Survival In The Desert

How to Survive Being Stranded in the Desert  

It is said that the greatest fear of many is the fear of speaking in public. However, for some, the fear of being lost and stranded out in the middle of a desert could come to a close second if they really thought about it. We’ve all seen the movies that featured people struggling in the sand dunes calling out for water. It can be a scary place for sure, but it doesn’t have to be a death sentence if you know what to do if you faced in a similar situation.  

Whether you venture out to the dessert by choice or by some odd chance you were chasing villains in an airplane that got shot down from the sky, here are some tips to help you stay alive.  

Part 1: Before your Journey  

What to Pack  

While no one plans to get stuck in the desert, you should prepare yourself ahead of time, whether you plan on a hike, a camping trip or are just heading through. This is especially true if you are heading to an area that you are not familiar with. Before you go, pack clothing that breathes and minimizes sweat loss. At the very least, you’ll be more comfortable.  

For the hot days, pack along lightweight clothing. This will help minimize sweat loss. Some experts recommend that you wear cotton instead of a “wicking” fabric and then cover with a windbreaker. A wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses and gloves are good too if you have them.  

As a rule, light-colored clothing is good as the lighter a colored fabric is, the more it will reflect the heat. Then again, darker clothing will actually protect you more from UV light which can give a nasty sunburn. It is possible to find and purchase white clothing that has an Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) of 30 which would be a win-win.  

Even if you don’t plan to be in the desert doing the night, it is a good idea to pack along some wool clothes too as those sand dunes can become very chilly at night.  

While you won’t want to weigh yourself down with a lot of “luggage,” is it wise to bring along some key survival equipment like an emergency blanket or two, cords of rope, water purification tablets, a first aid kit, fire starters, flashlight, knife, compass, signal mirror and a bandana or a mask as they all could become very helpful if needed.  

Let Others in on Your Plans  

To be on the safe side, be sure to let people know that you will be heading into the desert. Let them know the route that you plan to travel down, the type of vehicle you’ll be driving, your destination and your expected arrival time. That is why, if you don’t show up on time, they will know that they should be concerned.

Bring Some Form of Communication Device  

While we have all grown accustomed to using our cell phones for everyday use, chances are great that you won’t be able to get a signal in the more remote places and we all know that batteries will die at the most inopportune times. However, it is a good idea to download some emergency apps in case they are

needed. Better yet, if you are taking a planned excursion in the desert (as opposed to just driving through one) consider purchasing or renting a satellite phone which will actually have a signal (thanks to orbiting satellites up above) when others won’t.  

Consider taking along a handheld GPS device which provide topographical maps and aerial photography. A personal locator beacon might also be a lifesaver as it can send out an emergency message distress signal to others nearby.  

Some people prefer to go old school with a CB or ham radio. It is an option and they do tend to work in remote areas, but according to Jason Bean of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “they are a do-it-yourself proposition, and they require a government license. They also require training and informed gear selection to be of full use.”

Part 2: The Fight to Stay Alive  

So, things didn’t go according to plan, here’s what you do to stay alive.  

Staying Calm  

Trying to tell someone to “stay calm” in the middle of a crisis is not only difficult, it’s not very smart. But one of the best ways to stay calm when faced with a crisis is to prepare for it ahead of time. If you want to come out of that desert alive, you’ll need to have your wits about you.

One of the key things to remember is that you probably have more time than you think. You won’t have to drop everything and get water immediately and you don’t have to get out of the environment in a short about of time before you expire. Rushing around going in circles will only exhaust you more quickly. Remember to take time to rest as you go, take a deep breath now and then, create your plan and try to relax as much as possible.

Conserving Energy  

Racing to find the nearest water source without a solid plan in place can waste time and will lead to dehydration. Instead, hunker down and try to stay covered or at least out of the sun during the hotter times of the day – usually between late morning and early evening. Protect your skin from the sun.

When things cool down, make your move. You’ll be able to travel much farther without getting dehydrated and sunburned. Some experts estimate that you can help you retain up to three liters of water by traveling at night.  

According to Bushmasters, unless you know where exactly where you need to travel to, it is usually best to stay put in one place so that search and rescue teams can find you. Venturing out very far without any clear direction only wastes energy.

