Planning a backpacking trip through the desert takes some special precautions and preparations to help ensure a successful trip. Many people believe the desert is this massive barren wasteland with cacti, no water, and a lot of heat (it kind of is, during the day).
Many might believe survival in the desert is as simple as staying out of the sun and drinking some water. A desert is typically land that receives very little rain; usually less than 10 inches per year). It also has a large fluctuation in temperatures from day to night. It might be 120 degrees during the day and then drop below freezing during the night.
Those cloudless skies allow this to happen. Survival in the desert is possible with some advanced knowledge and preparation. Today, we will give you some pointers to survival in the desert with this desert survival guide.
Come Up With a Plan
The best first step to planning a trip into the desert is planning properly. Many of the reported deaths in the desert could have been avoided with the proper plans in place. When you are coming up with a plan, some of the questions that you need to ask yourself are:
- Where am I going?
- What is the temperature like throughout the day?
- What kind of weather obstacles could I face?
- How many days do I plan to be out there?
- What route will I be taking?
- How much water will I need?
These are some basic questions to ask during any backpacking trip, but the answers are very crucial in this type of arid environment. Any water that the desert gets will usually evaporate very quickly. You won’t be able to stroll down to a river and collect water. Coming up with a plan for your trip, any obstacles you may face, and all of the necessities that you will need are extremely important.
Dealing with Extreme Heat
Have you ever been in 100 degree weather? 120 degree weather? One time I was out in the very south of Texas and into Mexico. It was 120 degrees that day. We walked around shops in Mexico for less than 30 minutes in the sweltering heat and before I knew it I was seeing spots.
Next thing I knew I was throwing up in a trash can and trying to suck down some gatorade while dragging my way back to our hotel room to sit 3 inches from an air conditioner on full blast.
When you are in the desert, you can’t just stop into a convenience store and grab an electrolyte filled drink or pop back into your hotel room to sit in front of your A/C. Again, preparation is absolutely essential.
How to Stay Cool
One good rule of thumb when surviving in the desert is to stop fighting it. Be one with the desert, if you will. Don’t go hiking during the midday heat. You see those animals lazing in the sun or in a nice shady spot? Do that.
It’s best to wake up earlier and hike until noon (or until it starts getting pretty steamy), then relax in a shady spot (and near a water source, if possible). Once the sun starts going down, you can hike another few hours into the night. The night could bring new challenges, but can be an enjoyable experience if prepared.
Another way to stay cool is to wear breathable clothing (more on that later). Other desert hikers prefer to wear as little as possible and allow the skin’s perspiration to cool the body. Whichever method you choose, fully covered lightweight clothing vs. little clothing, depends a lot on your complexion and preferences. Experiment and see which works best for you.
An umbrella is another option to help keep you cool. There are umbrellas designed specifically for hiking that are lightweight. They provide protection from direct sunlight during those times that you can’t find shade anywhere and need a rest break. They create their very own portable shade.
Building a Shelter in the Desert
There are a few options for building a shelter in the desert. The most obvious being a tent, if you have one. If you are building a shelter using the land around you, there are a few options.
An important side note - when seeking the spot to build your shelter (and during the build), be aware of your environment. Be alert for poisonous snakes or plants, trees that could collapse, dangerous insects, flash flood areas like in foothills, and so on.
One option is to build the shelter slightly below the ground. This method takes more effort, resulting in the loss of more energy and need for more water. It should be built at a time that avoids the hottest parts of the day. The shelter needs to be level enough that you can lie down comfortably.
Once you find your spot, you can either use an already present trench or depression in the ground (which will save you a ton of energy!) or you can dig a trench about 18 to 24 inches deep that is comfortable to get in.
Use the material that you dug out to build up the “walls” on 3 sides, leaving one side that you can get in and out of easily. Once you have your space to sleep, secure your tarp or parachute material over the top and secure with heavy rocks. Using this method can decrease the temperature inside your shelter by 30 to 40 degrees.
You can decrease the temperature even further by having a black layer of material closest to you and then a little space and white material secured above the black layer. The black layer will insulate you and the white layer will reflect the heat away from your shelter.
Another option is to go with an open shelter as illustrated below. The open shelter is not as cool but, is quicker to build and requires less energy.
You’ve got three days to survive without water, maybe less in the desert. After those three days you are toast (quite literally). Planning for your water is imperative to your survival. It is recommended to drink, at MINIMUM, one gallon of water each day in the desert, preferably two.
Drink water all throughout the day, even if you aren’t feeling thirsty. Drink while you hike and even when you are sitting around in the shade. Don’t try and conserve your water when you aren’t moving.
