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Basic Desert Survival

At first glance the subject of Desert Survival seems deceptively simple. Find water and stay out of the sun; right? Not so fast, its a bit more complicated. To discuss desert survival properly we must ask ourselves a few questions. What is a desert? Why and how long will we be in the desert? And most important of all; what do we mean by desert survival? That is, what and tools supplies will we have with us.

There is no way we could write a complete desert survival guide in a short article. Here we will cover some of the basics precautions that should be taken while traveling or backpacking in the desert.

Just this year, the media covered several deaths caused by desert travel around the south western region of the United States. All of these could have been avoided by taking the proper precautions.

So what is a desert? Close to a third of the world's surface is considered desert. Most people think of the vast sand dunes of the Sahara as seen in Hollywood movies. But a desert is defined as any arid land area that generally receives less than 10 inches (250 millimeters) of rainfall per year. Most of the little water it does receive is quickly lost through evaporation. Average annual precipitation in the world's deserts ranges from about 0.4 to 1 inch (10 to 25 millimeters) in the driest areas to 10 inches (250 millimeters) in semiarid regions. Antarctica and parts of the Arctic are considered desert, but we are going to cover what we could call a hot desert.

Other features that mark desert systems include high winds, low humidity, and temperatures that can fluctuate dramatically. Hot deserts often experience drastic temperature changes with very high temperatures during the day and contrasting frosty nights. The temperature ranges seen in the Southwestern deserts can range from 120 degrees during the day to freezing temperatures at night. The same cloudless sky that allows the sun to bake our skin during the day, quickly cools the ground at night by radiating the heat into space. This makes the desert a challenging place to survive in.

Unlike desert plants and animals, humans have not developed the extreme protective mechanisms needed to truly "survive" in the desert. So what that should tell us is that we must thoroughly prepare to travel or survive for a set period of time within this arid territory. Part of this preparation must include obtaining and using the proper protective gear and supplies.

So what can we do to improve our odds in case of an emergency? The same steps taken to avoid a survival situation in most cases.

  • Plan the trip - make a travel plan
  • Prepare your vehicle
  • Know the possible dangers
  • Have an emergency kit
  • Understand the region

Plan the Trip

Whether you are simply driving through a desert to get to your destination or planning a backpacking trip, it is essential that you prepare properly. Using the rule of threes as a guide, we know that the body can only live three days without water under normal conditions. The higher desert temperatures and low humidity increase dehydration. The simple process of breathing causes fluid loss. Plan for at least a gallon a day per person preferably two. Remember, we can make fire, we can make a shelter, but we cannot make water.

Plan your route and share the information with several people you can trust. Let them know when you plan on going in, what locations you will be traveling through, and most importantly, when you plan to be back or check in! During our recent desert trips, we shared our location down to GPS coordinates. Set times when you will check in. Stick to your plan, and if anything changes take the time to call your safety contacts.

If anything happens, stay on your plan route. If you are traveling by car, stay with the vehicle. Try to make yourself visible. My emergency blanket is orange on one side and reflective mylar on the other side. This can be used for both signaling and to create a quick shelter for shade.


Signal Mirrors:

A signaling mirror such as Ultimate Survival Technologies' StarFlash mirror can be seen at surprisingly long distances. Learn how to properly use one. Do not wait until you need it. If a signaling mirror is not available, we could break a side mirror off your vehicle, find anything shinny such as a CD. It is good practice to learn multiple signaling methods. A distress signal can be 3 fires in a V shape or piles of rocks in a triangular shape.

A signaling mirror can help rescue see a person at a much greater distance. As the following images indicate, the glare from a mirror will be visible long after the human shape has blended into the background. If a signal mirror is not available try using different reflective objects. (examples: rear-view mirror, side mirror, CDs, Chrome plated items)


Flares can be used to signal at night and can also be used to start fires in an emergency.

