never rains there, it actually does. It's just rather rare that it rains and the rainwater tends to flow off quickly, before it can help many plants.
Rainstorms in the desert tend to come quickly and disappear just as quickly. So you need to be ready for them. If you spread a tarp for shade, do so in such a way that it can also work for rainwater catchment. If you aren't using one for shade, spread one out just to catch rainwater; or if you don't have a tarp, use a rescue blanket. Always have a means of rainwater catchment ready, anytime you establish camp.
It's not uncommon to find low-lying areas in the desert which have plant life. These are areas that the water flows to, whenever it does rain. That means that there is always a possibility of finding at least some water there, even if it doesn't look like it.
Check water holes and stream beds for muddy areas or low-lying areas where dry mud is cracked. This is an indication that there might be moisture underneath the surface. Digging down into the ground in these areas is a good way to find water. Even if the water is trapped in the dirt, digging a hole can cause a small pool of water to form.
These are also ideal places to build a solar still. To build one, dig a sloping hole in the ground. In the center, place some sort of container to catch the water. Run a hose or piece of plastic tubing out from this container to the surface, outside the hole. Then cover the hole with clear plastic, weighing it down around the edges to seal it off. Finally, place a small stone or other weight in the center of the plastic, directly over the container.
Sunlight entering through the plastic will cause the area inside the still to heat up, more than the surrounding air. This will cause water to evaporate out of the ground, which will then condensate on the bottom side of the plastic. It will run downhill to the point where the stone is and drip off the plastic, into the container to be collected.
Adding vegetation inside the still allows it to draw the moisture out of the leaves, distilling that water for your use as well. In addition, you can pour any water-based liquid you have into the soil in the hole, for evaporation and purification. This includes:
- Recycled beer (urine)
- Anti-freeze from vehicles
- Rusty, dirty, or tainted water
- Sweaty clothes
- Cactus (cut them open first)
The more liquid you can put in the still, the more it will purify for you. In this way, no water should be wasted. You will be able to use whatever water you can find.
Another way you can get water out of leafy plants, besides using a solar still, is to use a plastic bag. Simply attach the plastic bag over as large a section of branches as you can, closing he opening as well as possible. Allow it to sit in the sun.
Just like with the solar still, the sun will cause the water to evaporate out of those leaves, compensating on the inside of the bag and settling to the bottom. Once the water is gathered, remove the bag and get the water. Then attach the bag to another branch.
Like water, it is difficult to find food in the desert. The lack of water greatly reduces the amount of animal life available. Most animals are nocturnal, sleeping during the heat of the day. So, any hunting you do will have to be done at night.
Many types of cactus and other desert plants are edible. One nice thing about cactus is that they aren't poisonous. Rather than depending on poison to keep animals from eating them, they depend on sharp thorns. So if you can get past the thorns, you can get to the fruit inside.
The easiest way to get past the thorns on most cactus is to burn them off. You can burn off the thorns, which are dry, without harming the moist fruit which is the leaves of the cactus. While not all cactus tastes good, at a minimum it will provide water through your still.
Getting Out of the Desert
In most cases, walking out of the desert is an impossibility. The distances to be covered are too vast and the available resources are too small to allow you the possibility of walking out. Movement takes you away from what resources you have, as well as taking you away from something that is more likely to attract the attention of rescuers than you are. For all these reasons, you are much better off sheltering in place and awaiting rescue.
However, that's not to say that you should do nothing. Any rescuers are going to be searching vast areas of land. Anything you can do to make yourself easier to see, will be a definite advantage to them and ultimately to you too.
With today's cell phones, you stand a better chance of letting people know that you are stranded in the desert, than ever before. While there are no cell phone towers deep in the desert, there are around the edges. So, chances are that you might be able to call for help, letting someone know that you are stranded in the desert. But don't limit your signaling attempts to just using your cell phone.
The human eye is attracted to movement. So a flag waving in the air or a shirt waving in your hand is likely to attract attention. Likewise, the eye is attracted to light, so a fire will attract attention as well. While it might be difficult to find materials to make flags and fires, whatever you can find will make it much more likely for rescuers to see you.
Another important tool you have to help you get rescued is a mirror. If you have a signal mirror, that's best; but if you don't use whatever you have. Sunlight reflected off a mirror can be seen for up to ten miles. That means you can signal airplanes flying overhead, with a car mirror. Just reflect the light onto the cockpit of the airplane and it will let the pilot know that there is someone out there that needs help. He can then pass that information on to others.
Likewise, you can use that mirror to signal rescuers on the ground. If you see anyone who looks like they may be part of a search and rescue effort, be sure to signal them with your mirror. For that matter, signal anyone you see, as most will get the idea that it is someone who needs help. If there is a roadway near where you are, that's a great place to signal. People are more likely to be on roadways, than in the middle of the desert.
A roadway would be one of the few valid reasons for moving your camp. Chances of being rescued along a roadway are much better, even if the roadway is seldom traveled. All roadways exist for a purpose, so that means that somebody must use it. Signal even if you don't see anyone on it, as you'll want to catch the attention of anyone who dries by.
All this signaling means that you're going to need to keep a constant lookout for anyone who might be a rescuer or be able to pass their sighting of your signals on to someone who is a rescuer. So you'll be plenty busy, even without trying to walk your way out or effect your own rescue.