Your body will constantly be teetering on the line between hydration and dehydration. Some hints for finding water are looking for signs of life (animals and insects gathered in an area), dark green leafy vegetation, dry riverbeds that you could dig into, or certain trees to dig under like cottonwoods.
How to Build a Solar Still
Building a solar still is easy to make. If you are in a survival situation it might not be the best choice as it uses up a lot of much needed energy. You will only need:
- Sheet of clear plastic (you can use a cut open trash bag for this)
- A piece of plastic tubing
- Empty container of sorts
Use whatever tool you have (hands, shovel, etc) to dig a hole that is wide in enough in diameter that your bag can completely cover it. Dig it a couple of feet deep. The hole doesn’t need to be flat, just the place where you will be putting your container at the center. Secure one end of the tubing to the bottom of the container and the other end anchored somewhere outside of the hole.
Fill the tubing with vegetation (you can also pour in water-based liquids like urine or anti-freeze from a car in to the hole – it will get the water out of those as well). Then use rocks or dirt to secure the edges of the plastic sheet around the entire hole and tubing.
Use a bigger rock to place in the center of the sheeting so that it dips down over the container. As the sun warms the ground and vegetation it will cause the water to evaporate, which then catches on the plastic sheeting. The condensation will all come down to the center where it is weighted down and will then drip into your container.
Collecting morning dew is an option to grab a little drinking water. The best time to collect dew is in the early morning before the sun touches the place that you plan to collect. The easiest way to obtain the dew is to run an absorbent cloth over vegetation.
Once you have enough you can ring the cloth out in your collection container. It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with poisonous plants because you don't want to collect dew from them.
Another method of collecting dew is turning over half buried rocks before the sign rises and collect dew from them, but be aware of poisonous creatures that lurk under and around rocks like snakes and scorpions. It’s also a good idea to purify the water if you are able, although sources say the water should be potable.
Should You Drink Cactus Water?
No, you should not. Unless you like vomiting and other non-pleasant things coming out of you. Almost all cactus water is toxic except one variety of the barrel cactus. But that one is still a last resort and won't make you feel too great. There are different cactus fruits that you could eat, but they definitely won't provide the gallons of water that your body needs each day.
Starting a Fire in the Desert
The days in the desert may be scorching hot, but the nights can be downright frigid. A fire in the desert can serve many purposes from providing heat to cooking food to warding off critters. Starting a fire in the desert is pretty straightforward usually, unless you have high winds.
Providing some form of barricade from the wind will aid in getting a fire going during windy nights. Here is a list of a few ways to start a fire without matches.
We also wrote an article on how to start a fire from ice or water. Starting a fire with ice is impossible since you wont be able to get ice in a desert. But, starting a fire from water in the desert works quite well, especially with that bright sun.
Here is a Youtube video that shows how to light a fire with a water bottle. Alternatively, you could use plastic wrap and make a round water filled ball shape, and start your fire the same way you would with a water bottle.
Finding food in the desert may seem like a lost cause. There isn’t as much food or water to be found as there is in the wilderness, but there are some options like certain insects and plants. It’s crucial to know which plants and insects are safe to eat because many of them are poisonous.
A few important points to consider are: don’t eat if you don’t have water. You will only make it a short time without water and eating food will increase your need for water. You can survive much longer without food. Avoid eating plants with milky sap, all red beans, and plants with a bitter or soapy taste. This list could go on and on. Study the plants and insects that are safe and what to avoid.
Edible Desert Insects
Some edible desert insects are ants, grasshoppers, scorpions, tarantulas, and centipedes (gross!). Insects are a staple to many diets around the world and provide quick protein and energy. Many can be eaten raw, but might go down better if they are cooked a bit.
Edible Desert Plants
There are a variety of edible plants in the desert. All cactus fruits are edible (only the fruit though!). Just be sure to remove any spines or fine hairs before consuming (boiling can achieve this). The prickly pear is often viewed as the best tasting of the cactus fruits (pictured below). The pads can be boiled or eaten raw in salads. The dark pink flowers are also edible. The prickly pear is also about 85% water so win-win!
Some other edible plants are chia sage (the entire plant is edible), Pinyon Pine nuts, Acacia, Agave and many others. There are books that can give more comprehensive information on the type of wild edibles that you can find in the desert, like this one; "Sonoran Desert Food Plants: Edible Uses for the Desert's Wild Bounty".
How to Catch and Prepare Reptiles and Snakes
Catching reptiles and snakes is relatively easy once you find them. There are a variety of poisonous snakes in the desert, so be aware of what you are catching and how to catch it without getting a bite. To catch snakes, it’s easiest to get a stick with an extra branch, forming a sort of “V” with the end of the stick.