Signal fires:

Set up materials for a signal fire. Wood in the desert is scarce at times and will be very dry. It will not create dark smoke so other items have to be added to the signal fire. Your spare tire, oil from the engine or pieces of the car interior will make dark smoke.

Try to find shade. If there is no available shade, make some. We can use the reflective tarp or dig a trench under the vehicle once it cools down. Remember that some critters seek the same shade.

Note: If you have elderly or infants in the group, they could be affected by the temperature changes more quickly. Do whatever is necessary to get them in the shade as soon as possible. Pouring water on clothing can help to cool them down.

Prepare your vehicle

Prepare your vehicle. Check the fluids, the tires, and the electrical. A few basic items to carry in your vehicle include:

Click on each item for more information

These items are just suggestions. The type of trip taken and the length of time must be taken into consideration. Do some of the items seem extreme? Recently someone followed their GPS directions into unmaintained desert roads. Their vehicle was buried in the sand and they were stranded for days which lead to the death of one of the group members. This tragic event perhaps could have been avoided with extra water and a shovel. Read LA Times Article

Know the possible dangers

What are some of the dangers of the desert?

We already discussed dehydration, but what are other dangers encountered in the desert?


This is one that surprises some people. Due to the misconseption that deserts are hot, people do not prepare for the cold temperatures. If you take a look at deserts of the world by area you will find that there are plenty of cold desert climate regions. However in some deserts you may have to deal with both extremes. During our last visit to Arizona daytime temperatures were in the 94 Fahrenheit during the day and dropped to 38 Fahrenheit at night. Once the sun goes down, desert temperatures drop rapidly at night. Whether in your vehicle or backpacking make sure to include proper clothing and items which would keep you warm. An old wool military blanket or Mylar sheet can be a life saver. Several methods of firestarting is essential in any pack.


Hyperthermia, Heat Stroke the temperature of the body is elevated from the heat of the sun and activity. Add dehydration to the mix and the body can begin to feel symptoms such as nausea, vomiting(causes futher dehydration), dizzyness, headaches. The heat stress causes thermoregulation allowing the body to overheat. As the body loses the ability to control its temperature a heat stroke can occur. If hiking in the desert, it is a good idea to have planned water and rest breaks throughout the day. Find or make shade if at all possible.

mojave rattlesnake -


Poisonous Creatures such as snakes, centipedes, scorpions, spiders, and Africanized bees are a few. If there is a need to work on a vehicle, we must keep in mind that there are poisonous creatures that are always trying to find shade. Wearing gloves is helpful. If you leave the vehicle to find shade, pay attention to where you sit and what you touch or brush up against. If you take your shirt off and hang it somewhere make sure to check it. If you take your shoes off do the same. Scorpions and other desert creatures are nocturnal, they move and feed at night. As the daylight begins they will find rocks, crevices or your clothes to hide under.

You also have to deal with skunks, javalina, coyote bobcats and mountain lions.


An injury in the desert can make the difference between life and death. Stop! Slow down, think and take your time before you act. Pay attention to the plants around you A lot of plants in the desert are covered in spines. The hedgehog cactus and prickly pear cactus can easily puncture the skin. Contrary to Hollywood imagery most cacti will not provide potable moisture and some are toxic!

Have an emergency kit

There are some that would argue that an emergency/survival kit is pointless. That proper planning of a trip is all that is needed. I wonder, if the survivors of well known Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 would feel the same way. Perhaps we could ask Steven Callahan how much his emergency dry bag helped him survive 76 days adrift at sea? Perhaps we have become so used to the idea that someone will always come to rescue us, that we have stopped thinking for ourselves. True, surviving a plane crash would be a miracle in itself, but how disappointed would you be if you survived the crash only to die of hypothermia. There are countless stories of survivors that were able to use a few crucial items to get them home alive. By all means, plan the trip and let your loved ones know where you will be. But people have died in hours killed by dehydration and hypothermia. Better to have the gear and not need it.