Finding Shelter  

Often we think of shelter to be a place to get out of wet weather, but in the desert, it serves as a way to get out of the sun’s harmful rays that can cause burning or blistering. You might even feel nauseous too.  

If you are lost with your vehicle, it will make a great place for shelter and will be easier for others to find you.

If you are wandering around the dessert and a natural shelter isn’t available, you’ll need to build one yourself. First, start by covering your head and making a hat or head covering from the materials you have on hand. This will help keep you cool during the day and protect you from the hot sun. Build your shelter using rocks, bags, whatever you have on hand. If you brought an emergency blanket, this could be good for not only keeping you warm at night, but it can also be used as a covering. This is important as it can rain at night.

Staying Warm at Night  

It almost goes without saying the need to keep a fire going at night. Not only will it keep you warm, but it will also help to ward off any unwanted animals from paying you a visit. During the day, the smoke from the fire can be used as a signal for others to find you.  

Some people are just not aware of how could it can get in the dessert during the night. Keep your head covered to keep your body heat when the temperatures drop significantly. Some people even suffer from hypothermia.  

Stay Away from Wildlife  

If you have a choice, it is best to do a little research on the critters one might find while traveling the desert. Some are safe while you will not want to mess around with some others. Knowing which is which could be a valuable, life-saving tool.  

You will tend to find the more dangerous animals in the sandier parts of the desert. Here you might find snakes, scorpions, spiders and wild pigs. A good rule of thumb is that when an animal features bright markings, they are the ones to stay away from. It is also worth noting that some animals can be camouflaged as well. Fortunately, most animals in the desert are afraid of humans and will probably stay away. At any rate, do not lunge out or make them feel threatened in any way.  

Don’t reach into small spaces or hole without first poking the area to see if snakes, spiders, scorpions or even bees are hiding out in there. It could be a rude awakening for all involved.

A note about cacti: some types will scatter spiky burrs on the ground in order to spread seeds.  

Finding Water  

If you planned ahead, you likely planned for about one gallon of water per person per day. Regardless if you have a little or a lot of water with you, be sure to ration in rather than guzzling it all down at once. Instead, take sips throughout the day. The general rule is “more is better.”

Keep an eye on your water supply too. “If water is limited, keep your mouth closed. Do not talk, eat, smoke, drink alcohol or eat anything salty. Limit activity,” says Bean.  

Take a good look around you. Where you see more plants with bigger leaves or evidence of wildlife with tracks going downhill, that is where you best chance to find water will be. Birds circling up above may also signal a water source. The shaded areas in canyons can be a good place to find water too. Still no luck? Start digging and look for signs of moisture. When you find it, make your hold larger to about one foot in diameter and wait for water to come up to the surface and fill the hole. Use your water purification tablets too.

You can even did a few holes and to collect rain water if you’re lucky. In the morning, look for dew and moisture on plant leaves and drink up.  

You’ll know if you are becoming dehydrated if your urging has become dark in color and has a strong smell, your skin has become dry, you become dizzy or if you faint. For the latter, it is a good idea to stop and rest. If you feel sick and your skin feels cool or clammy, it is a good idea to get out of the sun and lie down for a while. However, don’t lie directly on the ground as it can be 30 degrees warmer than the temperature in the air.  

Finding Food  

As with water, if you’ve brought some food along, try to ration it. If you eat a lot, you will only get thirstier. Take a few bites here and there as needed to keep your energy up. The more you eat, the more water you’ll have to drink and since humans can survive longing without food, rationing food is a safe way to go.

Venturing Out  

When venturing out, move at a good pace but not so fast that you actually break a sweat. Keep your energy expenditures low. Believe it or not, but covering one’s mouth with a bandana or some clothing will help slow water loss.  

Be sure to find an object in the distance to focus on and keep heading in that same direction. You might even want to leave a “breadcrumb” trail of rocks to help others find you or allow you to find your way back if you need to. Be sure to mark your old “camp” with some rocks or make markings and arrows in the dirt pointing toward the direction you are now heading in so that others can find you. If you happen to have a writing instrument or charcoal from the fire pit and a bit of paper, leave a note.

Listen for voices and look for footprints as they could be coming from locals who could be a source of help. Consider climbing rocks or hills to get a better view.


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