You can use this to pin down the head of the snake. If it is poisonous (or even if it’s not), it’s recommended to cut off the head of the snake. If it’s poisonous don’t forget to bury the head; you can still be injected with venom with a careless step.
Be very diligent with hand-washing around snakes and lizards. They are naturally carriers of salmonella on their skin (and sometimes in their mouth and teeth). Salmonella is the last thing you want to deal with when in the desert since the risk of dehydration is already at the forefront of all activities.
You can prepare your food in the traditional way; cooked over a fire. You can also create an oven by placing your catch on a flat rock. Then surround the meat on three sides with smaller rocks that are taller than it is and then place another larger rock on top of the rocks to create an oven.
Start a fire next to the rocks on a side that is not the opening, so that you can check on the food as it cooks. You want to blacken it, but not catch it on fire.
Desert clothing is much different than most other hiking situations. Deserts are very hot with very low humidity. Low humidity means very little sweat, and high heat means that little sweat will evaporate quickly. For this reason, I recommend cotton for the outer layers.
The goal is to protect the skin from the sun. Long pants and long sleeve cotton shirts will help protect your skin from the sun, but will also absorb any sweat so that it can work its body-cooling magic before it evaporates.
A wide brimmed hat is also a good idea to protect your head. Make sure that your shoulders, the back of your neck, and your ears are covered and protected from the sun.
Quality hiking boots are essential for a successful trip. If your feet hurt, you won’t be getting very far. The desert won’t go easy on your feet with rough terrain, thorns, and venomous fangs lurking around. Make sure to break your boots in before you go.
Moisture-wicking synthetic material is best for underwear and socks. Moisture staying close to these parts could lead to chafing and blisters. A jacket is also a good idea (but it’s hot!) because temperatures vary wildly in the desert from day to night. Tossing a space blanket into your pack is lightweight option that could save your life in the desert.
Wear your clothing loose so that you have proper ventilation. Many clothing items will have “vents” sewn into them in places like your armpits or back so that air can circulate. Layers are always best so that you can add on or remove as needed.
Signaling for Help
There are plenty of ways to signal for help. The first, most important preventative step to getting found is telling someone where you're going. It's hard to be found if no one knows that you're lost.
Signal fires are a great way to attract attention, especially from the air. Shape three fires into a triangle or straight line with each fore approximately 25 meters apart.
Mirrors are another choice to attracting an aircraft. The reflection can reach surprisingly far. Just don't shine the light into the cockpit for more than a few seconds at a time or you could temporarily blind the pilot.
A tree torch is another option. Light a tree in dire by adding dry wood to lower branches and igniting it. Add young green branches (if you can find them) to increase the amount of smoke.
Some other methods of signalling for help are whistles, flares, laying clothes out in large geometric patterns, or flashlights in the night.
Getting caught up in a desert dust storm isn't fun at at all. You'll have sand and grit pelting every inch of your body at speeds as high as 60 MPH. The first thing to try and do during a dust storm is find a sturdy shelter.
That's not always simple when you are on foot. A tent might protect you somewhat. Or it might rip to shreds and blow away. You could also take shelter against a rocky outcropping.
If you can't find shelter, try and shelter in place and cover your body as much as possible. Pull a wide brimmed hat over your eyes. If you can, wet a cloth or bandana and tie it over your mouth and nose to try and prevent the inhalation of debris. If you have petroleum jelly, coat the nostrils to try and stop some of the sand from getting in. Clean them out and reapply frequently.
The good news is these storms usually don't last more than 30 minutes, but they can cause damage to the body. Also be aware that they are usually caused by thunderstorms. Rain doesn't happen frequently, but if it does, flooding can occur rapidly, so be aware of where you are hunkering down to avoid being in a flood zone.
The desert has a wide array of dangerous and lethal animals (and insects). Study the animals, where they live, what they eat, signs of their presence, and what to do if you encounter one. Some of the dangerous animals found in US deserts are:
- Poisonous snakes. Different species of rattlesnakes, side winder, and coral snake to make a few.
- Mountain lions (if close to mountains and foothills).
- Gila monster (if you are eating reptiles, stay away from this one. It’s poisonous).
Some other dangerous creatures that you might come across are scorpions, centipedes, African bees, the tarantula hawk (2nd most painful sting of any insect), and a variety of spiders. Sounds fun, right? Be careful out there.
Desert adventures can be a rewarding experience with the proper precautions and planning. I hope this desert survival guide gives you a lot to mull over in preparation for you next trip! Did you enjoy this guide? Let us know in the comments. If you enjoyed this article, share it with your friends!
- Come Up With a Plan
- Dealing with Extreme Heat
- Finding Water
- Starting a Fire in the Desert
- Finding Food
- Signaling for Help
- Dust Storms
- Dangerous Animals