Part of an emergency / survival kit was covered while discussing vehicle preparation. But items could be helpful to carry in a small backpack.

Lets cover a kit we recently used during desert hiking.


Did we mention water? Multiple ways to store and carry water are essential. We used two water bladders and a Nalgene water bottle. We prefer the Stainless Nalgene bottle so we can use it for boiling as well as transporting water. Another great piece of equipment is a puncture resistant water bladder such as the MSR Dromedary or DromLite bags. Understanding the lay of the land and different methods of finding water can be helpful. We will cover water procurement tips on our futurel articles.

We cannot forget at least one item for water purification. Whether it is boiling, a ceramic filter, chemical tabs (Chlorine Dioxide or Iodine), taking every step towards making sure the water is clean is essential. Drinking unclean water can lead to further dehydration or worse. There are inexpensive and lightweight products such as Potable Aqua's Chlorine Dioxide or Iodine tablets.


Make sure your cellular phone is charged and bring a charger if possible. Road flares, Chem Lights/Lightsticks/Glo-sticks, Signal mirror, Whistle. If the situation calls for it, prepare a signal fire. Use the spare tire to create smoke. Flashlights are also a great piece of equipment to have. It can help us move in the dark while avoiding injury and also can be used to signal.


A good quality Compass, GPS and a Topographic map of the area.


Protection starts with proper dress attire. Covering the body from the sun and the hot/dry air. Learn about proper clothing materials. Wear a hat and sun glasses! Protection also includes items that would help to build a makeshift shelter in an emergency. A reflective blanket or tarp, can be set up quickly and help protect from the sun's rays. It can also be used to reflect the heat from a fire at night. Shelters such as the LEAN-TO can be built using a reflective Mylar blanket. In the picture below we use Adventure Medical Kits SOL Emergency Blanket to build an expedient shade shelter.

Modified emergency blanket shelter built using a Saguaro cactus rib.

First aid kit

Items to help with an injury are always a good idea. Getting the proper training from a well established group such as NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) should be on everyone's list.

With that knowledge we can build a kit and be familiar proper use of the items. There are several companies that make a great foundation for a First Aid Kit. It is important to properly clean and cover cuts. An infection could become crippling and keep us from walking out of the bush. We recommand the WMI Wound Pack from the NOLS website.

Build up on the foundation adding items will ensure most emergencies are covered. Remember items in first aid kit can be used for other emergencies. Alcohol wipes, magnifying glass and bandages can all be used for fire starting. Duct tape can be used to repair your boots or cover a blister temporarily.


Lighters, magnesium blocks and Ferrocerium rods should be part of the kit along with tinder. Fire is a great way to signal. Fire helps with signaling, water purification, mental state and fight off hypothermia.

Special Thanks

: To John Campbell for so graciously helping us through our time in the Arizona desert. Great friend with a lot of desert knowledge. Make sure to check out his book: The Complete Survival in the Southwest: Guide to Desert Survival

Here is a sample pack we carried hiking into the desert

Click on the item for more information

Note: Item 11 is a military poncho wrapped in parachute cord. The parachute cord is attached to the grommets. This will help us to quickly build an expedient shelter if needed. (Will serve as a rain catch under the right weather conditions)

Traveling and backpacking in the desert can be a wonderful experience. With careful planning and preparation, we have been able to visit beautiful regions and experience desert wildlife. Plan the trip ahead of time. LEAVE A TRAVEL PLAN! Let loved ones know of your plans and numbers to call if you do not check in on time. Carry an emergency kit built around the particular needs for the territory traveled. Lastly, take the time to read books and documentation written by people that live in the area. Get training from qualified instructors if at all possible.

Most survival situations can be avoided. Sometimes unavoidable situations arise and this is where an emergency kit can make all the difference in the world. If you left a travel plan with with your safety contacts, help should be on its the way. Conserve energy and water and wait.